Saturday, August 14, 2010

Political rhetoric and political pathology

OK, editors, it's time to step back and put some of the deep-catalog paranoid lunacy into perspective. Take it away, Fair 'n' Balanced Network:

Entering the highly charged election-year debate, Obama surely knew that his words would not only make headlines in the U.S. but be heard by Muslims worldwide. The president has made it a point to reach out to the global Muslim community, and the over 100 guests at Friday's dinner in the State Dining Room included ambassadors and officials from numerous nations where Islam is observed, including Saudi Arabia and Indonesia.

I really hope that at this point, no one is still going to contend with a straight face that Fox (or the New York Post, whose bizarre double entendres above would generally be called dog-whistle politics except that they're well within the range of human hearing) is the sort of news organization that plays by commonly accepted professional standards. Nevertheless, here is a news flash. Islam is observed in the United States too! If you're genuinely unable to figure that out, you have no business playing with sharp objects, let alone writing about news for an audience with some idea of minimum acceptable standards for journalistic performance. Evidently that isn't who Fox has in mind.

The scary thing isn't that there's a fringe of journalism inhabited by Fox, the Post and the other Murdoch products. We have a First Amendment in part to ensure that fringe opinions enjoy the same protections that "mainstream" ones do. What's scary is the fringe, through a combination of bullying, fearmongering and rampant intellectual dishonesty, has elbowed its way into the center. The 21st-century equivalent of the witch hunt has become mainstream; no one's able to point out that civilized societies don't burn witches anymore, because half the room is still debating broiled vs. baked.

You'd like to think journalists would have gotten the message already, wouldn't you?
Here's A.J. Liebling, writing* about coverage of the Alger Hiss trial in 1949:
... Most newspapers accepted and spread a doctrine of universal treason during the first postwar decade, because they thought it would discredit the then Administration. They believed, with the simple faith of the silly, that anything discreditable to such an Administration must be true. It followed then that anybody who said it might not be true must be a traitor. This reproduced exactly the atmosphere of the Papist Plot time in seventeenth-century England. To doubt that the Jesuits plotted to kill the King was to establish a presumption that the doubter was himself was a Jesuit. In that case, he must be a plotter against the King, because all Jesuits were. ...

Meanwhile, the testimony of witnesses like Titus Oates, who admitted they had perjured themselves in the past, was accepted against defendants with honorable pasts. ... Some were Jesuits, who said they had not plotted. This proved they had, because, the judge reminded the jury, all Catholics were liars; if they were not they would plead guilty. Some denied being Jesuits, which proved they were, because Jesuits were taught to lie. ...

The chief witnesses in the trials of the Jesuits, true and presumptive, were rogues who said they had been Jesuits and so knew what was up.

If that sounds like Richard Hofstadter's "The paranoid style in American politics" writ large -- well, that's why I stole another hed from Hofstadter, isn't it? Hofstadter, you'll recall, never said there was no such thing as a conspiracy, and I expect he'd have been among the first to characterize a plot to hijack fully laden airliners and fly them into public buildings as a conspiracy. But the "paranoid style" he described is characterized by all the traits we're seeing here: the sheer audacity of the alleged conspiracy; the near-superhuman cunning of its ringmasters; a reliance on reams of data shaped into the form of convincing evidence; and an especial reverence for the testimony of apostates and turncoats. Which is more or less the core of the largely manufactured furor over the sorta-near-Ground-Zero cultural-center-with-mosque that (ahem) no one seems able to describe correctly.

The Fox story is typical -- not for the complete one-sidedness of the sourcing, though that's unusually stark even in Fox terms, but in its reliance on assertions in the paranoid style as its evidence:

Former Republican Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania told Fox News that Obama seems to misunderstand that Islam is not just a religion, but also a political doctrine. He also said the mosque is being run by a man who accused the U.S. of being an accomplice in the Sept. 11 attacks.

He's blowing smoke and lying, respectively -- but it's the kind of smoke and lies that journalists, even professional ones, are reluctant to challenge. Dig into the comments on any story about the alleged mosque controversy over the past month and you'll see the scope of the conspiracy that Fox and its allies in talk radio and the editorial columns have constructed in the mind of the audience. Islam is a monolith, with the all-encompassing goal of subjugating the entire world to medieval rule. Any Muslim who says otherwise must be lying, because --because they have a cunning doctrine that encourages them to lie by way of advancing the cause! No matter how loudly they protest that their motives are pure, we can't trust them. We know that, because we know their secret history of building mosques atop their conquests; therefore we know that this mosque would be a victory dance in stone -- just like the millions of victory dances that followed the 9/11 attacks.

Nothing is new about this. Hofstadter's point in introducing the Masons, the Catholics and the Illuminati wasn't to suggest that those conspiracies were still a present danger to the Republic. It was to point out that what's stable about fantasies of persecution isn't the nature of the actor so much as the nature of the fantasy.

Up the food chain a little, the ineffable Charles Krauthammer is exercised about similar topics:

This is a man who has called U.S. policy "an accessory to the crime" of 9/11 and, when recently asked whether Hamas is a terrorist organization, replied, "I'm not a politician. . . . The issue of terrorism is a very complex question."

Detour: The problem with the vast bulk of the writing about "terrorism" in the US press is not just that it's stupid but that it's anti-rational. It's designed to remind you how to feel, not to help you think (that's sort of what Stephen Walt meant when he called the press a "realism-free zone"). People who can't conceive of a relationship between state policy and anti-state violence (or, as in Krauthammer's case, think it's offensive to even suggest there might be one) really aren't well-equipped to talk about its relevance. The question about Hamas apparently springs from an interview with a WorldNetDaily reporter, and my instinctive response to questions like that tends to be: What's your point? Do you not think that defining terrorism is a complicated question? Or are you suggesting that it's a duty to agree with every proclamation about who's good and who's bad that the administration makes?

That's not entirely an idle question. Across the cyberpage, George Will is making the usual conservative obesiance in a Likud premier's office (he's not quite as smarmy as Safire, but he's trying). Perhaps Will could remind Krauthammer which factions in pre-state Palestine gave birth to the parties that became the Likud; by the official reckoning, they were the terrorists. Is that how we judge today's Likud? No, but it's one way of starting to look rationally at whether, how and when "the terrorists" can put on neckties and become "the government." You'd like to think journalism would have more than a passing interest in that sort of thing.

We could go on and on about this, but the bottom line for journalists is depressingly simple. If you're busy quoting the Santorums and the Peter Kings and the Sue Myricks and their followers on the assumption that you're telling both sides and the readers can sort it out, stop. You aren't. You're supporting a claque of liars and hacks, and if you're failing to balance their alleged perspectives with those of people who can and will call them out, you're failing.

* Retrospectively; it's from an intro to the original Hiss piece in a later anthology: pp. 195-196 of "The Press" (Pantheon, 1975).

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Blogger John Cowan said...

One feels much better somehow when one recalls what "santorum" is.

1:04 AM, August 15, 2010  

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