YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

September 14, 2009

Historians, journalists and polarization

Jean-Jaques Rousseau

I suppose you could call this blog a kind of discourse on method, with apologies to Descartes.

The term “polarization” does not mean that a group (in this case the U.S.) simply has sharp disagreements over policy. Rather it describes a situation that is highly irrational, in which hatred of the opposition is the dominant emotion. In such heightened emotional states, it is pointless to ask that we step back and 1. Describe with accuracy the status quo that the policy aims to reform; 2. Analyze proposed policies in detail, asking whether the reform in question can achieve the stated goals of its proponents; 3. Imagine better alternatives, describing these in sufficient detail to elicit either assent or opposition from concerned voters.

That sounds reasonable, right? But it is impossible to get agreement over the basic facts, or to even want to know them, in a society that is moved by partisan propaganda, often vitriolic, and where key words mean different things to different individuals and groups. (Take the word “secular” for instance. More on that later.)

Note that I did not specify what polarizing policy I had in mind. These (rational) protocols listed above could be applied to any of the current debates that roil the country: health care (or health insurance) reform; the war in Afghanistan; U.S. relations with Israel; whether or not radical Islam poses a deadly threat to the security of the West; the chief cause of the recession and measures that would aid recovery. (The latter dispute could include the causes of the Great Depression and how we got out of it.); gay marriage and compliance with the SCOTUS  decision; and immigration reform, etc.

During the month of August and early September I blogged here almost every day, hoping that an historical perspective that was also informed by depth psychology might contribute to the return of curiosity and rationality in a public sphere that seems to me to be spinning out of control toward either violent confrontations, even race riots, or toward the instituting of dangerous, misconceived policies that could hurt people with even greater inhumanity. In particular, I have emphasized embedded antisemitism in popular culture, an ever more visible phobia that defeats the rational scrutiny of controversial subjects as listed above. Not every historian does this kind of analysis, and why this is so is in itself historically determined.

First, there is the chasm between 1. Those whose intellectual and emotional makeup leads them toward skepticism to all authority until that authority is able to justify its existence and power to affect individual life; and 2. Those who are driven by faith in leaders, and who generally submit to their will, without too many questions. Let me stipulate here that historians are, by training, supposed to line up with the first group, whether their emphasis is on institutional structures, cultural patterns, the decisions of leaders, or the imperatives of the natural world and its slow or rapid transformations. Preferably, historians should provide an explanatory synthesis that comprehends, however tentatively, all of these great forces for change or stasis, but few have the training, the imagination, and the nerve to attempt it. Could it be that some do not want to appear as ”Jewish” troublemakers and catalysts of social change?

Unfortunately, given the immensity of the task facing the historian who wants to explain any conflict of significance, it is rare to find one with the imaginative skills and time to develop a satisfactory theory on all but a limited terrain. That is why I wish historians would shake off their graduate school training and its approved “lines” of interpretation coming from senior faculty, and move toward greater intellectual independence. “Faith” in our dissertation directors or other mentors must give way to bold forays into uncharted waters, where we identify those areas and conceptions most helpful in depolarizing the conflicts that rule the day.* One challenge is deciding the level of detail and context needed by a broad public in assessing foreign and  domestic policy. (I tried to do that yesterday in my account of oil politics and Obama’s framing of the Arab-Israeli conflict: I drastically reframed the conflict as generally transmitted in schools and in the media.) Another area of activity would be to define key words as they are deployed by competing social movements, for instance “secular” forces as opposed to “traditional” ones.

The word “secular” has changed its meaning: no longer commonly understood as a reference to the separation of church and state, i.e., a plurality of institutions affecting our orientation to public policy, hence enhancing “choice,”  “secular” now is often a curse word for some opinion leaders on the Right who take it to mean the mindless destruction of American values, as these are embodied in the beliefs of the Founding Fathers and the Constitution. Whereas, instead of using scary words implying parricide and patricide, they could be doing real, appropriately detailed investigations, assuming that they are allowed to by their colleagues and employers. Or how about historians decoding the omnipresent admonition to “take responsibility” for one’s health? How can there be meaningful choice when determining structures remain invisible, and where we have only limited understanding of the emotions within ourselves that muddle “rational choice?”

One more word about journalists who are not trained historians, but who work for the media, and for whom loyalty to the organization often trumps loyalty to seeking the truth and educating the public about events and their causes. Newspapers and other media are in my view, adding to the polarization owing to the political postures of the owners and their advertised intentions to act as the “newspaper of record” or to achieve “fairness and balance.” Of course, the New York Times and Fox (owned by Newscorp) provide neither a complete record, nor fairness and balance, for few even know what “balance” signifies (as I have argued in a previous blog); nor is it widely known that “balance,” like “equilibrium” is a word used in psychological warfare to soothe the target audience. That is why the failure of the Pacifica Foundation remains such a bitter disappointment in my own personal history, for I once thought that listener-sponsorship would remedy the structural causes of bias and finally bring about a vibrant marketplace of ideas, but I did not take into consideration the overwhelming influence of corporatist liberalism and its concealed collectivist (“multicultural”) outlook, a matter discussed on this website at length.

Will the internet provide the much-needed way out of this imbroglio, a tangle of clashing opinion pushing us into some form of madness? As long as our schools and families do not prepare children to “quarrel with God” as Herman Melville did throughout his literary career (and for this he was read as a “Jew” by some prominent critics), the internet will add to the noise, but will not help us distinguish between true and false claims as to the crucial facts that affect public policy-making in a democratic republic: a democracy that does not call the primitivist Rousseau its intellectual parent, but is the creature of  Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century.

[Added 1-9-11:] I did not mention demonizing as a habit of the media, along with demonic possession as an explanation for psychosis or sociopathy. If your core readers believe in the Devil or in innate evil in human nature, calling out the dark forces is another strategy for selling newspapers and increasing traffic on cable television and websites. Goethe (illustrated) made a dramatic intervention in the Faust legend when he wrote his two-part drama in which Faust does not sell his soul, but makes a bet with Mephistopheles, a point that is ignored by those who don’t study intellectual history. But the Romantic Goethe, like Schiller, did become more conservative after the French Revolution, and it shows in their dramas.]

*One such historian is Niall Ferguson, whose masterful synthesis explaining Western ascendancy is of intense interest to me.

Tischbein portrait of classicist Goethe

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