June 25, 2020|Updated Jun 28 2020
Back at start of the month, when the Tom Cotton op-ed appeared in the New York Times, my first response — not to what he wrote, since I didn’t read it, but to the situation — was to tweet this:
It’s a reaction out of step with the general tenor of spleen turned at the Times over the couple of days it took the organization to assess damage and get to its act of contrition. It’s in some contrast with my own alt-account tweet calling for shake-up, for that matter. When Bennet’s resignation did come, I was surprised, and was indifferent to it as spectacle of comeuppance served or internal discipline administered, either one. I don’t know what all led to his ousting. Can’t help doubting strongly, at any rate, from my far-off vantage, that it could come down entirely to the Cotton flap.
(Should say that I still haven’t read Cotton’s item. No interest in what sort of case it makes or how much of the country’s support it might, on this or that interpretation, enjoy. I know what he stands for. It disgusts me.)
I find myself a long way, here, from the political ideas — on the whole easily locatable at the time, if never anything like clear in articulation — of my younger self. That’s really what’s on my mind. A certain measure of the distance we’re talking comes, for me, in keeping an eye on Nebraska’s ‘junior senator,’ Ben Sasse, whom I knew a little bit in church context during our overlapping stints in and close to D.C. (his as grad student and in posts around the Hill and K St., mine, still close to home in Baltimore, as a late undergrad and, later, a carpenter) when he and I were both in 20s and early 30s. There’s useful comparison between Sasse and Cotton, not altogether incidental here, to be explored in some commentary about the two of them as new Senate members out of midwestern states amid the Republican party roil of 2015/16 — e.g. Reihan Salam’s, for Slate. You have to give it to Sasse for consistency: unlike me, what he was committed to ideologically 25 years ago still seems to hold for him, pretty much, today. He’s a Clinton-Bush-Obama-era Republican (to speak in the sloppy way we’re all used to), and a peevish, media-unfriendly-tending one at that. First Things, leading read of conservative-Christian intellectual types in D.C. and throughout the corridor when I knew (from the margins) him amid his young-Reformeds circle, may have moved on, but Sasse really hasn’t. That’s interesting for a lot of reasons, remarkable (maybe) among current national-politics phenomena — but for me, more: a provocation, a scrap of burr under my saddle, an object of introspection-ward curiosity, because temperamentally, as I consider it, I’m certainly very much like Sasse and with him (and folks like him) still. For me it’s views that have moved, you could say, not so much outlook. But the views have, like, really moved, man.
All that movement hasn’t happened all at once, to be sure. Far from it. At the same time, there are aspects of it that feel pretty fresh, yet. Conversation with people who’ve known me for a while can involve a good deal of self-explanation, a good deal of back-tracking and so on, as a result. Never mind what conversation with myself requires! Some topical back-and-forth with Darrell Reimer, oldest friend of this blog (15 years, give or take? — or a little less than since I last ran into Sasse, at an Alexandria Missouri Synod church I liked to visit on Sundays), occasions this post, appropriately.
Let’s come back to disposing, one way or other, of the New York Times company. It’s an abolition-minded moment, this June of 2020. We suddenly appear to be able to speak of the movement for abolishing the prison industrial complex, policing in America, not as the preoccupation of unmentionable fringe figures but as a cause enjoying a certain level of popular support, a real political (not to say at this point ‘politically viable’) development — something you have to think probably isn’t a minor factor in things’ issuing so that Cotton’s op-ed met stiff resistance from people who would be heard. Am I feeling out the bounds of a new leftie identity by coming out for abolition of ‘the corporate media’ in my little corner while the weather’s favorable for such things? Well, I don’t know. If I have a leftie identity to speak of (which: doubtful), I guess I’ve been around enough to know better than to cultivate it in that manner. But the serious point I have to hit here is that it really isn’t squared off against a titanic corporate media, particularly — or in itself, rather — that I find myself trying to account for my sense of orientation to the political good these days. I mean, let’s step back a sec and ask ourselves whether we know anymore with clarity which among our great houses are the media companies and which are, strictly, something else. There’s some discussion to be had around the question, maybe, but I think the answer in the end is a plain No. We all grasp that the environment, the conditioning frame, with respect to which we can talk about what the big business entities we know today are is something that has evolved in dramatic fashion in the course of a few decades. (NYT, a bit peculiarly, maintains some elements of structure that recall its place in past stages of this fast-burning economic order, but this is just detail, surely.) The contest for control of media space was every business’s business, to an extent, as things stood, let’s say 50 years ago — a situation in which ‘the media’ occupied a particular sort of height upon the field. Most of us get that this no longer describes the landscape in which we maneuver on ever more digital and disaggregated terms, individually or otherwise, even if we struggle to say what does describe it. In short: what would be the point anymore, I’d have to ask myself, in making corporate media specially an object for bringing my political ‘resistance’ to focus? Increasingly, what we knew as the media — whatever we might want to lay at its doorstep for the political and economic trajectory we’re all on together today — is a mirage hovering where other, yet stranger things actually stand.
In the June 15 post I link to above, Darrell registers sympathies of sensibility with Matt Taibbi’s and (more reluctantly, but pointedly) with Ross Douthat’s stock-taking following the Cotton/Bennet episode. I take the first-order concern underlying, there, to be the problem of maintaining the sort of public space where the views and the voices mixing in an always uncertain democratic-society equilibrium can be, and stay, acknowledged, exposed, testable, challengeable. That basic concern of Darrell’s is mine too, to be clear, even though I’m at odds with Taibbi and Douthat.
I don’t believe Ben Sasse has come forth with anything directly commenting on Cotton/Bennet (hey, the man’s got work to do), but I have him in mind here, for argument’s sake and for reflection’s, as exponent of one school of American thought urging us to steadiness and renewed reliance on liberal order — his, one putting plenty of weight on the world-historical importance of distinctively American democratic form, its claim to an original durable character in grounding the political in common human dignity, in mediating competing demands of the great and the small, and so on. Consider his February statement on decision against impeachment of a guy I don’t see any reason to doubt he’d strongly prefer not to have occupying the White House: of the first importance, for him, is caution not to make worse than it already is a currently unfolding ‘crisis of legitimacy.’ It’d be putting it a little grandiosely, but not I think to misconstrue, to say that for Sasse, utter collapse of confidence in what he sees as the fundamental American package — this complement of ideals and civic habits, this artful republican counterpoise — is the great threatening modern catastrophe, and recovery of it the great object of hope.
Now, I’ve come to something I want at once to linger with and to get past in this post. It’s to no purpose for me — if this needed saying — to get hung up on Sasse. His version of liberal faith is one I’ve held; his is (was, early) a fuller, in a sense mature and at any rate publicly rounded-out expression of my ideological starting point. I think an awful lot about the passage from there to where I seem to be now. As I say, I identify with people (men, particularly) like Sasse still. And I don’t want to make the mistake here of dwelling too much on this image of identity I participate in that his being both personal acquaintance and public figure happens conveniently to offer. (For one thing, any such image is slippery, not to be altogether trusted.) I certainly don’t want, for that matter, to play pointlessly at picking at somebody, from my little blog here, whom I have no reason to dislike or desire somehow to disavow.
And still: I’m a long way from where I was, and this matters. As to myself, I have to reckon with the fact that my believing what I once did certainly depended a great deal on my being first of all deeply misinformed about a long list of things — about Bible and Church, most pressing as I wrestled with my understanding of the world then, but then increasingly obviously about a wide range of historical questions, relevant to religious-concept issues but material in other, perhaps more basic ways to my place and my assumptions as a white man in modern America. As to making sense of the social and political setting I was wrestling in in that D.C. period, on the other hand, I have to reckon differently, many around me being not in any straightforward sense so badly educated. (Sasse, for what it’s worth, is an Oxford and St. John’s reader in the greats and a Yale history Ph.D. Something of a high achiever, plainly, though not, in the environment where I knew him, to any remarkable degree an outlier.) The predisposition and the sheer interpretive-constructive capacity for playing up, as far as it takes, the reputed marvel of American idea and the country’s occasional achievements in civic practice, and correspondingly for playing down the sordid facts of American industrial-scale exploitation and atrocity and our long-term general pattern of political contraction — this cultural and (I’ll use the word again) ideological quality of conservative-American social life as I’ve experienced it continually calls for some kind of accounting, for me, personal but oriented to expectation of the shared and ultimately the properly public existence. A problem I don’t see being able to just step around, push behind me, without really seriously undercutting the life of conscience.
But there is further reason not to dwell overmuch on what Ben Sasse may represent for me. Today I don’t hesitate to say that if we’re talking about crises of legitimacy in America, the one that really matters, the one that has always mattered, is original, rooted in the periods of settling and nation-founding and in the long-consolidating form of ‘global economy’ that gave rise to both. The crisis of legitimacy persisting, as I see it now, by way of the many implicit and explicit expressions of official national refusal to finally face the historical enormity. Thing is, you know: the collision-course saying so puts me on isn’t just with ideologues of Sasse’s particular patriot-democrat variety. It’s with ‘liberal order’ inheritors of every stripe, in reality. It’s with Obama as well as Bush. It’s with myself, always, at last — certainly compelled no less than anyone to pick and choose the features of the dominant system I think most necessary or most likely to further the good and the parts of the history I think least bound up in evil, least harmfully passed forward in myth. System critics like the NYT’s 1619 Project writers or activists of the Movement for Black Lives, addressing this question of roots, are imagined by detractors (Douthat, for instance) not to get this, or imagined to be pulling a fast one, granting themselves false exemption from the bind. But I think such critics generally do get it very well. I think they know complicity and the rational fear of it, generally, better than anybody.
Was amused this week to find that a not-especially-readable Paste review of Taibbi’s 2018 Hate, Inc., alluding to Sasse’s book Them of the same year, supplies a phrase for abusing both together, ‘the Taibbi-Sasse school of Reasonable Discourse.’ I haven’t read either book, and don’t assume the connection’s drawn fairly (or feel any eagerness to join in the abuse). It’d probably come more naturally to me, anyhow, to explore the common turf between Sasse and Douthat, wouldn’t it? But I hope it’s clear by now that I’m not triangulating toward an alignment principle, a sorting principle, by which I can show I know whom to approve and whom to disapprove on all the issues that I’m saying matter. The picture’s too mixed up (the fraying too far along?) for that. (Which perhaps nothing illustrates for me so well, right now, as ‘post-liberal’ thought leader Patrick Deneen’s rush to tweet-announce cancellation of his Times subscription after Bennet resigned.) Right now, enough to attend to this journey of mine, in which these days it seems at points I’m with e.g. Chomsky in declaiming against the manufacturing of consent (that famous title principal foil, apparently, of Taibbi’s Hate — and something I likewise haven’t read), at points perhaps with a Deneen contending with dead-consensus-Sasses over the truer, nobler meaning of 19th-century Tocquevillian wokeness. I think where I want to arrive, somehow, finally, is in another place yet, somewhere farther, with Dorothy Day — irresolvable in theory, resolved — resolute — simply in act, stubbornly conjoining Catholic and Worker when it makes no sense according to the Church’s program or the Movement’s.
I have a program after all, by the way, for the New York Times or any other operation appointing itself to responsibility for public forum and ‘record’: public ownership. That doesn’t mean presumptively state ownership. (Don’t guess I need to say that it definitely doesn’t mean being ‘publicly traded.’) There are a lot of ways to go about putting a large publicly-valued thing genuinely in public hands. In the newspaper game, Berlin’s Taz, bought by its subscribers 30 years ago and going strong, suggests an angle of approach, but this is only to scratch the surface. Apart from such an improbable turn for the company — and though in a world less friendly to journalism than ever some foreseeable eventualities are obviously worse than others — I’m afraid I don’t care very deeply what happens to it.