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Column Wed Dec 31 2008
Over the weekend, I ran into a former coworker, a great union organizer at one of the largest unions in the state. After exchanging some pleasantries, he couldn't resist ribbing me.
"Hey, how about your buddy Blagojevich?" He was referring to the fact that despite intense collective hatred of Blagojevich by the union's rank and file and staff back in 2006, I still voted for (and wrote in favor of) Blagojevich's re-election. After decades of Republican dominance over state government, it seemed a no-brainer to support the party's standard bearer. But now, of course, I had no answer and could only shrug. What could I say? Blagojevich has made fools of millions of Illinoisans, me well included. Partisan attitudes like mine have permeated media, with reporting often reduced to simply repeating (or "evaluating") partisan-generated "narratives." Our public intellectuals and opinion leaders, with not unimportant exceptions, have succumbed to the false equivalencies that enable moral relativism.
My friend's ribbing got me thinking about an essay published by George Orwell in 1945 criticizing left-wing intellectuals, "Through a Glass, Rosily." Orwell was mystified by the angry reaction of Great Britain's left wing to reporting from Vienna that revealed atrocities committed by the Soviets. In "Through a Glass, Rosily," Orwell was returning to a theme that began as a low hum in his work on the Spanish civil war and rose to thundering crescendo by the time he published 1984: the political manufacturing of "truth." For Orwell, there was never any reason for partisanship, loyalty, or ideology to interfere with what was actually true:
The whole argument that one mustn't speak plainly because it "plays into the hands of" this or that sinister influence is dishonest, in the sense that people only use it when it suits them. As I have pointed out, those who are most concerned about playing into the hands of the Tories were least concerned about playing into the hands of the Nazis. The Catholics who said "Don't offend Franco because it helps Hitler" had been more or less consciously helping Hitler for years beforehand. Beneath this argument there always lies the intention to do propaganda for some single sectional interest, and to browbeat critics into silence by telling them that they are "objectively" reactionary. It is a tempting manoeuvre, and I have used it myself more than once, but it is dishonest. I think one is less likely to use it if one remembers that the advantages of a lie are always short-lived. So often it seems a positive duty to suppress of colour the facts! And yet genuine progress can only happen through increasing enlightenment, which means the continuous destruction of myths. [Emphasis added]
Orwell's connecting truthfulness to progress is particularly important. The unraveling of the "permanent Republican majority" and the laying bare of Karl Rove's decidedly un-genius political strategies buttress Orwell's point. Lies — or "spin" — may provide some tactical advantages, but are enormous strategic liabilities. Orwell was insistent that only intellectual honesty could keep the Left relevant in the strategic long term.
Where was the leadership from the Left establishment to take Blagojevich on in a meaningful way? While we were all agreeing out loud that Blagojevich was the considerably lesser of two evils, why were the decision makers on our side declining to speak truth to power? It isn't just about a media obsessed with narratives — it is as much about a largely unaccountable political leadership that chooses to play narrative games.
In 2006, Blagojevich's pay-to-play schemes were common knowledge to political insiders and were beginning to enter public awareness; his inability to work with anybody like a reasonable adult was certainly coming into sharp focus. I wrote at the time that, if he were to get charged criminally, hopefully it wouldn't happen until after the election, preferring Pat Quinn to Judy Baar Topinka. But my attitude at the time revealed the basic problem with the rise of "partisan media": it creates a political dialogue based on the idea that your side is so much better, that no fact or set of facts transcends the need for political advantage.
This year's Democratic Party presidential primary provides a perfect study.
During the torturous primary battle, candidate partisans demonstrated a dazzling ability to perform intellectual acrobatics to make sure that their side was right and the other side wrong. Clinton partisans railed against the sexism of innocuous comments, but would guffaw at Obama partisans' similar accusations of covert racism. Sometimes they would champion democracy, and then in the next breath demand an end to the voting. It became increasingly clear that no fact could alter partisans' opinions of their own team. At that point, what's the point of a debate? "Narrative politics," which relies not on truth but "interpretation," allowed both sides to work themselves into embarrassing episodes of apoplectic righteousness. The news media treated these attitudes as news, rather than don the protective gear necessary to dig through the partisan excrement and get at the truth. Partisan media starts with the idea that one team is necessarily correct, so facts must bear that out. The Right has an excuse for such behavior: conservatism and reaction rest on superstition and tradition. The Left has no excuse.
The absence of intellectual honesty in partisan media and its complete absence among an increasingly unaccountable organizational leadership will always lead to Blagojeviches, and will eventually have us hanging crepe.
Even in 2006, Blagojevich received the backing of much of the liberal and left-wing establishment of the state. Call this "pragmatism." Now, two years later, Illinois' Democratic Party and an entire strata of liberal and lefty movement leaders, elected officials, and operatives will be stained by their support for a man that is by all apparent measures exceedingly unqualified for his office — and given their proximity to power, there is no potential for ignorance as an excuse. So how can it be called pragmatism? Of course, it's no such thing. Rather, it is power showing preference for power, pure and simple.
How much heartache and humiliation could have been avoided had the Left in Illinois been intellectually honest then, and denounced one of their own when they knew he deserved denunciation? It is ironic, or sad, that House Speaker Mike Madigan, a man whose power derives in large part from Illinois' dysfunctional state and local political systems, can stand as a hero for his years of confrontation with Blagojevich.
There is an analogy here to the positioning of much of the Left on the issue of a Constitutional Convention. It was a matter of power favoring power, with an at best exaggerated, at worst fabricated, layer of argumentation to conceal true so-called pragmatic motives. Suddenly the Left was scared of democracy; they raised the bogey of all-powerful social conservatives or the bankrupting of pensions (as though our current system protects them) to hide the fact that the system for the current moment favors them. Of course, one day it won't; but even then, proximity to power will be preferred to the "chaos" of democracy. It's why we see so little democracy in any of the state's largest political establishments. "Organizational discipline," not intellectual honesty, is the surest determining factor in bureaucratic advancement. Sometimes democracy hurts; but the solution isn't to smother it.
Orwell abhorred political functionaries who fretted more over "how to talk about things" than how to address the crushing realities of the day. He fretted that the refusal of the Left to deal frankly with Soviet atrocities would forever mar leftism in the West. Score one for Orwell. Unfortunately, he lost his battle on "narratives," and "perception" and "interpretation" of narratives has triumphed over the unrelenting quest for truth that powered the Left for a century or more. Partisan media on both sides aim to create an advantageous narrative. With that as a goal, objective truth must be at least compromised.
As a result, Americans are more offended by a hip-hop artist who relates the violence of America's cities than by the fact of the violence. Viewers bristled at the casual misogyny, homophobia, and racism of characters on shows like "The Sopranos" or "Nip/Tuck" than the fact of misogyny, homophobia, and racism, as though not portraying reality would make the reality disappear. It is something of a tragedy that only fiction is willing to address painful truth, while our "non-fiction" deals with narratives.
Blagojevich provides an extreme case — it took a federal investigation to make his "understood" corruption "known." But none of this was news to the state's elective and organizational political leadership. Their wholesale failure to provide any real leadership when it would have mattered, in 2005 when a progressive, democratic challenge to Blagojevich could have coalesced, eventually made hypocrites out of themselves and fools out of millions of Illinois voters, who re-elected Blagojevich resoundingly, the incumbent taking over 30 counties and 50 percent of the vote.
What heroes would we be preparing for statewide or national offices, had they stood against organizational partisanship and political self-interest to denounce the incumbent? Wouldn't we now be hailing both their principle and their pragmatism?
Perhaps not; in Illinois' tribal politics, intellectual honesty is easily construed as treason, unforgivable even if the reason given is morally right and materially true. As ideologically and socially diverse citizens of a great democracy, there is only one thing that can affect us all, and that is the truth. And when your "side" has power is when skepticism means so much more, because every action has amplified consequence. And thankfully, the discomfort often caused by intellectual honesty is easily relieved by a serene conscience and eventual vindication.
With "our side" ascendant nationally, the attendant in-fighting (for example, over President-elect Obama's cabinet choices) makes Orwell yet again prescient:
Whenever A and B are in opposition to one another, anyone who attacks or criticises A is accused of aiding and abetting B. And it is often true, objectively and on short-term analysis, that he is making things easier for B. Therefore, say the supporters of A, shut up and don't criticise: or at least criticise "constructively," which in practice always means favorably. And from this it is only a short step to arguing that the suppression and distortion of known facts is the highest duty of a journalist.