In “Bound & Gagged” (Literary Review, February 2012), Nick Cohen offers straight talk about the smelliest hypocisy of our time: Media claims to “speak truth to power”:
The grand posture of writers in liberal democracies is that they are the moral equivalents of dissidents in repressive regimes. Loud-mouthed newspaper columnists claim to ‘speak truth to power’. Novelists, artists, playwrights and comedians announce their willingness to transgress boundaries. Their publishers look for controversy like boozers look for brawls because they know that few marketing strategies beat the claim that a courageous iconoclast is challenging establishments and shattering taboos.
To maintain the illusion that they are part of some kind of radical underground, intellectuals must practise a deceit. They can never admit to their audience that fear of violent reprisals, ostracism or crippling financial penalties keeps them away from subjects that ought to concern them – and their fellow citizens.
Media cowardice and laziness impact the controversy over design in nature in ways we have merely accepted. But perhaps we should challenge them more: Every atheist blowhard, every tenured Darwin bore, every tax burden whatever is free to claim – unchallenged – to be an iconoclast.
Imagine that: He burbles the automatic pieties of the establishment like “Man is just an animal, really” or “There is no serious challenge to Darwin’s theory of evolution,” and yet he passes as an iconoclast.
Approved blowhards, bores, and burdens are seldom challenged by hard questions and never told that their ideas are neither daring nor new. Or that they are dubious.
Serious discussion becomes difficult because, in the media world, establishment ideas are both the pieties and the iconoclasm, leaving no third chair for fresh thinking.
Even the rough dignity of honesty is lacking. As Cohen writes,
So thoroughgoing is the evasion that when Grayson Perry, who produced what Catholics would consider to be blasphemous images of the Virgin Mary, said what everyone knew to be true in 2007, the media treated his candour as news. ‘The reason I have not gone all out attacking Islamism in my art,’ said Perry, ‘is because I feel real fear that someone will slit my throat.’
The real news is that an establishment iconoclast would have so much candor. It’s not a record we’re likely to see broken often. But we can at least start calling the media BS for what it is, whenever it impacts our issues.
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