Archives For Journalism

C.S. Lewis and Punditry

January 30, 2017 — 10 Comments

chesterton-sanity

Odds are that you, kind reader of Mere Inkling, are a pundit. While the overpaid professionals who overpopulate the media would like for us to think being a pundit requires possessing special knowledge or expertise, that’s simply not true.

Any of us who make comments or pass judgments in an authoritative manner can rightly be deemed a pundit. If you are simply a commonplace critic, you probably qualify for the title. All the more so if you publish your thoughts.

If the recent elections proved anything, they revealed there may well be more pundits per cubic acre in the modern world, than there are bees.

Recently I came across a peculiar essay, written by a writer with whom I’m totally unfamiliar. David Harsanyi is a senior editor of The Federalist, although this article appeared in National Review. Presumably he is a conservative, but of the atheist variety. (No wonder I haven’t read any of his work.)

At any rate, he’s a journalist who describes his “line of work” as “punditry.” Punditry as we have noted, has become all the rage in our modern era. I’m debating though whether adding it to one’s resume would be beneficial. It appears that receiving the validation of a punditry paycheck is the best gauge for making that determination.

As soon as people had the leisure time to develop their senses of humor, the seeds of punditry were planted, and many a silver tongued cynic has reaped the harvest. The past has known people who offered social criticism with a dash of wit (typically of the sarcastic variety).

An admirable example of such was G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936). Chesterton differed from Harsanyi in that he was also a philosopher and poet, not merely a journalist. Most notably, Chesterton was also a Christian.

C.S. Lewis held Chesterton in very high regard, and included his book The Everlasting Man among the top ten titles which had influenced his professional and philosophical thought. You can download an audio copy of that text here.

There is a great essay here that explores the influence of Chesterton’s essay “Ethics of Elfland” on the Inklings.

Jerk Logic

Returning to the article with which I began, “Jerk Logic” is the title of Bersanyi’s essay. He began with a question that more people should probably ask themselves.

Am I a jerk? You may find this an odd question for a person to ask himself. But when you’re in my line of work—which, broadly speaking, is called punditry—complete strangers on social media have little compunction about pointing out all your disagreeable character traits.

I found his article interesting for several reasons. He’s candid about some of the booby traps that endanger those who dare to write about controversial subjects. He offers a confession about just how soul-scarring the past election has been for some who have followed its permutations closely.

The 2016 election, I’m afraid, has convinced me that the joke is definitely on me. But after taking meticulous inventory of my actions over the past year or so, I am forced to acknowledge that perhaps, on occasion, some of my behavior might be construed as wantonly unpleasant. Long story short, I am a jerk . . . with an explanation.

Another thing I enjoyed in the brief piece is how he turned to a personality inventory (similar to the Myers Briggs Type Indicator) to assess his potential jerk quotient.

As I learned more about my personality type, I began feeling sorry for everyone in my almost certainly beleaguered family. While we pride ourselves on “inventiveness and creativity” and “unique perspective and vigorous intellect,” Logicians can also be “insensitive,” “absent-minded,” and “condescending.”

The essay concludes with a justification for a modest amount of jerkiness when living the life of a journalist, and especially a pundit.

As a writer, it’s incumbent on me to be clinically unpleasant and prickly when focusing on self-aggrandizing do-gooders or abusers of power or those who pollute our culture with garbage. One can make arguments in good faith while still being downright disagreeable. So I make no apologies for being disliked. There’s nothing wrong with being hated by the right people.

There are, in fact, far too many journalists overly concerned about being shunned. As a young critic writing his first reviews for a wire agency, I sometimes wrestled with an existential question: “Who am I to say these horrible things about people who are far more successful and powerful than I am?” Nowadays I ask myself: “How exactly can I say more horrible things about these people who shouldn’t be more successful or powerful than any of us?”

A skeptical and contrarian disposition is not only useful if you want to be a decent pundit, but indispensable if you want to be a good journalist on any beat.

I wonder whether Chesterton would think of this as an indispensable journalistic trait. He did, after all, have an honest view of the overall profession. “Journalism largely consists in saying ‘Lord Jones is dead’ to people who never knew Lord Jones was alive.” (The Wisdom of Father Brown)

I did find a fascinating description of the press provided by Chesterton in “The Boy.” It was published in 1909 in All Things Considered . . . and echoes true a century later.

But the whole modern world, or at any rate the whole modern Press, has a perpetual and consuming terror of plain morals. Men always attempt to avoid condemning a thing upon merely moral grounds.

If I beat my grandmother to death to-morrow in the middle of Battersea Park, you may be perfectly certain that people will say everything about it except the simple and fairly obvious fact that it is wrong.

Some will call it insane; that is, will accuse it of a deficiency of intelligence. This is not necessarily true at all. You could not tell whether the act was unintelligent or not unless you knew my grandmother. Some will call it vulgar, disgusting, and the rest of it; that is, they will accuse it of a lack of manners. Perhaps it does show a lack of manners; but this is scarcely its most serious disadvantage.

Others will talk about the loathsome spectacle and the revolting scene; that is, they will accuse it of a deficiency of art, or æsthetic beauty. This again depends on the circumstances: in order to be quite certain that the appearance of the old lady has definitely deteriorated under the process of being beaten to death, it is necessary for the philosophical critic to be quite certain how ugly she was before.

Another school of thinkers will say that the action is lacking in efficiency: that it is an uneconomic waste of a good grandmother. But that could only depend on the value, which is again an individual matter.

The only real point that is worth mentioning is that the action is wicked, because your grandmother has a right not to be beaten to death. But of this simple moral explanation modern journalism has, as I say, a standing fear. It will call the action anything else—mad, bestial, vulgar, idiotic, rather than call it sinful.

Amen. Evil acts today are nearly always attributed to some shortcoming or flaw such as insanity (e.g. individual acts) or delusional indoctrination (e.g. jihadism). While these are sometimes contributing factors, Chesterton rightly assessed the base cause.

Sadly, by affirming that fact, I expect that I too will be going on some people’s “jerk” list. They may consider me contrarian, but I’m simply striving to be honest.

 

Literary Martial Arts

December 31, 2014 — 8 Comments

nonficOne of the lowest moments in my writing life occurred when a creative writing professor advised me to “stick with nonfiction.” Oh, she said it gently, but it still struck me with the power of a mixed martial arts (MMA) hammerfist.

I was majoring in editorial journalism at the University of Washington. Attempting to expand my scope, I took a short story writing course. It was a mistake.

I thought I had done adequately during the course. I was even moderately pleased with a couple of my stories. The instructor, on the other hand, well let’s just say she was not impressed with my effort.

She was right. At the time, my ear for good fiction was quite immature. I do not claim that it’s particularly well developed today, but I have written a story about a medieval pilgrimage that I hope to unveil in a year or two.

I was reminded of my literature professor’s grim assessment as I recently read an interview with a pastor, who is also a lawyer, and happens to be a writer as well. His name is Randy Singer.

Singer describes the similarity of his professions by saying “They all require skills in persuasion, in telling stories to illustrate things.” I guess he’s right.

The difference being that pastors tell true stories, authors of fiction write imaginary stories, and attorneys weave tales that lie somewhere in between.

The part of the interview, which appeared in World Magazine, that I found particularly insightful was this:

When your only desire is to tell the story so people don’t even notice the wording, at that point you’ve become a fiction author.

Singer’s description struck me with the force of an MMA ridge hand (a reverse knife-hand). When I came to, I finally knew why composing fiction does not come naturally to me.

I love words too much. Too much to sacrifice them simply for the sake of the story. Oh, I value the message also, but getting there is half the fun.

Although I don’t love words to the degree many poets lust after them, I still possess an affection that does not allow me to view them through purely utilitarian lenses.

To add insult to his literary injury, Singer adds the following, in response to the question of what he learned while writing several successful novels.

Third, to be less verbose and let the action carry the story instead of thinking, “What are some really flowery and cool phrases and words that I can weave into this?”

That’s enough, friend. You made your point. I would have responded a bit more colorfully and fragrantly, but I hear you.

Singer doesn’t cite C.S. Lewis in the interview, but his counsel is consistent with that of the Oxford don. Lewis advised using clear and concrete language, “so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.” (Personal Correspondence, 1956).

Similarly, Lewis would always argue for the words not to draw attention to themselves. Essentially, they need to get out of the way so the message can come through. “Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified.”

It’s wisdom like that which causes us to recognize C.S. Lewis as the brilliant, gifted, creative, versatile and anointed writer that he was.

As for Singer, perhaps I’ll have to check out one of his legal thrillers. The latest is set in antiquity, with a Roman jurist defending Paul before Nero. Should be quite interesting. Not so good as a nonfiction account of such a trial would be . . . but probably worth reading.

Deadly Jobs

July 16, 2014 — 11 Comments

bad newsIt’s bad enough not liking your job . . . but being allergic to your chosen profession? That’s absolutely miserable.

And that’s what happened to one American journalist. Despite the myriads of new avenues for journalism, newspaper writing remains a primary context for the skill.

I actually earned my first degree in journalism. Editorial Journalism, via the University of Washington’s School of Communication. But I was never cut out to be a member of the Fourth Estate. (Ironically, I ended up belonging to the First Estate, but that’s another story.)

Journalism is a vocation important to the wellbeing of society. Good journalists are vital to society’s health. Those who spew vitriol, not so much.

Apparently a reporter for a Baltimore newspaper recently discovered—after thirty-eight years in the business, that he’s allergic to newspapers. Not their content, their composition. Specifically, he is allergic to pine resin which is used to make newsprint ink.

I assume he’s making a “quality of life” transition now to digital news sources.

Journalism is a broader field than many realize. Our first thought usually turns to newspaper “reporters.” We have often considered them to be objective relaters of events. Of course, complete objectivity is something that is beyond human grasp. Everyone approaches the “news” with their own biases and a worldview that shapes their perception of “facts.”

C.S. Lewis has a fun essay which touches on this. It’s called “Private Bates.”

We must get rid of our arrogant assumption that it is the masses who can be led by the nose. As far as I can make out, the shoe is on the other foot. The only people who are really the dupes of their favourite newspapers are the intelligentsia. It is they who read leading articles: the poor read the sporting news, which is mostly true.

I recall some debates back in my college days when others attempted to persuade me that objectivity was not only possible, it was the standard practice of reporters. That myth has long been exposed, and I try to be content with those who strive to be as fair as they can.

In a 1955 letter, C.S. Lewis is even more blunt than in the previously cited essay. He tells one of his regular correspondents, “I never read the papers. Why does anyone? They’re nearly all lies, and one has to wade thru’ such reams of verbiage and ‘write up’ to find out even what they’re saying.”

One reason journalism receives so little respect today is because people confuse reporting with editorializing. Reporting, of course, is just the facts. (Admittedly, even these are subjectively perceived.) Editorializing, on the other hand, is offering one’s unbridled opinion.

For the latter to masquerade as the former is criminal. But to accept the fact that honestly offered “opinion” is just that, is fine.

After all, one reason you’ve taken the time to read this post is because you appreciate reading gems from C.S. Lewis . . . and you don’t mind wading through the “opinionated” verbiage of this humble columnist to find it.

csl & chesterton

Sadly, politics are by definition nearly always polarizing. In the linguistic battleground of political warfare, we seem to more and more frequently encounter a “take no prisoners” attitude. It’s ominous.

I recently read the following words which describe, quite well I think, the positions of the two main rivals in virtually all political campaigns. (And, in this sentence, I’m referring to the military definition of “campaign.”)

“The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.”

Some things never change. This cutting critique appeared nearly a century ago (in the 19 April 1924 issue of the Illustrated London News). It was penned by G.K. Chesterton, a British writer who was admired by many of his contemporaries, from a number of different perspectives. George Bernard Shaw, a Socialist, considered the conservative journalist a “man of colossal genius.”

Chesterton was one of the Christian writers whose faith made a significant impression on the unbelieving C.S. Lewis. Before encountering Jesus, the atheist Lewis resented the “intrusions” of Christian references into the writings of authors he otherwise enjoyed. He describes this conundrum delightfully in Surprised by Joy.

All the books were beginning to turn against me. Indeed, I must have been as blind as a bat not to have seen, long before, the ludicrous contradiction between my theory of life and my actual experiences as a reader. George MacDonald had done more to me than any other writer; of course it was a pity he had that bee in his bonnet about Christianity. He was good in spite of it.

Chesterton had more sense than all the other moderns put together; bating, of course, his Christianity. Johnson was one of the few authors whom I felt I could trust utterly; curiously enough, he had the same kink. Spenser and Milton by a strange coincidence had it too.

Even among ancient authors the same paradox was to be found. The most religious (Plato, Aeschylus, Virgil) were clearly those on whom I could really feed.

On the other hand, those writers who did not suffer from religion and with whom in theory my sympathy ought to have been complete—Shaw and Wells and Mill and Gibbon and Voltaire—all seemed a little thin; what as boys we called “tinny.” It wasn’t that I didn’t like them. They were all (especially Gibbon) entertaining; but hardly more. There seemed to be no depth in them. They were too simple. The roughness and density of life did not appear in their books. . . .

The upshot of it all could nearly be expressed in a perversion of Roland’s great line in the Chanson—Christians are wrong, but all the rest are bores. The natural step would have been to inquire a little more closely whether the Christians were, after all, wrong.

And C.S. Lewis, to his eternal joy, did just that. He inquired more deeply into the faith held by the writers he so respected. This included, of course, Chesterton. Echoes of Chesterton’s masterful expressions of Christian faith recur in the work of Lewis. For example, in his essay “Membership,” Lewis writes:

Equality is a quantitative term and therefore love often knows nothing of it. . . . Even in the life of the affections, much more in the body of Christ, we step outside that world which says “I am as good as you.” . . . We become, as Chesterton said, taller when we bow; we become lowlier when we instruct.

Similarly, in A Preface to Paradise Lost, Lewis describes how best to savor the historical work of writers from different eras. Although the reference to Chesterton here is given in passing, I will reproduce the larger passage in light of its insight into how best to benefit from what we read.

The things which separate one age from another are superficial. Just as, if we stripped the armour off a medieval knight or the lace off a Caroline courtier, we should find beneath them an anatomy identical with our own, so, it is held, if we strip off from Virgil his Roman imperialism, from Sidney his code of honour, from Lucretius his Epicurean philosophy, and from all who have it their religion, we shall find the Unchanging Human Heart, and on this we are to concentrate.

I held this theory myself for many years, but I have now abandoned it. I continue, of course, to admit that if you remove from people the things that make them different, what is left must be the same, and that the Human Heart will certainly appear as Unchanging if you ignore its changes. . . .

Instead of stripping the knight of his armour you can try to put his armour on yourself; instead of seeing how the courtier would look without his lace, you can try to see how you would feel with his lace; that is, with his honour, his wit, his royalism, and his gallantries out of the Grand Cyrus. I had much rather know what I should feel like if I adopted the beliefs of Lucretius than how Lucretius would have felt if he had never entertained them. The possible Lucretius in myself interests me more than the possible C.S. Lewis in Lucretius.

There is in G.K. Chesterton’s Avowals and Denials a wholly admirable essay called “On Man: Heir of All the Ages.” An heir is one who inherits and “any man who is cut off from the past . . . is a man most unjustly disinherited.” . . .

You must, so far as in you lies, become an Achaean chief while reading Homer, a medieval knight while reading Malory, and an eighteenth century Londoner while reading Johnson. Only thus will you be able to judge the work “in the same spirit that its author writ” and to avoid chimerical criticism.

G.K. Chesterton is well worth reading, and most fans of Lewis will appreciate his prodigious work. The best thing about Chesterton, is that since he entered the presence of his Lord in 1936, nearly everything he wrote is in the public domain. His essays, poetry, apologetic works—and even the tales of his fictional detective Father Brown—are readily accessible online.

For a friendly introduction to the relationship between Lewis and Chesterton, I recommend “Chesterton and Lewis, Side by Side.” In an issue devoted entirely to comparing the two pillars of Twentieth Century Christian apologetics, the St. Austin Review, we read:

In 1946, ten years after Chesterton died, Lewis wrote a short article defending Chesterton against the two charges with which he is still attacked—or dismissed—by most academicians: one, that he was popular, and two, that he was dated. Of course, Lewis is attacked for the same two reasons.

The entire article is available here. Those interested in one of the areas where Chesterton’s writing overlapped with that of Lewis and his good friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, will also enjoy “G.K. Chesterton: Fairy Tale Philosopher,” which is available here.

“I believe that the journalism which succeeds best—and best deserves success—fears God and honors Man.” (from “The Journalist’s Creed”)

These words were written more than a century ago by Walter Williams, founder of one of the world’s best-respected schools of journalism. How times have changed! Today the majority of journalists are not only ignorant of matters related to faith . . . they are hostile towards it.

Thirty-five years ago, when I earned a degree in the field, there was more of an apathy towards religion at my secular university. (Sadly, I hear about a similar listless mood on some Christian campuses today.)

Ironically, while Williams might anticipate the danger of a subjective sympathy for Christianity in the West, he would be surprised. Many journalists seem to despise Christianity even more strongly than they question other faiths. And they wear their derision on their proverbial sleeves.

The simple fact is that everyone possesses a worldview. And, strive as a person might, they cannot attain the abstract precipice of utter objectivity. Most, of course, don’t strive at all. They surrender to their disdain for God and all religious institutions. And it is evident in their writing.

If writers today followed this element of the Journalist’s Creed more conscientiously, we would enjoy a far more civil and informed dialog in our society.

Addendum: 

Don’t forget that as disciples of Jesus, we too need to remain civil and respectful. Never forget that God chose to make humanity in his own holy image.