Talbot / America ... 'Great' & Gray

September 10, 2018

 

 

I applaud the late John McCain's daughter Meghan for fighting through her tears as she delivered a eulogy at her father's funeral, finding her voice as she condemned the reign of Trump, with its "cheap rhetoric" and divisive politics. I also admire how she took her swings at

 

Trump, while Ivanka and her Ken Doll sat wide-eyed in their seats at the National Cathedral. But I have to strongly disagree with the passage from her eulogy that's getting the most media attention: "The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again, because America was always great." This is, of course, blatantly, historically false. 

 

America was founded in a blaze of Enlightenment era idealism, but it has generally fallen far short of its lofty rhetoric. America wasn't great when its elite, white founding fathers disenfranchised the majority of the people and decided to continue the abomination of slavery (with Thomas Jefferson, the Revolution's most eloquent voice, keeping a black woman in sexual bondage). Nor was America great when it waged a ruthless war of extermination on the country's native peoples. Nor was it great for decades after the Civil War when African American citizens were forced to live under Jim Crow terror, in fear for their lives if they didn't meekly accept their subjugation, and sometimes even when they did.

 

Nor was America great when John McCain and other U.S. pilots dropped more bombs on the peasant population of Vietnam than had been dropped during all of World War II. And it wasn't great when McCain loudly supported the illegal invasion of Iraq and kept beating the drums of war as U.S. soldiers got bogged down in one Middle East war zone after the next.

 

At the funeral service, Meghan McCain said that "America has no need to boast because she does not need to." But that too is a type of national boasting. The U.S. political class, from Obama to Trump, is always celebrating America's "exceptional" status, its historic glory, and its world primacy. What would you think of a person who constantly went around bragging about how great he was -- or was becoming again? Right, you'd think he was pathetically insecure -- in a word, a dick.

 

America has achieved exceptional status, alright -- but not the kind that its political cheerleaders have in mind.

 

 

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That's a pretty fascinating lengthy profile of actor-director Ethan Hawke in the Sunday NY Times. Hawke comes across as a brave artist who has been willing to suffer critics' scorn in pursuit of his own creative path, balancing risky indie projects with more certain box office hits that help subsidize his iffy ventures. It's no surprise that uncompromising filmmaker John Cassevetes was a big inspiration for Hawke as he was starting his career, and still is.

 

The NYT profile, by the uniquely-named Taffy Brodesser-Akner, is sometimes over-the-top in its admiration of Hawke. But I love that the article has a VOICE. How often do you read newspaper articles these days in which the writer displays some personality and verve and point of view? This style was pioneered back in the 1960s and '70s heyday of New Journalism, with writers like Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Gail Sheehy, Gay Talese, Pete Hamill, and Mike Royko -- nearly all of whom started in newspapers. New Journalism then dropped acid with Hunter Thompson and became Gonzo Journalism. 

 

But somewhere along the line, as newsrooms became more filled with J-School graduates and other over-educated drones, journalism in America became a washed-out, voiceless thing. I guess this was seen as more professional or something. In the early '90s, when I worked in the old SF Examiner newsroom as a features editor, I loved the way that maverick publisher  William R. Hearst III tried to revive this colorful school of journalism, which dated back to the rollicking days of his grandfather. Will hired swashbuckling bylines like Thompson and Warren Hinckle, and he encouraged them to outrage and entertain -- in other words to be themselves. (I actually got to briefly serve as the editor for Dr. Thompson, who was no longer in top form, but still had enough brain cells to let it rip now and then.)

When I left the Examiner to start Salon, I thought the dawn of the dotcom era would open the floodgates of journalistic creativity online -- a hundred Hunter S. Thompsons and I.F.Stones. And it did for awhile. At Salon, we featured the unique voices of writers like Glenn Greenwald, Camille Paglia, Dave Eggers, Anne Lamott, Cintra Wilson, Anthony Bourdain, Sallie Tisdale, and many more -- including writers not previously nationally known. But at some point, digital journalism became "content" -- writing so generic that publishing moguls like Arianna Huffington believed she didn't have to pay for it. (Ironically, Arianna too was a Salon columnist before she launched her media empire.) Cud-chewing and bloviating came to dominate the web -- along with news stories so bland they read as if they were written by robots, which they probably were. Gone was deep reporting, gone was writing that breathed fire, that had body and soul.

 

Anyway, it's nice to see glimmers of human-produced journalism these days, with all its entertaining quirks and tics -- even in Gray Ladies like the NY Times.

 

 

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David Talbot © 2018

 

David Talbot is an American progressive journalist, author and media executive. He is the founder, former CEO and editor-in-chief of Salon, one of the first on-line magazines. He has also written a number of books, including the best seller Season of the Witch.

 

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