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The Fierce Ignorance of Now
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The Fierce Ignorance of Now

How thinking things are worse than ever makes things worse.

The past is really surprising if you don’t know it.

I was already working on this “news”letter when I saw this tweet:

That map hasn’t been hidden from anyone. Okay, maybe that specific map has—who knows? Who cares? But the information it contains was really quite accessible; no one needed to break into some secure facility and descend from the ceiling like Tom Cruise grabbing the NOC list.

Type “map of colonial Africa” into Google Images, and you’ll find a gazillion versions of this.

There’s something amazing about believing that something was a secret just because you were unaware of it. The colonial division of Africa is no more a secret than the location of your nearest Starbucks or the annual rainfall in Bolivia. All that separates you from this supposedly forbidden knowledge is the curiosity required to find it.

When I was a kid, if I asked my dad a question about history, science, grammar, religion, or whatever, he’d either answer it dispositively or tell me to look it up. Sometimes, he’d walk over to an encyclopedia, a dictionary, or some other version of this technology commonly referred to as a “book,” and look it up himself. Sometimes, he’d make me do it.

Either way, I’d often roll my eyes, which invariably annoyed him. So, of course, God has blessed me with a daughter who rolls her eyes when I suggest looking up answers on the supercomputer attached to her hand.  

(Seriously, I don’t give out parenting tips often, but if you want to give your kids a habit that will serve them well throughout their lives, then encourage them to look up the answers to their questions when curiosity strikes. Also, when you drop your kid off for elementary school, shout “No knife fights!” as they walk into the building. Always gets a good reaction.)

I sometimes try to imagine what people like Newton, Galileo, or Thomas Jefferson would think if you told them about a world where you didn’t have to wait weeks or months for a (very expensive) book or letter to be delivered to you that could satiate your hunger for knowledge on some specific question. We live in a kind of  “Monkey’s Paw” reality, where we’ve had our wish granted for access to nearly infinite knowledge (or maybe just infinite information), but the price is that we’ve lost the desire for it.

In Suicide of the West, I argued that our biggest cultural problem is that entitlement has eclipsed gratitude. This seems to be a variation of that. We all want to know stuff, but we increasingly resent the idea of having to learn it. It’s like wanting to be in great shape but not wanting to exercise. And when we discover something—like, say, the colonial divisions of Africa—that is actually important and useful to us, our sense of entitlement leads us to think it must have been hidden from us on purpose. Even our own ignorance is someone else’s fault. The proper (and healthier) response to learning something interesting that you didn’t know is gratitude. “Hey, thanks! I didn’t know that.”

Anyway, this loosely fits into the topic I wanted to discuss in this “news”letter (at the very least, I’ll try to make it fit with the theme). One of the problems of the internet age is that it puts an enormous emphasis on what Barack Obama liked to call the “fierce urgency of now,” a term he borrowed from Martin Luther King Jr. While I think King’s usage was entirely justified, I’m generally not a huge fan of the idea that now is so important. “Now” is just a brief and transient moment connecting the past to the future. Without an appreciation of the former, you’ll screw up the latter.

The reformer who wants to tear down a fence because he sees no immediate point to it, Chesterton explained, is the kind of fool who can be found as readily among the well-educated as among the poorly educated. The “more intelligent type of reformer,” according to Chesterton, says to the fool, “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

A person who wants to tear down what is in front of them without heed to the lessons of the past, and with disregard to the consequences of the future, is a pretty handy definition of a radical (a word that comes from the Latin radix, meaning “roots”). And a radical, unlike a reformer—or even a progressive, properly understood—wants to uproot what exists on the assumption that whatever comes next must be better than now. 

“Burn it all down so that we may rule over the ashes” is the spirit at the heart of nearly every committed radical. Radicalism is the purest expression of ingratitude, because it starts from the premise that nothing that currently exists is worth saving; everything is corrupted by the evils of the past. That’s why “Defund the Police” as a political message is so radical. The message focuses solely on the bad things (both real and alleged) that police do, but is utterly blind to the good and necessary things that police do, and its adherents believe that those good things can be discarded without consequence. Even the most cursory understanding of history would tell you how dumb this is.

But not every person ensorcelled by the radical impulse is an actual radical. Sometimes, they just don’t know any better. The fierce urgency of now denigrates the intelligent reformer—who wants to figure out why the fence was built in the first place—as a sellout, a moderate, or even (shudder) a conservative. But he may agree to tear down the fence if there is a good reason to do so. This is why the fierce urgency of now is often better understood as the fierce arrogance of now: the invincible confidence that you don’t need to know anything more than what is already in your head—or heart—to take action.

This is why, all things being equal and absent a good argument, I will choose “Don’t just do something, sit there,” over “Don’t just sit there, do something” nine times out of 10.

Living in the moment.

The other problem with the fierce urgency of now is that the urgency often has less to do with real-world problems as it does the more personal imperatives of ambition and animus.

This point is more subtle than it may appear. So let me try to get at it by talking about recency bias—the well-documented tendency of people to place too much weight on stuff they’ve experienced recently, or in the “now.”

As I write, a lot of conservatives are rightly furious about the 60 Minutes hit piece on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Though I’ve been critical of DeSantis, in this case, his supporters are entirely justified. But that’s not the point. 

By all means, whack at 60 Minutes until you have to soak your elbow in ice water to alleviate the soreness. But I see a lot of people arguing that liberal media bias today is different than in previous eras by orders of magnitude. Sohrab Amari writes that although the media was always “thoroughly liberal … you couldn’t imagine the old regime straight-up fabricating shit or claiming, as CNN did in a recent news story, that there is no scientific consensus for determining a baby’s sex.”

Really? It’s been more than two decades since CNN aired—and retracted—its “Tailwind” report claiming the U.S. used nerve gas in 1970 in Laos. The Dan Rather self-beclowning—aka “Memogate” —was 20 years ago. Stephen Glass made up article after article out of whole cloth for The New Republic a quarter century ago. Janet Cooke had to return her 1981 Pulitzer because she made up the story. In 1993, NBC admitted it rigged a GM car to explode for a Dateline segment in order to “prove” the cars were unsafe. In 1899, four different Denver newspapers conspired to publish fraudulent stories about U.S. contractors bidding to demolish the Great Wall of China.

And these are just some of the lowlights. Indeed, these instances of outright fabrication leave out the far more common instances of ideological-agenda and groupthink-driven reporting that may not have been intentionally false, but were so biased that the falsehoods they promulgated were arguably more corrosive. 

In his position as CBS News’ chief foreign correspondent, Daniel Schorr smeared Barry Goldwater as a secret Nazi. Herbert Matthews’ coverage of Fidel Castro’s band of rebels was so incredulous (much like his earlier coverage of Mussolini) that National Review famously ran a cartoon depicting  Castro proclaiming “I got my job through the New York Times.” Then there was Walter Duranty, who received a Pulitzer—which the Times has refused to give back—for his repugnantly inaccurate reporting on the Soviet Union, which conveniently missed the manmade genocidal famine in Ukraine. And let’s not even get started on I.F. Stone, Seymour Hersch, or Sid Blumenthal.

I think it should be clear at this point that I’m not defending the media. The thing is, I’m constantly being told that “it has never been this bad.”  

I have several responses to this. First: Maybe that’s true, but a lot of the people telling me this seem to be ignorant of the long history of this stuff. Also, even if it’s true that the quality of elite journalism is worse today—again, at best debatable—people still smuggle a lot of stuff into the “it” in “it has never been this bad.” Again, if you mean the bias has never been this bad, that’s one argument. But if you mean the consequences of the badness, then that’s a completely different conversation. If I say, “New York cab drivers have never been worse,” that may or may not be true (I don’t think it is, but work with me). But in an age of Uber, Lyft, and rental bikes and scooters, the problem of bad cab drivers is much different.

I also constantly hear that the “corporate media”—the new preferred term that oddly doesn’t exempt Fox News in the way “mainstream media” did—is oh-so-dangerously powerful today. If you’re talking about Facebook, Twitter, or other social media platforms, fine. They are legitimately newer entities that we’re figuring out how to deal with. But if you mean the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the broadcast news networks, this strikes me as somewhere between obviously false and woefully unproven.

In the half-century or so before the internet, the Times and the Post were much more powerful. You know what other institutions were more powerful? Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, and all the broadcast networks’ news divisions. Time is a fraction of what it was. I just had to check if Newsweek was still a thing. It is. So is U.S. News, but … come on. It’s basically a college guide with a newsfeed on the side nowadays.

LBJ didn’t run for reelection, at least in part, because he “lost Walter Cronkite,” the anchor of CBS News. Now, I like and respect Norah O’Donnell, who currently holds that job. But does anyone think a president would lose much sleep over “losing Norah O’Donnell”? When Reagan was elected, 60 Minutes had a Nielsen rating of 27. When Trump was elected, it was down to 7.7 (though it did bounce back up to 12.4).

And it’s not just the media. Consider free speech: As a legal and constitutional matter, free speech has never been freer. But there’s a hell of a lot of free speech panic out there. That’s largely because our culture has turned sour when it comes to free speech, for reasons too complicated to go into right now. But the fact remains that there are fewer legal constraints on your speech than ever before.

The same holds true for racism. By almost every conceivable measure, both legal and cultural, this country is less racist than ever before. Sure, there’s been an ugly uptick in some corners as identity politics has spilled into the groundwater. But there are a lot of people invested in the idea that racism is a more present danger than ever before. And it’s only possible to believe that if you ignore the history that predates the fierce arrogance of now.

That’s what I mean when I say a lot of this has to do with the ambitions and animus of political actors. Once again, we’re being told our infrastructure is “crumbling.” Apparently, we’re suffering from an “infrastructure crisis.” The thing is, while certain things may need fixing, there is no infrastructure crisis. But if you want to spend trillions of dollars on infrastructure, you need to say otherwise to make that happen. Likewise, if you want to keep readers, viewers, and voters in a perpetual state of anxiety and victimhood, telling them the “corporate media” is oppressing them makes a lot of sense. And if you benefit from convincing people that racism has reached epidemic proportions, then that’s what you’ll tell them.

And you may well believe it. If the last five years have taught me anything, it’s that people can convince themselves of anything as long as it’s conducive to their political or career objectives. Lots of my friends convinced themselves conservatives “never win” so that they could justify their support for Trump. Others have convinced themselves that capitalism, trade, the First Amendment, even liberalism and constitutionalism have served America—or conservatives—poorly and must be torn down. In the fierce urgency of now, they can’t see why these figurative fences were built in the first place.

The left has been crisis-mongering for decades. Now it’s bipartisan. “Flight 93 forever!” is a form of right-wing radicalism no less arrogant than left-wing radicalism, but more pernicious. If conservatives don’t keep an eye on the lessons of history and the proper sources of our gratitude, I don’t have any confidence that the left will pick up that cause. And that means no one will.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.