We reveal our collective feelings by what we take for granted. New York Times writers, for instance, assume that George W. Bush is considered so gauche that his name can serve as a synonym for clumsiness. On Sunday, a story about inept business jargon quoted an anonymous executive's memo: "Cascade this to your people and see what the push-back is." The article wasn't even about politics, but the writer knew what to say next: "If that sentence were a person, it would walk like George W. Bush."
Among liberal opinionmongers, including TV comics, Bush is a punchline. Garrison Keillor on the Prairie Home Companion says moron jokes, popular among teenagers in the 1940s, are being recycled as Bush jokes. (From the Web: "George Bush is so stupid, he went to a concert and waved to Stevie Wonder.") Maureen Dowd of the Times not only considers Bush a dunce, she assumes her readers agree. She seems to believe that no decent person could think otherwise. Among people like her, Bush has roughly the status of Brian Mulroney in Canada 10 years ago; defending him could create a scandal.
We're talking about fashion. Articulate, sensitive people know by instinct that some views are currently acceptable, others not. Which ideas are being worn this season? That becomes especially pressing today because opinion circulates so quickly, but it's always been a worrisome question. When the gusts of fashionable thought sweep across the plains of public opinion, no one can entirely ignore them. Not me, not you, perhaps not even the late Isaiah Berlin.
Berlin, who died in 1997, wrote brilliantly on ideas but avoided violating fashion. Richard Pipes, the historian of Soviet power, discusses this point in his forthcoming autobiography, Vixi: Memoirs of A Non-Belonger. Pipes says Berlin despised the Soviet regime yet refrained from criticizing it in public, "perhaps because anticommunism was considered vulgar in the circles he frequented."
In 1972 Pipes himself was worried. A lifelong Democrat, he was appalled when his party nominated George McGovern for president. But could he vote for the despised Richard Nixon? Pipes asked Berlin what he would do. Berlin responded: "I would vote for Nixon but tell no one." He knew it was unwise to step publicly outside the sophisticated consensus.
Those who embody political fashion often refuse to believe it exists. In this week's New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg makes the preposterous claim that Morning Edition and All Things Considered, news shows on National Public Radio, aspire to objectivity. "Their sensibility," he says, "may fairly be said to be 'liberal' in the sense that liberal education is liberal -- that is, open-minded and urbane ... but what little overt political commentary they offer hovers around the moderate middle."
Nonsense, of course. Bias so pervades NPR that its journalists (much like reporters on our own dear CBC) are probably unaware of it. They can't imagine any other way of doing their work (that's the essence of groupthink). On the Middle East, NPR follows the standard-left approach: View the Palestinians with as much sympathy as possible and direct as much suspicion as possible toward the Israelis. That was clear to me when I examined the 36 stories on this subject NPR broadcast in July.
At best, NPR assumes a false moral equivalence, as in Peter Kenyon's July 25 story about reducing incitement to violence in accordance with the road map. For years the Palestinian Authority has taught Jew-hatred (and, lately, murder-by-martyr) in their schools and elsewhere. Kenyon reported that Palestinian propaganda has lately been toned down, but then went on to treat Israeli opinion as if it were a parallel problem. He didn't acknowledge that Palestinian leaders have made promoting hatred a policy whereas in Israel it's limited to a marginalized, unofficial minority. Kenyon gave the last word to an unnamed Palestinian who stated, without challenge from NPR, the reverse of the truth: "At least our radicals are in the opposition; theirs [Israel's] are running the government."
Steve Emerson, the author of American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us, claims he's banned from NPR. Even Jeffrey Dvorkin, NPR's ombudsman and a former CBC executive, says "It's time to hear what Emerson has to say." But the head of NPR news insists there's no ban, never has been. Any producer or reporter is free to put Emerson on the air. It just happens that not one of them has chosen to do so -- since August, 1998.
BBC news, once universally admired for fairness, now suffers from chronic groupthink. Conrad Black recently wrote, in a letter to his own London Daily Telegraph, that "The BBC is pathologically hostile to the government and official opposition, most British institutions, American policy in almost every field, Israel, moderation in Ireland, all Western religions, and most manifestations of the free market economy." If I knew nothing of the subject I'd call that hysterical exaggeration. It happens, though, that I've been watching BBC news for years, carefully enough to know that Lord Black has it precisely right. And if things proceed in the usual way, those who work at the BBC will be the last people in the world to notice.