Andersen: This column is from the ‘enemy’
I’ve never thought of myself as an “enemy of the American people,” but that’s how the president put it last week. He said the media is the enemy. I write for the media. So that makes me the enemy.
Naming enemies is a sound strategy for alienating the people and institutions you don’t like. An enemies list builds an ideological wall of division. Nixon had one, and those listed on it later derived an inverse gratification from their dissociation with a crook.
Hating on the media denies that some media actually pursue truth through good reporting and civil dialogue between opposing views. When truth is seen as the enemy, however, we’re in for a very troublesome future.
“The threat of revolutionary change brings forth repression and reaction,” warned Noam Chomsky in 1970. The revolution we’re seeing today was spurred by what Chomsky described as “predatory capitalism … maximizing wealth and power.” The seeds were sewn by a culture “antihuman and intolerable in the deepest sense.”
Much of the alt-right anger appears to be focused on “intolerable” liberal elites and their high-culture media institutions. Time magazine saw itself in the crosshairs and issued a mission clarification: “We are committed to independent inquiry, defending the possibility of progress, holding the powerful to account and providing an arena where diverse voices and visions compete.”
Historically, an independent, investigative news media has pushed back on threats to equal opportunity, freedom of expression, decency, fairness and basic human rights. For the “forgotten man” of today, however, who feels disenfranchised by predatory capitalism and high-minded liberals, the media is a convenient enemy.
“To demonize the press, to characterize it as malign,” defended Time, “is to lay the groundwork for repression. … The enemy in any democracy is not dissent, which is essential. The enemy is dishonesty, ignorance, indifference, intolerance.”
These are among the attributes driving the Era of Anger, where the rational liberal foundation of what many consider civilization is being undermined by irrational hatred, racial prejudice, fake news, disregard for science and a collapse of social norms. Issuing a broadside against the media as the enemy is to condemn all sources of data that challenge a rising tide of intolerance on which Trump was swept into office.
Newspapers that speak truth to power, specifically The New York Times, are the biggest targets. The Times has emerged as the most powerful institutional bulwark against the Trumpsters, so it has become the ultimate enemy of the American people.
Thomas Jefferson, who saw things differently during the emergence of democracy, became a strong defender of newspapers: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Still, the news media are always in need of oversight, as prescribed in 1988 by Richard Harwood at The Washington Post: “The ethics and standards of journalism are a morass of contradictions and hypocrisies. We render each day moral judgment on the rest of mankind but insist on divine rights of immunity for ourselves. … We are ripe for re-examination.”
Re-examination is different than repression, but repression is behind the current threat to defund National Public Radio, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Information and art are feared and hated by those who believe that the cultivation of ideas has the power to undermine the self-interests of radically politicized economic power — which is the ultimate enemy of democracy.
Again from Jefferson: “The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.”
Keeping the waters pure means protecting the free market of ideas through an ongoing dialogue — open and civil — among people of discerning intelligence seeking the highest virtue of all, which is wisdom.
Openness and civility are essential for tearing down the ideological wall dividing America, a wall being built by an administration that needs enemies in order to fuel more anger and build bigger walls.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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