The Impossibility of Democracy, Part IV: The End of Private Life

There are countless books and articles on the press: its history, its role in defining democracy, its problems, its scandals.  What is hard to find is a serious discussion of the fundamental dishonesty, the trivial huckstering that characterizes even the best newspapers.  I once had dinner with a distinguished European scholar, who, with a little encouragement, asked me why there was so little freedom of discussion in the United States.  Was it due to the village mentality described by Tocqueville?  Or was it merely the effect of the tight grip of the media oligarchy?  If the latter was true, how did I explain the parallel development in the universities?

These are difficult questions, which I do not quite know how to answer.  But one stab at it takes us to the heart of the American people.  If every nation gets the government it deserves, then perhaps our national dishonesty is only a reflection of the cowardice and dishonesty of most of our citizens.  George Garret, in Poison Pen, argued only half in jest that "American journalism does indeed perform a valuable public service:"

For if, even for a brief period, a large number of Americans stopped swallowing the...(let's call it Pablum so as not to be crude and vulgar) the unadulterated Pablum that is concocted to stifle their hunger for truth, and if they were permitted to enjoy the self-indulgence of allowing their encephalitic and atrophied brains  the merest little reflexive twitch of thought, a vague, faint, dimly realized. atavistic tremor of vestigial skepticism, why, sirs, all hell would break loose!!

    It would be worse (or better, depending on your point of view) than the Terror which followed the French Revolution....If, for some utterly whimsical and unanticipated reason, honesty were to become a factor in American life, it is obvious that the immediate result would be chaos and anarchy.

    The People, instantly deprived of all their leaders in every known field of endeavor, would be a swirling mass of bleating, helpless sheep.  And there would be no wolves to profit from this condition.

Our dependence upon the "Entertainment Tonight" and America's "Got Talent" style of reporting of network news and the government propaganda of the popular press confirms us in our servility, but the consequences go far beyond politics.  The erosion of the strong public opinion, on which any republic rests, is serious enough, but moral and intellectual liberty can survive and even flourish under tyranny.  Why have they been so successfully repressed in the benign despotism of consumer-socialism?  One answer, perhaps not the whole answer but one part of it, is to be found in the ease which which we have been persuaded to concern ourselves with strangers: movie stars, overnight criminal sensations, pathetic victims of oppressions in countries whose names we can hardly pronounce.  Here the media have to accept some of the blame for the worsening American character.

I made this point, obiter dictum, some years ago, and it is worth going into again.  For several decades the primary point of the various "media" has been the arousal of strong feelings in their audiences.  These feelings are not directed toward familiar objects--a reader's mother, girlfriend, child, or neighbor--but toward complete strangers.

The passion most commonly appealed to is sexual desire.  The attempt to arouse desire or stimulate passion for strangers by use of words and images goes by the name of pornography.  In origin, pornographia means the depiction of prostitutes and prostitution, and pornography is the esthetic or imaginative dimension of prostitution, a business devoted to promoting the illusion that one human being is having an erotic relationship with another.

The reality of the "relationship" is simpler: a cash transaction without emotional or moral attachment.  Money "can't buy me love," but the man who hires a prostitute can buy the illusion of love or passion or innocence, and it is this illusion that men are willing to pay for, not the mere act of fornication.  If a discharge of surplus erotic energy were the only point, a man might find safer and less costly alternatives.  No, what he is paying for in hiring a prostitute are the illusions of attachment, affection, and, perhaps, power,  and, on a lower level, the purchaser of pornography is pursuing the same fantasy.

There are other desires, other interests, other passions: pity, fear, anger, and hatred, to name only a few.  Aristotle believed that the object of tragedy was the purgation or discharge of pity and fear from those who participated as observers in the experience. However, the object of pornography and of the "trash" journalism produced by the television networks and the great newspapers is not purgation but merely stimulation, and while the news stories may be as fictional as the tale of the witch who murders her rival and her own children in order to punish her lover, we read and watch these fables as if they were real events whose participants are known to us.  Someone else's child, trapped in a well, monopolizes the attention of millions of Americans who neglect their children or entrust them to the care of strangers, and an airline disaster is celebrated as a major news event, even though the 200 people killed represent only a tiny fraction of the people who die, from various causes, every day throughout the world.  This is information only in the sense that an exact count of the pop bottles found on Jones Beach in a given day is information.

A concern for distant strangers is, for the most part, an entirely futile exercise in cheap compassion.  There is, after all, little that we can do to assist earthquake victims in Japan or to relieve the sufferings of the Christian women and children murdered by Islamic fundamentalists in the Balkan War.  Where we can do something we know to be helpful, such charity is meritorious--although such occasions are less frequent than we think.  But weeping over the images of starving children or young parents dying of a deadly disease can have the effect of blinding us to the problems of the lady down the block nursing a dying husband.

There is so little that is authentic in our lives, it sometimes seems.  We spend so much time worrying about the marital woes of politicians and starlets, that we scarcely notice when our own marriage breaks up.  The interest that we Americans take in the misfortunes of complete strangers is among the most bizarre characteristics of modern life.  Of course, this moral plague did not break out recently.  Ever since the creation of the yelllow press,  motion pictures, and television, the less-rooted elements of our population have drivelled after celebrity actors and sports heroes, begging for autographs, joining fan clubs, reading magazines.  I once read an account of some poor Australian working man who came all the way to Indiana to visit the boyhood shrine of his hero, James Dean.

But it is not just uneducated Aussies and lonely housewives who lust after celebrities.  Read the memoirs of famous politicians and journalists and note how so many of them boast of knowing actors, singers, and athletes--as if it were not something to be ashamed of.  American Presidents have eagerly cultivate relations with actresses who take their clothes off for money and rappers who celebrate rape and murder, and it is remarkable to see how willingly the great and powerful reduce themselves to the level of "the rich and famous."

An interest in celebrities is, in most cases, a sign of personal emptiness, of a life evacuated of meaning.  It is natural to respect heroes and revere saints, but when a man collects celebrities, whether in the lower form of autographs and "fanzines" or in the higher form of premeditated name-dropping, he is confessing to the inadequacy of his private life.  This is particularly touching, since so many celebrities--politicians and stars alike--are two-dimensional cut-outs, devoid of an inner life.  I have not had the misfortune of knowing a great many celebrities.  Once, coming out of the bar of the Beverley Hills hotel, the film director I'd been having drinks with spotted Kenny Rogers and asked if I wanted to meet him.  "What for?" I asked as the star with flowing white locks slid out of a two-block long limousine.  I gave a similar response when I was once asked if I wanted an audience with a celebrity Pope.

In general, there seems to be a perfectly inverse correlation between the depth of a man's character and the number of times he has been filmed, photographed, and recorded.  It is almost as if the primitive superstitions about cameras are true: they do steal the soul, that is, if one can judge another man's soul on the strength of a few hours at dinner.

In some cases, perhaps it is only that famous people have grown tired of talking to strangers and reserve themselves for a small circle of friends.  The shrinking of our social capacity is an inevitable part of growing up and growing old, but the frequency of artificial relationships with business contacts, fans and followers, journalists, can only accelerate the process.  George Garret tells Christie Brinkley in Poison Pen, it is ridiculous to complain that she is not the same person as the girl on the magazine covers.  Nobody cares, he insists, apart from her "Family and kinfolks, your few true friends and maybe your husband Billy Joel."  Scratch the last.

Our capacity for love and concern is finite, so is our ability to take an interest in something.  Few of us can, simultaneously, study Japanese, Hebrew, and Slovenian.  Make this argument, and someone will be sure to say that most people only use a small fraction of their brains.  This is a cherished piece of white urban folklore--something akin to the black nationalist fantasy that AIDS was created by the CIA.  Of course we do not use our brain to its full capacity, any more than we employ all the power of our computer in writing an essay.  Some of the memory is tied up in installation programs, dictionary and thesaurus, modem software, and a host of operations I cannot begin to imagine.  While it is true that few of us give our brains the daily workout they deserve, we could do only marginally better, even if we invested half the day in studying the calculus.  But people who take comfort from the "only a small fraction of the brain" delusion are pursuing the dream of democratic equality.  "Gee, if I only applied myself more, my half-baked comments on Facebook could be profound!"

Watching the television news and reading the Daily Mail  are not only empty exercises for anyone who is not a satirist; they not only do nothing for us, but they actually deflect us from our proper duties and concerns.  Celebrity journalism does not merely waste our time; it wastes ourselves.  The more and more we concern ourselves with late night talk shows, the less interest we take in our own lives.  Every day, we become less real, less authentic.  Lost in the electronic crowd of adoration, we may forget how to find our way back to ourselves, and we are only happy when we can find a connection with the mystical world of stardom.  In Walker Percy's first novel, the movie-going hero catches sight of a pair of newly-weds on the streets of New Orleans.  The reality of their "drab little lives" is illuminated by an epiphany of William Holden, smiling the blessings of Hollywood upon their union.

In every earlier phase of our national intoxication, a new technology was sure to be offered as a remedy for empowerment: educational television, cable TV and VCRS, PC's and satellites--all have been sold as tools of reempowerment by the current generation of lightening-rod salesmen.  Intelligent people told me, when I was growing up, that television would be used to give Shakespeare and Mozart to the masses.  Later, wise men were arguing that cable television would insure diversity of opinion.  One of those wise men, whom I count myself fortunate in knowing, was in many ways a secular prophet, but in this instance he was the victim of his own wishful thinking.

If I had been writing a few years ago, I should have speculated, at this point, on the next step into virtual reality, but before I could think about raising the question, the step had already been taken.   By the 1990's, we were being told, that the solution to our woes, public as well as personal, is to be found somewhere on the Internet, and there are still people who seriously believe that a leftwing crackdown on social media is a disaster that will destroy their moral universe?

What can you say to people, who think that every day, when they wake up, the world is a blank slate on which to scribble a new reality?  This is going Locke one better.  It is no longer the mind of a new-born individual that is a tabula rasa but the world itself, newborn with every innovation.  We are always either at the dawn of a new age or at the end of history.  Unhappily, this utopian optimism reveals that the one really blank slate is the American mind.

The Internet, we have been told, represents the next wave of personal and political liberation.  We can make our travel plans, find new recipes, and make friends with disembodied spirits who use code-numbers and aliases.  According to stories in the popular press, real marriages, however frail, are undermined when husbands spend so many hours talking to their imaginary friends that they have no time for their family.  Women are not immune.  The gutter press is full of stories about  jilted husbands whose wives had been seduced by  electronic pen-pals.  This is some nightmare out of Poltergeist, when the ghosts on the screen invade our living rooms.

Not only our living rooms and our bed rooms, but also the voting booths.  According the author of The Electronic Republic (1996), the Internet was going to restore the direct, participatory democracy of Ancient Greece.   Now, I am all in favor of restricting the vote to adult male children of native-born citizen parents, but even supposing that we had access to real information on home pages and bulletin boards set up by candidates and interest groups, one essential item is being left out of the equation: personal knowledge of a man's character.  Even a television image or a stump speech gives us more insight into what a candidate is really about than all the information in the world on his voting record or official positions.  If Bill Clinton or Joe Biden suddenly adopted a pro-life/anti-government platform, would any serious Christian trust him?  Look into their eyes: Even the two-dimensional tv screen is deep enough to plumb the depths of  their characters.

Each new advance in "information technology" begins by promising us individual liberation and ends up making us the prisoner of the technology.  Gossip is a better guide to politics than the newspapers--because good gosspip sometimes represents a genuine leak of information through unfiltered sources and almost always reflects, even when it is entirely false,  the sense of the people.   The wildest rumors and conspiracy theories  may turn out to be closer to reality than the official story, but whatever the truth, the rumors say a great deal about the public's perception of  the regime.

But the worst of newspapers is better than the best news program, because we can put down the newspaper, have second thoughts about the facts or point of view, compare it with other papers.  With television, we are caught up in the imaginary stream of someone else's consciousness.  We can turn it off, but we cannot, so long as we are in the stream, exercise our critical judgment, unless the story goes so roughly against our grain that it turns us into the antagonist who shouts back at the news-reading actor they call anchormen.  To resist requires the very power of the will that television has undermined.

Television is a primitive form of mind control compared with the possibilities offered by the computerized journalism.   Of course, the Internet offers boundless opportunities for hatching the best kind of conspiracies.  Use it, if you can, as you would use any instrument of communication--a waxed tablet or a bullhorn or an overhead projector, but never allow yourself to get sucked into the illusion of empowerment.

There may be strength in numbers, but it is not your personal strength, and there can be no community with people whose lives you do not share.  It is not morally healthy to fill your head with alien experiences.  Schizophrenics who hear voices in their heads would give anything for a moment of silence.  There are tens of millions of people on the Internet, but, for all the useful knowledge they can give you, their name might just as well be Legion.  Books take days and weeks to master and digest.  Quicker access to more and more information may help the reporter in preparing his story, but it also makes him less critical about the torrent of facts, more gullible about the sources.

There are more voices babbling in Hell than there will ever be online, and the sum total of their wisdom would fit comfortably on the head of a pin, with room enough left over for several choirs of angels.  Your mother must have told you, "Dont' talk to strangers."   Don't listen to them either, especially if they are journalists.

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

2 Responses

  1. Avatar Sam Dickson says:

    I was blessed in having a father who had no use for democracy and taught me early how crazy such an idea is.

    Dr. Fleming’s essay is so erudite that I cannot really pretend to add anything or even comment on it or take up his points.

    But I hate democracy so much I have to say something.

    So, I’ll resort to humor:

    1. It’s impossible IMO to improve on H. L. Mencken’s definition of “democracy”:

    “The worship of jackals by jackasses.”

    The more you think about it the truer it gets.

    2. Even Dr. Fleming said he is at a loss – somewhat – to explain the media’s lockstep unanimity, self-censorship and mendacity.

    I could attempt to give my explanation but instead will contribute another joke.

    On the rare occasion when I get an invitation to speak to some group like the Optimist Club, the Kiwanis, etc. (and, amazingly, every now and then I do get such an invitation), I try to make 2 points about the newspapers:

    a. I don’t believe the page numbers until I count them myself.

    b. There’s a reason why the newspapers feature the horoscope.

    They have to run the horoscope to have something that’s believable and increase their credibility.

  2. Avatar Josh Doggrell says:

    Fantastic.

    The blank stare of people, young and old, staring at their electronic screens while the world goes by them is discouraging in the extreme. There really is little wonder we are where we are.

    And thank you, Mr. Dickson, for the humor. I literally LOLed.