Archive for April, 2009

Neojournalists Trade Meaning for Imagery

Monday, April 20th, 2009

Alan Bersin is being presented to the public as “Border Czar,” and the press seems to be feeding on his picturesque job title to the exclusion of all other fare. Wherever you turn—network TV, NPR, Time Magazine—you get this convenient metaphor—Czar—with no explanation of the actual bureaucrat’s actual authority or responsibility, much less his actual job title. One Public Radio reporter even referred to Mexican “Drug Czars,” who would apparently compete with the Border Czar for primacy at the frontier.

The metaphor is ridiculous, of course, and it’s journalistic bottom-feeding of the crassest kind. The term “Czar” is the Russian equivalent of “Caesar,” referring to the Emperor of ancient Rome. The Czar (pronounced “Tsar’ in Russian) was the emperor of Russia. There was only one. There weren’t various Czars for various functions. There weren’t competing Czars. The Czar had the power of life and death over every subject, and there was no limit to his authority.

It’s a gross overstatement, and very misleading, to refer to an executive official of the US government as a Czar. The press should not have accepted the use of this title uncritically. Especially, it shouldn’t have presented the title as sufficient explanation of the fellow’s responsibilities.

This indulgence in metaphorical shorthand is typical of 21st Century news reporting. Take “Homeland Security,” another bit of meaningless terminology imported into the language by the media. “Homeland” is a metaphor. We live in a nation, not a homeland. It’s a republic that covers half a continent and that encompasses homelands without number. Or consider “War on Terror. ” By definition, if it isn’t between nations, it isn’t a war. A war on anything except a nation is not a war but merely mass murder. Like “Czar” and “Homeland,” “War” is a metaphor that conveys no precise meaning but only an impression. Neojournalists maintain a ready inventory of colorful terms like “Economic Meltdown,” “Bank Bailout” and “Insurgent,” all so imprecise as to be misleading and almost always offered without further explanation.

Why reporters use metaphor is no mystery. The effort to attract an audience means striking a familiar chord. Trite metaphors are just thing, and if they don’t convey much in the way of meaning, they do get a response, and they can save a reporter considerable hard digging and careful writing. The use of metaphorical shorthand in news-reporting is a form of intellectual prostitution, and it’s easy work for those who can do it.

A responsible editor might profitably point out that the reporter is not doing the news-consumer any favors by cloaking facts in metaphor. Metaphor is meant to elicit images that convey, not fact, but ambiguity. Metaphor is a tool of the poet and dramatist, used to illustrate or illuminate a fact by reference to some other, unrelated idea. It’s a literary diversion, not a means of informing.

If the reporter’s job is to inform, metaphor gets in the way, and there’s no place for it in news-reporting. In gossip, maybe. In sports and opinion, most certainly. But not in news.

Reagan V

Thursday, April 9th, 2009

Barack Obama’s apparent descent into unreason—manifest in the nation’s renewed commitment to military adventure, creditors’ rights, and subsidized markets—is not what it seems. The remarkable dumbing-down of this seemingly rational man marks the passing of the imperial torch ignited for Ronald Reagan and kept burning by each his successors, the flame kindled by the nation’s proprietors, the one percent of us who control nearly all the wealth. These very rich men depend on a state of war, chronic indebtedness and unregulated markets to maintain their status, and they anoint our rulers and let them know what is and isn’t allowed. Presidents since Reagan have routinely engaged in logical sleight-of-hand to carry out this mandate, which runs counter to the public interest.

That’s why Obama got so exercised when a North Korean rocket fell harmlessly to earth after a test last week. If he were to acknowledge the absurdity of a state of war between the most lavishly armed force in history and this miniscule principality half a world away, he might threaten the status of the proprietors, who profit from national insecurity. Appeals to fear have been incessant from all Reagan dynasty presidents, as in Obama’s reminder, in an earlier speech, of the threat from Afghanistan and Pakistan, a threat we wouldn’t worry about but for his reminders. In that speech, Obama invoked 9/11 with all the mock conviction of his predecessor (finessing, apparently, the critical questions every logical mind in America still has about what really happened). It’s government by insecurity, in defiance of reason and in line with time-tested Reagan government practice.

Government by insecurity is not the only principle shared by Reagan and his progeny, but it’s the key to their success. The whole good-versus-evil rap has worked to distract the people from the subversion of republican government by the rich. This is why the Reagans have all been good-looking guys. Ron, himself, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, and Obama cut a pseudo-rugged figure that is just what the proprietors are looking for in a spokesman. “If I looked like that,” we’re meant to think, “Maybe I could be president. ” If you’re willing to sit on your principles and suspend logic, maybe.

In his scolding of North Korea, Obama’s illogic was compelling. “Rules must be binding,” he said. “Violations must be punished. Words must mean something. ” No matter how you parse them and in whatever language you care to express them, the words in these three sentences convey nothing. Logically speaking, if it’s not binding, it’s not a rule, if it’s not punished, it’s not a violation, and if it doesn’t mean anything, it’s not a word. Obama’s expressions are tautologies—he is what he is, after all—and he follows the Reagan line in just this sort of appeal to fallacy and unreason.

Law buffs worldwide might ask whether there aren’t also rules against incinerating shepherds in their fields, dropping bombs on wedding parties, and flying unmanned, heavily armed aircraft over terrorized populations in foreign lands, practices Obama engages in, all in accordance with the Reagan ethic. Inquiring minds might wonder how long war criminals like Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld will be allowed to wander among us, or whether we feel the slightest embarrassment in complaining about the acts of other nations’ leaders when our own leaders have killed and displaced millions and devastated the world economy under the Reagan dynasty. Many would regard Washington, DC, and not Pyongyang, as the rational starting point for the punishment of violations. Obama seems to favor rules that disable competitors and adversaries, but, like the other Reagans, he’s a scofflaw when it comes to compliance at home.

Obama talks about “the threat” to us from people far away but he can’t mention the threat that looms when one of his pilotless bombers buzzes distant villages, able to unleash a holocaust at the press of a button by an airman at a console in Nevada. “What does America signify to people under the drones?” he can’t ask. His convictions and principles exist only as mild intestinal discomfort. Instead of doing the right thing, he worships God and pops a Tums every so often. No King, this guy. Imperial, rather. Reagan the Fifth.

Present Company Excepted

Monday, April 6th, 2009

Yesterday I attended a song fest with a crowd of strangers, most of them Jewish. The event was organized by somebody I know from the anti-war movement, and it was a musical and convivial assembly. Even so, I became uncomfortable after awhile. Something is happening to me that I don’t like.

I’ve always had Jews in my life. The ones I gravitated toward were secular in outlook, free-thinking, maybe a little impatient with religious observance, even their own. Liberated, in a way. Among ethnic groups, Jews struck me as more studious and cultured and humorous, and I appreciated them for this. I was always pretty aware of who was and wasn’t Jewish, and there were many Jews who changed my life without being in it: Einstein, Freud, Leonard Bernstein, Carl Reiner.

And yet I was uncomfortable in this crowd of Jewish singers. The source of discomfort was my awareness that some of the present company approve of what Israel is doing to Arabs. Not wanting to find out who’s who, I found myself confronting a gulf. Even the anti-war crowd seems to be making an exception for Israel, and the word is that you’re anti-Jewish if you accuse the Jewish state. This makes me afraid to know what Barbra Streisand thinks of Gaza and nervous around Jews. I suppose other non-Jews are getting this feeling and trying not to mention it.