Entry from September 17, 2007

“Let’s face it, if the mothers ruled the world, there would be no goddamned wars in the first place,” said Sally Field at the Emmy Awards on Sunday. Mixing up its categories of taboos, The New York Times calls “goddamned” (which it forbears to repeat) “a vulgarity” rather than a profanity, but it doesn’t reflect on the vulgarity of the Hollywood-style self-righteousness, presumably because it’s too much like its own. Let’s face what, exactly? Her opinion? For how on earth can she possibly know what would or would not be the case if mothers ruled the world? If mothers ruled the world it wouldn’t be the world anymore — that’s about all we can be sure of and therefore all that we have to “face.” But she speaks as if her mere speculation were the most unarguable and ineluctable of realities. Well, there’s a lot of it going around. I think of it as a form of media madness.

Was there anyone in the media whose easy certainties about the situation in Iraq were dented by the testimony before Congress of General Petraeus last week? When MoveOn.org notoriously called him “General Betray-Us,” it seems not to have been intended as an allegation of treason against his country — even MoveOn hasn’t as yet quite arrived at the point where it is prepared to say that anyone who agrees with or supports the President is a traitor to his country — so much as it was a howl of protest that the General has dared to disagree with the media consensus. The same kinds of people are constantly complaining, according to Howard Kurtz in the Washington Post, that the media are not treating opinion as fact often enough. “Too many in the Washington press corps want to pretend they are leaving the question of ‘what is truth’ to their readers — refusing to admit that there is even such a thing as truth,” he quotes Arianna Huffington as saying. “The administration has faith that, because of the way too many in the press operate, all it has to do is sow doubt.”

In other words, as far as she is concerned, if there is any doubt it can only be as a result of the administration’s disinformation. But aren’t some things genuinely doubtful? Not to the media mad. “SIR, I don”t know, actually,” wrote Frank Rich, quoting General Petraeus at the head of his column in The New York Times on Sunday as if a confession of ignorance was itself an admission of guilt — as doubtless it is for Mr Rich. “The fact that America”s surrogate commander in chief, David Petraeus, could not say whether the war in Iraq is making America safer was all you needed to take away from last week”s festivities in Washington,” he went on to write. “On the sixth anniversary of the day that did not change everything, General Petraeus couldn”t say we are safer because he knows we are not.”

This is typical of the author not only in its leaden ironies (“surrogate commander in chief”; “last week’s festivities”) but in the remarkable arrogance, born of media madness, in his simply assuming that he knows not only what the General professes not to know but also that the General really knows it too and just declines to say so. Why not, then, go on to the obvious conclusion that the “surrogate commander in chief” is being as dishonest and cowardly as Mr Rich supposes the real one to be in not saying what he knows? The columnist ventures as far as a touch of scorn at the “disingenuous talking points” of Petraeus/Crocker testimony but no further — perhaps on the grounds that anything stronger would be, as he says of the “General Betray-Us” advertisement, “a counterproductive distraction.” It’s not, as he also writes, a “left-wing brand of juvenile name-calling” if the General really is, as he believes, betraying his duty to the truth.

Media madness doesn’t strike only the media. Just look at Alan Greenspan who is quoted in the London Sunday Times as saying, “I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil.” However good the former Federal Reserve chairman may be as an economist, he clearly hasn’t much notion of diplomatic and military matters, and yet he is prepared to announce that his insight into the true causes of the war are only “what everyone knows.” Like Mr Rich and Mrs Huffington, he pretends to think that what he pretends to know is the only possible viewpoint. It’s a rhetorical tic that is becoming increasingly commonplace in a media which is becoming more and more reluctant to give space to dissenting opinions and in which Howard Kurtz can only bleat pitiably and without apparent irony to Mrs Huffington and her kind that “Capturing reality is harder than it seems.”

Well, who’d have thought it? Certainly not Kurt Andersen, the lead of whose column in last week’s New York magazine solemnly informed us that, “as everyone knows, the Republican Party has spiraled into disrepute.” By “everyone,” of course, he means “everyone in my social set, or the media culture which I am now writing to flatter.” And his telltale assumption that he is writing only for people of similar beliefs is borne out by the rest of the piece, which concludes as follows:

In other words, it’s time for our tragic cheerleader-in-chief, a president allergic to pessimism or doubt, to suck it up and soberly admit that this glass really is half empty, and isn’t going to fill up no matter how hard we wish and hope. That’s what grown-ups — daddies, mommies, all of us — do.

Note his failure to understand the metaphor of the glass half-empty and half-full. It’s not “really” one or the other but both simultaneously. Such a stupid rhetorical own goal is solely the consequence of his abdication of the polemicist’s duty to persuade for the far easier work of finding new ways to tell his audience what they already believe and want to hear. Talk about cheerleading!

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