The Great Stereopticon
July 27, 2011
Richard Weaver, in one of my all time favorite books, Ideas Have Consequences, argued that newspapers multiply stereotypes, thrives on endless dissemination, and “its progeny, like the frogs of Egypt, come up into our very kneading troughs” (Weaver, 94). He continues, describing how newspapers distort in the interest of holding attention, thrive on friction and conflict, dramatize, and are glad to see a quarrel start and sorry to see it end. Weaver writes,
“No one is prepared to understand the influence of journalism on the public mind until he appreciates the fact that the newspaper is a spawn of the machine. A mechanism itself, it has ever been closely linked with the kind of exploitation, financial and political, which accompanies industrialism” (Weaver, 94).
Weaver’s thoughts about newspapers are almost completely identical to another great writer — Jacques Ellul. For example, read one of his many books on technology, or his The Humiliation of the Word. It is interesting to discover how many influential thinkers were not fond of the papers. For example, Weaver (p. 98) describes Thomas Jefferson’s distaste for the newspaper. Writing to John Adams, Jefferson said, “I have given up newspapers in exchange for Tacitus and Thucydides, for Newton and Eucllid, and I find myself much the happier.” Similarly, C. S. Lewis is remembered in his biography The Narnian for having never read the newspapers and for being almost completely ignorant of the current events of the day.
Melville captures the general distaste for newspapers as he describes the joys of the mast-head on the whaling ships,
“In the serene weather of the tropics it is exceedingly pleasant the mast-head, nay, to a dreamy meditative man it is delightful. There you stand, a hundred feet above the silent decks, striding along the deep, as if the masts were gigantic stilts, while beneath you and between your legs, as it were, swim the hugest monsters of the sea. . . . There you stand, lost in the infinite series of the sea, with nothing ruffled but the waves. The tranced ship indolently rolls; the drowsy trade winds blow; everything resolves you into languor. For the most part, in this tropic whaling life, a sublime uneventfulness invest you; you hear no news; read no gazettes; extras with startling accounts of commonplaces never delude you into unnecessary excitements; you hear of no domestic afflictions; bankrupt securities; fall of stocks; are never troubled with the thought of what you shall have for dinner — for all your meals for three-year and more are snugly stowed in casks, and your bill of fare is immutable” (Moby Dick, 159, emphasis added).