Monday, December 8, 2014


          Last week saw a mass exodus of editors and writers at The New Republic, one of the most prominent cultural magazines in America, which just celebrated its 100th anniversary.
In light of this, I reread one of the last things published by TNR’s literary editor, Leon Wieseltier. In it, he rails at length against kinds of thinking, or lack of, that the new media introduce. Seen against the backdrop of his resignation, a clearer picture of the article emerges: Wieseltier was venting his frustrations at TNR’s new owner Chris Hughes (Facebook co-founder and college roommate of Mark Zuckerberg), who is rapidly turning the 100-year-old bastion of cultural commentary into something indistinguishable from Buzzfeed. Wieseltier’s article still remains on their website, but the original title, “A Defense of Reason in an Age of Digital Stupidity,” has been changed to the more benign “Reason and the Republic of Opinion.”
            It is certainly not Weiseltier’s best writing. He makes many points, none too concisely, but one of them in particular touches on a theme that I’ve been occupied with recently, especially in my post on the effect of consumerism on our interior lives. He writes:
Citizens are not the only ones who inquire into opinion. So, too, do marketers. Do we abhor propaganda? But we live with it, we are enchanted by it, all the time. We call it advertising. Advertising is the propaganda of the market. And only a fool would be outraged by deceit in an advertisement. The concealment of facts and flaws is how selling operates, for politicians as well as for products. They grow fat off our gullibility. (The opposite of thinking is shopping.) The malleability of public opinion is a part of their business model. Yet there is a crucial difference between the opinion research of the marketer and the opinion research of the citizen. In the market, all that matters is what works. In public affairs, by contrast, many things may work that we nonetheless reject, because they traduce certain principles. Empirical and ethical scruples can be such a drag! The citizen, unlike the salesman, needs to certify not only the efficacy of a view, but also its relation to truth and to goodness—nothing less. 
His opposition of thinking and shopping is spot on, I think. The decisions of the market, both on the supply- and demand sides of the equation, involve everything but the consideration of what is true. The market succeeds not when consumers are fulfilled or wise but when they are convinced to purchase. If advertising tries to persuade the consumer that a certain product will fulfill him or her, or make him or her wise, it is only to achieve the end of transaction.
The kinds of decisions a citizen must make are different than the kinds of decisions a consumer must make. As Wieseltier says elsewhere in his essay, “choosing a president is not like choosing khakis.” Publications like TNR have long been places for the kinds of intellectual discussions that sustain democracies by cultivating the pursuit of truth among its citizens; now, however, public journals of opinion (that is, not just written for academics but for the general curious mind) are slowly giving way to the new bait-click media, driven by and produced for consumers. As he argues, it is not a question of old versus new. It is a question of diametrically opposed views of the role of publications in creating healthy individuals and communities.
Ross Douthat, the NYTimes’ conservative columnist, points out that although TNR was ostensibly a “liberal” magazine, it was an exemplary forum for something more broad:
The New Republic as-it-was, the magazine I and others grew up reading, was emphatically not just a “policy magazine.” It was, instead, a publication that deliberately integrated its policy writing with often-extraordinary coverage of literature, philosophy, history, religion, music, fine art. It wasn't just a liberal magazine, in other words; it was a liberal-arts magazine...
The demise of the New Republic is not an isolated event, but part of a larger, and in light of economic trends, perhaps inevitable, tailspin of quality journalism and commentary, as media outlets of all stripes and sizes struggle to stay afloat. More largely, as Douthat notes, it is part of a gradual retreat of the liberal arts from the public sphere. As Wieseltier put it, thinking is the opposite of shopping, and these two spheres are mutually exclusive. As our public and private lives become more dictated by shopping, by the rules that govern the relationship between producer and consumer, we find ourselves less encouraged to think well, and we find the liberal arts all but disappearing from public life.
          Which, of course, makes the role of the high school teacher all the more important.  Given the widely chronicled demise of the liberal arts in universities, the burden falls primarily on teachers of Literature, Theology, History, and the fine- and performing arts to instruct students in the how these areas have shaped our societies and the ways we understand ourselves. Too bad publications, like TNR, whose writing provides nourishment for those of us tasked with instruction in the humanities, are getting harder and harder to find.

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