Thursday, July 29, 2004


I have often been unjust to the television journalists by denouncing them as incompetent as well as venal. Venal they are, as is probably inevitable in any entertainment business where thousands compete for a tiny number of very lucrative jobs; but in calling them incompetent, I’m being a little unfair because they actually fulfill their duties very well. I am being disingenuous, after all, to act as if their job description actually called for them to determine the most important facts about public events and accurately and effectively disseminate this information. In fact, as I once wrote to Aaron Brown in an offhand email—to judge by his reply, he wasn’t in complete agreement— journalism is a cheesy entertainment and propaganda medium. Watching the tube, it’s very easy to get huffy and exclaim, “That’s not news, it’s an infomertial;” but the point is that news is an infomertial. Atavisms from the 50’s and 20 minutes of PBS a week aside, journalism just is the business of telling people those parts of what they want to hear that the owners of the networks want to tell them. The heroic version of what journalism is supposed to be is largely illusory: an ideal the journalists can trot out to defend the dignity of their low trade, a standard that provides carping critics like me with a convenient, if blunt, weapon.

While I’m in a confessional frame of mine, I should also apologize for writing as if I thought it was advisable or even possible to squelch commercial journalism. Over and beyond the obvious likelihood that censorship of the media would just provide a new venue for even worse abuses, I have a principled objection to kicking against the pricks. It makes sense to find ways to ameliorate problems that can never be cured without remedies worse than the disease, but it is dishonest to pretend either that there is a cure or that the situation is hopeless. Though journalism, like herpes, is incurable, it is also mostly a nuisance that can be treated topically by scorn and derision. Or, if you like grander, Joseph Cambellian language, you might say journalism is part of the eternal balance of things. Three rats ceaselessly gnaw on the roots of the cosmic tree, Yggdrasal; but for some profound reason you can’t simply exterminate the rats. All you can do is encourage the three Norns to counteract the rats by their ministrations.

The anchors and pundits rise every morning and recommit themselves to their sacred occupation of making their countrymen a little stupider and more ignorant and their nation a little cheaper and nastier. It is the way of things and has been for a very long time—even Fox would have a hard time living up to the standards of scurrility of Reformation broadsides. It remains possible, indeed, necessary, however, to do the Norn thing, especially since the rats seem to have multiplied considerably over the last couple of decades.

Politics, including cultural politics, is like cooking. If you get too much salt in the pot, you can only save the dish by adding something else. By the same token, it isn’t practical to fish the superfluous pundits out of the soup or even cut back very much on the coverage of the Lacy Peterson murder. It is possible to add something to the recipe, though; and that seems to be happening. If they insist on shitting in the swimming pool, we’re going to have to make the pool bigger.

The professional journalists covering the convention at Boston have complained about the invasion of the Bloggers, but they themselves called political blogging into existence by their own failings.

Sunday, July 25, 2004

Putting Two and Two Together
I used to imagine the Platonic Realm of the Forms as an enormous and rather dull museum in which, like the standard meter in Paris, the exemplars of every conceivable thing are in display under bell jars. But maybe the actual Noosphere is a more going place, a rave where cruising concepts troll for pickups and ecstasy. One recent meeting of strangers in the dark:

It has been recently reported that the human lifespan took a big jump some 32,000 years ago, the same time period as the great florescence of Paleolithic art. Increased longevity may have been a key feature in human evolution since older individuals are carriers of cultural memory and it is culture that makes it worthwhile to spend all that metabolic energy on a big brain. But there’s another connection, and that’s where the second idea comes in. We know from the research of Robert Zajonc and others that birth order correlates with intelligence. First born and only children tend to be smarter than the others, presumably because they spend more time around adults. But that explanation implies that anything that increases the amount of time children spend around older people is likely to increase their intelligence. Increasing longevity is likely to do just that. In turn, greater intelligence in the phenotypes means more cultural innovation, more longevity, and more selection pressure for the genotypes that correlate with intelligence. In retrospect, you can see how the thing got out of hand.