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December 1, 2004

The Media and Medievalism

A new tyranny rears its head


The most blatant tyranny is the one which asks the most blatant questions,” writes the late Nobel laureate Elias Canetti in Crowds and Power (1960). Canetti, a Bulgarian of Spanish-Jewish descent, was witness to the mob violence over inflation that gripped Frankfurt and Vienna in the interwar years. He devoted his literary energies to the study of the human herd. In the mob he saw a wild and dangerous beast that — indignant over its own perceived oppression — held the ultimate power to oppress. Canetti discerned six ingredients necessary for oppression: secrecy, physical brutality, swift reaction, the right to question and to demand answers, the right to judge and condemn, and the right to pardon and show mercy.

I read Crowds and Power in Romania in 1984 and related it to the communist totalitarianism around me that represented the unfinished business of World War ii. What I saw there brought me closer to one of Canetti’s own obsessions: the manipulation of the crowd in both its concrete and virtual forms. What fascinated was not the dreary fact of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu’s co-tyranny but the mass psychology that engulfed it, complete with huge pro-Ceausescu rallies to which I was witness, requiring busloads and trainloads of peasants hauled in from the countryside to fill the squares. After the Berlin Wall fell, I reread it and noticed that some of Canetti’s six ingredients were also tools of legitimate regimes seeking to keep the anarchy of the mob at bay. Yet to read Crowds and Power now, at a time when truly noxious authoritarian regimes exist in fewer and fewer places, is to be chilled by another realization.
While quite a few regimes, particularly in the Middle East, employ that secrecy and brutality invoked by Canetti as their ordinary means of control, he is far more interesting when he writes about the power to question and to demand answers, to judge and condemn, to react swiftly, and to forgive. After all, secrecy and brutality are so obviously elements of control that they require little explanation. But listen to him on another element:
All questioning is a forcible intrusion. . . . The questioner knows what there is to find, but he wants actually to touch it and bring it to light. He sets to work with the sureness of a surgeon, one who . . . stimulates pain. . . . The situation is most dangerous for the person questioned when short, concise answers are demanded . . . .
Canetti mentions judicial examinations as well, but those are now conducted within severely proscribed limits with a judge and opposing attorney present to protect the rights of the interrogee. It is later on, when he discusses the sheer “pleasure” which those in power take in “pronouncing an unfavorable verdict” — on “‘a bad painter’” or “‘a bad politician,’” meaning, as Canetti himself puts it, “‘a bad man’” — that a specific idea of the changing nature of tyranny presents itself.
   The pummeling oppression that gripped broad swaths of the earth as recently as 15 years ago hardly exists any longer. Meanwhile, across the post-industrial West, elections have become eerily manipulated events indistinguishable from corporate advertising campaigns, in which candidates regularly make pronouncements that are obviously insincere or flat-out false but vital to placating millions of voters on hot-button emotional issues. As the Austrian novelist Robert Musil slyly intimated in The Man Without Qualities (1952), the world loves the untrue statement, and the sliest, most successful politicians deeply internalize this fact. The exalted democratic citizenry is just another of Canetti’s human crowd-packs.
But few politicians are consistently sly in reading accurately the crowd’s daily and hourly shifts in passion, and those who are — because of the fact of their slyness — usually find it wiser to cave in to these shifts than to lead the crowd down the hard road elsewhere. Because even our best politicians are cowed by the electoral herd, we must look to another group for the true source of power in our age.
As this is an age in which we are bombarded by messages that tell us what to buy and what to think, when one dissects the real elements of power — who has it and, more important during a time of rapid change, who increasingly has it — one is left to conclude bleakly: Ours is not an age of democracy, or an age of terrorism, but an age of mass media, without which the current strain of terrorism would be toothless in any case.
Like the priests of ancient Egypt, the rhetoricians of ancient Greece and Rome, and the theologians of medieval Europe, the media represent a class of bright and ambitious people whose social and economic stature gives them the influence to undermine political authority. Like those prior groups, the media have authentic political power — terrifically magnified by technology — without the bureaucratic accountability that often accompanies it, so that they are never culpable for what they advocate. If, for example, what a particular commentator has recommended turns out badly, the permanent megaphone he wields over the crowd allows him to explain away his position — if not in one article or television appearance, then over several — before changing the subject amid the roaring onrush of new events. Presidents, even if voters ignore their blunders, are at least responsible to history; journalists rarely are. This freedom is key to their irresponsible power.
There is nothing irresponsible per se about publishing one’s opinions. In fact, government would be worse off with no pundits than with too many of them. Pundits, in one form or another, have always had a role to play in free societies. But the ongoing centralization of major media outlets, the magnification of the media’s influence through various electronic means and satellite printing, and the increasing intensity of the viewing experience in an age of big, flat television screens has created a new realm of authority akin to the emergence of a superpower with similarly profound geopolitical consequences.
Were Fox News, say, to make a tonal adjustment in its coverage, if only for the pecuniary motive of stealing some liberal viewers from CNN, or were the New York Times to retire one or two of its columnists for the sake of a less wearisome and screechy op-ed page, the ramifications would be not only journalistic but political as well, and sufficient perhaps to affect the outcome of a future close election.
But the media are not agents of the decentralization of authority, which implies a healthy and orderly transformation of sorts. Rather, they are agents of the weakening of it. The very cynical compromises politicians increasingly need to make in a media-driven environment further immobilize them. Politicians are weaker than ever; journalists, stronger. To be regularly mouthing opinions on television is to be, as they say, accomplished: To be an assistant or deputy assistant secretary of state, defense, agriculture, or commerce — jobs requiring much higher levels of expertise and stress management — means often to slip into oblivion, at a significantly lower salary. A journalist friend who had been a presidential speechwriter agreed that were a successful journalist to accept a typical assistant or deputy assistant secretary’s slot, it would be as though he had gone missing for four years.
The medieval age was tyrannized by a demand for spiritual perfectionism, making it hard to accomplish anything practical. Truth, Erasmus cautioned, had to be concealed under a cloak of piety; Machiavelli wondered whether any government could remain useful if it actually practiced the morality it preached.1 Today the global media make demands on generals and civilian policymakers that require a category of perfectionism with which medieval authorities would have been familiar. Investigative journalists may often perform laudatory service, but they have also become the grand inquisitors of the age, shattering reputations built up over a lifetime with the exposure of just a few sordid details. When the staff of a show like 60 Minutes decides which stories to pursue and which to leave half-finished on the cutting room floor, the destiny of any number of people is quietly being determined. That is actual and not virtual authority, however responsibly it may be employed: more authority, often, than any congressman or senator has. And as the editorial tastes of the tabloids dissolve into those of the mainstream media, the pace of character destruction quickens.

The cosmopolitan network

The media clerisy flatter themselves on inheriting the early twentieth-century muckraking tradition of investigative journalism. But investigative journalism is, both chronologically and philosophically, just as much a legacy of the 1960s youth rebellion, in which, as Samuel Huntington wrote in his greatest book, American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony (1981), “the arrogance of power was superceded by the arrogance of morality.” As secrecy became synonymous with evil in the late 1960s, exposure was elevated from a mere technique to a principle.

In The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History (2002), the academic Philip Bobbitt builds on this notion. He observes that, “In the market-state, the media have begun to act in direct competition with the government of the day.” The media “are more nimble than bureaucrats hampered by procedural rules,” even as they are “protected in many countries by statutes and constitutional amendments.” He adds that the “critical function of the media in the market-state is similar to that of the political parties of the Left in the nation-state.” Bobbitt is not here calling the media left-wing. For all one knows, he may believe that they have become, in certain quarters, dangerously right-wing. No, Bobbitt leads one on the path of a different insight: that the essential role of the left has always been to question and expose authority. For it has been the left’s very fear of authority that makes it uncomfortable with the concept of leadership. People on the left rarely write books about leadership and taking charge: That is the domain of business and military types. Leaders must choose, and because even right choices may produce imperfect outcomes, there will always be much to criticize — and to expose. Thus, left-wing journals can be brilliant even as they are ultimately irresponsible. And so, as the nation-state slowly dies and market forces sideline the old left in the wake of communism’s defeat, its function must be assumed by a new historical actor.
To the extent that the left is still vibrant, I am suggesting that it has mutated into something else. If what used to be known as the Communist International has any rough contemporary equivalent, it is the global media. The global media’s demand for peace and justice, which flows subliminally like an intravenous solution through its reporting, is — much like the Communist International’s rousing demand for workers’ rights — moralistic rather than moral. Peace and justice are such general and self-evident principles that it is enough merely to invoke them. Any and all toxic substances can flourish within them, or manipulate them, provided that the proper rhetoric is adopted. For moralizers these principles are a question of manners, not of substance. To wit, Kofi Annan can never be wrong.
Still, cnn — and in particular, cnn International — cannot be defined simply as a left-wing network. Look at the latter’s exotic female anchors, so chic and exquisitely made-up. Rosa Luxemburg never looked like that. cnn International is a global cosmopolitan network, just as Fox News is an old-fashioned nation-state network gaudied up by the latest technology (and because the meatloaf world of the old nation-state will remain feisty for a few decades yet, Fox has hit a gold mine2).  Global cosmopolitanism is a world of multiple passport holders and others whose business and income give them easy access to many countries even as they have less and less of a stake in any particular one of them. Just as journalists are not bureaucratically accountable for their views — disseminated with all the power brought to bear by new technology — global cosmopolitans are increasingly unaccountable to geographical space, or to a specific government, or even to fellow voters. Their friends and acquaintances are spread throughout the planet, and with less of a stake in geography, they are dull to pleas of national interest even as they are alive to those of “humanity.” That is to say, they represent the well-worried. As Somerset Maugham remarked in The Moon and Sixpence (1919), moral indignation always contains an element of self-satisfaction.
The principal weapon of the global media, as of any media, is exposure. After all, there will be always be something reproachable to expose in even the best-functioning governments and bureaucracies, as such organizations are by nature supremely imperfect. Of course, too much exposure can immobilize government, but if you don’t have a concrete stake in any particular place, that shouldn’t matter. The very fact of exposure — and the moral satisfaction that derives from it — is, pace Canetti, pleasurable.
Exposure is the particular terrain of the investigative journalist. It is the investigative journalist who has inherited the mantle of the old left, whatever the ideological proclivities of individual practitioners of the trade. The investigative journalist is never interested in the 90 per cent of activities that are going right, nor especially in the 10 per cent that are going wrong, but only in the 1 per cent that are morally reprehensible. Because he always seems to define even the most heroic institutions by their worst iniquities, his target is authority itself. Disclaimers notwithstanding, he is the soul of the left incarnate.
When every major domestic policy decision or military operation is characterized on the basis of its worst flaws, leaders become increasingly risk averse, for they know that anything even vaguely heroic, simply by definition, must masquerade as failure until such time as there is no electoral benefit to be gained from it. It took a generation for President Gerald Ford to be respected for pardoning Richard Nixon — an act that helped secure domestic peace even as it may have cost Ford an election. Indeed, not only has Ford himself been pardoned by the media, but so, too, it now appears, have presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush the elder: two men whom the media were accustomed to savage. Who knows, armed with an acquittal by the media, it may not be long before Bush the elder or even Ford start appearing on historians’ lists as minor great presidents. As Canetti would know: To judge and condemn, and then to pardon, well, that is true power!
It may take longer for the realization to seep in that Ford has been our greatest contemporary ex-president. For in an age of mass media — where divinity is dependent upon being noticed by the crowd and being forgotten is the equivalent of excommunication — high character is rightly defined by the willingness to embrace obscurity the moment one relinquishes lofty bureaucratic responsibility.

The disembodied newscaster

Divinity has certainly been redefined in this epoch of ours. Like the saints in medieval icons who were worshipped with incense and burning candles beginning around 500 A.D., television newscasters are, in the words of art and social critic John Berger, the “epitome of the disembodied. Berger notes in The Shape of a Pocket (2001) that “it took the system many years to invent them and to teach them to talk as they do.” The result, he suggests, is not for the viewer a sense of freedom, or of empowerment through information, but its very opposite: “a profound isolation” and sense of nothingness before such remote spirits. It is a disease-variant of religious worship. I do not refer specifically to the three network anchormen, who are in the early phase of retirement. Compared to what will follow them, they will appear in hindsight the way mid-twentieth-century intellectuals do now.

Go to any airport, where you are rarely out of sound range of a 24-hour news channel, and when you are, you are assaulted by the subtitles. You realize that oppression constitutes being forced to pay attention; or, for that matter, being forced to get attention. If civilization is built on a plea for privacy and some silence, then the media are an unabated noise. Between that noise and you is nothing but desolation mixed with claustrophobia as the world around you is reduced to one bleating disembodied voice, which assumes the dimensions of a prison.
As with medieval churchmen, the media class of the well-worried has a tendency to confuse morality with sanctimony: Those with the loudest megaphones and no bureaucratic accountability have a tendency to embrace moral absolutes. After all, transcending politics is easier done than engaging in them, with the unsatisfactory moral compromises that are entailed.
To wit, some of our most prestigious correspondents have occasionally remarked that the only favoritism they harbor is toward the weak or toward the victims in any crisis. That may do in church, but it does not necessarily lead to trustworthy analysis. As Musil hinted, bankers are more dependable than angels because the desire for wealth preserves critical thinking more than does the desire for love. In any case, weakness defines a power relationship, not a moral attribute. One side’s being weaker than the other — or harboring more victims — does not necessarily mean that its cause is just or even moral. Rather, it may mean that it has miscalculated militarily or adopted a more cynical policy toward its own civilians. Victims need to be humanely attended to, but it does not follow that their side in a conflict is entitled to political support by way of sympathetic news coverage. In an essay about growing European anti-Semitism, the French social scientist Alain Finkielkraut warns against those who evince “unerring solicitude” toward those who commit “reprehensible acts” merely because such acts issue from exploitation and oppression.3 His target is not the global media but European elites in general, but there is an overlap.
Because the media confuse victimization with moral right, American troops in Iraq have had occasionally to contend with unsympathetic news coverage, which in an age of mass media has concrete tactical and strategic consequences. Last spring, I accompanied the first United States Marines into Fallujah. After several days of intense fighting, the Marines — reinforced with a fresh new battalion — appeared on the verge of defeating the insurgents. A cease-fire was called, though, snatching defeat from victory. No matter how cleanly the Marines fought, it was not clean enough for the global media, famously including Al-Jazeera, which portrayed as indiscriminate killing what in previous eras of war would have constituted a low civilian casualty rate. The fact that mosques were blatantly used by insurgents as command posts for aggressive military operations mattered less to journalists than that some of these mosques were targeted by U.S. planes. Had the fighting continued, the political fallout from such coverage would have forced the newly emerging Iraqi authorities to resign en masse. So American officials had no choice but to undermine their own increasingly favorable battlefield position by consenting to a cease-fire. While U.S. policy was guilty of incoherence — ordering a full-scale assault only to call it off — the Marines were defeated less by the insurgents than by the way urban combat is covered by a global media that has embraced the cult of victimhood.
The cult of victimhood is another legacy of the 1960s and its immediate aftermath — when, according to Peter Novick in The Holocaust in American Life (1999), Jews, women, blacks, Native Americans, Armenians, and others fortified their own identities through public references to past oppression. The process was tied to Vietnam, a war in which the photographs of civilian victims — the little girl fleeing napalm — “displaced traditional images of heroism.” The process has now been turned upon the American military itself. When not portraying them as criminals in prisoner abuse scandals, the media appear most at ease depicting American troops as victims themselves — victims of a failed Iraq policy, of a bad reserve system, and of a society that has made them into killers.
Yet the soldiers and Marines with whom I spent months as an embed in ground fighting units found such coverage deeply insulting. At a time when there are acts of battlefield courage in places like Fallujah and Najaf that, according to military expert John Hillen, “would make Black Hawk Down look like Gosford Park,” media coverage of individual soldiers and Marines as warrior-heroes is essentially absent.4 The heroism of someone like Jessica Lynch is acceptable to the journalistic horde because it is joined to her victimhood. There are exceptions: The coverage of Pat Tillman, who left the National Football League to be an Army Ranger and who was killed in Afghanistan, is one. But serious analysis requires generalization, and pointing out exceptions — at which the media are especially adroit when they themselves are criticized — does not constitute a rebuttal.
Celebrating military heroism is not glorifying killing. War is a sad fact of existence, but a fact nevertheless. To be heroic can be an indication of character rather than of bloodthirstiness. Moreover, the American military — active in dozens of countries each week, fighting terrorism away from the headlines — is providing the security armature for an emerging global civilization whose own institutions are still in their infancy. And while the U.S. military may employ a variety of methods, including humanitarian aid, in the fight against terrorism, the use of force is central to its enterprise. Al-Jazeera, a quasi-independent television organ, is itself a product of the creeping liberalization of Middle Eastern society for which the American military deserves partial credit.

Why should they fight?

During world war ii American soldiers and journalists belonged to the same crowd-pack, so news coverage was more empathetic. It made heroes of American troops when the facts so demanded, which was often. American troops have changed less than American journalists have. The crowd-pack to which the latter now belong is that of the global media — an upper-income, transnational human herd. This is not a manifestation of character — good or bad — or even of personal proclivity. This is a mark of profound world-wide social and economic transformations that are eroding the nation-state, with refugee migrations at the bottom of the ladder of human activity and a prosperous class of global cosmopolitans at the top. Prestigious media and intellectual organs have come to constitute an important bellwether in their own right for international power shifts.

Jean-Paul Sartre in The Reprieve (1945) suggested that what separates
the well-off from the working class is that the latter simply don’t give in. They fight as long as it takes, not because they are without doubts, but because if they weren’t fighting, they would be occupied at other hard, physical labor. As for the middle class and above, “Why should they fight? They were waiting for nothing, they had all they wanted.” Perhaps that is why media elites imagine that everything that degenerates into an actual struggle must ipso facto correspond to a scandal. And a scandal of delinquent planning and miscalculation it may be. But that does not demonstrate that the struggle is not worthwhile anyway and that real character doesn’t mean seeing the thing through and celebrating heroic action in the process. Because the media conflate warrior-heroism with the glorification of killing similarly to the way they conflate victimhood with morality, only those such as al Qaeda are left to venerate old-fashioned warrior virtues. I am not worried, though. As Stendhal notes in The Charterhouse of Parma (1839), in order to be happy after a long period of “insipid sensations,” it is necessary to “perform heroic actions.” For better or for worse, the worship of heroes in war is coded into the human psyche.
Still, the socioeconomic separation between American troops and American reporters was dramatically — if briefly — bridged in 2003 during Operation Iraqi Freedom, a conventional infantry operation in which embedding became the travel method of choice for many journalists. But afterwards, as the war turned unconventional and seemed to go sour — and as editors back home became uneasy with the newly sympathetic attitude of their employees toward the military — journalists gradually began rejoining their new-old global media crowd-pack. The large-scale embedding that occurred during Operation Iraqi Freedom, it turns out, was to be but a brief respite from an ongoing trend.
To wit, embeds using the words “we” and “our” in their narratives came under attack by media critics for going native with the troops, but the use of those words is completely appropriate for an American living with troops, and taking part in most of their activities, for weeks on end. World War ii correspondents such as Richard Tregaskis in Guadalcanal Diary (1943) and Robert Sherrod in Tarawa: the Story of a Battle (1944) made constant use of “we” and “our.” Not to do so can be awkward in passages where one is describing the effects of the sun, or of indifferent food, or of bullets and mortars fired at the troops and the journalist who is with them. But, more important, the fact that the use of these words became sensitive in media circles constitutes proof of the psychological barrier between the American contingent of the global media and American troops. The American media have lavished praise on those who cover life exclusively from the viewpoint of oppressed minorities, as John Howard Griffin did in Black Like Me (1961), or the working poor, as Barbara Ehrenreich did in Nickel and Dimed (2001): Yet to do the same with America’s own working-class troops is to risk censure.
Therefore, in the next war, while the media provide the global cosmopolitan perspective, the troops themselves may well provide the American one. The fact is that most grunts can’t stand to be portrayed as victims. The quietly mounting trend of American soldiers and Marines writing about their experiences and posting them on weblogs rather than having their experiences interpreted by transnational journalists is proof enough. AndrewSullivan.com, among others, has periodically posted such accounts. I recall one from a Marine chaplain in the Sunni Triangle pleading that the grunts’ morale was fine and suggesting that their principal fear was the home front going belly-up on them. The parts are all in place for an explosion of this type of commentary. Almost all the troops have their own laptops and access to cybercafes at their bases. The American perspective does not whitewash problems or claim a situation is better than it is, but it does promote warrior virtues and submerge the cult of victimhood, and it recognizes that good morale does not mean the absence of complaints — troops complain all the time; it would be suspicious if they didn’t. It means only the continued spirit to fight.5

Unelected and uncontrollable

The medieval age ended with the reassertion of authority. The bureaucratized French state that emerged in the early seventeenth century, thanks greatly to Cardinal Richelieu, gradually supplanted the individual arbitrariness of feudal barons. Its forerunner was the strong Sicilian state created by the Norman monarch Roger ii of Hautville, who, five centuries earlier, had employed absolutism toward liberal ends in protecting his citizenry against a “woolly-headed” idealism associated with a vast and ineffectual papal universality.6 To compare the global media with such a universality is to exaggerate. Still, comparison with the past is all we have. I submit that the global media are emerging as a wet, ineffectual blanket of moralistic authority like the medieval papal one. Nevertheless, it is real enough to stifle and influence the more legitimate authority bequeathed by an electorate — that is in turn anchored to a specific geography.

Our preoccupation with promoting democracy is slightly misplaced. Freer, more historically liberal societies are emerging anyway. Even in the Middle East, the new generation of leaders will not have the luxury to rule as autocratically as the passing one. Tumultuous social and economic change needs to be managed, not ignited. But another type of tyranny rears its head. It is a mob I worry about: unelected, uncontrollable, moving from one lynching-of-sorts to the next, fighting amongst itself, dispersing, falling apart, and regrouping again and again. It can never be wrong because its cause is that of the weak and oppressed: Therein lies its power of oppression.

1 See William Manchester’s A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance (Little, Brown, 1992).

2 The word “meatloaf” in connection to old-fashioned America was used in the December 2001 issue of the Atlantic Monthly in David Brooks’ article, “One Nation, Slightly Divisible.”

3 Alain Finkielkraut, “In the Name of the Other: Reflections on the Coming Anti-Semitism,” Azure (Autumn 2004).

4 See Captain Roger Lee Crossland’s “Why Are Our Victims Our Only War Heroes?” Proceedings (U.S. Naval Institute, April 2004), and Rich Lowry’s tremendously insightful “Where Are the Heroes?” National Review Online (July 1, 2004).

5 Edward N. Luttwak, Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace (Belknap Press, 1987).

6 See John Julius Norwich, The Kingdom in the Sun: 1130–1194 (Harper & Row, 1970).