Monday, February 28, 2005

The Short Circuit

The Assyriologist Bottero liked to imagine the glee with which the Sumerians greeted the invention of prostitution, which at the time must have seemed like the I-pod and sliced bread all in one. As any economist will tell you, money is an excellent way to manage access to scarce goods. Better still, with pros there is no commitment, children, or emotion; and, anyhow, hookers are often more polite than waitresses. But as Heidi Fleisch pointed out, the greatest thing about buying it is not so much that the whores arrive on schedule, but that they can be counted on to leave afterwards. Unfortunately, it would turn out that prostitution is not all that simple in practice for a host of ethical, psychological, and bacteriological reasons. Nevertheless, like many other market-based solutions to a fundamental problem, it surely must have seemed like a wonderful idea at the time, almost as wonderful as the scheme, recently repopularized by wealthy right wingers, to simply buy the human mind so that it can be counted on to promote the interests of its corporate sponsors.

You can pay somebody to act as if they desire you, and you can pay somebody to tell you that you’re right. Both cases have the same limitation. The love you rent is not real, and the truth you buy is not truth. If you’re rich and powerful enough to be able to ignore reality, that may not matter much. But you have to be careful on one point. One of the things that the journalists, public relations men, and purchased intellectuals were paid to discover was that you are indeed so grand that you don’t need to have any truck with realities because like the Word of God, your actions create a world ex nihilo. The truth of that conclusion, however, is only as reliable as a whore’s love.

Of course politicians and other grandees have been buying the services of flacks for a very long time. Things are getting more serious now, however, because the bought voices include an increasing number of academics, scientists, and supposedly objective journalists whose whole raison d’etre is their independence. The right may imagine that the universities are crammed with crazy lefties, but the profs who matter most are not Native American studies guys vaporing about little Eichmanns or comp lit mavens deconstructing deconstruction but the armies of engineers, scientists, and economists who hire themselves out to corporations and ideologically motivated think tanks at a time when the old ideals of intellectual objectivity and public service are increasingly corroded. Serious journalism is in even worse shape as punditry follows the money as surfers used to follow the sun. Armstrong Williams has a lot of company. His behavior is the rule, not the exception, though more august—and whiter—media hookers are more discrete about the connection between their opinions and the prospects for television airtime and lucrative speaking engagements.

Like wiring, the safe functioning of a civilization depends on the integrity of the insulation. The current set up has been designed to short circuit and can be expected to cause quite a few fires. Appearances aside, it was never that good an idea.

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