Journalists talk and write in platitudes. This is not surprising. They are not, after all, writers. Their command of the language is limited. Their minds are commonplace. They are also not scholars or political scientists. I occasionally watch Fox News, but what is true of Fox is true of any other news organization. The ideologies may be different but the mediocrity isn’t, except for a kind of starry-eyed machoism among Fox’s noncombatants whenever the subject is the military or national security, and hence their breezy, insiderish tone and the penchant for hardass army talk, referring now to soldiers as warriors and speaking incessantly about boots on the ground, gridlock, lockdown, Intel, recon, choppers, nukes, and all the rest. It is true that journalists lack the talent to invent anything. They are the middlemen of language, picking up on words and phrases that are in the air and wearing them out through excessive use. The Bush administration, for example, gave them troop surges and enhanced interrogation techniques, which sounds a lot better than reinforcements and torture, though it is supposedly the job of journalists to cut through the crap and call a euphemism a euphemism. Fox fields an all-star lineup of nonstop talkers. What they say doesn’t have very much value or meaning. It plays to the biases of their viewers, gives them new scandals and new arguments, but doesnt have the slightest effect on how the country is governed. On the whole, in their superficiality, journalists contribute only to the ignorance of the public and of course to the degeneration of language.
It is sometimes hard to distinguish between an idiom and a platitude. For this reason, one of the few real services that journalists provide, aside from giving us the weather report and ball scores, is to draw the line for us, as though they were themselves lexicographers. A platitude then becomes simply a word or phrase used repeatedly by journalists, which grates so abrasively against the ear that no real writer would ever think to use it. Here are a few: slippery slope, fiscal cliff, crunching numbers, growing the economy, do the math, level playing field, cutting edge, no brainer, game changer, harm’s way, take a listen, sound byte, outside the box, under the radar, in the loop, proactive, Obamacare, outsourcing, win-win, toxic, viral, uber, czar, buzz, spin.
What kind of mind uses such language? Clearly a lazy one, and that is a fair characterization of the journalist’s mind. Because his use of language is so narrow, and his ideas are so banal, the first word or phrase that pops into his head when he tries to express a thought is naturally one that he has used before, that is, a platitude. Unfortunately, he lacks the critical sense to reject it and look for something better. He finds the familiar comforting and feels that he is using the language well when he comes up with a hackneyed phrase. For the journalist the platitude represents clear and incisive language. It would never occur to him that it is dull. This is the standard. When he reaches into the barrel, nothing is there. That is why he is a journalist and not a writer.
The news networks and journalists in general are forever assuring us that they are keeping an eye on things for us. That is their job, they tell us. They are always working for us, bringing us the news, so that we can – what? The idea, I suppose, is so that we can make the right decisions at election time, penalize the politicians who let us down and reward those who don’t. But of course the net result of the entire political process is to elect representatives with whom the public is invariably dissatisfied and holds in very low esteem, so it is hard to see what the news networks accomplish other than sensationalizing events to hold our attention until the next commercial break – now a scandal, now a decomposing body in someone’s garage, now some disaster footage from Nepal or New Orleans, and then the endless commentary, day after day with the same tedious arguments Benghazi, ISIS, the IRS, the Ebola epidemic, whatever. They never let up. They are like dogs with a bone.
If any of this did some good, made a difference, gave us something other than drama and spectacle – that is, entertainment – then there might be some justification for the enormous price the media demand for their supposed services. The price they demand is the right to invade people’s privacy and to conceal sources of defamatory or illegally obtained information. That is quite a price, but since they do not really deliver what they promise to deliver, they are in effect engaging in a species of fraud, representing themselves as the guardians of democracy and of the public’s “right to know” when they clearly are not. Both legislators and law courts have been completely taken in by this deceit and habitually pay lip service to the notion that the press really is the watchdog of democracy and thus deserving of the widest latitude. But the cornerstone of a democracy is in fact its legal system and the traditions that sustain it. The guardians of democracy are the courts. All the investigative reporting and all the talk shows in the world have not had the remotest impact on how governments operate.
I am not suggesting that we shut down the news organizations, any more than I would suggest that we ban poorly written books. By all means, let them go on doing exactly what they have always done if that’s what people want or need, but without their special privileges. Let them be hauled into court for hounding and harassing whomever they deem newsworthy and sued, fined or prosecuted for stalking them. Let them pay a price that hurts for their gossip, innuendo and calumny.
This would obviously inhibit them. The question is whether the public would suffer, no longer know what is really going on, as if it does now, become more ignorant than it already is, as if this is possible. The answer is of course no. It wouldn’t make the slightest difference. It would not make the slightest difference if people were or were not told who smoked marijuana thirty years ago or slept with his neighbor’s wife, or for that matter were or were not told what is going to happen in a week or a month by talk show sages who don’t know what is going to happen in the next five minutes. We think we are being kept up to date when we get the news. What we are in fact getting is a kind of alternate reality, the journalistic equivalent of pulp fiction where “stories” are selected for their dramatic value and seldom coincide with real historical or social processes. This too is not surprising. Journalists are not equipped to give us anything more. If they were they would be historians or even novelists.
THE PRICE OF IGNORANCE
Americans do not know very much about the world. Historically this is partly a result of distance and isolation and partly a result of arrogance. The arrogance comes into play when Americans consider the importance or relevance of what other people are doing, since it goes without saying that Americans do everything better than everyone else. Why individual Americans find it necessary to identify with the idea of America’s greatness may be sought in their need to bolster their self-esteem in the absence of personal distinction and in their feelings of insignificance in the shadow of the American Dream. The consequence of this arrogance and the ignorance it engenders may be found in the results of America’s involvement in armed conflicts around the world.
It would perhaps not be so bad if this ignorance afflicted only ordinary Americans, or if it afflicted only journalists, who seldom speak the languages of the countries they report from and comment on and therefore have no real way of understanding the culture, religion, history and politics of these countries. (A historian operating on journalistic standards would simply be laughed off the stage.) It might also not be so bad if this ignorance afflicted only politicians, who cannot be expected to be scholars, as long as they were being advised by people who did understand the world and as long as they possessed the modicum of perspective necessary to evaluate such advice. However, the ignorance is general and consequently decision makers make catastrophic decisions, from Vietnam to Iraq, from the idea of exporting democracy to the Third World to their understanding of what the Arab Spring would unleash.
Leaving aside the Intelligence failure in Iraq with regard to weapons of mass destruction, it may be said without exaggeration that America went into Iraq, just as it had gone into Vietnam, without the slightest idea what it was getting into. That is to say, it had no way to evaluate what the Sunni and Shiite response would be to the fall of Saddam and the presence of the American army. It also had no idea how to fight an irregular war against insurgent groups fueled by the ideology of radical Islam. The result was 4,000 dead Americans and a situation of complete chaos.
Some secretaries of state, like Kissinger and Condoleezza Rice, have been scholars and some have not. It has made very little difference, for the simple reason that none of them can know everything. The people who should know everything were, among others, the 35,000 employees of the State Department. Of these, getting back to Iraq and the Middle East in general, fewer than ten were fluent in Arabic. This is, quite simply, incredible. It made it impossible for America to understand what was happening in the Middle East and to know how to act there. It makes, in fact, Benghazi entirely comprehensible. Similar dilemmas present themselves all around the world, from China to Russia and from Iran to North Korea.
The debate in America about how America should act in the world, from the days of Vietnam to the present, has unfortunately always revolved around questions of morality, attacking, on the left, the notion of American “exceptionalism,” or the use of excessive force, or the presumptuousness of trying to be the world’s policeman. Such arguments have done more harm than good, only succeeding in provoking defenses of American morality on the right and deflecting the debate from the real issue, which is America’s capability, and preparedness. After all, when a course of action is disqualified on the grounds that it cannot succeed, there is no real need to debate its morality other than on a theoretical or academic level. When the focus is on morality, on the other hand, the debate must always be inconclusive and the defenders of aggressive war will never be challenged on the likelihood of its success. The war in Vietnam was probably prolonged by a few years because there was no one among its opponents, in the Johnson years, who thought, or was able, to make out an informed case for its futility and thereby shift the public debate from the outset to the plane of America’s military capabilities.
America will not be able to contend with radical Islam in any effective way until it understands it, and it will not be able to understand it until it overcomes its ignorance about the world and its peoples, which may be irrelevant when you are dropping bombs on their heads but becomes a real obstacle when the rules of conventional warfare no longer apply and you find yourself facing guerrillas, insurgents or terrorists fighting out of deep inner conviction that you are incapable of assessing or even recognizing. What Americans in their arrogance are also incapable of recognizing is that these ragheads are their equals as fighting men in terms of training, discipline and motivation. Such ignorance, and arrogance, guarantee that Americans will experience such horrors in the current century as cannot even be imagined.
Every New Year and on certain other occasions, my Israeli cable provider opens up all its channels free of charge. The idea is to generate goodwill by appearing to be generous but also, of course, to tempt viewers to shell out a few more bucks every month on new cable packages. I don’t know what results they get but at least for their film channels I think this generosity has the opposite effect, because instead of running quality films they show the usual crap. It may be that they themselves can’t tell the difference between good and bad films, or believe their viewers can’t, or that this is what Hollywood is turning out these days. Nonetheless, by the law of averages, among the thousands of films they show, there are bound to be a few worth watching, and when all the movie channels are open-seven of them simultaneously – you may even get a few being shown at roughly the same time. That’s how it happened that I was faced with the dilemma of watching Kramer vs. Kramer, Cold Mountain, Blazing Saddles all of which I had seen, or Taken with Liam Neeson, which I hadn’t.
I chose Taken, but was able to catch a few minutes of the others before it came on. Cold Mountain and Blazing Saddles didn’t really appeal to me this time around. In the case of Cold Mountain, I suppose it was because the idea of the film (and of the novel, which I had also read) – the Odysseus story – was etched so clearly in my mind that the film itself became anticlimactic. As for Blazing Saddles, I guess I wasn’t in the mood for its craziness. Kramer vs. Kramer, on the other hand, was riveting, though I also had a very clear sense of it. This was of course because of the acting. Meryl Streep is always superb and Dustin Hoffman is always Dustin Hoffman, somewhat hyperactive, which can be annoying at times but which worked pretty well here. I watched a little of it and then switched over to the start of Taken.
Neeson is ex-CIA, a master of marshal arts and of getting things done. Reluctantly he allows his seventeen-year-old daughter to fly to Paris for a vacation, where she is promptly kidnapped by an Albanian human trafficking ring. Neeson is on the next plane to Paris, picks out the point man for the Albanians at the airport, who gets himself killed fleeing Neeson in a wild car chase. Neeson now gets onto the gang with a little help from French Intelligence, shows up where they are keeping some of the kidnapped girls on drugs and wreaks some more havoc, killing them all and rescuing a girl who gives him another lead. Next he shows up at an auction where the girls are being displayed holographically to a black marketer, does some more killing and finds out that his daughter is on a yacht, having been consigned to a fat sheikh. More mayhem, more killing, and Liam gets the girl.
I did not count how many people Neeson killed. Some he shoots, others he overcomes in classic karate style, one he electrocutes, and he even shoots the wife of a corrupt intelligence officer in the arm to get some information from him. This is heady stuff. Neeson is not Jean-Claude Van Damme or Steven Seagal or even Sylvester Stallone. He is a first-rate actor, that is, he is thoroughly convincing in an improbable story, carrying it off through the sheer force of his cinematic personality. The film grossed 230 million dollars and a sequel made 375 million. It is not surprising. Neeson is the indomitable hero we all want to be. He is resourceful, determined, forceful, invincible. Paradoxically, in order to enjoy such films we must depersonalize them, that is, repress the vicarious element and refuse to recognize that they play directly to our feelings of resentment and inadequacy. We would all like to be forceful and invincible ourselves but just as importantly we would all like to get back at people who occupy a higher station in life than ourselves and remind us of our insignificance by the very fact of their existence – the rich, the powerful, and even the criminals who prey on our weakness and make us cringe. Neeson does it for us.
It is not just America or the West in general that requires heroes. Everyone does, and therefore you have flourishing movie industries in India and Egypt too and eager audiences everywhere. Ultimately these movies tell us more about ourselves than a thousand sociological studies and all the Dr. Phils in the world. What they are telling us is something we do not really wish to hear, and hence the repression, leading us to affix some innocuous tag like “escapism” to these films so that we can watch them without having to think too much about ourselves. Even the movie makers don’t understand fully what depths they are plumbing. Intuitively, they have gotten on to the great mother lode of human fantasy and are content to mine it for all it’s worth.
Fred Russell is the pen name of an American-born writer living in Israel. His novels Rafi’s World (Fomite Press), dealing with Israel’s emerging criminal class, and The Links in the Chain (CCLaP), a thriller set in New York against an Arab-Israel background, were both published in 2014. His stories and essays have appeared in Third Coast, Polluto, Fiction on the Web,Wilderness House Literary Review, Ontologica, Unlikely Stories: Episode 4, The Satirist, CounterPunch, Gadfly, Cultural Weekly, Ragazine, etc