I call it a good day when the Star Tribune’s Op-Ed page publishes anything that sparks a flash between my sapped and withering neurons, much less spikes my blood pressure. So when it runs two in the same day it’s reason enough for a goddam victory parade. Not that either of the two that ran last Sunday exactly have me loading Molotov cocktails and hoisting my pitchfork.
The first, titled “A Flood of Words, Yet … “, was sent in by my old crony Bill (excuse me, “William”) Souder. I’ve known Bill since we had adjoining desks at the Twin Cities Reader long, long ago. Even then he was one of those uncommonly gifted writers. Sentences flowed from him like smokey, 20-year single malt scotch, and begat lovely paragraphs you’d hold out at arm’s length and mutter, “The bastard!” What we had in common I’ll never know. My heroes were Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson, and I was convinced every story got better with the more ellipses, exclamation marks and grunts of bestial pleasure you slid in.
In other words, Bill’s a bit of a traditionalist, while I’m pretty much okay with the on-going evolution of everything, as long as it doesn’t mean Glenn Beck re-writing the Constitution in Crayon and Sarah Palin breaking a nail on the nuclear button. Even Hunter Thompson knew you could push some insanity way too far.
Bill’s beef is that the beauty and cultural importance of the (well-) written word is being seriously diminished in our age of Tweeting and texting and LOL-ing. Impressions and reactions come across well enough, but it’s pretty hard to advance and improve on the vast range of empirical knowledge with “snark” and “slang”. All that I get. But as I finished, what struck me was that it isn’t so much a paucity of words and personal expression we’re dealing with as an explosion. Every damned person I know, every D- student at every under-funded junior high is obsessively narrating hi\s or her life, and we can “follow” them if we want. The good and great writers haven’t so much disappeared as they’ve been submerged by this PDA-induced dam-burst of expression, the vast … vast … majority of which is wretchedly inane.
Anyone who has followed my standard rants will understand how this got me going on what I firmly believe is the greatest, most significant, cleaving of cultures of our time. Namely the constantly widening gulf between critical, disciplined thinkers and the crowd operating primarily on emotion, superstition and wishful nonsense. And this isn’t just another one of my patented “liberals-smart, conservatives-stupid” screeds. For example, a fundamental explanation for our current economic predicament is the critical, disciplined thinking of an astonishingly small group of arbitrageurs and financiers concocting CDOs and the OMG! crowd happy to run up astonishing credit card balances and re-finance the roof over their heads for a set of his and hers ATVs. Much as gifted writers, lovers of substantive arguments and thoughtful expression have almost no patience with or appeal to the “true dat” crowd, the population that exerts the most influence over our economic fate speaks languages all but completely unintelligible to their, uh, “consumer base” … and they get richer that way.
Then, across the page from Souder’s paean to literary value, was a piece by veteran Stribber, Lori Sturdevant, a nice enough lady I’m sure, who I think I’ve met once, and is usually the embodiment of the Strib’s maddening confrontation and controversy avoidance style of journalism. (“Nothing’s worth getting too excited about!”) Okay, so she kind of was again.
Sturdevant was lamenting the partisan gridlock that has overwhelmed Minnesota’s legislature just as it has in Washington. “State government,” she writes, ” seems stuck with the jurisdictions of the 19th century, the structures of the 20th century, the funding formulas of the 1970s and the tax fights of the 1980s.” All of which I agree with. She then introduces one of those corporate efficiency experts every big company wheels in from time to time to bore the troops and freshen the operative jargon.
This guy, Larry Keely, suggests we gain greater “innovation competence”. Government should be reorganized around “a disciplined analysis of state problems … an exercise quite different from partisan positioning, orchestrated public hearings and theatrical floor debates.” To which Sturdevant adds, we should, “Stop basing decisions on anecdotes or the arguments of a few vocal interests.”
But what’s missing in all this reasonableness? How about the courage — the journalistic courage — to point a finger and identify where the worst and the most catalytic offenses against rational discourse, and the worst torrent of anecdotes is coming from? One of the great ironies of this era in mass media is that — as with the explosion of semi-literate texters — we are drowning in hyperbole and vitriol, while what’s left of the mainstream press withdraws further and further from daring to assert who is right and who is wrong. The “new” Strib’s attitude, numbingly evident day after monotonous day on their Op-Ed pages, is the by now familiar (but safe) false equivalency perspective. Two silly sides, each make the same proportion of emotional, superstitious appeal to its under-informed partisans. But contrary to this (commercial) positioning, any critical-thinking person only has to look up and see where the most and most excessive barrages of anti-logic, quarter-truths and obstruction is coming from.
Fusty, over-mediated newspapers take extraordinary pride in their respect for “the truth”. Go to a media seminar and watch them stroke themselves for their husbandry of “truth”. Yet, their persistent, anxious, fretful avoidance of assessing truthfulness to one point of view at the expense of another is anti-thetical to any journalistic mission they ever studied or preached in college.
As my pal Bill Souder argues, some things have bona fide quality and value and need to be protected. Other things are temporal junk of very limited value, if any at all. Furthermore, it’s essential that critical, disciplined thinkers know the difference and step up — pretty regularly — to point it out.