Plato, newspapers, and the end of the world

Since the eighteenth century, deep thinkers have been frustrated because they don’t rule the world.  Men and women of enormous brain look around at their countrymen, their traditions, their governments, and seethe with contempt and indignation.  They can do better.  This state of mind was chronicled in Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals, a terrific and at times terrifying read.

I don’t know that thinkers have anywhere achieved their ambition.  One could make the case that Marxism-Leninism, with its Hegelian terminology and worship of “scientific materialism,” came as close as we will ever get to representing the intellectuals in power.  The results speak for themselves.

The craving of thinkers to rationalize the world goes back to Plato — and it’s Plato, and his guardian class, who are my first subjects.  In my most recent post I called the self-image of the news media to be that of informational guardians on the Platonic model.  Here I want to get deeper into that  comparison, to enter the mind of a self-regarded guardian at the moment his class contemplates extinction.

If one breaks down the assumptions behind the rending of garments and gnashing of teeth over the collapse of the news business, it becomes clear that journalists consider themselves the intellectual protectors of our democracy.  This is self-serving, to be sure; it reminds me of R.G. Collingwood’s notion that the decline of the West began when historians couldn’t afford good servants.

But let us grant sincerity.  The demise of journalism, these people feel certain, is a breach of the citadel wall, over which will scramble hordes of painted barbarians.  Those barbarians are us.

Fear and distrust of the ordinary citizen is a logical premise of the thinkers’ frustration with the world.  It too goes back to Plato, who may have invented it.  In the Republic, Plato’s argument on behalf of the guardian class is inseparable from his belief that the mass of men are base, appetite-driven, and easily misled.  They must be fed only truth, or they will be poisoned by falsehood.  In this, they must have no choice.

The strategy Plato envisioned for a perfect commonwealth began with a rigorous censorship program — a true bonfire not just of the vanities but of Homer, Hesiod, the tragic poets, the trancendental works of ancient Greece.  Plato was the first thorough-going rationalist.  I find it fascinating that he was as blind to the mysteries and contradictions of the human heart, exemplified in great literature, as his latter-day heirs.

His goal was the good in the way he understood the good.  Its achievement required a careful monitoring and control of information from earliest childhood.

It seems, then, that our first business will be to supervise the making of fables and legends, rejecting all which are unsatisfactory; and we shall induce nurses and mothers to tell their children only those which we have approved, and to think more of moulding their souls than they do now of rubbing their limbs to make them strong and shapely.  Most of the stories now in use must be discarded.

Here is the seed of the totalitarian urge:  always and everywhere, a creature of rationalism, of the naive faith that one can “mold a soul” by destroying works of literature.  The guardians were gatekeepers.  Plato sought for them an absolute power in setting the agenda, to dictate and control what information the public could safely be exposed to.  The rest they would purge.  Their heavy hand would come down on children and adult citizens alike.

The poet will only be allowed to say that the wicked were miserable because they needed chastisement, and the punishment of heaven did them good.  If our commonwealth is to be well-ordered, we must fight to the last against any member of it being suffered to speak of the divine, which is good, being responsible for evil.  Neither young nor old must listen to such tales, in prose or verse.

These are desperate measures.  In reading Plato, one comes to understand what a dismal view of humanity torments the intellectual mind.

Horror of one’s neighbor permeates the lamentation about journalism’s fall.  The people making these noises may be true intellectuals, pseudo-intellectuals, or mere followers of intellectuals:  this is of no account.  The intellectual posture is so well defined by now, any dunce can assume it.

All it takes is a division of the community:  the few who understand, the many who are foolish and confused (and, when provoked, nasty and brutish too).  The few must set the agenda.  They must control the flow of information, and for the most unselfish of reasons.  If the dam bursts — if the wall is breached — the many will be led astray, and destroy themselves.

Journalists believe they protect us from ourselves.  The failure of the news business, and the rise of new media giving ordinary people a voice, they view with the same feelings as they would the advance of an exterminating plague.

I come to my second subject:  this post in a favorite blog of mine, Alan Mutter’s Reflections of a Newsosaur.  It focuses on a Princeton study showing that “newspapers do matter.”  This large claim is built on a parsing of local election results in northern Kentucky after the closing of the Cincinnati Post.  The timeframe appears to be that of a single electoral campaign.

According to the researchers, the disappearance of the Post “made local elections less competitive along several dimensions:  incumbent advantage, voter turnout and the number of candidates for office.”  “By revealing incumbents’ misdeeds,” they continue, “or making it easier for challengers to get their message out, a newspaper may reduce incumbent advantage.”

Almost incidentally, we are told that the Post had sold only 27,000 copies daily.  No doubt some portion of that small number went to readers interested in sports or movie stars.  No doubt some purchased copies went unread.

The regret expressed by the Princeton researchers seems to be for the loss of a threadbare illusion of political power — a touching but fantastic belief that printed words, read by a few thousand people, can  command the citizenry to the ballot box and engineer the overthrow of undesirable incumbents.

The forces influencing the decisions of northern Kentucky voters are beyond counting.  An astronomical number of variables must hedge any explanation of cause.  Even if one grants the data and the implicit value judgments, the most sensible approach to the study would be to tread lightly about its implications.  Yet this isn’t how the researchers present their findings, and it isn’t how many commenters to Mutter’s blog respond to them.

Democracy, they fear, will collapse with the Cincinnati Post.  The end of the world is at hand.

“As newspapers cease publishing,” one commenter writes, “who becomes the watchdog.  It seems that this research study would suggest no one does.  It terrifies me.”

“I see this issue often in areas where I live in Kansas,” another commenter chimes in.  “We have a well educated population throughout our state.  However, they don’t actively seek out civic information they need to know.  Instead, they are fed ideas by radicals (either conservative or liberal) who demand they take action and/or share in those radical beliefs.”  He concludes, dramatically:  “Lack of good investigative reporting and a strong communication medium has torn apart my state.”

A third commenter arrives at the starting-point to Plato’s republic:  “When the newspaper was a semi-monopoly, it could force-feed citizens what they should know instead of what they wanted to know.”

The few and the many.  The watchdogs and the radicals.  The guardians and the barbarians.  Democracy protected by censorship.  Wisdom force-fed to the people.  The digital age has knocked down every pillar in this temple of illusion, until even the true believers must acknowledge the ruin.

Today every person is his own gatekeeper.  Any person can be his own newspaper.  Intellectuals see the many behaving like the few, and it terrifies them.



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