Readings — From the September 2008 issue

The Naughts

This essay appears as the introduction to Submersion Journalism: Reporting in the Radical First Person from Harper’s Magazine, to be published this month by the New Press. Hodge is the editor of Harper’s Magazine. His essay “Blood and Time: Cormac McCarthy and the Twilight of the West” appeared in the February 2006 issue.

The 2000s—perhaps we should call them the Naughts, since they will be remembered chiefly for their wants—were a decade in which the American Republic finally succumbed to a kind of autoimmune disorder, in which the social and political systems normally responsible for maintaining the healthy functioning of the body politic have instead turned against it with particular savagery, as if our very Constitution were an invasive foreign organism. The causes of the disorder are obscure. As with other such diseases, this one masks itself with opportunistic infections, hides under assumed names, and thus has often escaped accurate diagnosis. The humdrum corruption of political machinery, the passivity of screen- addled citizens, ignorant pedagogues, job-gobbling immigrants, malevolent divines, greedy corporate grandees, the timidity of bourgeois journalists, the sinister conniving of neoconservative and liberal intellectuals, and homosexuals living in holy matrimony have all been adduced as causes of the national decline. Proximity cannot be denied, yet none of these putative causes appears to be sufficient to the magnitude of the disorder. What can be said with some certainty, however, is that we are now exiles in a strange land; America is no longer America.

In one domain of our national life after another, the old American ideals and liberties have been replaced by their opposites. Torture, once a reliable attribute of Nazis, Communists, and Eastern despots, has become official government policy. The Department of Justice has been transformed into the corrupt instrument of a partisan agenda. Habeas corpus is but a fond memory, as is the Fourth Amendment, with its fellows soon to follow. No one who possesses more than a passing acquaintance with American history can deny that in one form or another elements of the present disorder have been latent in our social genome for many generations, but something about the toxic environment of the Naughts has caused an outbreak of unprecedented scope.

The disease manifested itself almost everywhere at once, but the superficial effects were most spectacular in our national mirror: the Media, which absorbed and digested the once proud opposition of the Press and made of it a mere legitimizer of horrors. The self-refuting absurdity of the Bush presidency, with its pretensions to manufacture an imperial reality, parallels the rise of the aggressively oxymoronic genre of “Reality Television,” with all its unintentional ironies. Among so-called news programming, Fox’s “Fair and Balanced: We Report, You Decide” is of a piece with Anderson Cooper’s “Keeping Them Honest” and, to give an extreme and perhaps gratuitous example, CBS Evening News with Katie Couric. More perniciously, the self-importance with which the quality newspapers fawned on George W. Bush and his retainers in the decisive years after September 11, 2001, particularly in the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq, bears comparison with the bitter satires of G. K. Chesterton and Evelyn Waugh.

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