Conclusion—The silence of the best: What can happen to a nation which doesn’t have a press corps?
When that nation’s brightest and best refuse to discuss that remarkable state of affairs?
What can happen to such a nation? The Washington Post gave us a hint on the front page of Wednesday’s Style section in a gigantic, sprawling piece by Manuel Roig-Franzia.
Back when the Post was more influential, Style was always the place to go to examine the press corps’ unfolding acts of group consensual lunacy. Example:
In June 1999, Eugene Robinson, then Style’s editor, published three (3) large pieces in less than two weeks about the unbearable boredom of Candidate Gore. In these insulting, inane and punishing pieces, Robinson signaled the rest of the guild about an unfolding group narrative.
The pieces were timed to coincide with the formal launch of the Gore campaign. Did we mention the fact that the trio of pieces were inane and insulting?
Style was always the place to see such garbage-can grouptalk unfold. The Post is less influential today, but the section can still serve this anthropological purpose.
So it was two days ago when Roig-Franzia’s piece appeared. Transmitting wonderfully innocent language, Roig-Franzia quoted someone who spoke of “a mythical garment.” Here’s the way he began his piece, which concerned the Zimmerman trial:
ROIG-FRANZIA (7/31/13): Sift everything. Sift the weeks of testimony, the theatrics, the recriminations, the tears. Sift the months of noisy commentary—the relentless, pounding, grating noise.Michael Skolnik is basically nuts, as you know if you’ve seen him on TV. In fairness, Roig-Franzia doesn’t seem to be far behind.
One image remains, clinging there to our consciousness. Sturdy, permanent, enduring, a distillation—a takeaway.
In the moment that the hoodie—Trayvon Martin’s hoodie—appeared in Courtroom 5D in Seminole County, Fla., it was as if the air sluiced out the door. There was a breathless, aching stillness.
Prosecutors displayed the dark gray sweatshirt that Martin wore on the last night of his life in an enormous, rectangular, thickly three-dimensional frame. The hoodie lay suspended between clear plastic sheets with its arms spread wide inside a cross-shaped cutout, set starkly apart from the brilliant white of the matting. It might easily have been mistaken for a religious relic, even as it became a singularly evocative entry in a long inventory of indelible courtroom artifacts from O.J. Simpson’s ill-fitting gloves to Lorena Bobbitt’s emasculating kitchen knife. Prosecutors lifted the framed hoodie awkwardly, teetering toward the jury.
“I get goose bumps just thinking about it,” says Michael Skolnik, who sat next to Martin’s parents on that morning, the day before the Fourth of July. Skolnik, the political director for hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons and a member of the Trayvon Martin Foundation board, felt as if he were in the presence of something as consequential and iconic as Babe Ruth’s bat or the Declaration of Independence. “It’s like this mythical garment,” he says.
Style has always been like that! For years, it was Sally Quinn’s joint.
With wonderful openness, Skolnik said that Martin’s hooded sweatshirt is now “like this mythical garment.” Roig-Franzia spoke a bit more directly, comparing the sweatshirt to “a religious relic.” Indeed, that’s how he positioned the garment in his own mystical prose:
“The hoodie lay suspended between clear plastic sheets with its arms spread wide inside a cross-shaped cutout,” the hysterical journalist wrote. Rather plainly, perhaps by intent, Roig-Franzia evoked the crucifixion with his hysterical prose.
What happens when a nation doesn’t have a press corps? Consider Skolnik’s wonderfully unguarded use of the term, “mythical garment.”
This garment has played a prominent role in the way this story has been told within our journalist-free nation. But where did that prominence come from?
As any journalist could tell you, it didn’t come from the actual evidence in this case, such as that evidence is. When George Zimmerman phoned police that night, he didn’t discuss what Martin was wearing until he was asked to do so.
Was Zimmerman troubled by the hoodie? Everything is possible! That’s especially true within a culture which has abandoned traditional practices—within a culture whose “journalists” simply type the novels some outside group has produced.
Back in 1999, many invented tales about Gore were coming from RNC sources. Useful figures like Robinson let Ceci type them on up.
In March 2012, the “press corps” franchised the novel about Martin’s killing to the family lawyers. (That wasn’t the fault of the family.) Even before the story went national, the lawyers had given Zimmerman’s fear of hoodies a prominent role in their lurid, invented tale.
One full week before Geraldo erupted about the meddlesome wearing of hoodies, the Orlando Sentinel reported the lawyers’ account of the fateful evening’s events. Right from the start, the family lawyers were telling a lurid though basically “mythical” tale about that useful garment:
STUTZMAN (3/14/13): The family's attorneys have portrayed Zimmerman as something far different: a wannabe cop who studied criminal justice at the University of Central Florida, had a concealed-weapons permit, patrolled his neighborhood while carrying a 9 mm handgun and confronted Trayvon simply because he was black and wore a hoodie.Zimmerman was a wannabe cop. He confronted Martin simply because he was black and wore a hoodie!
To state the obvious, this has become the Standard Account of what happened in Sanford that night. The “press corps” has tended to advance this account—and news orgs have almost never attempted to challenge or clarify these lawyer-rigged claims.
In truth, there is no particular evidence that Zimmerman “confronted” Martin that evening; Zimmerman says Martin confronted him, and the location of their meeting may tend to support his account. (For that reason, the location was dropped from the lawyer’s account and you’ve never seen it discussed by the press corps. For ourselves, we don't know who may have confronted whom.) Nor is there any evidence that Zimmerman was motivated by the hoodie at all, although that's possible, of course, just like everything else is.
The lawyers’ account was lurid and pleasing but it was hugely unfounded. At one point, they invented a heinous but plainly false tale in which “a warning shot” was followed by “a kill shot.” (Disgracefully, the New York Times pimped it.)
The lawyers invented many false and unfounded facts. None of this matters in a nation which lacks a functioning press corps! In this instance, the press corps simply adopted the novel which had been crafted by the lawyers. The corps also adopted a raft of false claims, many of which they have continued repeating to this very day.
That’s the way the hoodie gained prominence in this novelized tale. On March 21, 2012, the nation’s possibly gullible citizens staged a Million Hoodie March, cementing the lawyers’ unfounded tale in millions of people’s minds.
The lawyers had invented a claim; many people swallowed it whole. But go ahead! Just find the journalist who warned the public that this claim was unsupported by evidence and may be totally false.
We the people can be stampeded, especially about emotional topics. For reasons which are blindingly obvious, race is the most emotional topic in American life.
In the world of fifth-grade civics textbooks, our journalists and even our lofty professors jealously guard such topics. They bravely stand to challenge, correct or clarify claims which are unfounded or false.
We don’t live in that world, a world fifth-graders can understand. For at least the past twenty years, we have lived in a world where lawyers or other collections of hacks get to invent novelized tales and fake facts, and the “journalists” rush to repeat them.
When a nation has no actual press corps, we the lunatics end up in charge. Crackpots like Skolnik end up saying that a sweatshirt is a mythical garment on a par with Babe Ruth’s bat (?) or the Declaration of Independence. Struggling to top that hysterical claim, the people who have replaced the journalists may even reimagine the hoodie as a religious relic.
Plainly evoking the crucifixion, they’ll reimagine that mythical garment as the hooded sweatshirt of Turin!
Our press corps has functioned this way for decades. Our smartest liberals, our brightest and best, simply refuse to discuss this.
Krugman and Drum and Dionne won’t go there. The lunacy that is spreading around them is swallowing up their work.
As you know, we’re very big fans of Krugman and Drum. Dionne, a tiny bit less so. But when our smartest people look away—when they offer the sounds of silence—we head down the zealot’s path.
When he was composing Dubliners, Joyce thought he saw intellectual “paralysis” all through the sectors of his nation. The priests and the nuns were in charge there too, with their own hysteria about their own sacred relics.
When modern nations lack a press corps, screeching claims about the holy is where the whole mess will end up. Style has always been the place to see how dumb this can get.
Coming: Two tribes, two holy mothers
When Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart: He borrowed his title from this famous stanza:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Do the best lack all conviction? They certainly lack all conviction about discussing the ways of their guild!
It seems to us that the work of the best is being swallowed by the spreading disintegration.
In this case, though, let’s not refer to “the worst.” Let’s speak instead of “the poorly served.” Let's speak of this nation’s good decent people who don’t have an actual press corps.