My rating: 5 of 5 stars
It was in the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election that I first, all unwitting, encountered the phenomenon of American political commentary in all its ugly reality. My image of the American political commentator was based largely on The West Wing and on Alistair Cooke, that doyen of reasoned and courteous intelligence. There was no clear presidential winner; so, fed up with the ignorance of the British media on the subject, I started to visit American websites for enlightenment. A media industry that had picked Jed Bartlet as their fictional President would be bound to have something profound and insightful to say on the situation… right?
It was a rude awakening indeed. The strident bigotry… the certainty in the mind of every pundit, of every self-appointed online commentator, that they were right and the other guys were wrong and stupid… the playing to the gallery of extremists.
The great Mr Cooke made the point: ‘In my experience, a weary one that lasted through six days and evenings, there was not one man or woman of whom you could say: “I don’t know which party he/she belongs to.”’ He did not intend it as a compliment.
For the 2004 presidential election, my expat American wife decided for some reason that I needed to be kept away from the current generation of media mediocrats, and gave me a copy of So This is Depravity – Russell Baker’s collection of essays, most of them reprinted from his regular column in The New York Times between 1973 and 1980.
Here was a commentator, an essayist, who could write of serious subjects without taking himself too seriously; who could, amazingly, write with wisdom, empathy and compassion in the midst of that grim period of enforced national self-awareness, when America had, for perhaps the first time in its history, messed up spectacularly and publicly both at home (Watergate) and abroad (Vietnam).
And slipped in between Baker’s wry, witty comment on current affairs and politics, the reverse to its obverse, is his humour. Whether in the catalogue of DIY disaster, “They Don’t Make That Anymore” (p. 94), his foray into culinary immortality, “Francs and Beans” (p. 132), or his account of reading Proust, “Crawling Up Everest” (p. 252 – but oh, for an index or a table of contents anywhere in this book!), Baker has a knack for taking some facet of everyday life and following it to its most absurd and yet logical conclusion – and making us laugh while he does it.
Nowadays Baker’s editor would tell him to be ashamed of his classical education, to hide it away in a filing cabinet, lest it embarrass or confuse some less erudite reader. Fortunately for literary posterity, neither that editor nor that reader had been born when Baker was coaxing “Caesar’s Puerile Wars” (p. 27) out of his Remington.
Above all, though, Russell Baker sets a benchmark for intelligent commentary on the awkward and the unpalatable. Those who wish to express their opinions on the circumstances of 2011 would be well advised to read him, to learn from his wise and good-humoured example, before they commit their views to the ether.
It is all a far cry from the world of blogs and Facebook, where any fool with an internet connection can spew forth his or her opinion without restraint, moderation or decorum. One longs for the wisdom of a Cooke or the wit of a Baker to make sense of the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords last January. Instead, I had on my Facebook newsfeed a triumphant Republican who, days after the shooting, triumphantly used the c-word (‘crosshairs’, for the avoidance of doubt) in reference to the incident. Sarah Palin had, of course, published a map of the USA with crosshairs on the key Republican congressional targets, including Ms. Giffords’. So ‘Crosshairs’, said my Facebook ‘friend’ (sic), and then in brackets, “there – I said it!”, as if she were a teenager ostentatiously flouting a parental curfew.
I de-friended her – just as I de-friended half a dozen Labour and Lib Dem supporters (this thing appears at both ends of the political spectrum, you see) during last year’s British General Election, and for the same reason. I do not ‘do’ the language of hatred. We each have enough to contend with in life without filling ourselves with hatred – particularly other people’s hatred.
Freedom of speech is all very well. The trouble is that it’s too often used as an excuse – an excuse for hatred, for bigotry, for the sheer lazy stupidity of playing to one’s own extremist gallery. The enraged self-righteousness of the strident blogger doesn’t change anyone’s mind; it merely entrenches existing opinions pro or con.
The good news is that these characteristics, the bigotry and the smallness of mind, expose themselves. The other good news is that we can choose not to take part in this dreary, destructive trench warfare. Tessy Britton recently offered an alternative to confrontation in situations where disagreement exists. What a pity that her twelfth principle wasn’t adopted at the outset by both sides of the AV argument!: “Disagreement is inevitable and healthy, but never demonise individuals based on differences of opinion. Act with integrity.” There is no enemy in a community.
Now there’s a standard to live up to.
This article is based on a book review of ‘So This is Depravity’ on Goodreads and Amazon.