Entry from March 17, 2010

In his column in today’s Wall Street Journal, Thomas Frank has looked at the Texas textbook controversy that I wrote about here and here and found that, among the conservative Texan textbook revisers, “outrage against the conspiracy of intellectuals seemed to lurk just below the surface.” Yes, so what’s his point? I guess it must be that any such thing as a “conspiracy of intellectuals” is a self-evident absurdity, something that only a crazy right-winger could believe in. The word “conspiracy” is of course tendentious, but if it is being used to describe a group of people with a hidden political agenda that they are trying to sell to the public — and to impressionable school-children — while pretending (perhaps even to themselves) that they are dealing only in facts and objective truths, then such a group really does seem to exist.

For instance, the historical assumptions that the New York Times reporter James C. McKinley only hinted at in his news reports here and here on the controversy have since been made explicit in a New York Times editorial. As Mr Frank does and as we had already gathered Mr McKinley did, the editorialist thought that the attempt by conservatives to make the history or social studies textbooks from which Texan schoolchildren are taught reflect the importance in American history of conservative ideas amounted to “a disturbing intervention by the board’s Republican majority into educational decisions best left to the teachers and scholars who have toiled for almost a year to produce the new curriculum standards.” In other words, in the view of The New York Times, those teachers and scholars should be regarded as being unlike the Republican-dominated board in having no political agenda of their own.

That is why, presumably, Texas students are said by the Times to “deserve to have a curriculum chosen for its educational value, not politics or ideology.” But if those teachers and scholars who are supposed to have chosen the curriculum for its educational value left out the importance of conservative ideas in recent American history or put in an assumption that the Founders intended a wall of separation between church and state, should those choices not be seen as being as much political ones as those of the conservatives who put in a reference to that importance or who questioned that assumption? Why is the conservative view a political one but the unconservative view not a political one? How does that work, logically?

It was the left which started the fashion of denying the apolitical pretensions of the old-fashioned, patriotic approach to American history. Now they find themselves caught in the same trap that conservatives were in a generation ago, and they try to assert their immunity from partisan criticism not on the grounds of patriotism but on those of academic professionalism. But if all is political, then the professionals must be political too; if we conservatives are not to be exempted from base political motives in making our historical judgments, why is it any different for the liberals when they come to quite different historical conclusions? Naturally, the intellectual horizons of Thomas Frank or the Times editorialist remain unclouded by any such questions as these.

Nor is the reason far to seek. The media’s own retreat behind the affectation of objectivity and disinterest whenever their political motives are questioned has by now become such a mannerism that they no longer bother even to assert their superiority to such motives; they simply assume it. Just look at Howell Raines’s Howeller of an attack on Fox News in the Washington Post last weekend titled: “Why don’t honest journalists take on Roger Ailes and Fox News?”

Through clever use of the Fox News Channel and its cadre of raucous commentators, Ailes has overturned standards of fairness and objectivity that have guided American print and broadcast journalists since World War II. Yet, many members of my profession seem to stand by in silence as Ailes tears up the rulebook that served this country well as we covered the major stories of the past three generations, from the civil rights revolution to Watergate to the Wall Street scandals. This is not a liberal-versus-conservative issue. It is a matter of Fox turning reality on its head with, among other tactics, its endless repetition of its uber-lie: “The American people do not want health-care reform.”

Surely the “uber-lie” is that the American people don’t want the Obama health-care reform? But then how is that a “lie”? Is there no room even for a difference of opinion about what “the American people” — which ones? — want or don’t want? In asserting his own superiority to political motivation, Mr Raines has actually given a demonstration of political motivation. He could no more be blind to this than the editorialist for the paper he unfortunately had to resign from, in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal, if the whole journalistic culture were not founded on the unter-lie of its own objectivity.

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