Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted
Progressives are so wedded to the idea of being rebels that they don’t realize they are part of the establishment.
Dear Reader (including any of you whose names were redacted from the Mar-a-Lago affidavit),
There’s an old borscht belt joke you’ve probably heard before. An older (Jewish) man is crossing the street when he gets hit by a car. A good Samaritan runs over to see if he can help him. He takes off his coat, puts it under the victim’s head, and asks, “Are you comfortable?”
The man responds, defensively, “I make a living.”
I bring this up because I’m going to start out by picking a small fight with my friend and colleague-twice-over (as both a Dispatch guy and an AEI dude) Chris Stirewalt. On The Remnant this week, we discussed his excellent new book, Broken News. During our conversation, Chris endorsed a slogan I’ve generally despised over the years, and I didn’t push back.
He said that journalists need to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”
It’s an old line, cribbed and heavily modified from Finley Peter Dunne, a newspaper columnist from the old Chicago Evening Post, in his 1902 book Observations by Mr. Dooley. Dooley was an irascible, fictional bartender, who became a standard character in Dunne’s column (a bit like my couch in this “news”letter). When I say it was heavily modified, I mean its original meaning was completely flipped around. The full, original quote was an indictment of newspapers. You can read all about that here, as I want to keep moving.
Now, before I let Chris off the hook, let me explain why I don’t like the idea that journalists must “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” It’s become a mantra for journalists, particularly of the Columbia Journalism School set. As this piece over at Pulitzer.org put it, the sentiment “captures a time-honored purpose in journalism: Comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable.”
But here’s the thing: There is nothing inherently wrong with being comfortable, and afflicting the comfortable—or anyone else—without good reason is almost the textbook definition of being a jerk. According to the dictionary, to afflict is to "to distress with mental or bodily pain; trouble greatly or grievously.”
“Hey, look at that guy sleeping comfortably in that hammock, let’s poke him with sticks!” isn’t some high-minded ideal of courage, it’s assholery reified.
Taken literally, this credo is an open-ended warrant to be a jerk.
But even figuratively, it’s got problems. Because buried within it is a very radical, very self-serving vision of what journalism is and who journalists are. If you start from the assumption that the “comfortable” are in the wrong for no other reason than that comfort qua comfort is prima facie evidence of complacency, unfairness, or wrongdoing, then you are starting your journalistic inquiry with a bias against the comfortable and putting the burden of proof upon them to justify their comfort. There’s another assumption in there: That it’s the journalist who has some special insight, some higher moral standing, to decide who deserves to be comfortable and who doesn’t.
It’s not hard to see how this can serve as a Trojan Horse for a host of ideological commitments. “Behind every great fortune is a crime” is one such ideological commitment. This quote is often attributed to Balzac (no need for potty mouth!), but it mangles what he actually said. He never said this was true of all great fortunes, but merely some—which is obviously true. But it’s also obviously true that many great fortunes were made honestly. The popular and false version of the Balzac quote makes an observation about a specific case into a general rule. The specific case is a good story for a journalist to explore. The general rule is a radical indictment of wealth; a quasi-Marxist declaration about the “system.”
Not all rich people are successful criminals or the heirs of successful criminals. Similarly, some comfortable people deserve to be “afflicted”—at least figuratively—but others don’t. And being comfortable isn’t, by itself, probable cause for afflicting anyone.
While there are lots of journalists—and activists and politicians—who see material comfort as some kind of crime or transgression, the “comfortable” is often used to describe something else: ideological comfort. A lot of journalists think that disagreement with prevailing orthodoxies is proof of impermissible comfort. The Greta Thunberg crowd thinks that anyone not equally vexed by climate change needs to be needled, harassed, or shamed out of their comfortable complacency.
Another form of unacceptable comfort involves race. “One of the tenets of journalism is to afflict the comfortable,” Errin Haines of The 19th told the Columbia Journalism Review. “Well, white people are too comfortable in America. And if we are not pointing that out and showing people the disparities and being honest about and clear out about those disparities, then things are not going to be different.”
Now, I don’t think this is entirely wrong, but I do think it’s entirely too sweeping. America has racial problems, obviously. But the claim that white people need to be discomfited wholesale for not agreeing with the worldview or policy agenda of black journalists is not particularly helpful, in my opinion.
All of this stuff is of a piece with the general cultural mantra that says, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” A whole generation of journalists have been empowered by the idea that it is their job to change peoples’ consciousness, to make them care about what a small caste of secular missionaries think is enlightened thinking. To be comfortably numb to the pieties and priorities of the comfort-afflicters is a kind of paganism or wrongthink.
It’s no coincidence that “afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted” became a rallying cry during the Progressive era, when intellectuals like Walter Lippmann wanted to turn journalism into a kind of scientific, technocratic endeavor. Disinterested spelunkers would descend into the caverns of American life and shine their bright lanterns of truth on the backward masses and the privileged denizens of the mountaintops alike. A lot of great journalism was done during this period, but it was accompanied by a lot of ideological and condescending social engineering. Progressive journalists started from Balzackian assumptions about wealth and elitist, WASP-y beliefs about how to live the right way.
The problem with a lot of elite journalism today stems from the fact that elite journalism itself is really quite comfortable—perhaps not always in the financial sense, but certainly in the ideological sense. When James Bennett and Bari Weiss commissioned a piece from Sen. Tom Cotton making a case for using the military to quell riots during the summer of 2020, they were demonized and defenestrated for afflicting the comfort of New York Times staffers. When The Atlantic hired my friend Kevin Williamson, his mere presence on the masthead was so discomfiting that he was spit out like my namesake from the whale. Stand-up comedians—whose job is, at least in part, to make people laugh by pointing out funny hypocrisies—are vilified if they poke holes in what a slender slice of the real establishment thinks is sacrosanct.
In other words, the people most enamored with afflicting the comfortable have a highly selective and ideologically loaded conception of what counts as acceptable comfort. There’s a reason why most late-night comics have become so boring. They are defenders of the establishment’s groupthink.
This points to another problem with the comfort-afflicters. They have tautologically ruled out the possibility that the “afflicted” in their worldview can be wrong, too, and that the comfortable can be right. I’ll give you an example. The other day I heard Al Sharpton make a halfway conservative point. He said that condemning police officers who unjustly kill people shouldn’t blind us from the problem of black-on-black crime. He didn’t say it that way, though. He called out police brutality by name, but referred to the rising murder rate as “gun violence.” The thing is, guns don’t commit murder, people do. It’s a subtle distinction, but a telling one. When police kill, the language is direct. When poor black people kill other poor black people, the language becomes passive and systemic. “Gun violence” is the problem. To frame it more accurately is to indulge in “victim blaming” of some sort.
The great irony is that the cultural establishment cannot accept that they are the establishment. Establishment progressivism is very weird this way. Progressives want to see themselves as rebels, change-agents, radicals, and outsiders, even as they inhabit and control the commanding heights of the culture. American progressives tend to believe their own press releases about themselves. I used to have great fun debating hostile campus liberals. I’d say something like, “Let me get this straight: Your professors are liberal. The administrators here are liberal. The publishing industry is liberal. Hollywood, the music and fashion industries, the big foundations, the New York Times, Washington Post, ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, and the rest of the mainstream media are liberal. Most major corporations are operationally liberal. And you think you’re a rebel for agreeing with them?”
Now, I’m fairly certain Chris agrees with all of this, which is why I’m letting him off the hook. The point he was actually getting at is entirely correct. Journalists, particularly reporters, are supposed to ask uncomfortable questions and report the answers to those questions. Sometimes the answers will be entirely correct. Sometimes they won’t. And very often, the answers will invite more questions. As Chris puts it, reporters are supposed to be skunks at the garden party because they don’t buy into the groupthink.
My problem with the people who say journalists must afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted is that they use this mantra to comfort themselves and afflict those they disagree with.
Various & Sundry
Canine update: We’re wrapping up our stay here in Maine. The animals don’t know it yet, but I actually suspect they’ll be happy to go home. They’ve had a terrific time, but they’re all of an age where they like their routines. That said, they’ve also upped their expectations in terms of what they feel entitled to. Apparently one trip to the beach per day is the minimum standard set by the canine branch of Amnesty International.
And now, the weird stuff