No Comment — June 30, 2007, 11:25 am

The Lost Legacy of Ludwig Börne

boerne

Out in the Texas hill country, a short drive to the northwest of San Antonio is the town of Boerne – a name picked by German Catholics who emigrated there in the mid-nineteenth century. Those who know the history of those times would hardly be challenged to explain why these immigrants would pick the name of Ludwig Börne. He hailed from Hesse, as they did, and he was one of the greatest voices of his era – a defiant voice calling for liberty and democracy at a time when those things were in short supply. I once paid the town a visit and asked what the folks in Boerne did to celebrate the memory of the great man for whom their town was named. And I discovered to my chagrin that no one there seemed to have an inkling of who Ludwig Börne was. (“A writer, I think,” was the closest answer I got.) And in the same way, Börne’s legacy to America, exposé journalism, has gone missing.

Börne is a transformational figure in Europe’s history, and a man who influenced America at a critical point in its history. He was born Juda Loeb Baruch in Frankfurt, in Europe’s heart, in the city’s Jewish ghetto. But he broke out of those stifling confines to leave a mark on his home city, his country and the broader world beyond. His life was tragically cut short in 1837, but what he accomplished in his fifty years of life was amazing. Above all things what marked Börne was his courage, his determination to stand for a liberty that embraced the fundamental dignity of all mankind without regard to religion or ethnicity, and his willingness to raise a critical voice just when it was needed – no matter the cost to himself.

Börne was a journalist. His work helped define a new profession and show what the medium could offer. For a developing educated class, newspapers offered a passport to knowledge, social participation and education. To be sure, the quality of newspapers of his day was varied, and many of them seem, viewed today, almost comically bad. But Börne was a practitioner of the highest form of the journalistic art, and today one reads his Letters from Paris not as newspaper contributions, but rather as works of high literature. They continue to inspire. His command of language; his ability to mobilize facts and thoughts to a certain end is amazing. Börne’s vibrant style was unlike anything that had been seen before. He shows us that a journalist can be both a careful observer and a person passionately engaged in the world around him. He was, to be clear, an opinion-journalist. He worked to inform and persuade. And to expose – especially to expose injustice.

If there was one voice that inspired the liberal revolution of 1848 in Central Europe – the revolution that demanded for Europeans the democratic institutions that Americans had won for themselves two generations earlier – it was Ludwig Börne’s. He had influence in America as well, since two figures who played a key role in American political life in the mid-nineteenth century – Francis Lieber and Carl Schurz – were addicts of Börne’s writings and followers in his wake. And in fact, Börne’s American followers heeded his message and were heavily engaged in politics. They rallied to John Charles Frémont and Abraham Lincoln and helped to form the Republican Party and raise its banner. Börne would have approved unequivocally.

One aspect of Börne always impressed me: his constant consciousness of the need for critical detachment from those in power. A writer who trades his critical faculty for a comfortable, possession-filled existence forfeits his soul. A writer who craves the approval of the established order and seeks to be rewarded by them is fundamentally corrupt.

“Every crowned head in Europe fears for his porcelain factory,” he remarked with typical irony to his friend Heinrich Heine. “And indeed you have no idea how the ownership of fine porcelain can fence you in. Consider me. I was once a wild man, when I had little luggage and no porcelain. But with property and especially with fragile things comes fear and servitude.”Heinrich Heine, Ludwig Börne: Eine Denkschrift (1840) in: Sämtliche Schriften, vol. 4, p. 15 (Hanser ed.) (S.H. transl.) But of course, Börne was marked precisely by his fearlessness, and the fact that he was concerned that buying a tea service would undermine his critical detachment says quite a bit.

(There is another, darker spot of irony in this little back and forth between Heine and Börne that will be lost on a modern reader. Namely: German princelings often required Jews to buy porcelain from their factories to subsidize their operations and rid themselves of unwanted inventory. For both Heine and Börne, this was a badge of servitude, humiliation and racism.)

America had a proud culture of exposé journalism – it had an army of writers who followed in the footsteps of Ludwig Börne. Some names are still remembered today: Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens and Ray Stannard Baker. One or two passed into the literary canon – like Frank Norris. But it’s a legacy which has all but vanished. Today the headlines speak of the latest acquisition by Rupert Murdoch and his corporate empire is a model of the new journalism in which everything that Börne warned against has come to the fore. The typical successful journalist of America today is not engaged and critical, but a fawning participant in a cult of power. A study of Murdoch’s engagement in China and the effect it had on his media empire’s coverage of Chinese politics – such as the New York Times very commendably offered this week – is a good sign of what the future holds. And note that even self-described media critics, such as Howard Kurtz, are swallowed up in this process.

I embrace exposé journalism as a form of art and professional practice. It can furnish life’s blood to a democracy. It offers a threatened society the essential purgative to its ills. It is in short supply today. Indeed, it exists only at the fringes of the journalistic community, having been banished from the broadcast and mainstream.

Writing today in the Los Angeles Times, my colleague Ken Silverstein defends himself from attacks from journalistic sycophants over an exposé piece that gave us a penetrating look into the heart of a lobbying industry which putrifies our political process:

Chuck Lewis, a former “60 Minutes” producer and founder of the Center for Public Integrity, once told me: “The values of the news media are the same as those of the elite, and they badly want to be viewed by the elites as acceptable.” In my case, I was able to gain an inside glimpse into a secretive culture of professional spinners only by lying myself. I disclosed my deceptions clearly in the piece I wrote (whereas the lobbyists I met boasted of how they were able to fly under the radar screen in seeking to shape U.S. foreign policy). If readers feel uncomfortable with my methods, they’re free to dismiss my findings.

Yes, undercover reporting should be used sparingly, and there are legitimate arguments to be had about when it is fair or appropriate. But I’m confident my use of it in this case was legitimate. There was a significant public interest involved, particularly given Congress’ as-yet-unfulfilled promise to crack down on lobbyists in the aftermath of the Jack Abramoff scandal. Could I have extracted the same information and insight with more conventional journalistic methods? Impossible.

Based on the number of interview requests I’ve had, and the steady stream of positive e-mails I’ve received, I’d wager that the general public is decidedly more supportive of undercover reporting than the Washington media establishment. One person who heard me talking about the story in a TV interview wrote to urge that I never apologize for “misrepresenting yourself to a pack of thugs … especially when misrepresentation is their own stock in trade!” I’m willing to debate the merits of my piece, but the carping from the Washington press corps is hard to stomach. This is the group that attended the White House correspondents dinner and clapped for a rapping Karl Rove. As a class, they honor politeness over honesty and believe that being “balanced” means giving the same weight to a lie as you give to the truth.

This is a fundamental point. And Ludwig Börne put it a bit more eloquently: “In the service of truth” he said, “it doesn’t suffice simply to display your intellect. You must show courage as well.” A journalist who doesn’t adhere to that credo doesn’t deserve to call himself a journalist.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

June 2018

The Wizard of Q

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Punching the Clock

Family History

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Combat High

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Last Best Place

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Sound of Madness

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Combat High·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Afew months before the United States invaded Iraq, in 2003, Donald Rumsfeld, the defense secretary at the time, was asked on a radio show how long the war would take. “Five days or five weeks or five months,” he replied. “It certainly isn’t going to last any longer than that.” When George W. Bush departed the White House more than five years later, there were nearly 136,000 US soldiers stationed in the country. 

The number of troops has fallen since then, but Bush’s successors have failed to withdraw the United States from the region. Barack Obama campaigned on ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, only to send hundreds of troops into Syria. For years Donald Trump described America’s efforts in Afghanistan as “a waste” and said that soldiers were being led “to slaughter,” but in 2017 he announced that he would deploy as many as 4,000 more troops to the country. “Decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk of the Oval Office,” he explained. Every president, it seems, eventually learns to embrace our perpetual war.

With the Trump Administration’s attacks on affordable health care, immigration, environmental regulation, and civil rights now in full swing, criticism of America’s military engagements has all but disappeared from the national conversation. Why hasn’t the United States been able—or willing—to end these conflicts? Who has benefited from them? Is victory still possible—and, if so, is it anywhere in sight?

In March, Harper’s Magazine convened a panel of former soldiers at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. The participants, almost all of whom saw combat in Iraq or Afghanistan, were asked to reflect on the country’s involvement in the Middle East. This Forum is based on that panel, which was held before an audience of cadets and officers, and on a private discussion that followed.

Illustration (detail) by John Ritter
Article
Comforting Myths·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Before he died, my father reminded me that when I was four and he asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said I wanted to be a writer. Of course, what I meant by “writer” then was a writer of Superman comics. In part I was infatuated with the practically invulnerable Man of Steel, his blue eyes and his spit curl. I wanted both to be him and to marry him—to be his Robin, so to speak. But more importantly, I wanted to write his story, the adventures of the man who fought for truth, justice, and the American Way—if only I could figure out what the fuck the American Way was.

Artwork by Mahmood Sabzi
Article
The Sound of Madness·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Sarah was four years old when her spirit guide first appeared. One day, she woke up from a nap and saw him there beside her bed. He was short, with longish curly hair, like a cherub made of light. She couldn’t see his feet. They played a board game—she remembers pushing the pieces around—and then he melted away.

After that, he came and went like any child’s imaginary friend. Sarah often sensed his presence when strange things happened—when forces of light and darkness took shape in the air around her or when photographs rippled as though shimmering in the heat. Sometimes Sarah had thoughts in her head that she knew were not her own. She would say things that upset her parents. “Cut it out,” her mother would warn. “This is what they put people in psychiatric hospitals for.”

Painting (detail) by Carlo Zinelli
Article
Looking for Calley·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the fall of 1969, I was a freelance journalist working out of a small, cheap office I had rented on the eighth floor of the National Press Building in downtown Washington. A few doors down was a young Ralph Nader, also a loner, whose exposé of the safety failures in American automobiles had changed the industry. There was nothing in those days quite like a quick lunch at the downstairs coffee shop with Ralph. Once, he grabbed a spoonful of my tuna-fish salad, flattened it out on a plate, and pointed out small pieces of paper and even tinier pieces of mouse shit in it. He was marvelous, if a bit hard to digest.

The tip came on Wednesday, October 22. The caller was Geoffrey Cowan, a young lawyer new to town who had worked on the ­McCarthy campaign and had been writing critically about the Vietnam War for the Village Voice. There was a story he wanted me to know about. The Army, he told me, was in the process of court-martialing a GI at Fort Benning, in Georgia, for the killing of seventy-five civilians in South Vietnam. Cowan did not have to spell out why such a story, if true, was important, but he refused to discuss the source for his information.

Photograph © Bettmann/Getty Images
Article
The Last Best Place·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The family was informed they would be moving to a place called Montana. Jaber Abdullah had never heard of it, but a Google search revealed that it was mountainous. Up to that point, he and his wife, Heba, had thought they’d be moving from Turkey to Newark, New Jersey. The prospect of crime there concerned Heba, as she and Jaber had two young sons: Jan, a petulant two-year-old, and Ivan, a newborn. 

Montana sounded like the countryside. That, Heba thought, could be good. She’d grown up in Damascus, Syria, where jasmine hung from the walls and people sold dates in the great markets. These days, you checked the sky for mortar rounds like you checked for rain, but she still had little desire to move to the United States. Basel, Jaber’s brother, a twenty-two-year-old with a cool, quiet demeanor, merely shrugged.

Illustration (detail) by Danijel Žeželj

Average amount Microsoft spends each month assisting people who need to change their passwords:

$2,000,000

Chimpanzees who join new groups with inferior nut-cracking techniques will abandon their superior techniques in order to fit in.

Trump leaves the Iran nuclear deal, Ebola breaks out in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and scientists claim that Pluto is still a planet.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

Subscribe Today