June 6, 2001 | Lecture on Political Thought

The Loss of Meaning: Searching for Signifiance in the Instant News Ocean

Thank you Tucker Carlson for that introduction. It had your trademark smile, wit, generosity, and bemused tolerance. Your words, like you, wear a bow tie, and it becomes them. Speaking of Famous Introductions I Have Known, some of you may remember J. William Fulbright, the late senator from Arkansas. I confess that I was not among the senator's more conspicuous admirers, but I do treasure a sobriquet he gave me after I had written a less-than-favorable review of a book of his for the Washington Post. Unwilling to acknowledge my name, his letter to the editor of the Post referred to me only as an "obscure controversialist". It was just about the nicest thing anybody ever called me, and I am still in his debt for it. Obscure Controversialist.

Today that would be a compliment, or at least a promotion, because obscurity has become a great luxury in the unceasing glare of blind attention in this new Information Age. Now, we are all sentenced to 15 seconds of fame, or at least notoriety, and there is no appeal from it, no exit.

Yes, we know that obscurity still exists somewhere as a kind of platonic ideal, an unattainable abstraction, like the perfect game in baseball, or the Southern gentleman--but we have no realistic expectation of ever actually encountering such a thing. We can only live in hope like Red Sox or Cubs fans. I'll be thinking of you all this Sunday when, Lord willing, I'm due to watch the Bo Sox in the friendly confines of the Fenway. Indeed, the history of the Boston Red Sox baseball club may be as close as this metallic, plastic, electronic age comes to Greek tragedy.

But who now has time for Sophocles, for either hope or despair, or for anything besides more information? We've got to open our e-mail and surf the Web and mute the split-screen television so we can learn more and more about less and less, until we know absolutely everything about nothing. We drown in data--not knowledge, let alone wisdom, but just electronic impulses.

The problem with finding the thread of meaning in the news is that there is so much news and so little meaning. We seldom get the impression that the events of the day have been filtered through a human, let alone humane, intelligence. Instead, the data pour out indiscriminately--until our senses are overloaded and overwhelmed.

The news is too much with us late and soon, and watching and listening we lay waste our powers. All that content that the Content Providers provide must be replenished continuously so it will always be pouring over us like a bubble wrap of distraction. The news seduces and betrays us mainly because so little of it may be really new, even if it is gussied up in the latest technology. The names change, but the story line remains remarkably the same.

When I started in this business, I had the usual impression of sports writers. These were people who kept writing the same story, only with different names and scores. Now I realize that that definition applies to all journalists, and that we can learn a great deal from the likes of Red Smith, or A. J. Liebling on boxing. Now I think they had it all over the Walter Lippmanns and the Scotty Restons. Those of us who are charged with commenting on the news, which is only the leaven and not the dough of history, eventually come to feel like pathologists who bend over their petri dishes all day hoping to spy a new virus--or, in a different time, like witches examining today's shipment of entrails. Eventually we realize that what we really want is a moment of silence in which thought might actually sprout some day.

But if there is anything the news abhors, it is a vacuum. It's like the old radio days: The one unforgivable sin is dead time. Fill it with anything, but fill it, and the result is spam everywhere. It is not limited to the Web.

Contrary to Gresham's Law, the bad does not always drive out the good. The new just drives out the old, even when the new is nothing but a revival of the old. See the familiar cycle of trends in fashion and economics, in theology, on Broadway. What is so new, so up-to-date, as the retro? Zero Mostel lives again! Still, everybody always asks, what's new? What's old might be a lot better question, for in history, in literature and poetry, we might find what the present lacks, which is direction.

Just try making the circuit of your cable channels in the middle of the night within 30 seconds. The result is a whirring, whirling kaleidoscope of all of America and maybe all of the world as seen by some distracted and unfortunate combination of Alfred Hitchcock and Geraldo Rivera. The tube has become a kind of gigantic spin cycle, like your clothes dryer grown mad and gargantuan, but minus the lint catcher--which is what American opinion really needs.

Click after click of the remote control and the world goes spinning through the whole cycle of one voyeuresque scene after another: Murder, mayhem, cowboys, Jerry Springer, car chases, stupid court cases, pornography, the secret of success in business or religion or bodybuilding.... Just call our toll-free number and have your credit card ready.

We now offer analysis in the form of shouting matches, or maybe it's the other way around. My friend Tucker can explain the difference. After a while, all the talk shows begin to resemble those nature programs that show the same lion eating the same deer night after night. Or the same photogenic celebrities saying the same mindless things in the same nice clothes. Only occasionally does sanity surface, as when Brian Lamb interviews someone and everything slows down to the speed of reflection.

Or when sometimes in the middle of the night you happen to come across those perfectly silent pictures from NASA, visions of whole continents, of the curvature of Earth, and we obtain at last some perspective, some idea of our place in time and space. Obscurity has become a precious thing. It may even be the beginning of awe.

Maybe the first step in making sense of the ceaseless flow of the news is to remember not to drown in it. I liked Justice Scalia's puzzlement the other day at Tulane University when he was asked what had been the Supreme Court's response to all the criticism the court had taken during the country's 36-day post-presidential campaign presidential campaign. "The court has taken a lot of heat for it?" he said. "It's news to me. You must be under the impression we're watching these shows."

We are too easily swayed by the latest news bulletin and not by the oldest of revelations, by continuous coverage rather than continual truths--by new things instead of first things. A wise man once said that for every new book you read, you ought to read an old one. And if my comments today here are not as useful or as coherent as I might wish, I hope you'll take into account that, having watched so much Chris Matthews and Geraldo, I may have lost the power of consecutive thought.

But instead of asserting our difference from the spinning maelstrom that is electronic journalism, too often the print media now play the same pointless game. We tend to mix news and opinion, factoids and hunches, breaking news and infotainment, until there's no longer a clear distinction between what is known and what is suspected or just dreamed up.

I would be the last to deny that tabloids and junk TV have their uses. Even a blind hog finds an acorn now and then, but at least that critter has the great advantage of knowing that it is an acorn. The great advantage of all the specialized knowledge that is now available to us is much like the advantage of the medical specialist who can now immediately obtain a microscopic slide of some tissue and know it as never before. The great disadvantage of that is it may not give us the least idea of the whole human being, and the significance of that human being.

Even on those rare occasions when silence and solitude descend, and there is a chance that some still small voice may be heard, the great babble is likely to overflow through the never-sleeping, unblinking eye of the news, roaring through thought like a freight train bearing down on a horse and buggy.

If we are to find a thread of meaning, journalism needs to go to a second, deeper level of conception. We'll have to treat events and ideas not in isolation, not within the boundaries of a single story, but in a context beyond their own transience. It means going back to the roots of our ideas, if we can still find those roots.

What a rare luxury civilized thought has become. Where is our Murray Kempton? The lovely, mindful niche he left behind in American opinion remains unfilled. William F. Buckley can only do so much, you know.

Consider the mental fog that descended after the strange story broke about Bob Kerrey's service in Vietnam. There was a lot of arguing over fact, which theoretically we should be able to ascertain without argument. The fog of the news quickly succeeded the old fog of war and the fog of time. The phrase War Is Hell was repeated like a mantra as if it were reason and justification instead of only description.

In Little Rock, the young editorial writer who was drafting our editorial on the subject visibly touched all the bases on this issue again and again without reaching home, that is, a conclusion. I suggested he just stop writing and just sit quietly and think about it for a while, and sort it out in his own mind because, unfortunately, those two activities, writing and thinking, seem to have become quite separate.

As often happens, there was really little new in all that news. The best light on this story about Bob Kerrey and about Vietnam was shed by the past, that storehouse of light. In another cruel civil war of another time, when wanton atrocities were being committed by the other side, an American commander led his forces into hostile territory knowing that at the slightest sign from him, or even by his silence, his troops would turn into a murderous mob intent on vengeance. So he issued a general order in unambiguous language forbidding "barbarous outrages upon the unarmed and defenseless."

"It must be remembered," he told his troops, "that we make war only upon armed men, and that we cannot take vengeance for the wrongs our people have suffered without offending against him to whom vengeance belongeth, and without whose favor and support our efforts must all prove in vain." Signed, R.E. Lee, General, Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, June 27, 1863.

Lee's words are still clear, their light undiminished after all this time, despite the fog of war, despite the fog of news.

Commentary should raise the level of public discourse, and not simply reflect or lower it. It should invoke shared experience and build on it, and not pretend that the world begins anew every day.

Leo Strauss said it: "The facile delusions that conceal from us our true situation all amount to this: That we are or can be wiser than the wisest men of the past." And if we just shake our heads sadly and say War Is Hell and go to the next indigestible chunk of news, the next event, then of course we will find it equally mystifying and equally meaningless.

In the course of our discussion, that young editorial writer, Chris Battle, told me a wonderful story about his grandfather, a retired sports writer who never left Savannah, a gentleman of the old school. Once Chris was in the car with him, and they were discussing something in the news. His grandfather was muttering and castigating some public figure. Chris, who was just out of college and feeling much more knowledgeable and ambivalent about these matters, told him, "Pop, sometimes good and bad isn't black and white. Sometimes there are shades of gray." The old man looked at him and then looked back to the road. Then he said, "There is always good and there is always bad, son. You just have to figure it out."

But that requires time. Or even more valuable, the sense of it, which is the scarcest of commodities today. It requires a realization of our beliefs. That's realization in the literal sense: to make real. We can scarcely chart a course through the fog of news if we have no idea of where we've been or where we would wish to go or what we have seen, like Odysseus on his journey, which was the real treasure.

Several years ago I was walking down Capitol Avenue in Little Rock during a lunch hour when two unsettling sights occurred right before me. First, this late-model red sports car with tinted windows came roaring up to a little Chinese restaurant and settled down on the curb at an angle, its radio even louder than its engine. Two young men jumped out. They left not only the engine on, but the radio--excuse me, the SOUND SYSTEM--going full blast.

This electronic assault on every life form in the block proceeded while they both went inside to pick up their take-out. Then up the street, coming straight at me through all this din, there appeared a figure from the past--an old, bent-over woman, bandana around her head, stick in her hand, a big stick, mumbling something I couldn't make out as she advanced with excruciating slowness down the pavement. It was like the spirit of time itself.

Life is a dream, at least in recollection. I couldn't have written this stuff. It was a sign and a wonder. I don't think I'd seen anyone like that since my childhood Saturdays on Texas Avenue in Shreveport, Louisiana, when the sharecroppers would come into town to buy their provisions and do their business and maybe get their shoes fixed at a shop like my father's.

Now this old woman was bearing down on me like a prophet, wielding that stick, coming not just down the sidewalk, but out of a different era. She kept saying something over and over. Only as she approached was I finally able to make out the single word she was repeating: "iggerant, Iggerant, IGGERANT." Slow as I was to get her meaning--my hearing is no longer what it used to be--I realized that she was referring to the behavior of these two young men who didn't know any better than to attract attention to themselves and disturb the peace of a couple of city blocks only because they were ignorant. Because they didn't respect others' sense of place and peace. Because they didn't know the lay of the land, which no doubt that old woman had long traversed. It was she who represented our common culture, a civil society, virtues and values and lessons of experience that she was trying to voice over the rhythmic bleating of the radio.

It was a culture she and I had grown up with in that different country called the past, and a culture she now was determined in this unlikely place and time to assert, even to save. I think the old woman wasn't addressing just me, but anyone who would listen and remember. She was appealing to a community, to a sense of community, and was bringing it into existence by her editorial commentary.

The old Shaker hymn says it, " 'Tis a gift to be simple. 'Tis a gift to be free." The old lady was proceeding through her own forum, her own agora, her own city, through her and our polis, and she had indeed found the thread of meaning in the news.

Paul Greenberg is editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. This address was delivered at The Heritage Foundation as this year's Distinguished Journalist Lecture, sponsored by the foundation's Center for Media and Public Policy.

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