Public Intellectual: Profession and Purgatory

Columnists

In Washington, where the rice paddies of self-importance are nourished with the night soil of mendacity, columnists are viewed with the seriousness properly reserved for lung cancer. This is ridiculous. Columnists, the rodent class of journalism, have the dignity of carney barkers and merit the social standing of bellhops. It’s a living. For most of us, barely.

A columnist’s job is to tell readers things that they already believe. His function is purely confirmatory. What he confirms may be nonsense, and often is, but this is irrelevant. There is after all everywhere a boom market in nonsense.

Liberals read liberal columnists to be told liberal things, conservatives, conservative, feminists, feminist. All want to be assured that their vacuous and pernicious delusions are the bedrock of cosmic truth. Readers of columns do not want to learn anything. Most want to be protected from it.

Consistency is a columnist’s indispensable stock in trade. He must never tell his readers anything that they do not hold to be sacred lore. Thus an aspiring columnist is wise to choose an ideological position–it doesn’t matter which–and never, ever stray from it. Whether he believes it is not important.

I once read of a columnist, perhaps in the Thirties, a savage conservative who eventually drew the ire of a leftish columnist on another paper, who began a campaign to have the conservative fired. The dispute became ugly with unpleasant accusations being traded. Lawsuits were threatened. Public interest became intense. Then it transpired that the two were the same man. Charged with lack of journalistic integrity, he responded that readers wanted to see their prejudices ventilated in lively prose. He was, he said, doing it for both sides. Stores sold more than one product. Why shouldn’t he?

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From Fred on Everything, here.

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