Welcome to Weimar America

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Arthur Koestler is most famous for his Darkness at Noon, a book written in 1939 whose subject was the Stalin show trials of the thirties, when the Dictatorship of the Proletariat was exposed as the tyranny of a very bad man. Koestler wrote many other books, however, and one that I just read, Arrow in the Blue, had surprising relevance to our peculiar circumstances in this year of Our Lord, 2020, with regard to the media and the truth.

Koestler had quite a varied experience of life as a young man. He lived through the Communist Commune in Budapest as a boy in 1919, then lived in Vienna, a kibbutz in the Palestine Mandate, Paris and Berlin—all this before the age of 35. Arrow in the Blue is the first volume of his memoirs and details his life in journalism in the run up to the Second World War.

He wrote that Anglo Saxon journalism (by which he meant the media in United Kingdom and the United States) differed greatly from its German counterpart. He said that, “Political bias and personal idiosyncrasies are supposed to be kept down to a minimum and make themselves only indirectly felt, through the inevitable selection of materials and distribution of emphasis.” In other words, the point of view was not clear from the beginning, as it would be in editorial writing.

In contrast, “German journalism, particularly during the Weimar Republic, took a diametrically opposite course. Its starting point was the correspondent’s Weltanschauung, and the political philosophy of the paper for which he worked. His job was not to report news and facts (that task was contemptuously left to the news agencies), but to use facts as pretexts for venting his opinions and passing oracular judgments. ‘Facts,’ a famous German editor said, ‘are not fit for the reader when served raw; they have to be cooked, chewed and presented in the correspondent’s saliva.’ Fed on this kind of diet, the German reading public never developed an empirical approach to world affairs; it never learned to face the facts and weigh the evidence. Its approach to reality was distorted by Weltanschauung; and the more you become addicted to Weltanschauung, the easier you are swept off your feet.”

Koestler had written in a genre called feuilleton, in which the personal perspective of the author was always front and center. He was disgusted reading over his own journalism of the period because he saw how infected it was with the contemporary style. He wished that someone had given him a “good dressing down,” “but the editors in the various newspaper offices in Berlin, Vienna, and Prague preferred gingerbread to factual fare; they suppressed figures but let the adjectives stand, and sometimes added a few of their own.” It was “a culture rapidly losing touch with reality.” He saw all of this as a mentality, which, a few years later, “wallowed in the turbid flow of the Nazi mystique.”

Weltanschauung is a fancy word applied to the talking heads of the cable news programs. It is too dignified to use about the writers in the few newspapers that are given attention today. But no one can deny that what used to be called the news is selected, presented, emphasized, and even sensationalized according to the political allegiances of the men and women in the media. I say allegiances because there is not even a consistency on the level of philosophy and ideas. News is reported according to how it will serve the purposes of activism and campaigns.

There are exceptions, of course, but it is hard to hear or read anything that intends to let the consumer of the information make his own judgment. It is news pre-digested or even regurgitated according to the tactical positions of the prevailing consensus in any particular corporate instrument of opinion-making. That is why it is rare to have dissidence in the business of information processing—it cannot be called journalism—and the processing is often a kind of screening. When some intellectuals wrote an open letter protesting the inhibiting of opinions by group think, it was not welcomed, criticized a bit, but the key was it was not allowed to resonate with the public. Social media has now become a regime of censorship just as powerful as governments, and generally more parti pris (reflecting a position previously taken).

The dangers of the Weimarization of our media seem to be unremarked and perhaps that is because of a philosophy of relativism (although intolerant, which is the worst kind of relativism) and because of the economic reality behind the media (social and otherwise). Social media is commercialized and of its nature wants to exclude other outlets that compete. Even NPR and other sources of processed information offer listeners pre-selected stories based on “preferences” to use a word that might carry an intellectual expiration date these days. “We will not bother you with stuff you don’t want to hear,” is the message. This is about marketing and not about truth as such.

Part of the trouble is the ignorance of an educated class that holds on to clichés they had to regurgitate in the course of their college curriculum. Academe is notorious now for intellectual intolerance and an almost metaphysical herd mentality. The bien pensants of this age are conformists in thinking. They rarely think out of the tracks provided for them by opinion makers. The bourgeois Catholics backing Biden are more bourgeois than Catholic, but they are comfortable because what they dare to say and think is within the cocoon spun of clichés mass produced by the “influencers.”

Which leads me to the aspect of the situation that scares me most. How does the Church respond to this situation? Timidly, to say the least. “The best lack all conviction”, to recall Yeats, while the worst are not only full of passionate conviction but are rewarded with economic advantage. The Areopagus was a free space. The Internet has become a commercial venue posing as an Areopagus. How are we supposed to break into the discussion when what the Church says is not only marginalized, but official organs seem to be engaged in a kind of self-marginalization. James Baldwin complained about African American media imitating what he saw as a white-dominated culture by assimilating its standards and priorities. When most of Catholic media imitates the mainstream media or decides just to serve up gingerbread, what can we hope for?

Catholic education was supposed to form believers with a capacity to discern reality and be able to counter prevailing cultural prejudices and ignorance. This is not the case, not in most “Catholic” universities (and those in the “Jesuit” tradition) and not even in Catholic grade schools where teachers are often poorly trained and catechized. We need real change in the Catholic culture of many of our schools.

The same is true of the clergy, whose formation is crucial to the formation of conscience of the Body of Christ. There are tremendous gaps in the education of future priests in terms of Christian cultural heritage, in their grounding in a philosophical-theological perspective that goes beyond aesthetic and stylistic tastes (some of the younger “conservative” clergy are much more inclined to score better on style than on content), and in some human qualities that also are connected to pastoral attention.

So, what is to be done? The “influencers” or opinion makers within the Church need what St. John Paul II said about the evangelization at Santo Domingo, “Nueva en su ardor, nueva en sus métodos, nueva en sus expresiones.” Fresh in ardor, different in methods and new in its expression.

[Photo credit: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images]

Msgr. Richard C. Antall

By

Monsignor Antall is pastor of Holy Name Parish in the Diocese of Cleveland. He is the author of The Wedding, (Lambing Press, 2019).

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