Saturday, January 11, 2014

Don't Read the News

All writers will confirm the titanic and soul-sucking mortifying-ness of rereading one's work, especially a long time after it was written.    To read something by someone else is to see manna fallen from heaven by comparison-- something effortlessly beautiful forged by some distant, disinterested, wholly selfless hands. To read your own stuff, meanwhile, is to see all the contrived clevernesses, the vanity etched in every line.  "Sheer egoism"-- that was Orwell's number one reason as to "Why I Write."  True of all writers-- but we sense it most in our own hand.  I can't tell you how many times I've gone back to some "piquant passage" of mine, some "pungent peroration," say,-- oh so succulent-- only to discover a lot of "asinine assonance"-- usually with a typo to boot.  Philip Roth reports being appalled by how dreadfully "young" he sounds in Portnoy's Complaint.  Gore Vidal said rereading Myra Breckinridge would be an act of masochism.  I relate.

That's all ghastly enough.  But the still greater horrors of the opposite encounter are still largely unsung.  What about when you read something you wrote in the past and realize it was actually better than something you wrote since? After all, being assured of the stupidity of your former self is a painful, but partially comfortable notion: it confirms your narrative of progress and development, the whole personal teleology you have built up for yourself as an adult.  This narrative is threatened, rather, when you discover that your limber young mind once raced through byways of logic that now leave your head throbbing, or grasped simple verities that later cost you much pain and effort to recover.  Consider, for instance, my retrospective on the War in Afghanistan, which I wrote in 2007, at the age of 17, for a high school course.   Yes, there's the plodding, 5-paragraph form we all had to use, in which my "Thesis Statement" tells you, phrase by phrase, what is to follow, and robs you of all suspense.  Yes, there's the occasional clumsy use of point-scoring vocab.  But I basically find it to be clearly written-- and honest and morally lucid-- more so than some stuff I wrote later on the same theme, but we will get to that later.  Here's a representative paragraph:
"[... S]ix years after the invasion, have the people of Afghanistan truly benefited, or has the war merely replaced one form of repression with another?  First of all, it must be understood that the primary victims of the Taliban government have always been the Afghan people, who were effectively robbed of any of the principles of a democratic government.  They cannot, therefore, be held responsible for the behavior of their government on September 11.  If, then, the invasion has been deleterious rather than helpful to the Afghan people, it is not morally justifiable.  The truth is that not only has the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan led to massive civilian casualties, it has also stymied progress in the form of women’s rights and poverty reduction, and has allowed a group of warlords associated with the defunct Northern Alliance to come to power in many regions of the country.  [...]"
In 2014 these must seem like rather conventional ideas.  When Robert Gates suggests that Obama's goal in Afghanistan from the beginning of his presidency was "getting out," and Hamid Karzai's maneuverings make it increasingly likely that at some point this year, our military will simply pick up the pieces of its intervention and scamper, without any pretense of closure (which, even if it does occur, will only be face-saving for us-- irrelevant to the fate of Afghans), it seems hard to recall that 2007 was a different world. Hell, 2011 was a different world.  At either of those dates, Afghanistan would still have been seen as the "good war" among liberals-- the one that was justified in response to 9/11, in contrast to the debacle in Iraq.  This would have been confirmed for you by every news outlet and op-ed page and Fareed Zakaria-esque talking head in the land.  

 In 2007, you had to be swimming in strange and brackish backwaters online to find the kind of stuff I was spouting above.  At the time I wrote the essay, my only sources of information about Afghanistan were my parents, some smatterings of radio news, a couple of Guardian articles I read specifically for the occasion, and the website of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA).  This last was a Maoist-inflected feminist group dating back to the '70s.  It had grown out of student circles at the University of Kabul and had been banned and persecuted by every successive regime in Afghanistan's history-- the Soviet puppet government, the Northern Alliance mujahedeen, the Taliban, etc.  And now it opposed the American intervention, largely for the reasons I named in my essay (it was my source and inspiration for nearly all of them).

RAWA was sufficiently heterodox and obscure to appeal to my sensibilities at the time, which inclined toward the little-known and the frowned-upon and the politically transgressive.  I had an English teacher at the time whose standard in judging all things I tried to imitate: "If more than five people like it, I hate it."

This was a time in my life when I dismissed as "bourgeois" all mainstream news and analysis.  The arguments and facts that would filter down to me from them, even through my impenetrable screen of socialist weeklies and Marxist jargon, only seemed like so many temptations from the devil, calling me to stray from the path of true wisdom.  "God chose the foolish things of the world that he might put to shame those who are wise." I had a 19th-century clergyman's terror of new information.  

This, at least, is how I remember it now: this is part of my life narrative: the fallen state from which I was redeemed.  I remember being bowled over by a lot of Marxist clichés, being convinced of the infallible truth of dogmatic Marxism by its mere invocation of powerful words-- "equality," "brotherhood," etc.  I also recall falling prey to a deadly cultural relativism of the sort that was popular on the Academic pseudo-left at the time: the sort that didn't quite want to defend the Taliban or Sharia law, but pulled some mealy-mouthed volte face every time it was asked explicitly not to do so.  

And then I remember college, which I entered in much the same way an Evangelical cruises the red-light district: I was there to test myself.  I would learn all these new things and still emerge with my faith unscathed.  Of course, that's not at all what happened.  Like Clarence in In the Beauty of the Lilies settling into a chair with The Origin of Species, I turned to all these new books with the intent to refute them-- only to discover by page 2, with a wrenching feeling in the intestines, that they were entirely right-- what's more, that I had known all along that they were entirely right-- and that's why I had put off the encounter.

This, at any rate, is the story as I remember it.  Yet I don't see much of that superficially Marxist mentality in the essay quoted above.  There is no cultural relativism.  These are stark moral judgments I'm making, which appeal to universal concepts of equality and fairness.  I am explicit in my condemnation of the Taliban and Sharia law, as my source RAWA was too (they, after all, had been fighting Islamism in Afghanistan when the U.S. was still sending it money and missiles).  I simply am suggesting in the essay, I take it, that their evils do not justify our own.

I had thought that it was in high school, when I had limited my intake of knowledge to carefully-selected sources known to be reliable in their ideological purity, that my thinking was trapped in stale pieties.  In college, after all, I started reading the news.  I started hearing from all those "diverse perspectives" you find on the New York Times op-ed page.  I started looking at blogs and reading people on "both sides of the political spectrum."  

Surely in all this I had picked up information worth possessing.  Yet, when I look at something I wrote on virtually the same subject in 2009, after all this enrichment, I find the prose much more rancid with cliché.  I seem to have talked myself around to some variety of tepid interventionism.  Maybe not: my position is not entirely clear from the piece-- but either way, I have clearly experienced a failure of nerve in the intervening two years.  There is a great deal more scraping and throat-clearing in the latter piece, and my actual anti-interventionist position, if it is still there, is so bundled in qualifications it is difficult to recognize.  

Clearly, knowing more made me know less.  As a UU minister, John Buehrens, once remarked to me: "The Germans have a saying: 'Smart is stupid.'"  This leads me to my titular dictum: Don't Read the News.

Okay, I'm being somewhat facetious.  I don't really take back anything I've said here or elsewhere about the mentality of "True Believers" of all schools and churches.  There is a grave irresponsibility in restricting yourself to pre-approved sources of ideas and information.  It is an irresponsibility, in fact, which kills-- and not always metaphorically.  

But the trouble is that the news we read, all those "diverse perspectives" are already restricted in much the same cult-like way as my Marxist scriptures.  They inhabit a thin and much-bloodied peninsula of thought.  Those ideas about the War in Afghanistan that sound mainstream to 2014 ears were injudicious-- no, heretical-- in 2007.  They were not said, because they could scarcely be thought.  At that time, if you questioned the wisdom of our invasion you sounded almost as if you had no feeling for the innocent lives lost on 9/11. You had to go to the nether reaches of the internet, far from the clasp of any Western commentator or pundit, to hear ideas that are now, only seven years later, half-acknowledged to be true by our own commander-in-chief.  

Pace Chomsky, all of this is not because our mainstream news media is in a conspiracy to "manufacture consent"-- to drum up support for our military-industrial overlords.  It is because of the eddies and flows peculiar to intellectual argument.

One of those eddies we can call "World-Historical-itis."  This malady strikes when pundits or writers become convinced that everything they write belongs to the ages-- that it will stand as either a permanent indictment of their moral cowardice or as a beacon of prescience in the darkening malaise.  Probably most writers (including me) actually think this most of the time.  We all cherish fantasies of our own posthumous rediscovery (Look! the people of 3030 will say: only this one blogger on Six Foot Turkey foresaw the trying times ahead-- and yet how unappreciated he was in his own era).  

The difference is that most writers throughout history have only written work for public consumption on rare occasions, so it was only on those occasions when they fell victim to this disease.  But now that everyone and his uncle has a blog, everyone feels the need to maintain a fever pitch of self-importance-- to manufacture crises of world-historical significance for each hourly post and tweet.  Every time something evil is done abroad, it is Munich in 1938 all over again, and if writers don't insist that the United States intervene and set things right immediately, then they are Neville Chamberlain, and their evident cowardice will follow them beyond the grave.  

The problem can be illustrated by remembering the lead-up to the Iraq War.  For those of us who lived in the wider, non-ideological society at the time, opposition to the war was an unusual position, but a basically thinkable one.  This is to be contrasted with the virtually unanimous support among intellectuals and pundits on both right and left for intervention in 2002 or 2003.  If you have forgotten the atmosphere of the time, Tony Judt once conjured it vividly.  

Or hey-- remember Syria, and how the United States needed to intervene because Assad was Hitler and inaction would permanently devastate our credibility abroad and all that?  Oh yeah, and then, something happened with the chemical weapons and everyone sort of forgot about it?  Well, it turns out there is still a civil war raging there, and people are still suffering horrendously, and Assad is still an evil mass-murderer, but I guess he's not Hitler anymore and our credibility is safe for the simple reason that the nation's intellectual class got bored with the issue and moved on to Obama-care.  You wouldn't think someone's Hitlerianism or the reputation of the United States was contingent on that sort of thing: but then, you must not be an internet pundit.

What gets all these war-drums pounding are not the atavistic instincts of military men: it is the moralistic self-assurance of slightly chubby, passive, and air-conditioned journalists.  Our successive chieftains and war criminals are just "distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler," as usual. 

Eddy number two -- more of a maelstrom, really -- shall be dubbed "The Ideological Arms Race."  This occurs when online writers all see that something is bad-- usually because it is.  They are all moved, quite reasonably, to express their indignation.  But since they are all reading one another and they all have a similar emotional response, they find themselves competing as to who can disapprove of the bad thing the most stridently and thoroughly.  The Arms Race commences, with writers falling over each other in the attempt to voice the most profound and unyielding opposition to the badness in question.  

This is why it is those writers who are so wise to a given historical epoch, who are so au courant in their own time and place, who seem so irresponsible and childish and misguided to later generations.  They kept up with the times.  And they spiraled deeper and deeper into inanities as a result.  So I repeat the advice: Don't Read the News.  


It is, of course, too late for me.  I have a blog, and at some point in college, I decided I too wanted to be au courant.  The au courants seemed so worldly-wise-- they were the ones who were evidently going places, who would get the big magazine editorships and think-tank jobs and would one day inflict upon us the next generation of Big Ideas from both right and left.  I began making myself au courant too.  If you, unlike me, have not already, done this, then it is not too late for you.  If you have, then please try to restrict your reading on the internet those few voices who don't feel constained to write about every headline-- who have a feeling for some humanistic discipline other than newsiness-- philosophy or history or literature or religion-- that gives their work depth and perspective.  Read those few people who know enough about the past and so little about the present that they say, when faced with the next Big Idea: "I don't know what it is, but I do know this: there is nothing new under the sun."

There is a certain reactionary cast to this, I suppose: a certain contempt for the whole spectacle that modern "public debate" can become.  Says the character Durtal in one of J.K. Huysmans' 19th-century uebermensch fantasies: "To live in another age, never read a newspaper, not even know that theatres exist—ah, what a dream!" (Wallace transl.).  

But I am also reminded of one of my left-wing heroes, William Hazlitt, who was dismissed by the au courants of his day, Coleridge and Wordsworth, etc., for refusing to set aside his belief in social justice or political democracy.  For those who kept up with the news in 19th-century Britain, those who were serious and apprised of all the Big Ideas, it was quite clear that conservatism was the thing.  It was perfectly obvious that only irresponsible and muddle-headed people still thought that it was possible to deplore both the French Reign of Terror and the Bourbon monarchy, etc.  But now, of course, it is precisely this attitude which seems unserious and specious and immature.  Hazlitt's verdicts, by contrast, which ploddingly refused to reverse themselves, despite the vicissitudes of World-Historical-itis and the Ideological Arms Race, remain prescient.  "The persons who have the fewest ideas of all others are mere authors and readers. It is better to be able neither to read nor write than to be able to do nothing else. [....] The most sensible people to be met with in society," said Hazlitt, "are men of business and of the world, who argue from what they see and know, instead of spinning cobweb distinctions of what things ought to be."  

His advice to us was simple, and should by now be familiar.  Translated into our idiom, it might even be rendered as: Don't Read the News.

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