We start Sunday with a cup of coffee and a bible. Interesting combination, that. One sends jolts of stimulants to disturb our serenity while the other spreads the soothing balm of truth and light across our fevered brow. You may have thought that I have made a mistake in grammar, in that I have failed to capitalize the “b” in “bible.”
The bible I refer to, however, is the Sunday New York Times. For those of us who find little time to explore and seriously inspect the raw data of everyday life, the Sunday Times is essential. It does this for us. It sifts through the galaxies of information a world of 6 billion souls generates, and focuses our attention only on those events that are worthy of inspection. Even more helpfully, it interprets these events for us.
Trivialities, such as the just-released study showing that global mean temperatures have declined over the past 15 years, are omitted. The study was conducted by the Met Office in the UK, which is Britain’s national weather service. As global warming is established science, the Times safely concludes that we need not be troubled by the crank deniers at the Met Office, which is surely a sock puppet for the Koch brothers.
Instead, the Times tells us what is going on in Libya. This is wonderful in the literal sense: the entire intelligence apparatus of the US government does not know what is going on in Libya, and Joe Biden has stated without demur that he does not know what is going on in Libya, nor does Obama, nor does Clinton, and yet the New York Times goes on at length explaining what is going on in Libya. It seems to have a lot to do with “militias,” who are stubbornly reluctant to lay down their arms, as they remember all too well that the last time they did that, someone named Qaddafi f**ked them over for a few dozen years.
Other sections are more specialized: Travel (long articles about places you either cannot afford or wouldn’t be caught dead in), Arts and Leisure (why these topics are conflated still eludes me; it conjures up images of dissolute dilettantes idly scribbling on sketch pads while they swill Champagne), Automobiles (?), Sunday Business (you’d think they could have pretty much covered the topic on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday), until one reaches the crown jewel of the Sunday edition: the “Sunday Review.”
This section used to be called “Opinion,” and served as the home page for the elephantine essays of Frank Rich, which droned on with the kind of ponderous majesty usually reserved for their spiritual ancestors, the Sunday sermons of clergymen that provided so many resolute Episcopalians with an opportunity for additional slumber after a bibulous Saturday evening. Rich has fled, almost unremarked even by those who swore they read him (all the way through?). But not too long ago, the Times decided that “opinion” admitted too much of a possibility for error; the term was almost an insult to the sages that dispensed their wisdom there. Henceforth what was written should therefore be given equivalency to fact, and therefore the section no longer “opined,” but rather, “reviewed,” a world as constructed by the Times.
This Sunday’s offerings are a fairly representative sample. The front page devotes itself to two topics:
1. Maureen Dowd, who once famously wrote that “after 9/11, I’ll never wear heels again,” presumably to enable her better to flee the inevitable future cascade of rubble from exploding Manhattan real estate, provides the 17th or 18th reconstruction in the Times of the Tuesday Biden/Ryan debate. The nation has moved on, Biden and Ryan have moved on, but the Times will “review” the debate until we all holler “uncle” and agree, despite any contrary evidence, that Biden “won.” (Actually, we have not found any “review” in the media of one of Biden’s more curious assertions: that Iran is not close to having a nuclear weapon, even if it has ample “fissile material.” “They don’t have anything to put it in!” was Biden’s querulous and repeated rebuttal. To anyone with a high school understanding of physics, this is like dismissing the effectiveness of archers’ arrows “because they don’t have a quiver.” Joe, the fissile material is the weapon.)
2. Nicolas Kristof, for whom we have a great deal of respect, does his best to advance the Obama regency with a sad but pointless story about a friend who did not buy health insurance, and now confronts a potentially fatal disease whose treatment requires expense. It is a very long leap from one man’s foolishness to mandating the economics and choices of a nation, but Kristof gamely gives it his best. Still, proof by anecdote is a frequent and honored strategy of Times writers, politicians and other persuaders everywhere, even if it is transparently irrational and notoriously fraudulent (hint: “black swan.”)
As for the rest:
Michelle Bachmann is a very bad person because her sister disagrees with her (Frank Bruni.) Michelle Bachmann’s sister? Think Ron Reagan Jr.
“Undecided” voters are even more stupid than Republicans (cartoon by a deep thinker who has “decided”).
Both candidates are millionaires, but Obama is “the good kind” (by a teaching assistant at Duke who wrote a book with a title longer than his resume that will be read by at least twenty students at Duke desperate for an A).
“Rethinking Affirmative Action” (by the Times’s Washington bureau chief, during his time off from helping Dowd “review” the Biden/Ryan debate). Now, instead of basing preference on race, we should use “socioeconomic conditions,” or — race.
My favorite: “The Self-Destruction of the 1%.” (By the editor of Thomson-Reuters Digital and “the author of Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and The Fall of Everyone Else.” Really? Everyone is done for except a few dozen billionaires? The author’s premise is that America is really kind of like 14th century Venice, except without canals (but with nuclear weapons). This “review” is noteworthy mostly for frequent and annoying name- and place-dropping, like “…the World Economic Forum in Davos, Swiztzerland, where I interviewed….” Does it really matter where you interviewed someone? Does the word “Davos” somehow magically confer on you a wizardlike gravity? Davos fills with self-important fools every year, most of them sporting media credentials. We struggle to find the author’s point; similarities between developed nations and 14th century Venice are in the same league with the similarities between oranges and kumquats: academically interesting, perhaps, but of little use to anyone not involved in botany. In the world of wonkish reaches, this one is in a class by itself. And the article tells you nothing about even 14th century Venice that you didn’t pick up from “The Merchant of Venice.”
There are bright spots, but again, nothing particularly noteworthy. There are law enforcement people who want to legalize marijuana. Benghazi is problematic. And so on. By now a kind of numbing ennui has set in; our eyes glaze over. We are limp from the effort involved in trying to follow illogic so twisted and arguments so frantic. Why? What is the point of all this reconstruction, all this wishful thinking, all these claims, wild equivalencies and distorted histories?
Easy. Sometimes we read of a little girl being shot by organized savages because she wants to go to school. Then our world no longer makes sense to us. We turn to others to interpret it. Someone who can make us feel better about ourselves, because if it is within us to do these ghastly things that we hear of every day, how can we not fear the worst about ourselves? How can we reassure ourselves that we do not have within us the same terrible seed?
There are two ways. We can recognize our own savagery, and do our best to restrain it, or at least to channel it. Or we can turn a blind eye to it, and pretend it isn’t there. Then, we convince ourselves that we are good people by doing and thinking what good people do. And how do we know what good people do and think? Historically, we have turned to moral authorities, skilled in the nuances of right and wrong in an often chaotic world, to provide both information and guidance. And in a world where attention spans no longer admit the possibility for contemplation, study and discussion, the media have taken over. We are guided by the clever instead of the wise, and we respond best to the simplest constructions of the complex processes that surround us: “I want to move the country forward!” And the media is the default interface between the people and those who seek to rule them.
They will reshape reality so that it does not trouble you, so long as you hew to the dogma. When events contradict the dogma then events require “review,” so that they can be reshaped to conform to acceptable perceptions. Biden won the debate. Sea levels will rise to drown us. The Taliban are losing. Oceana has always been at war with Eurasia.
Hence, Sunday mornings with a cup of coffee and a bible.