Journalism Should Embody Anarchist Ideals

Bill Keller‘s lengthy online exchange with Glenn Greenwald makes for very interesting reading. It illuminates a great deal, especially the modern ‘mainstream’ understanding of journalism–as ‘objective’ reporter of ‘facts’–and its supposed ‘responsibilities’ and the ‘alternative’ view of journalism as fundamentally adversarial, beholden to no nation or state, dedicated to exposing the machinations of the powerful.

Greenwald’s critique of the former view is, as might be expected, quite pungent:

[T]his model rests on a false conceit. Human beings are not objectivity-driven machines. We all intrinsically perceive and process the world through subjective prisms….The relevant distinction is not between journalists who have opinions and those who do not, because the latter category is mythical. The relevant distinction is between journalists who honestly disclose their subjective assumptions and political values and those who dishonestly pretend they have none or conceal them from their readers….all journalism is a form of activism.

That last sentence is crucial: it takes journalism out of the sphere of some imagined realm whose contours resemble that of an archetypal scientific laboratory where men in white coats are replaced by reporters with notepads. These diligent collectors and tabulators merely report their observations of little parcels of reality called ‘facts’.

Instead, journalism turns into a form of political activity, its participants struggling just like any other political player to further some ends and not others. In a democratic society’s politics, the journalists are those players whose role is to report on, and make transparent, the workings of those in power. This power is not insignificant: the state can imprison, silence and immiserate its citizens; it can declare war and martial law; it possesses a monopoly of power, and in the modern state, this power is awesome indeed.

This asymmetrical distribution of power can only be offset and compensated for, by way of protecting those who are subject to it, if they are kept fully apprised of their rulers’ doings and deeds. What the citizenry does not possess by way of material power it strives to obtain by means of information and knowledge. Requests for secrecy, for coyness, for message modification, are, all too often, disingenuous requests that the balance of power be tipped back the other way. Thus, we best understand ‘journalist’ as merely a fancy name for ‘citizen activist dedicated to the full transparency of governmentality.’ A journalist represents the segment of the polity dedicated to making the powerful cower, not preen and strut; he is not an observer of the political system, he is part of it.

Understood in this way, a journalist embodies an anarchist ideal: the rejection of opaque, unaccountable power.  The profession’s basic stance is skeptical and adversarial; it should maintain a distance from those in power so that they may be critiqued more frankly and critically. This entails a prickly relationship with those in power, one with many rough edges. But those unable to deal with this consequent unpleasantness would be well advised to stay out of the proverbial kitchen. Critics aren’t supposed to have too many friends.

Tim Kreider and the Problem of Too Many Writers

Tim Kreider has a very familiar sounding complaint in the New York Times. It is familiar because his article follows a well-worn template of talking about the Brave New Bad World of Free Content, and because the Times routinely publishes such Op-Eds. Like most screeds put out by what I have termed ‘the whining artist‘ it is incoherent.

This sentence is the heart of the complaint:

[In] our information economy..“paying for things” is a quaint, discredited old 20th-century custom.

You’ve heard it before: writers are being asked to write for free; no one values writing any more; writers won’t write any more if they don’t get ‘paid’. And so on. (Musicians often make similar complaints.)

This sentence though, does not inspire confidence that Krieder has the slightest clue of what he is talking about:

I spent 20 years and wrote thousands of pages learning the trivial craft of putting sentences together. My parents blew tens of thousands of 1980s dollars on tuition at a prestigious institution to train me for this job. They also put my sister the pulmonologist through medical school, and as far as I know nobody ever asks her to perform a quick lobectomy — doesn’t have to be anything fancy, maybe just in her spare time, whatever she can do would be great — because it’ll help get her name out there.

I’m guessing a pulmonologist is not in the business of producing intangible material that can be effortlessly copied and distributed at minimal cost. Furthermore, barriers to the market for pulmonologist are high: years of expensive education, apprenticeships etc. It’s a pity Kreider’s parents blew so much money on training him to be a writer; perhaps they didn’t realize that these days just about everyone and anyone thinks they can be a writer. And too many of them act on this belief.

That brings us to the heart of the matter. I too, would like everything, all the time, for free. I realize quickly enough that some things in this modern world are not free and yet others–depending on their relative scarcity–are almost free.

For instance, once I’ve paid my internet subscriber’s monthly fee, I can read unlimited amounts of political opinion; everyone has one, and everyone wants to share it with me. I can also read unlimited amounts of poetry, short stories, essays, and so on. There are, it seems, many, many writers around these days. What is it that makes the writing profession so attractive, that so many writers, according to Kreider, are giving their work away for free?

The answer, I thought, was obvious: for a while, thanks to a very particularly structured industry that grew up around it, writing made money and fame for some writers. These writers are cultural icons, giants who stalk the land. Their lives beguile us; we want to be like them. Their fame and riches made many people forget that they were exceptions, and that most writers still failed to make a living. Even the writing lifestyle began to seem glamorous: all that drinking and hanging out in cafes. And didn’t Arthur Miller hook up with Marilyn Monroe?

Writing seems easy. Why not just pull up a piece of paper and a pen and write? Or a typewriter? Or now, a word-processor? Perhaps if you get lucky, you could be admitted to a ‘writing program’ and tap into all the contacts your professors have with agents, editors and publishers?

Soon you find that many, many others have the same dream. And everyone is scribbling away furiously. So many tools to write with; so many publishing platforms; so many lives and things to write about. There’s too much to read; how will I get readers to notice me in this sea of well-crafted words?

Perhaps by ‘exposure’? Perhaps by using my writing as a ‘loss-leader‘ so that I can secure that paying gig, that big contract, that advance, that book tour, that glossy jacket photo, that writer’s cabin on a remote island? Or if not, perhaps I can get a job teaching writing at a writer’s program that turns out more writers? Or less glamorously, perhaps I could teach writing at a college to incoming freshmen? That way, my writing will have made some money for me. Not directly, but indirectly. And then I can get to hang out in cafes and call myself a writer.

Written content is not scarce; quality written content still is; writers need to get noticed. The situation that Kreider then complains about–content being asked for, and being given away for free, just to get ‘noticed’–is almost inevitable.

It would help if writers would stop thinking of themselves as God’s Gift to Mankind and instead began regarding themselves as just another species of creative ‘producers’ whose ‘content’ is not very scarce, and lends itself to easy distribution and reproduction. Interestingly enough, I don’t read too many Op-Eds by artists saying that people are asking them to make paintings for free; they never had a content industry grow up around them and hence have no reason to not think that things are just as they have always been: most artists don’t make money from their art.

Perhaps the fame and riches of the writers of days gone by was a blip in normal service, and not the norm?

Nicholas Carr on Automation’s Perils

Nicholas Carr offers us some interesting and thoughtful worries about automation in The Atlantic (‘All Can Be Lost: The Risk of Putting Our Knowledge in the Hands of Machines,’ 23 October 2013). These worries center largely around de-skilling: as automation grows ever more sophisticated–and evidence suggests it is pushing into domains once thought to be inaccessible–humans will lose the precious know-how associated with them, setting themselves up for a situation in which once the technology fails–as it inevitably will–we run the risk of catastrophe. Carr’s examples are alarming; he highlights the use of the ‘substitution fallacy’ in standard defenses of automation; most usefully, he points out that as automation proceeds, all too-many humans will become merely its monitors; and finally, concludes:

Whether it’s a pilot on a flight deck, a doctor in an examination room, or an Inuit hunter on an ice floe, knowing demands doing. One of the most remarkable things about us is also one of the easiest to overlook: each time we collide with the real, we deepen our understanding of the world and become more fully a part of it. While we’re wrestling with a difficult task, we may be motivated by an anticipation of the ends of our labor, but it’s the work itself—the means—that makes us who we are. Computer automation severs the ends from the means. It makes getting what we want easier, but it distances us from the work of knowing. As we transform ourselves into creatures of the screen, we face an existential question: Does our essence still lie in what we know, or are we now content to be defined by what we want? If we don’t grapple with that question ourselves, our gadgets will be happy to answer it for us.

This is a good question to ask. I want to complicate the picture somewhat by raising some questions.

1. Does Carr want to suggest we roll back the advancing tide of automation? Should we demarcate some areas of human expertise as ‘too human’ or ‘too important’ to be automated? Should we discourage research on automated driving, navigation systems, spell checking and the like? Should we make a list of ‘core human cognitive capacities’ and then discourage research on automating these? How would we ‘discourage’ such research? By law, the market, or social norming? What would such judgments be based on?  Do we have a set of values that would animate them and that we could rely on?

2. There is a flip-side to the de-skilling blamed on automation: a tremendous increase in human knowledge and technical capacities has been required to create and implement the systems that so alarm us. Where does this knowledge and its associated power reside? As a society, we are witnessing the creation of a new elite of knowledgeable producers, those who make the gadgets that Carr worries are making us dumb. Are we, along with economic inequality, also creating cognitive inequality? Can the technical knowledge gained by work on automation help us alleviate the problems associated with de-skilling?

This latter consideration suggests that perhaps the real problem with automation is not automation per se but automation in a radically inegalitarian and economically skewed society like ours, one whose economic and moral priorities do not permit an adequate amelioration of the effects of automation, or permit a rich enough life that may allow those de-skilled by automation in some domains to develop and apply their talents elsewhere.

‘The Road’ and the Centrality of Love for Existence

How can a difficult read be an easy one? It can be easy because the difficulty is compelling and seductive, because ‘difficult’ does not mean ‘obscure’, because difficult can be worthy of admiration.

A few days ago, when I saw John Hillcoat‘s The Roadbased on Cormac McCarthy‘s novel of the same name, I had not yet read it. Today I did so. It was an unputdownable book that pulled me into its grasp and didn’t let go till I was done, its pages all turned and marked ‘read.’ It was an easy read for the reasons mentioned above; McCarthy is a virtuosic writer, a master of the  spare and savage prose he deploys to bring alive a chilling, gray, slowly sickening and dying world; you read because are compelled to. And The Road is a difficult book because of its central subject: the possibility and desirability of hope in a world without one.

Why live if there is nothing to live for? This is not an easy question to answer. Is continued existence a worthy enough objective to warrant endless self-privation and misery, the killing of others, and acts of deliberate cruelty? In ‘normal life’ we may excuse seeming exceptions to the moral order we dimly glimpse because we are convinced by some calculus of consequences that a ‘better world’ will be realized because of our actions. But what if the only outcomes to our actions are ignoble and base, narrowly conceived and realized?  In a world where existence never rises above the level of mere non-death, and is destined to never get better, why persist? The inhabitants of a world like the one through which the Man and the Boy journey resemble nothing quite as much as terminally ill patients. The contours of the ethical debate surrounding their demise will be similar to those engaged in by those who, like the Man and the Boy, persist and persevere in order to stay alive.  For their death is foretold; discomfort and despair is their only lot.

The Man’s wife sensed that there would be no survival if stronger reasons than wanting to preserve one’s own life are not found:

The one thing I can tell you is that you won’t survive for yourself. I know because I would never have come this far. A person who had no one would be well advised to cobble together some passable ghost. Breathe it into being and coax it along with some words of love. Offer it each phantom crumb and shield it from harm with your body.

And for The Man, the existence of the boy will be all the reason he needs to go living before, eventually, his body and mind give way and he lays himself down to sleep. In the end, all the cruelty and privation of the world he left behind cannot disguise the fact that though ‘love’ is not a word that is uttered too often in it, it was always present when the Man and the Boy were together.

The Post-Apocalyptic Zone of Moral Instruction

During a Facebook discussion in response to my post yesterday on The Road, my friend Maureen Eckert wrote:

I am never sure what to make of “post-apocalyptic porn.” On the one hand they seem to be thought experiments about the “State of Nature.” On the other, they seem to tend to express exaggerated exasperation with “civilization,” as if reinforcing the feeling that “nothing can be done.”

Maureen is right that a standard moral associated with post-apocalyptic cinema or literature–one proclaimed with varying degrees of explicitness–is, ‘This is what humans would be like if the pre-political, pre-social “state of nature” were to be restored, if laws, the restraints of conventional morality, and all forms of social and political organization were removed.’ This is the fiction of the ‘real’ or ‘true’ ‘human nature’ alluded to in yesterday’s post; it is will be revealed once the civilizing layers of our civilization are removed and we revert back to the original ‘state of nature’. The apocalypse thus acts as a pretense shredder, showing our supposed social, cultural and moral sophistication to be shallow and superficial, a fair-weather orientation that is only maintained by the force and rule of the law and the comfort of the good times. So long as no desperation is called for none will be shown. But the seven deadly sins will be on ample display once those conditions no longer hold true. (This lesson may be imparted with varying degrees of sanctimony depending on the artist.)

There is an alternative moral to be drawn of course: that the human nature revealed to us in these depictions of an apocalypse’s aftermath is not the ‘true’, ‘real’ or ‘natural’ one at all. Instead what is shown in post-apocalyptic art are traumatized human beings whose responses–to their environment, to each other–are pathological precisely because of the nature of the changes undergone. The death, disease and pestilence of the apocalypse, for one. Post-apocalyptic visions are thus indeed revelatory, not because they show us how we were ‘before’ we ‘became civilized’ but because they show what our response would be to the dramatic, traumatic loss of our political and social orders.

Maureen’s second point illustrates the ways in which post-apocalyptic depictions may be read as making the claim that civilization’s  promises were always illusory; the changes and improvements it supposedly brought about were transient, contingent and ultimately fragile; the apocalypse destroys our civilization’s claims to have improved us; we remain just as uncivilized as we ever were. Because its hold on us is shown to be so tenuous, we feel serious doubt awaken within us about whether it’s a civilization worth saving in the first place. If its moral lessons weren’t permanent, if the order it created was only a temporary imposition. then what good is it anyway? How much commitment can it demand if its legacy is only a thin veneer of restrained behavior, a temporary cessation of an otherwise incessant hostility?

The post-apocalyptic genre is both forgiving and condemnatory in its views of humans and the world they make for themselves.

John Hillcoat’s ‘The Road’: Bleak and Unsparing

John Hillcoat’s The Road is a faithful cinematic adaptation of Cormac McCarthy‘s bleak vision of a post-apocalyptic world. It is almost unrelentingly grim because it is unsparing about the bitter truths of a world in which food and morality are both in short supply: existence is a mere step up from the eventual slow death that awaits most; its contours are brutal and painful at the best of times.

Cinematic and literary post-apocalyptic visions have been the rage for a while; indeed, one might even see them as a testing and training ground of sorts for a very particular breed of auteur. Perhaps one’s imaginative vision and conception of the world we live in can best be captured by trying to imagine its end, its destruction, its breakdown in the face of disaster. Our normal weekday world and its human relationships are covered and disguised by layers of artifice; perhaps its ‘true nature’ will be discovered only when all excuses for pretense are absent; that stage is most likely in a post-apocalypse world. (There are interesting fictions at play here about ‘real’ or ‘true’ ‘human nature’ of course, but they’ll do for the time being.)

The Road captures several aspects of the post-apocalyptic world far better than that contemporary icon of popular culture, The Walking Dead. It is more skeptical about the chances of obtaining food and more cognizant of the possibilities of malnutrition and starvation; the danger from other survivors is greater (the Governor looks like a pretty friendly gentleman compared to the cannibalistic marauding predators in The Road); the question of why continued existence is meaningful is more present (and as the suicides show, it is often answered in the negative). To be entirely fair to The Walking Dead, it is set much earlier in the aftermath of the ‘end of the world as we know it’; its treatment might have been darker too, were it as late in the post-apocalypse period as The Road is.

The Road is grimmer than The Walking Dead in its palette too, which is gray, somber, and cold, one only intermittently illuminated by a sun that struggles fitfully to break through the all-enveloping haze; trees are broken, burnt and devastated as are cars, homes, bodies and minds. Its world is deathly quiet; the interruptions to this silence are almost always unwelcome because they speak not of company and solace, but of greater danger. There is detritus strewn around; the humans are just as twisted and disfigured as their surroundings. Once the world is done doing its worst to people, the humans will continue to do its dirty work.

It would seem bizarre to suggest that a movie like The Road could have a ‘happy ending’ in the conventional sense of the word. Yet so cruel has the movie’s vision been till its closing stages that its final resolution is perhaps its most hopeful moment, one that offers some relief, a minor respite, after we have been allowed to imagine a loneliness that might be more painful than any death. Small mercies indeed.

‘Empire,’ ‘Self-Government,’ and ‘Religious Conflict’

In The Colors of Violence, an attempt to contribute ‘a depth-psychological dimension to the understanding of religious conflict, especially the tensions between Hindus and Muslims [in India]’, Sudhir Kakar writes¹:

If Hindu-Muslim relations were in better shape in the past, with much less overt violence, it was perhaps also because of the kind of polity in which the two peoples lived. This polity was that of empire, the Mughal empire followed by the British one. An empire…Michael Walzer observes,² is characterized by a mixture of repression for any strivings for independence and tolerance for different cultures, religions and ways of life. The tolerance is not a consequence of any great premodern wisdom but because of the indifference, sometimes bordering on brutal incomprehension, of the imperial bureaucrats to local conflicts of the people they rule. Distant from local life,  they do not generally interfere with everyday life as long as things remain peaceful, though there may be intermittent cruelty to remind the subject peoples of the basis of empire–conquest through force of arms. It is only with self-government, when distance disappears, that the political questions–‘Who among us shall have power here, in these villages, in these towns?’ ‘Will the majority group dominate?’ ‘What will be the new ranking order?’–lead to a heightened awareness of religious-cultural differences. In countries with multireligious populations, independence coincides with tension and conflict–such as we observe today in the wake of the unravelling of the Soviet empire.

This  analysis of religious conflict is not inconsistent with those that see it grounded in economic dispute and class struggle; the political questions noted above have an economic dimension to them as well, for variants of the power being mediated and parceled out and haggled over are very often economic ones; and class struggles may only become more starkly visible when the mediating hand of empire is removed. It is however, in the Indian context, inconsistent with those accounts of Hindu-Muslim conflict, which view the two ‘communities’ as living in a state of peaceful, tolerant amity before being rudely interrupted in their mutually respectful reveries by the heavy hand of the divide and rule colonialist; instead, here, it is the colonial stamp that keeps the incipient clashes at bay.

The empires of the colonialist enterprise displaced questions of power to its centers, away from the margins, and rendered its most central questions in a form that appeared only in highly restricted forms–pertaining to survival, not flourishing–to its subjects. ‘Local conflicts’ of the sort alluded to above remained low-stakes affairs, the spoils accruing to their victors not great enough to warrant the mobilization of a favored group along lines that emphasized social, cultural and religious identity. It is only when the trappings of the immense power associated with governmentality become visible that the group draws in closer and prepares to make an ambitious, even if expensive and bloody, play for power.

Notes:

1. Sudhir Kakar, The Colors of Violence, Penguin Books India, 1995, pp.  241

2. Michael Walzer, ‘Nations and minorities’, in C. Fried, ed., Minorities: Community and Identity, (Berlin: Springer Verlag), pp. 219-27