A few days ago, The New York Times columnist David Brooks, arguing from first principles, made the case against a partisan press incontrovertibly. Like all the best essayists, he did this by also constructing the best possible case for the opposing side, listing all the disadvantages of detachment.
That was not long after a Leeds scholar, Paul Wragg – speaking at a workshop of Oxford’s Foundation for Law, Justice and Society on the 12th of April – expressed his dismay at Lord Justice Leveson’s failure, in his report, to explain or justify adequately his support of press partisanship. This, said Wragg, was inconsistent with the judge’s own repeated reminders of his mission — to find ways to stop the ‘real harm caused to real people’ resulting from the ‘cultural indifference to individual privacy and dignity’ on the part of the British press.
This blog’s worst fears for the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics and behaviour were expressed in a headline last May:
We had not quite given up hope before our earlier blog entry on the same subject, in February, when we had begun to sense — but not believe — the drift of the judge’s sentiments on partisanship, from his remarks during the hearings:
We are dismayed by the proof that our pessimism was so fully justified. At the Inquiry’s inception, a speech by the Lord Chief Justice – who selected Leveson LJ for the job – had given us every reason to hope for a diametrically opposite outcome:
Everyone should have a chance to weigh what David Brooks said about the virtues of detachment – of non-partisan journalism:
… The detached writer also starts with a worldview. If you don’t have a philosophic worldview, your essays won’t even rise to the status of being wrong. They won’t be anything.
But the detached writer wants to be a few steps away from the partisans. She is progressive but not Democratic, conservative but not Republican. She fears the team mentality will blinker her views. She wants to remain mentally independent because she sees politics as a competition between partial truths, and she wants the liberty to find the proper balance between them, issue by issue.
The detached writer believes that writing is more like teaching than activism. Her essays are generally not about winning short-term influence. (Realistically, how many times can an outside writer shape the short-term strategies of the insider politicians?) She would rather have an impact upstream, shaping people’s perceptions of underlying reality and hoping that she can provide a context in which other people can think. She sometimes gets passionate about her views, but she distrusts her passions. She takes notes with emotion, but aims to write with a regulated sobriety.
There are trade-offs, no matter what spot on the continuum you ultimately choose. The engaged writer enjoys a tight community and a powerful sense of commitment. The detached writer enjoys more freedom and objectivity. The engaged writer emphasizes loyalty, while the detached writer emphasizes honesty. At his worst, the engaged writer slips into rabid extremism and simple-minded brutalism. At her worst, the detached writer slips into a sanguine, pox-on-all-your-houses complacency and an unearned sense of superiority. The engaged writer might become predictable. The detached writer might become irrelevant, ignored at both ends.
These days most writers land on the engaged side of the continuum. Look at most think tanks. They used to look like detached quasi universities; now some are more like rapid response teams for their partisan masters. If you ever want to get a political appointment, you have to be engaged, working on political campaigns and serving the team.
But I would still urge you to slide over toward the detached side of the scale. First, there is the matter of mental hygiene. You may think you can become a political partisan without becoming rigid and stale, and we all know people who achieve this, but the risk is high.
Engaged writers gravitate toward topics where they can do the most damage to the other side. These are topics where the battle lines are clearly drawn, not topics where there is a great deal of uncertainty. Engaged writers develop a talent for muzzle velocity, not curiosity. Just as in life, our manners end up dictating our morals. So, in writing our prose, styles end up shaping our mentalities. If you write in a way that suggests combative certitude, you may gradually smother the inner chaos that will be the source of lifelong freshness and creativity.
Also, detached writers have more realistic goals. Detached writers generally understand that they are not going to succeed in telling people what to think. It is enough to prod people to think …
[ … Read the whole column here … ]