THE CHATTERING CLASSES, AS SEEN BY ORWELL “Power-worship blurs political judgment because it leads, almost unavoidably, to the belief that present trends will continue,” George Orwell wrote in 1946. His context was World War Two. Western intellectuals and journalists, he believed, tended to think every Nazi victory was a sign that the Axis would win the war. Then if the West won a battle, it suddenly became clear that the Allies were going to emerge victorious. Orwell may have been talking about WWII, but the truth of his observation can be found everywhere.
One need only look at all of the trends which “experts” assumed were permanent. Just a few years, ago rampant promiscuity and violence were considered to be permanent fixtures of the American social landscape. Littleton and the president’s pants to the contrary, violence is down and so is promiscuity. Indeed many of the hand-wringing indicators are in the tank — out of wedlock births, AIDS, teen drug use, even Melrose Place is off the air. Less than a decade ago, seasoned journalists and famous economists were predicting that eventually Japan would own the United States. Well, the Treasury Department announced yesterday that the Japanese recession has officially lasted longer than the wedding scene in The Deer Hunter.
This is not to say that everything’s getting better or some other variant of we can see clearly now because the rain is gone. Instead, it is to point out that elite and expert opinion is married to the status quo.
Political analysts said it was inconceivable that Republicans could take back the House in 1994. They said the deficit was permanent. They said no one would ever be able to talk about Social Security. These same pundits said impeaching the president was unimaginable — until it happened. They said bell-bottoms would never come back and there would never be a Loveboat remake.
“If the Japanese have conquered South Asia, they will keep South Asia for ever; if the Germans take Tobruk, they will infallibly capture Cairo…” was how the elite scored the war according to Orwell. Today’s chattering class reasons in much the same way. They seal the future’s fate according to the headlines in the New York Times. Watch Inside Politics on CNN sometime. It is a show entirely dedicated to extrapolating from the current status quo out to the distant horizons of the future — until the following day’s broadcast when the same thing is true, even though the poll numbers say the opposite of yesterday’s. I don’t want to pick on IP, which is actually far superior to the sanctimonious political drivel you get on, say, the Today show or Good Morning America.
KATIE COURIC: Real Americans who love their kids and want a better future for all Americans don’t like guns. Mr. Heston, you like guns. Why do you hate kids and want America to be a wasteland of hate and violence?
CHARLTON HESTON: Er, Katie, that question wa….
COURIC: I’m sorry, Mr. Heston, we will have to leave it there. Thanks very much for coming in this morning and don’t worry, Americans still remember you as Moses, so we don’t totally hate you. Okay, coming up, Matt holds a puppy while he asks Tom Delay why he doesn’t move to Iran if he thinks religious government is so good.
The tendency to always predict a continuation of what is currently happening, wrote Orwell, “is not simply a bad habit, like inaccuracy or exaggeration, which one can correct by taking thought. It is a major mental disease, and its roots lie partly in cowardice and partly in the worship of power, which is not fully separable from cowardice.” Indeed, “whoever is winning at the moment will seem to be invincible.”
This is far more the case in domestic politics, which revolve around cushy jobs and exclusive interviews, rather than in international wars which involve hated and despised enemies bent on your total destruction. Perhaps because the stakes are so much smaller, the behavior is much more extreme. In today’s Washington if you predict something that is contraindicated by the polls, you are either a fool, a spinner, a hack, or a loon.
Why? Well, if you predict that today’s winner might be tomorrow’s loser you are separating yourself from the only winner around at the moment. That’s why George Stephanopoulos was called a traitor by his former colleagues when he said the president “might” be impeached. Predictions can be the most devastating criticism.
A month ago, according to the press, Hillary Clinton should simply have skipped the campaigning and been sworn in because her poll numbers were so high. When her numbers went down, all of a sudden the race would be “tough and bruising.” Did anyone think that poll numbers don’t change in a campaign? Of course not. But saying Hillary was in trouble in the face of the only barometer of “winning” — polls — feels awfully risky for some people.
This has nothing to do with conservative versus liberal. The current hysteria over George Bush is an even better example. The scores of “Washington hands” who have told me for six months that George Bush is unbeatable, base it on little more than the W’s poll numbers. If he continues to do well, they will continue to be confident in the brilliance and independence of their thinking. If Bush goes south, well, that was totally unforeseeable, they will argue. This doesn’t mean they’re wrong, but suggesting otherwise is profoundly frightening to many in Washington.
It’s risky and frightening for all sorts of human reasons. First, people don’t like being wrong — betting that tomorrow will be like today feels safe and will never sound stupid. Perhaps even worse than sounding stupid is sounding ignorant. Producers don’t book people who say, “I don’t know.” Also, journalists don’t want to lose access to the front-runner so they don’t ask tough questions. Who wants to be locked out for the next 18 months of the campaign, let alone be ostracized for a four-year presidential term? It’s also frightening because you have to rely on your own brain rather than what the crowd is thinking. Saying “me too” is always easier than saying “you’re all wrong.” If you think intellectuals are immune to this phenomenon, you need only look at the coincidence of “revolutionary predictions” by eggheads with everyday reporting in the morning papers.
So much for the cowardice part of the Orwell formulation.
The power-worship part is very similar. Intellectuals, we all know, have always secretly loved powerful people. Without powerful people, intellectuals’ ideas stay on the drawing boards or in some obscure journal. With powerful people, intellectuals get to “fix” things. Or just count up all of the historians and legal scholars who were convinced they knew “the” answer to why Clinton could not be impeached. Don’t even get me started on Hollywood.
Journalists claim they are immune to power worship. Few assertions of professional probity are more ridiculous. There are a few exceptions and a few more keep it in check, but generally journalists as a group are not merely worshippers of power, they are voluptuaries of power. One need not point to an obvious and craven lapdog to power like Sidney Blumenthal to illustrate this. You don’t even need to single out a particular member of the pundit class. One need only listen to their predictions.
HATE MAIL REDUX Yesterday I made a mistake in airing my dirty cyber-laundry in the column. After sleeping on it last night (I have a huge laptop impression on my belly [hmmmm, belllleeee]), I decided that it was stupid for me to run my hate mail in the column. It gives the mouth-breathers and pod-people precisely what they want. You need to realize that when one is as isolated as I am at GFHQ, even random, stupid, ideas can take on a life of their own. It was a slice of my life I never should have cut from the cake. So let’s just leave it there, and like the special Gilligan’s Island movie with the Harlem Globe Trotters and the robot basketball players, we will never speak of it again.