Decorum and Readin’, ‘Ritin” and ‘Ritmetic!

By Sol W. Sanders
Monday, January 13th, 2014 @ 12:58AM

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Among the many complaints I have against most of my colleagues in the mainstream media [MSM] these days is the anachronistic and contradiction that they are largely ahistorical. An anachronism since there has never been a time when with the benefits of the digital revolution more information is available – including archives. A contradiction, of course, in that journalists are at least amateur historians themselves reporting on current events, which will build into the longer narrative in the future.

A decade or so ago when I temporarily got off the path [“journalism is a road that leads anywhere — as long as you get off it”, says an old French axiom], I taught for a semester at the fastest growing university in the U.S. This Florida institution, a state-financed school, offered “a media stream” matriculation for its undergraduate degree. I answered a last minute appeal for a substitute teacher, who while I am bereft of graduate degrees, as a candidate I had a long and relatively successful career in what appears to be now the dying print journalism. The course was to be an introduction to/history of journalism, but not to be called that in order to keep it out of the [moribund] history department! I wondered, in fact, what so many students were doing pursuing these kind of studies with the print media on the ropes and even TV networks under siege. That is, until I began to count up all the new public relations jobs in our society, and, hopefully, the expansion of the social media could absorb them.

Most of my two-dozen students were in their third or last year before their Bachelor’s. And in order to do what I could for them, in the earliest sessions I asked for a show of hands on issues, which I thought, were important. How many, for example, came from homes where their parents had college educations? Most, it turned out. How many worked at part-time jobs? Perhaps two-thirds, in the kinds of jobs you would suspect – 7/11s, professors’ assistants, etc. I came up short, however, when one young woman told me she worked for the student government, paid, repeat paid, as a receptionist. I also learned the elected officers had special parking privileges – one of the great concerns of my group, free laptops, etc. Could this kind of government largess have had anything to do with a very, very low participation rate by students in their self-government?

But there was something alarming in their formation, their training and earlier education as the French quite fittingly call it. None, repeat none, had ever had a history course. Oh yes, they had, for the most part, had, a course in “American Civilization”, whatever that was. None had ever had a course in English grammar in their entire schooling. Only another handful had ever had an English literature course.

I never really found out what was the substitute for what I would have considered the bare minimum for someone entering the profession of current affairs reporting. [I always thought all reporting was “investigative”, by the way!] I learned over the semester that most were intelligent, some even academically ambitious. A not all that young Caribbean immigrant, for example, a housewife married to a police officer, who tried mightily to write on changing race relations and journalism in America although she seemed to think there was TV in every home 75 years ago. And there was the young woman who went to the department head over me when I gave her a B instead of the A she thought she deserved as she said, “because she got all As”. He told me I could hang on to my decision, but should I do so, he warned me there would have to be a staff “inquiry”.

But they struggled with any attempt at an intelligent discussion of any issue in journalism, in part because their writing was crippled and they had no vocabulary. I found this out in the first class when I used the word “onus” and got blank stares. After that, I often caught myself in my lectures and discussion asking if they understood a word we were using, and often when they did not, I wrote it on the chalkboard and explained it with examples. No one had ever attempted to tell any one of them the difference between literal ad figurative meaning of words, and the whole concept came as a revelation to the brighter ones.

Did I just have a bunch of dullards? Some of the other faculty told me something along those lines: those just skating through the four-year effort went to the media stream because they perceived it the “easiest”, I was told. [Of course, this was the same faculty that permitted a new arrival from Macao to produce a doctorate thesis on how the Chinese Communists had organized a nationwide and efficient domestic violence alert network and remedial structure!] Perhaps.

But certainly an earlier exposure to a Long Island university where I taught for a semester had yielded similar results. And, in fact, when the dean, then a close, old friend, asked me to host a seminar on the media and foreign policy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, part of a prestigious Ivy League university, I was less than impressed with the preparation of the graduate students who attended. [My star pupil, in fact, was a young Japanese businessman, taking the course “without credit” as part of his training as the second or third in line to take over the Washington office of his trading company. Another was the daughter of an old Shanghai-born Armenian newsman friend, somewhat distracted because her sister was allegedly linked to terrorists knocking off Turkish military attachés at the time. But the give and take in the discussion was not sparkling and when I complained at a faculty lunch, all looked grim when they didn’t look the other way, and said, “sometimes it is like that, a class just don’t spark,” no matter what the instructor did. Maybe.

But I am afraid through these experiences and what the academics now obsessed with statistics would decry as “anecdotal evidence”, I fear my younger colleagues in the MSM just aren’t prepared for their onerous and terribly important job of informing the public. There is, to use another old wives’ adage, much more stupidity [and cupidity] in the world than villainy.

That is why the reader/listener gets so many of these grossly inaccurate media stories based on a lack of historical background and understanding. Most annoying to me is all that talk about the first time ever and the biggest ever or the most difficult ever, etc., etc. As the old wives’ saying goes, there is nothing new under the sun. You don’t have to make false analogies to history to deflate some of these claims; you just have to use your common sense – and know a little history.

I have been thinking recently about one of the most important, respected and beloved among our Founders, Thomas Jefferson. Yes, he was a slave-owner saying, among other things, that “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.” But he was also the man who celebrated the French Revolution until it turned into the Reign of Terror. He opposed a permanent military force but – and after his failed long negotiation with John Adams with the European powers for a common policy – ordered the first American foreign intervention of our Marines on the Barbary Coast. And he put Aaron Burr into the vice presidency, even though he was a political competitor who would later turn on him [and the United States] because he needed Burr’s intervention in the New York state electors to become president. Does that diminish Jefferson’s standing among us? I think not. For, again to quote an old wives’ adage, politics is politics and by its very nature calls for a politician [or a statesman] to change his mind and often fundamentally. Pace Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr on why personal morality cannot be translated into public morality and cannot be one and the same thing. And those changes may not always be for the worse; need I remind my readers of Lyndon Baines Johnson’s pilgrimage from Jim Crow to one of the most successful fighter for human rights in our time.

But the verities do hang on. Economics, despite all the differences, have been pretty fundamental since the beginning of the industrial revolution in the early 18th century. That is, until our time with the coming of the second industrial revolution with the digital breakthrough where we may have entered unexplored territory may have made fundamental; changes. We don’t know yet I contend. Politics are as old as our oldest Western societies [ask Socrates who took the hemlock]. Many if not most of the issues today have been around for that long. Take for example the problem of corrupt public officials – whether endangering the public welfare on the world’s busiest bridge or pouring government funds into inoperative energy adventures of their crony capitalist friends, we have been there before.

So is society immutable, have there been no changes [except as our Christian friends would say with the First Coming of Jesus]? And if so, what does style have to do with it?

In 1936, one of the most profitable and respected U.S. publications, The Literary Digest, made a booboo. Out of pure prejudice its pollsters predicted that Franklin Delano Roosevelt would be ousted by a big majority in the 1936 elections. He didn’t, of course, anything but: “only Maine and Vermont!” went for his opponent. And there is no doubt that prestige [and income] of the publication took a beating. But more than that, the public and “manners” of the time required that they step off the national stage. And they folded, never to be heard from again. Have you noticed how many pollsters have been wrong recently, but just continue to natter on anyway? I think that has something to do with a public that, as the late Sen.. Patrick Moynihan said, in our pursuit of a more tolerant society over the last half-century or more, we have been “defining deviancy down”. And, ultimately, that might be “doing the right thing” in the most superficial way, if you will, or adopting “conventional wisdom” so as not to disturb “the children”. But it does enormous damage to the search for truth, which as the Greeks told us, is an ultimate purpose in life.

It may seem trivial to some but I think the one great difference in lifestyle, in my own long lifetime, has been the retreat from public and perhaps private decorum. Somehow I like what the New Oxford calls the old-fashioned rendering of its definition: “archaic suitability to the requirements of a person, rank, or occasion.” Or to put it another way: an old and longtime friend, alas! now gone, one who led a rather unproductive life despite the fact he was most well read person I have ever known, a real intellectual. He lived with a very small trust fund and with what we call today post-traumatic syndrome as a bomber gunner over Germany in World War II. He used to say, only half jokingly: the source of all contemporary ills is the increasing retreat from “style” in Western culture, disappearing since the Victorian Age.

In a sense, it may not matter so much whether an interlocutor is sincere, whatever that means, but that he uses the proper forms. It was with a shudder I saw — a publicly disseminated photograph at that — of a booted foot propped on the [SS] Nishiki; Resolute Desk in the Oval Office. [Mr. Reagan never entered what he considered this shrine to American governance and patriotism without a tie and jacket.] Or, granted at a celebration of what perhaps most considered a long and beneficial life rather than the traditional funeral, taking a “selfie” in the midst of the program.

The digital revolution with its enormous opportunities and its attendant social media may come to our aid. But I doubt it. Technology is neutral. It performs in the hands of its operatives and only to the extent they have mastered their own cultural values. Robert Bork has pointed out that Methodism, whatever else it did not do, rescued Britain — perhaps you could say with style — from its longtime drunken stupor in the 18th century. But can one expect that kind of cultural revolution of the Methodists or their brethren in the Mainline Churches or the Reformed Synagogues today. Not likely even from their Evangelical cousins.
For style today is not to own an American Express card. If we can bring it back, it might, just might be one of the beginnings of self-knowledge and the ability to handle the larger issues in life – or in government – so sadly lacking at this moment in our history.

A version of this column is scheduled for publication Jan. 13, 2014 at and at

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