Gotham Diary:
29 April 2014

I did come down with a cold — if that’s the right way to put it. (I was told once that the symptoms of a cold are actually the cleanup operation that follows victory over the virus.) It is not a very bad cold, but alongside Kathleen’s flu (from which she is recovering nicely) it makes for a domestic dreariness. Everything is an effort, and nothing sparkles.

In this morning’s Times, there’s a story about fallen ratings at MSNBC, attributable in large part to relentless CNN coverage of “the missing Malaysian airliner.” This is the kind of story that takes me right to the brink of abandoning all hope for the future of American civilization.

It’s not just that the plight of the plane does not merit anything like the attention that it has been given — that is not really the worst part of it. The worst part of it is the hunger for official narratives, narratives whose “official” quality derives not from the issuers but from the size of the audience. This is what bothers me about all those screens at Madison Square Garden, where the official, televised view of the game being played trumps one’s own eyewitness account from the stands. In both cases, the audience is relieved of the need to decide what is important about a story, while at the same time every viewer has the satisfaction, if that is what it is, of knowing that many other viewers are tuned into the same presentation.

Faits divers and spectator sports might be considered harmless entertainment, but it is in the context of entertainment that the guidelines for representing political events are honed. And the highest form of entertainment on commercial television is advertising. It has to be.

It is not wrong to watch television. It is wrong to watch television that you have not paid to see. (The cost of cable service is irrelevant to this argument.) In fact, you do pay for it, by subjecting yourself to the depravity of advertising, a dark art devoted to the erosion of human character. The advertiser wants to adjust your thinking about something, but surreptitiously, without direct discussion. The advertiser wants to persuade you, while sparing you any boring arguments, that adjusting your way of thinking will make you feel better about yourself. That many commercial messages are funny does not eliminate the corruption at the heart of the transaction.

Ideally, television would be like the old British gas meters: pay as you go. I don’t think that many people would pay, day after day, to keep abreast of a missing plane that is now almost certainly a coffin, ghoulish to contemplate beyond the feeling of sorrow that passes through us whenever we hear of remote suffering.

And I don’t think that very many voters would pay to watch political news, not as it is currently presented. Paying voters might consider entertainment at best a secondary consideration in the the mediatization of candidates and issues.


She incorporated deep conservatism in combination with radicality, an impulsive protectiveness toward the world and all the natural and cultural things it comprised along with a love of novelty, new beginnings — desires that seemed to others contradictory. People whose imperatives make them sheerly traditionalists or sheerly innovators appear as extremists to the independent minded. As Arendt once remarked, “Man’s urge for change and his need for stability have always balanced and checked each other, and our current vocabulary, which distinguishes between two factions, the progressives and the conservatives, indicates a state of affairs in which this balance has been thrown out of order.” (Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, For Love of the World, second edition, xv)

Things are so much more out of balance now than they were in Arendt’s day: the urge to innovate has been almost entirely abducted by technologists, who have steadily removed themselves from public, political life and set up something like the bubble that Dave Eggers describes in his grim satire, The Circle. Within this bubble, and despite all the displays of social consciousness (especially in matters relating to the environment), the technological elite live lives as detached from social mores as were those of the aristocracy of the ancien régime. (If they seem to behave better, that’s only because they’re working so hard.)

Meanwhile, the “traditionalists” are busy trying to tear down the world in which they grew up, in search of a bogus and cartoonish version of life as lived on the frontier.

But what struck me the other day was that conservative activists are following Arendt’s advice: they have formed councils. It’s true that the actual funding and organization of these counsels has been seen to, in a behind-the-scenes way, by the Koch brothers and others, but the Tea Partiers have indeed shown up to be counted, and their politically informal gatherings have had a mighty impact on government at every level.

The “Occupy” movement, which ought to have corresponded on the progressive side, was from the start non-conciliar. The protestors dropped everything else in their lives to man camps and demonstrations. They sought to interrupt business as usual. They seemed not to understand the greater effectiveness of trying to influence it, as the Tea Partiers have done. The Occupiers recapitulated many of the bêtises of the student movements of the Sixties, the worst of which is believing that Chanting Makes It So.

The secret to the success of local councils, never yet revealed, would be the ability to motivate participators during ordinary times. I’m not sure that Arendt would put it this way, but politics is inherently so exciting that it ought never to appear to be exciting.

In any case, Young-Bruehl’s characterization of Hannah Arendt’s political outlook can be taken for that of my own, and it is this sympathy, or harmony, or whatever, that has plunged me into the reading — I won’t say the study — of Arendt’s writing, which is really nothing but her thinking set down on permanent paper.


If I weren’t feeling lousy, I’d dilate on my reading of Elaine Pagels’s Revelations. I had a hunch that the Book of Revelation is at least a partial template for totalitarian rule, and Pagels’s book convinced me that I was right. The elements of totalitarianism that Arendt sets out in her study are mostly present: ideology (not so much Christian doctrine as the scenario of the end-times), an enemy to be eliminated (those who only appear to belong to the faithful, but who in fact espouse heretical ideas), terror (that lake of fire, those horrible beasts, the four horsemen — even Jesus on a horse!), enthusiastic movement in the place of political deliberation, and an acrobatic flexibility. This last is the most interesting thing about Pagels’s account.

Whoever actually wrote the Book of Revelation was a Jew who believed that Jesus was the Messiah, and he grounded his prophecy in the Old Testament tradition of voices in the wilderness. He was, in short, an outsider who opposed righteousness to power. By the time of Constantine’s conversion, however, Revelation had proved its usefulness in power struggles among the righteous, as factions — notably the Arian heresy — broke out in the new state religion. Now the book became a cudgel of force in the arms of the powerful. The original prophetic message was interpreted out of the text.

This history only hardened my conviction that the Book of Revelation has no place in Christian Scripture.