Readings — From the September 2008 issue
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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In one domain of our national life after another, the old American ideals and liberties have been replaced by their opposites.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.
The disorder from which we suffer—known among its close observers as Self-Satirizing Syndrome, or SSS—is a cruel one. Not only have we been made to witness the betrayal of almost every promise made by our Founding Fathers, and seen their direst prophesies confirmed, we must also suffer the indignity of seeing our constitutional ideal turned into a shabby mockery of itself. Somehow, by a trick of dialectical cunning, the United States of America has vaulted over the tragic phase of history in favor of a relentless pursuit of historical farce.
Even without the benefit of a proper diagnosis, a handful of critical newspapers, magazines, and book publishers have instinctively attempted to resist the infection (as have a growing number of visual artists and filmmakers), but the striving of a few can accomplish only so much against the onslaught of the disorder’s most noxious expressions: Opinion, and its close chemical relative, Publicity. Aggressive, ill-informed, irrational, and largely unsupported opinion predominates in our age of infectious autosatire (on millions of blogs, yes, but also on television and radio talk shows, in op-ed columns, news analysis, and “expert” commentary) and threatens, in a corollary of Gresham’s law, to drive out all other modes of articulate human expression. And by far the greatest number of opinions expressed by any given SSS host concern the doings of celebrities and other by-products of the publicity stream (though the liberal media and the menace of foreigners provide good infectious substrates as well). The relative merits of Denzel Washington’s or Russell Crowe’s latest performances are discussed and analyzed with the same insipid vocabulary applied to the fund-raising prowess and speaking abilities of Barack Obama and John McCain. Likewise their personal and professional challenges, their setbacks and petty triumphs. One finds little to distinguish this week’s highest-grossing picture from that month’s highest-grossing candidate.
The television host convinced that Iran will somehow succeed in launching World War III, the Christian firm in his belief that Jesus wants him to be rich, the president who sees into the soul of a Russian dictator, the public-radio essayist who just loves ketchup, the vice president who argues that his dear leader possesses the inherent authority to suspend laws at will—all of these individuals, we say, have a right to their opinions, no matter how meaningless or delusional or divorced from traditional canons of American governance. Apparently it’s bad taste to point out that a prominent public figure is either lying or insane. And given the right publicity campaign, with a consistent message from the White House staffers and congressional aides who feed the news cycle, any narrative, no matter how fraudulent, can begin to command the front pages. (“Just look at the improved situation in Iraq!”)
Short of withdrawing to an ashram in the Appalachian Mountains or to a bunker in West Texas, there is little the responsible American citizen can do to avoid contamination except turn off the television and the radio, cancel newspaper subscriptions, shun the movie theater, and meditate each day on the mantras of H. L. Mencken, Mark Twain, and Ambrose Bierce. But for those of us who must, whether out of perversity or an outmoded sense of civic duty, maintain close contact with the diseased organs of our society, there is another option. We can choose to embark on an immunization program, to strengthen ourselves with a literary vaccine to the never-ending cycle of obscene news and the pandemic of poorly expressed, ill-reasoned, well-publicized opinion.
The medicinal literature I have in mind is not fiction, though fiction can serve in this role as well, but the literature of fact, a variety of narrative journalism (of a provenance far too ancient to be called “new”) that has long sought to place a strong bulwark of wit between the reader and history’s perpetual invitation to despair. Today that protective coating has become a medical necessity. In times such as these, healthy citizenship requires the insertion of a human proxy into the stream of historical happenstance. What we need is an experimental subject, an “I” sufficiently armed with narrative powers both literary and historical, gifts of irony and indirection, and the soothing balms of description and implication, to go forth and find stories that might counteract the unhappy effects of our disorder. What distinguishes such dispatches is what might be called the radical first person: the individual consciousness of the writer becomes paramount. The reader is thereby privy to the writer’s experience and receives direct confirmation of its truth value. What results is not mere consumable opinion, the mystical commodity of mediated capitalism, but the raw material of a considered judgment, whether aesthetic, political, or ethical. In that judgment lies the cure for our affliction.
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