Eye of the Fly

As a person who makes his living in the media (and I wouldn’t if I had any marketable skill), I often wonder what is wrong with us. For when I stop looking for events in the media and instead squint my eyes — so that I am looking not through the mirror of the media but at the surface of that mirror itself — I see only something unspeakably smooth, flat, and vacant. To which we can add only lies.

A very Catholic friend, who recently retired from two-score years in a newspaper office, assures me that newspapers were not a Catholic invention; that the whole idea of them can be traced to the Protestant Reformation. In a truly Catholic civilization, he suggested — perhaps mischievously — there would be no newspapers (or, by extension, websites).

 

Indeed, in the country from which I come — Canada — there is a province named Quebec. It corresponds roughly to the original Canada, for the country was planted in the New World as an outpost of the Kingdom of France, and expressly as a Catholic outpost and mission to this New World.

In the “good old days” — as we are taught by the mocking and sneering professors in journalism schools — there were no newspapers in Quebec. The governors, intendants, and bishops of New France thought nothing good could come of such things. (And who will say that history hasn’t proved them wise?)

They encouraged enterprise in agriculture, shipbuilding, the fur trade, and so forth. They provided for defense against ceaseless Iroquois raids. They were not lazy men. And verily, in the state of nature, at our Canadian latitudes, no lazy man lives very long. But they could not see the point of printing presses. Canadien society had difficulties enough without encouraging dissension.

Later, and only after the British conquest, a French and Catholic press arose — yet at first only as a kind of reply to the English press. In a world where literacy was drummed home by incessant printing, it was necessary to produce one’s own sheets and wrap oneself in them.

 

To this day, the monolithic conformity of opinion among Quebec’s intellectuals remains an artifact of this history; let me call it “the journalism of reply.” They are post-Christian now, but they still imagine themselves trapped inside a stockade, with something very foreign whooping outside, that does not wish them well. The slightest deviation from the fatuities of the current party line will get a “freethinking” writer shoved out the gate.

And if you think the liberal media in the States are monotonous, come to Canada, “a country where there is one side to every question.” Or if you really want to suffocate, go to Quebec.

The demand for “learning” would have pulled presses into Quebec sooner or later, I suppose. A society not under siege would eventually afford some superficial variety of opinion. And curiosity for news is endemic to the species. I, myself, don’t think the periodical press was avoidable.

“The medium is the message,” according to that late great Canadian sage Marshall McLuhan — a man whose insights into the cultural and spiritual ramifications of “modern media” were genuinely deep. And who was, incidentally, a very zealous Catholic. (“The worst kind,” he would explain to inquirers. “A convert.”)

The transformative influence of “free press” upon society has much less to do with the opinions that are expressed than with the way they are expressed, with the means used. At the simplest level, the medium determines what will be discussed. For what is discussed will be what can be discussed, and communicated most conveniently, in that medium.

And to my mind, secularism, socialism, the Nanny State, all follow from the nature of the discussion in alphabetical mass media. Print is instructional, by nature, and once it is out of monastic hands, it begins changing the world in the direction of a “how to” manual. Print guides the mind to technical solutions, which it proposes for “problems” identified and analyzed in ever more technical ways. It allows, then enforces, specialization and accreditation of “experts.” But this specialization is itself really an alternative general approach — to seeing things whole.

That is to say, print enables, and periodical journalism enforces, a general movement from poetry to prose, then finally to footnote (or web link); and with that, the breaking down of a unified vision into a faceted vision of things. We come to see the world, as it were, less like men and more like houseflies.

Quite literally so, in one important respect — for the fly’s eyes are attuned almost exclusively to movement, especially quick movement; whereas the man’s were rather more suited to the contemplation of landscape, still life, portrait, and icon. (I rather think that’s what Kafka was getting at in his tale “Metamorphosis.”)

I am not proposing a solution to this problem, by the way. I am in the media, but I hope not entirely of it. Being of a more medieval disposition, I tend to think problems cannot be “fixed” except by Christ. The best we can do is describe them, poetically, and enjoy them — as comedy, as tragedy — perhaps even sanctify them in some way. While praying, of course, for our salvation.

David Warren

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David Warren is a Canadian journalist who writes mostly on international affairs. His Web site is www.davidwarrenonline.com.

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