the shifting center of gravity
David Warren compares the pop makeover of science "in the public interest" to that of his own field, journalism.
Once upon a time, there were two modes of journalism, called tabloid and broadsheet. The distinction was clear. The first (tabloid), aimed at the more ignorant and credulous section of the population, was shamelessly sensationalist, and indifferent to its own track record. The second (broadsheet), aimed at the more intelligent and sceptical -- businessmen, especially, with money on the line. It cultivated greyness and sobriety, and was fixated on reputation. Tabloids were for fun, broadsheets were for information.
In my own lifetime as a journalist I have watched this distinction evaporate, and the unrestricted triumph of the tabloid ideal.
But at the same time, there has been a swing, among the class of people who staff the media. Where before they were generally short on academic qualifications, but long on street smarts, now we have a broad creamy froth of journalism-school graduates with zero street-smarts, but thorough indoctrination in the art of attitudinizing.
The same phenomenon has taken place across the board in what used to be called "the learned professions." Think of the figures of headmaster and judge and bishop as they appeared in the public imagination from the time of Anthony Trollope through, say, that of Monty Python. It was common ground between author and audience that such dignitaries were models of gravitas -- what Warren calls "greyness and sobriety" -- and their slightest lapse into infantilism was exploitable for comic effect by Wodehouse or Gilbert & Sullivan precisely because of its universally recognized unlikelihood.
Over the past forty years we've witnessed a thorough-going warholization of authority and the custodians of authority. Public notoriety, once regarded by the professions as an embarrassment, is now a good so self-evident that any stunt is permissible to earn one's 15 minutes of fame, provided certain canons of juvenility are honored. Chief among these is a fierce adolescent anarchy in matters of eros, and figures whose professional demeanor was, by tradition, so icily solemn that it was indecent even to speculate on their extra-professional lives now flaunt their sexual iconoclasm in technicolor. If tomorrow we click on Drudge and see a photo of the Senate Judiciary Committee licking apricot jam off the thighs of the Pittsburgh Steelers' offensive line (or vice-versa) -- to raise awareness, perhaps, about the diet of Guantanamo detainees -- will we be surprised? Yes. Will we be shocked? That would be going too far. We've been well coached in the doctrine that reticence in the service of chastity is no virtue; indignity in the cause of celebrity no vice.
By the same token, the traditional division of a man's public and private lives has been largely reversed in our time. In the 1860s, Newman gave the world a history of his religious opinions, but kept his libidinal appetites to himself. In a college classroom today, both student and professor could more easily discuss their sexual habits than their relationship to Christ. In this too there's a juvenile aspect to the shame and a juvenile aspect to the self-display. The same churchmen who will countenance worship segregated on the basis of homosexual attraction will deplore kneeling at communion as "divisive"; to the mind of a thirteen-year-old, as we know, even someone else's devoutness can be excruciating. What is remarkable is how swift and complete the inversion has been. Perhaps only in certain parts of the military and certain parts of the contemplative monastic life will we yet find models of human dignity in which adulthood holds itself accountable to its own past -- adulthood, that's to say, according to which a man is esteemed for subordinating that which results in his own fun to that which results in the objective good of others.
Not that the warholization is light-hearted about its own recklessness. As Warren says, it includes a "thorough indoctrination in the art of attitudinizing." Traditional truths might be mocked, but no comparable levity is permitted when it comes to the solemn frivolity of the iconoclasts. When London's Royal Academy of Arts mistakenly put a slab on exhibit instead of the sculpture for which it was a base, or when another artist "displayed" an empty gallery so that patrons might project their memories onto its blank walls, there was no shortage of grave academics to explain to us why it was a triumph. From precisely the same motives, and with exactly the same reverence for truth, theologians have been found to defend Gene Robinson's ordination and deans to award honorary degrees to Clinton and legal scholars to vindicate the Roe v. Wade and Lawrence decisions. The grim sanctimoniousness they bring to the task, in fact, is directly proportionate to the intellectual frailty of their position. It's a hard bluff to pull off. An ill-timed return of sane irreverence could ruin the whole show.
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Posted by: -
Feb. 20, 2007 8:29 PM ET USA
Grace and dignity seem to be mocked as fuddy-duddy notions by the bane and the silly. Ladies have become tramps and gentlemen have become boors. Back in the days when adults acted with reserve, some 40 years ago, we children could play outside at night. Is there a connection? You bet there is!
Posted by: -
Feb. 20, 2007 11:27 AM ET USA
This was another great post, Uncle Di; and the pictures are worth a thousand words.
Posted by: -
Feb. 19, 2007 5:50 PM ET USA
Diogenes: How dare you besmirch Pee Wee Herman in that manner. He may be a lot of things but metrosexual Episcopalian he is not.
Posted by: -
Feb. 19, 2007 3:10 PM ET USA
Cf. Romans 1:18-32.
Posted by: -
Feb. 19, 2007 10:46 AM ET USA
"What is remarkable is how swift and complete the inversion has been." You are right on the money. When I look back at my childhood in the 1950's, I think of an entirely different society, of a nation that considered itself Christian, of young people who emulated masculine role models, of a culture that did not tolerate potty-mouths. A vast sea change has occurred over the past 40+ years. We have become a pagan society with comic-idiot amoral role models. What a shame.