Apart from the name of the publication, its volume number, date and price, the only words on the front cover of the current number of the London Review of Books are these: “Adam Shatz: America Explodes.” You would think that, if true, this would be pretty big news around the world, and yet this little niche publication three thousand miles away from the alleged explosion appears to have got the story exclusively. Nobody else noticed. Nor has anybody else noticed the absurd hype to which this otherwise respectable scholarly publication has descended in telling the story of the demonstrations (“mostly peaceful,” as the media keep reassuring us) that have followed the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25th.
I couldn’t help noticing the parallel with a headline in yesterday’s Independent, another U.K. publication, though no longer a printed one. “Jessie Ware: ‘We are living a dystopian nightmare’” Jessie Ware, in case you were wondering, is a British pop star who, to judge from the sub-head, is most famous for a song called “Say You Love Me” and a podcast called “Table Manners” which “has won her millions of listeners.” You’ll be excited to hear that she also has a new album out which the Indy judges is “a dazzling return to form.” In the article, “she talks to Kate Hutchinson about her mum Lennie, Black Lives Matter, being an ‘underdog’ and believing in herself” — as well, of course, as the “dystopian nightmare” she, along with the unspecified “we” of the headline, claims to be living in.
Nobody at The Independent appears to have noticed that, if it takes a celebrity puff-piece to inform us that we are living in a dystopian nightmare, we can hardly be living in a dystopian nightmare — any more than it would have required Adam Schatz to bring us the news that “America Explodes” in a small-circulation British fortnightly if America had really exploded. But the readers of both publications must be used to making allowances for the fact that they and their favorite pundits and pop stars are living in a fantasy world of their own — a world of monstrous evils and grinding oppression — which has nothing to do with the workaday world of pedestrian joys and sorrows that most of us live in.
This is where you end up when you become accustomed to “news” which is dominated by its reporters’ feelings rather than the real-life events to which such feelings are at best incidental. That’s how the hopefully revolutionary activity in our streets may be considered an explosion when the media want it to be one and barely noticed when they don’t. Last night, for example, demonstrators in Washington attempted (unsuccessfully) to pull down the equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House. This morning’s print edition of the home town paper, The Washington Post, didn’t even notice the incident. If it doesn’t fit their “mostly peaceful” narrative of the moment, apparently, it didn’t happen.
More and more, those who still read the papers find they can stop reading at the masthead, which tells you everything you need to know about what’s in them. “America Explodes”? Oh, right. It’s The London Review of Books. Therefore, “America Explodes” must mean something like this: “(We prefer at this writing to believe that) America Explodes (when we read about a number of more or less violent demonstrations in several large American cities in the American media which, like us, devoutly wishes for America to explode).” That’s the news. We’ve now grown so used to the substitution of feeling or opinion for news that we don’t even notice it anymore. Opinion, also known as “Fake News,” is almost the only news there is, and we treat all the many appearances of “could” and “may” and “critics say” and “experts predict” as tantamount to fact.
Even these barely-noticed qualifiers are dropping out now. Here is a series of headlines as they appear on the aggregator website RealClearPolitics this morning.
• Trump Is Terrorizing America (writes Walter Shapiro of The New Republic)
• The Police Are Still Rioting (writes Zak Cheney-Rice of New York Magazine)
• Trump's Term a Saturday Night Massacre That Never Ends (writes Andy Kroll of Rolling Stone)
• The Second Great Depression (writes Annie Lowrey of The Atlantic)
That last one refers, as I probably don’t need to tell you, to the considerably less sensational claim in the article itself that, “absent dramatic policy action, a pandemic depression is possible.” But who would read it if that were the headline?
And then there’s today’s New York Times, where we find the alarming intelligence that the most liberal country in Europe has turned into North Korea overnight: “Sweden Tries Out a New Status: Pariah State.” I remember Marge Simpson’s reassurance to little Lisa: “There’s no shame in being a pariah, honey.” Except that in describing the Swedes as pariahs the headline risks falling into terminological inexactitude. There should be no need to read the article itself to find that it refers to a temporary ban by four or five European countries on traveling Swedes because the incidence of coronavirus in their country is higher than that of its neighbors. This, in turn, is because Sweden, almost alone among European countries, did not go into full lockdown when everybody else did — a choice which, whatever its consequences for the Swedes, puts in grave danger the New York Times narrative that no lockdown equals a massive die-off and national disaster. I have my own theory about why the paper is clinging to this narrative even as more and more states and countries are emerging from lockdown with as yet undisastrous results, but this is only my opinion.