PREFACE ADDED IN 2012
This 2004 essay was written in response to an article by Roy Peter Clarke called “Confessions of an Alienated Journalist” about the re-election of George W. Bush in 2004. I worked with Roy when I was a student at the Poynter Institute and always found him thoughtful and interesting, and perhaps that’s why I wanted to respond. Moreover, it was no surprise that the questions and concerns raised in his article ran parallel to the main themes of my Web-site project.
It took years of reading to cover the texts and authors cited here, and this 14-page, 5,500-word essay took weeks to write, little by little, after work and on weekends. And, of course, I did it “just for fun” because it was interesting and exciting and challenging: In other words, it’s a microcosm of the entire Web-site project, which can be summed up in this quote by Richard Rorty, a philosopher turned literature professor: “The desire to enlarge oneself is the desire to embrace more and more possibilities, to be constantly learning, to give oneself entirely over to curiosity.”
It just occurs to me that maybe this essay reveals something I had not previously considered: That I have never stopped being a graduate student and that the true graduate student never truly graduates.
OPEN LETTER TO: Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar, Poynter Institute
“I must unfold my own thought.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
Greetings from Ohio and the state’s largest and best newspaper, The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.
I don’t know if you recall, but we met in 1979 when I was a member of Poynter’s three-month newspaper management program. That was back when we held seminars in the bank building and Don Baldwin was director.
I worked with you on my major paper, which dealt with the erosion of the inverted pyramid style of writing. That was when you were first working with reporters at the St. Petersburg Times on a narrative approach to the news. As I recall, we went to lunch to discuss my project and had an enjoyable walk through St. Petersburg, talking about literature. We saw a drunk sleeping in a massive flower box, covered with chameleons trying to mimic his mottled and rumpled clothes. If that doesn’t ring a bell, try this: I was in the group that came to your house for a riotous, beer-fueled toga party that made “Animal House” look tame. You may still have the six-pack cooler I mistakenly left behind.
However, I am not writing to discuss old times but to comment on your article, “Confessions of an Alienated Journalist,” because it touches on some themes that are dear to my heart.
For the past 10 years I’ve been involved in an intense reading-and-writing project exploring the nature of belief. I am hoping to better understand how ideas gain the incredible power that turns normal people into True Believers — unfortunately, it's looking more and more like normal people are True Believers. Anyway, for many years this seemed to be nothing but my harmless, quirky, weird, little project, which started with long letters to friends and ended up as a variety of Web sites.
Then came 9/11, and the project gained a measure of legitimacy. Now comes the re-election of George W. Bush to further legitimize it. Indeed, the views expressed in “Confessions of an Alienated Journalist” go directly to aspects of belief I’ve been studying intently since 1994 and shove the topic directly onto the front burner. A group of my coworkers is meeting this week discuss your article and the issues it raises, but I can’t be there, so I decided to write this essay instead.
Since I’ve been on the belief topic for so long, I have myriad ways to approach it: from philosophy, from psychology, from sociology, from anthropology, from theology, from mythology, from literature, from film — or even journalistically, with a heightened emphasis on the difference between fact and opinion.
I won’t try to give an exhaustive overview of what I’ve learned, that’s what the Web site is for, but I will try to explore some theories on why a journalist’s view of the world might be very different from that of a certified public account, brain surgeon, fireman or theologian.
THE PROBLEM OF BELIEF
First, I realize we all have beliefs and “moral values” that occupy our thoughts and guide our conduct, but ultimately those things are simply ideas that, for whatever reason, powerfully grip our hearts and minds. And so, beliefs and values vary from person to person, place to place, time to time, which shows, ironically, that “absolute beliefs” are relative, too. So while some people feel a great moral urgency to attend church on Sunday, others feel the need to attend on Saturday. While some people feel a great moral urgency to oppose abortion, others feel an equally powerful need to protect it as a right. The point? We’re in trouble when we let others define what’s moral and what’s not.
Of course, some people think beliefs and moral values are not simply ideas but rules from beyond. Interestingly enough, such people also believe in free will, and that means they will admit — if you twist their arms — that they have a choice in whether or not to follow those heavenly rules. Kant had an interesting take on the problem of rules — he believed it was immoral to forget about choice!
“The authority may have power to enforce its commands, and we may be powerless to resist. But if we have the physical power of choice, then the ultimate responsibility remains with us. It is our own critical decision whether to obey a command, whether to submit to an authority. ... In whatever way the Deity should be made known to you, and even ... if He should reveal Himself to you: it is you ... who must judge whether you are permitted to believe in Him, and to worship Him.”
But to come back to my clarification on the problem of belief: I think belief and morality become a problem when they require one to reject, out of hand, certain ideas as being simply “bad” or “wrong.” For example, stem-cell research could result in new medical treatments, but some people say it’s wrong because 2,000-year-old ideas disallow it.
A VIEW FROM LITERATURE
I beleive writer Milan Kundera has genius-level insights into the problem of belief, which are wonderfully expressed in one little book, “The Art of the Novel.” He says:
• “Man desires a world where good and evil can be clearly distinguished, for he has an innate and irrepressible desire to judge before he understands. Religions and ideologies are founded on this desire.”
• “It is precisely in losing the certainty of truth and the unanimous agreement of others that man becomes an individual. The novel is the imaginary paradise of individuals.”
• The either-or mentality “encapsulates an inability to tolerate the essential relativity of things human. This inability makes the novel’s wisdom (the wisdom of uncertainty) hard to accept and understand.”
• “Grounded in the relativity and ambiguity of things human, the novel is incompatible with the totalitarian universe. The world of one single Truth and the relative, ambiguous world of the novel are molded of entirely different substances. Totalitarian Truth excludes relativity, doubt, questioning; it can never accommodate what I would call the spirit of the novel.”
• “The novel’s spirit is the spirit of complexity. Every novel says to the reader: ‘Things are not as simple as you think.’ That is the novel’s eternal truth, but it grows steadily harder to hear amid the din of easy, quick answers that come faster than the question and block it off.”
• “A novel examines not reality but existence. And existence is not what has occurred; existence is the realm of human possibilities, everything that man can become, everything he’s capable of. Novelists draw up the map of existence by discovering this or that human possibility.”
• “First, one thing is certain: the moment it becomes part of a novel, reflection changes its essence. Outside the novel we are in the realm of affirmation: everyone is sure of his statements: the politician, the philosopher, the concierge. Within the universe of the novel, however, no one affirms: it is the realm of play and hypotheses. In the novel then reflection is essentially inquiring, hypothetical — ideas are intellectual exercises, paradox games, improvisations, rather than statements of thought. Inside the novel, dogmatic thought turns hypothetical.”
And so, the first reason a journalist might have a very different world view than a butcher, baker or hockey-stick maker is because he or she is in the business of gathering information, exploring the various sides of complicated stories — and suspending judgment until all the information has been collected, assembled, digested and reported. In short, the journalist deals with the ambiguity and relativity of things human, and that makes her quite different from the typical judgment-oriented human being, at least as far as Kundera is concerned. The typical journalist is closer in temperament to Milan Kundera than Franklin Graham, Pat Robertson or George W. Bush.
We might also say that most journalists seem to have a natural affinity for books. Perhaps most journalists were avid readers who had dreams of becoming a novelist or a historian. Individuals fired with a love of literature — and its mission to explore life’s complexities — are going to be fundamentally different in their views from the carpenter, plumber or electrician, who may be highly susceptible to either-or thinking, totalitarian dogma and traditional ideas, which is not say there are not a lot of freethinking plumbers out there clearing drains.
More, journalism is incompatible with the one-truth world and the totalitarian universe. Journalists are people who know too well that authority figures don’t always tell the truth. Journalism is a probing, freethinking undertaking, not an authority-infatuated enterprise. Journalists don’t want to worship powe; they want to unmask it or redistribute it.
I am not saying all journalists would love Kundera’s ideas about belief. We have some conservative people at The Plain Dealer, people who wear their lack of enlightenment as a badge of honor. So in some rare cases you’ll find a conservative journalist. On the other hand, if we look hard enough we’ll certainly find freethinking nurses, waiters and truck drivers. So, please, don’t think I am falling into the very sort of either-or absolutism I am criticizing. I am not drawing fixed lines here, just suggesting some general tendencies, for if journalists are “out of touch” with mainstream citizens, there may be some general tendencies to account for it.
THE APPROACH FROM PHILOSOPHY
Now I must apologize to the people who read me often — and trust me, there aren’t many — because I am going to mention someone they’re already familiar with, philosopher Karl Popper.
Popper became famous in the 1930s for writing about science. He wondered how it was that Marx, Freud and Einstein could all claim that their work was “scientific,” and he was — along with the rest of the world — stunned by how Einstein dethroned Newton as the absolute scientific genius of all time.
Also, we might say that Popper came along when people were starting to view science as an infallible-knowledge machine that would knock religion out of the ultimate-truth business. Popper effectively showed that science does not give absolute, eternal truth but simply offers ideas and theories, and that the strength of science rests in testing those theories rigorously and abandoning them as soon as better ideas come along. Some people call this flip-flopping or being wishy-washy, but it’s essential for progress.
Popper helped people to see that while scientific theories have powerful practical applications, they are almost always superseded by new and better ideas, so there’s nothing certain or absolute about science. Popper took on Plato, Aristotle and Kant and made it impossible for us to say with certainty what counts as “knowledge” or “justified true belief.” And we owe him one.
Philosopher Mark Notturno says this of Popper:
“Popper used to tell his students that there is no such thing as a scientific method other than the method of trial and error. This simple idea has initiated a revolutionary way of thinking in philosophy and science. Popper thought we were all in search of a better world. And he taught that instead of uncritically accepting our theories and beliefs on authority or trying to justify them with appeals to reason and experience, we should search for problems and inconsistencies in them and try to eliminate them as best we can. Instead of trying to prove we are right, we should try to find the ways in which we are wrong. He summed up his entire philosophy in these words: ‘I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth.’”
HE KO’D THE CHAMP
Popper’s genius was that he did just the opposite of what I’ve been doing for 10 years, fighting guerilla battles on all fronts with every rag-tag company of absolutists that came along. No, Popper climbed right into the center ring and knocked out the champ. Then he started vanquishing the frightened competitors. About 10 years after his book on science, he wrote a two-volume work called, “The Open Society and Its Enemies.” In this amazing book Popper put the whole problem of belief and free thought into an easily understandable equation:
• He said civilization is still in its infancy, as can be seen by the tension between the open and the closed societies.
• He said the closed society is ruled by belief in magical powers or supernatural forces, while the open society is based on confidence in our ability to improve our lives through thought and discussion. The closed society is based on “truths” already revealed; the open society is based on critical thinking; it’s the difference between prayer and pragmatic problem-solving.
• He said the “strain of civilization” wears on all of us, that life is complicated and autonomy stressful, so we always yearn for absolute answers to pressing problems; we want to rest assured that what we do is right; so in spite of the amazing success of science and rationality, the closed society still exerts a strong pull, as can be seen in the 2004 presidential vote totals.
Notturno puts it this way: “Our understanding of ourselves and of the world we live in, like life itself, is constantly changing. And Popper thought that we have deeply ambivalent attitudes toward it. We welcome change because it makes it possible to build a better world. But we are terrorized by change …. Change and the idea of change pose a problem for us. And much of our social and political thought is an attempt to solve it.”
RED AND BLUE STATES (OF MIND)
Popper’s views on the open and closed societies can be colorfully understood by looking at the 2004 election map of red and blue states. The blue states contain a majority of voters who value new ideas and critical discussion. Red states contain a majority of voters who believe in fixed truths, supernatural powers and traditional ideas. The coasts strain toward the future while the center yearns for the past, and as you point out, blue people in red states feel like strangers in a strange land.
The essence of closed and open positions was clearly enunciated by the candidates themselves in the first debate:
“If America shows uncertainty or weakness in this decade, the world will drift toward tragedy. I just know how this world works, and that in the councils of government there must be certainty from the U.S. President.” — George W. Bush
“It's one thing to be certain, but you can be certain and be wrong. And certainty sometimes can get you in trouble. (But you can) learn new facts and take those new facts and put them to use in order to change and get your policy right.” — John Kerry
I fancifully suggest that the first report on the 2004 election was filed when Yeats wrote: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Except blue people only lack conviction in regards the absolute truth of ancient ideas.
DOUBT AND DIVERSITY: JUST LOOK AROUND
Another way to draw a distinction between journalists and mainstream Americans hinges on the word “doubt.”
Some people think doubt is a dirty word, but not journalists, and not one of our nation’s most famous intellectuals, Henry Adams: “The habit of doubt; of distrusting his own judgment and of totally rejecting the judgment of the world; the tendency to regard every question as open ... all these are well-known qualities of New England character.”
Let me put in a plug for a wonderful book: “Doubt: A History” by Jennifer Hecht.
This might also be called “doubt from diversity” — and we're up to our ears in it. I think it’s wonderful because diversity is philosophy acted out in life, so all we have to do is open our eyes and look around, and we learn things that open our minds — if we’re capable of learning, that is. Many people say, “Live and learn!” but they don’t because they’re stuck on ancient ideas or confuse personal preferences with “the truth of the matter.”
I am reminded of one of my favorite sentences from Henry Miller’s “On Writing” — “It should be borne in mind, of course, that there is an inevitable discrepancy between the truth of the matter and what one thinks — even about himself.”
Let me give a brief nod to one of Popper’s contemporaries and foes, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein is famous for his pithy sayings. And Popper foe or not, I strung a few of them together for his entry on my Web site because he took a great interest in belief. Here’s a sampling:
“I did not get my picture of the world by satisfying myself of its correctness; nor do I have it because I am satisfied of its correctness. No: it is inherited background against which I distinguish between true and false.”
“What we believe depends on what we learn. • The child learns by believing the adult; doubt comes after belief. • The difficulty is to realize the groundlessness of our believing.”
The difficulty Wittgenstein hints at hinges on the abandonment of trusted standards of thought and practice we absorbed as children; the challenge is to plunge into the relativity and complexity of all things human; the goal is to understand before we judge. We may even come to believe — like the retired magistrate in Kieslowski’s “Red” — that judging is vanity, and we may seek to abstain from it as much as humanly possible. We may take open-mindedness to a new level.
I simply think that journalists — by temperament and training — are better equipped to resist the pull of premature judgment. We may even come to find inspiration in the relativity and ambiguity of all things human. As Adams said of himself: “Not that his ignorance troubled him! He knew enough to be ignorant. His course had led him through oceans of ignorance; he had tumbled from one ocean into another till he had learned to swim; but even to him education was a serious thing.”
There seems to be a widening gap between those who swim with the tides of change and those who get pulled under and thrash around with great commotion until they find a rock to support them. So as journalists we may find ourselves more and more out of touch with conservative America. The study of belief takes on new urgency.
Then there’s the issue of curiosity. Ever meet a journalist who wasn’t curious? Here’s a wonderful quote from Richard Rorty: “The desire to enlarge oneself is the desire to embrace more and more possibilities, to be constantly learning, to give oneself entirely over to curiosity.”
I think journalists are people enlarged by curiosity, not diminished by fear of it — we are curious people who withhold judgment and are rendered open-minded in the process. I think giving in to curiosity makes us better people. So do Kundera, Rorty and Popper. But theologians and some politicians don’t because freethinking undermines their agendas. But if your agenda is freethinking itself, your possibilities are endless, and that’s what inspires me.
Rorty, a wonderful philosopher in his own right — and currently an English professor — also says this in regards free thought and diversity: “Literature began to set up itself as a rival to philosophy (and religion) when people like Cervantes and Shakespeare began to suspect that human beings were, and ought to be, so diverse that there is no point in pretending that they all carry a single truth deep in their bosoms.”
And he believes it’s a huge problem for us that Western philosophy has long been obsessed with “getting things right” in foundational and essential ways and that we suffer because “Plato and Aristotle built the quest for certainty into our sense of what thinking is for.”
I am not a sociologist or a political scientist, but I was a high school teacher for two years and an instructor at OSU for three, and I believe education plays an important role in determining whether someone is an open-society liberal or a closed-society conservative. If one has been trained to think beyond the obvious, if one has been taught that authority figures don’t always give the full story or complete truth, if one is aware of the complexity of human psychology though her knowledge of philosophy, anthropology, sociology, history or literature — or through her work in the trenches as a journalist — then she is more likely to think than believe.
College doesn’t teach you to believe, it teaches you to think.
Salman Rushdie, world-famous for thinking outside the box and beyond authority, says this: “The row over The Satanic Verses was at bottom an argument over who should have control over the grand narrative, the Story of Islam, and that the power must belong equally to everyone. That even if my novel were incompetent, its attempt to retell the story would still be important. That if I’ve failed, others must succeed, because those who do not have the power over the story that dominates their lives, power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts.”
THE EDUCATED PERSON
This seems like a good time to reference a recent Page One Plain Dealer story on the topic of “Creating the well-educated person.” Here’s what some of the experts we interviewed said about education:
• A well-educated person is “endlessly curious and understands that there are different ways of being curious. … More than anything else, being an educated person means being able to see connections that allow one to make sense of the world and act within it in creative ways.” — William Cronon
• “Well-educated individuals can respond to the complexities of contemporary culture. They ought to know the world through as broad a lens as possible. Some of it is uncomfortable because you’re bumping up against some inconvenient ideas that challenge what you’ve always believed. Those are the moments you learn the most.” — Mark Robbins
• “An educated person gleans much from experience … is open and receptive, listens, and is willing to share knowledge.” — Melanie Fioritto
• “Books and the desire to read are perhaps the greatest tools by which learning, both about the world and one’s self, take place.” — Margaret Wong
• “What’s important is not so much what you learn, but that you learn how to learn, and know where to go to find things out.” — Geoffrey Landis
• “The mark of a truly educated person is the recognition of how much there really is to learn.” — Sandra Pianalto
THE VIEW FROM SOCIOLOGY
And then there’s the view from sociology as described in “Invitation to Sociology” by Peter Berger. What some of us are experiencing since Nov. 2 is what Berger would call, “culture shock without geographic displacement.”
• It can be said the first wisdom of sociology is this: “Things are not what they seem.”
• The sociologist is a person intensively, endlessly, shamelessly interested in the doings of people … his own questions have so taken possession of him that he has little choice but to seek answers.
• The sociologist will occupy himself with matters that others regard as too sacred or as too distasteful … He will concern himself with matters that others may find too boring … until one is suddenly brought up against an insight that questions everything one had previously assumed.
• The fascination of sociology lies in the fact that its perspective makes us see in a new light the very world in which we have lived all our lives.
• Social reality turns out to have many layers of meaning. The discovery of each new layer changes the perception of the whole.
• The experience of sociology is like that of being an explorer in a strange land, only the “strange” land is home: The experience of sociological discovery could be described as “culture shock” minus geographical displacement.
• People who like to avoid shocking discoveries, who prefer to believe that society is just what they were taught in Sunday School, who like the safety of rules and the maxims of what Alfred Schuetz has called “the world as taken for granted,” should stay away from sociology; they will find it unpleasant or at any rate unrewarding.
JOURNAL WRITING: EMERSON | MONTAIGNE
Going back to Kundera, one does not have to write literature to gain insights. Indeed, the case could be made that the writing of personal essays (such as the one you’re reading) do us more good than reading great literature or at least it does us another sort of good that can’t be achieved in any other way.
I especially esteem two writers who carried on such self-transformations through personal writing (some of which was later published to great acclaim), Michel de Montaigne and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Montaigne, who some call the greatest essayist Western culture has ever produced, wore a self-designed medal inscribed with his motto, “What Do I Know?” And he said: “There is a plague on man: the opinion that he knows something.” And he said that in his writing, “I am free to give myself up to doubt and uncertainty, and to my predominant quality, which is ignorance.” He warned his readers: “These are my humors and opinions; I offer them as what I believe, not what is to be believed.”
This would seem to indicate that a realization of one’s limits is the key to knowledge, an idea very far from the dogmatism of theologians and ideologues. It also harkens back to Socrates' idea that his wisdom came from the realization of his own ignorance. That was why Socrates was the wisest man in Greece: he knew that he knew nothing for certain.
As we all should know, Emerson was the American spokesman for self-respect and self-reliance, for thinking things over and coming to individual conclusions: He wrote, “Respect yourself. You have first an instinct, then an opinion, then a knowledge … by trusting it, it shall ripen into thought and truth and you shall know why you believe.”
Emerson had no illusions that his ideas would be popular. He pictured himself going door to door describing, to anyone who would listen, the bliss he enjoyed as a solitary believer, but in wondering who in Concord would be interested in his ruminations, he realized that perhaps no one would.
He wrote anyway and called himself, “An endless seeker with no past at my back.” In regards his rejection of traditional ideas, he said simply, “I must unfold my own thought.”
He realized that we’re all divided within ourselves in regards comfort and truth: “There are two objects between which the mind vibrates like a pendulum; one, the desire for Truth; the other, the desire for Repose. He in whom the love of Repose predominates, will accept the first creed he meets … he gets rest and reputation; but he shuts the door on truth. He in whom the love of Truth predominates will keep himself aloof from all moorings and afloat.”
And he was an amazing psychologist: “The true path to spiritual reality lay in and through the structure of the human mind. … The character of each man shall form his Imagination. The Beings of the Imagination shall become objects of unshaken faith, that is, to his mind, Realities.”
Both of these writers learned — perhaps largely through the act of writing itself — that they were not transparent to themselves. They were aware of what Eric Maisel calls, “The X factor” of human character. In “The Van Gogh Blues” Maisel says: “We don't know the secret of our own genetics, how easy or hard it is for us to change our basic nature, or how our beliefs are woven together. This X factor produces, if not utter mystery, enough mystery that our understanding of who we are is obscured and limited.”
I would propose that Montaigne and Emerson saw the X Factor not as a burden but as an opportunity, which they mined through writing journals. This is not the sort of writing that would necessarily ever be published; it is meant for you yourself, not others. I have some experience in this manner of writing because I have kept a journal since 1982. I will probably never read back through the 300 steno books I’ve collected so far, but in filling them out I have filled myself out as well.
The very act of writing becomes its own reward — as it must. If you do it for others you will be constantly disappointed at the stunning apathy you inspire; but if you learn to make it rewarding in itself, you have a sure and steady process for unfolding your thoughts, your feelings — your self.
THE VIEW FROM de TOCQUEVILLE
Another take on Popper’s view of the open and closed society comes from Alexis de Tocqueville’s notion of fenced and unfenced people. And I think it sheds light on the emotional climate that inclines one toward red or blue thinking.
“The unfenced West offered an empty space into which the excess motion of the Americans could be diverted and so diffuse the tensions that inevitably attend the close-quartered life in cities. …
“The great irony, for Tocqueville, was that the very boundlessness of America (an ever-expansive land without fences), which could embrace both extraordinary industriousness and excess, would be peopled by inhabitants that would ‘enclose thought within a formidable fence,’ and so make thinking difficult. The boundlessness of the physical space is inversely proportionate to the self-imposed constraints upon the American mind.
“Ironic though it may be, however, this paradox confirms a psychological principle that, while distasteful in the democratic age, is not to be ignored without peril. There must always be boundaries; where they do not exist in the material world, they must exist in the mind. Human beings are not constituted to be able to bear chaos from all quarters. Laws may allow, even encourage, the full development of a world ever in motion and without boundaries; yet this unremitting movement must be countervailed by a stasis of the imagination if the American soul (or any other) is not to fall into terror or tyranny.”
In closing, let’s return to Popper for one last observation:
abuse the name of freedom to turn anyone else into a rationalist. But I should like to challenge others to contradict me; I should like, if possible, to prompt others to see things in a new light, so that each may take his own decision in the freest possible formation of opinion. Every rationalist must say with Kant: One cannot teach philosophy — at most only philosophizing, which means a critical attitude.”
Which is to say … I don’t pretend to understand True Believers, and I don’t know how to close the growing gap between blue thinkers and red believers. And what's more, I may not even understand my colleagues — maybe I am only describing myself when I say journalists are sucked into life's mind-expanding ambiguity through their love of books and ideas.
I admit that I still have a lot to learn — 10 years is not long when it comes to grasping big issues. All I can do is struggle forward in the best way I can. And if you’re interested in observing that struggle in the form of a work-in-progress Web site about belief, here's a link. The best part of the Web sites — like the best part of this e-mail — is the quotes. If all I ever do is provide a decent context for astounding quotes, I’ll be a happy person.
Certainly, there’s much more to say on this topic — but not by me today. So keep up the good work in Florida, Roy, and let me know when you have another toga party.