March 26th, 2011 17:01 EST
Enough With The Politics, How About American Culture?
And some remarkable exceptions
Local newspapers in America, with a handful of brave exceptions, are shams.
The digital era has overtaken them, and they`re struggling to come up with business models that will enable them to stay alive. But even in the 1950s when they were still thriving they were never alive to American culture. They were then as now busy politicizing society as if politics was all that mattered. The result is our off-the-rails roller coaster of politics.
The star reporters and editors were always the political observers. The men and women who covered the arts, sciences and humanities were thought of as feature writers occupying dead-end jobs. It never occurred to the fourth estate that politics is essentially anti-cultural and that our creative artists and scientists might be more useful to us than our politicians.
And even now as the press scurries to catch up with the digital era it remains profoundly anti-cultural, paying condescending lip service to the arts and sciences but insisting that our professional blabbermouth class is more important. Whenever our news magazines and newspapers have presented themselves as serious they`ve meant serious about politics or public affairs, as if the arts and literature are not public affairs.
In the 21st Century this world-view strikes me as antiquarian, and I`m not sure it was ever more than a mechanistic, intellectually flaccid idea.
Newspapers in their heyday were only as good as their owners. Some communities were lucky, having owners who cared about a broad range of matters. Others were unlucky, having narrow, bigoted owners. But there was diversity and therefore hope. Then in the 1980s, when communications giants gobbled up the local press, that hope vanished. From that point on we had a sham local press. It was an open invitation to corruption, and sure enough the corruption descended on us in spades in the form of reckless developers, predatory lenders and bribed local officials.
Corruption begins at home, but it suits the politicians and the press to blame Washington because it distracts voters from the origins of corruption in their home towns "and from the failure of their press to expose it. New York State offers a good example. Politicians get elected by shaking their fists at Washington, but they have done little to redress the causes of soaring property taxes, namely too many layers of government, overlap and ill-considered development. A weak press, mired in useless conventions, lets them get away with it.
All this came into sharper focus the other day as I examined the March issue of Chronogram, an admirable tabloid-size magazine published in Kingston and distributing 20,000 copies a month in the mid-Hudson Valley and nearby Connecticut and Massachusetts that also operates an online mirror edition. Chronogram (see March 2011 cover above) takes arts and literature seriously. It is one of a growing few journals that reviews small presses and self-published books. Its vision reflects the reality of everyday life in the region much more closely than most local newspapers. It portrays an upbeat, imaginative population, while most of the region`s newspapers would have us believe that we`re hanging on every divisive political word. In Chronogram we can recognize ourselves, but in most local papers we see what polarizes and disheartens us.
Newspapers have always thrown a few bones to the arts and literature " patting the child on the head "but they have never reflected the idea that a society`s culture is its true life. Chronogram lives in a region that takes its culture seriously and tends to regard politics as something to put up with, like poison ivy. Conservatives would call it a progressive area, but it actually reflects a continual tension between deeply rooted locals, usually conservative, and newcomers and second home owners, once called summer people.
Chronogram is a reminder that a deeply flawed view of society has been nurtured by the press. The same conservatives who deplore central government clamor to get to Washington and vent their ire on it, while corruption is rampant back home where they began, encouraged by the absence of a vigilant local press.
Politics has become our obsession, and this is not the poison fruit of Fox News or even of a body politic auctioned off to lobbyists; rather, it`s the inevitable consequence of a fourth estate that has always thought what is going on at city hall more significant than what is going on at Carnegie Hall, a fourth estate that adjudges town hall more important than a community`s poets, artists and musicians, even now that it no longer covers town hall very well.
Chronogram, with its glossy colors, boundless curiosity, love of photography and editorial exuberance, stands in contrast to a dreary national conviction that the arts and sciences are dispensable niceties rather than the heart and soul of a nation. And when you think about it this singular act of contempt is an amazing feat, considering the vibrancy of Nashville, New Orleans, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Chicago, New York and so many other cultural powerhouses.
It`s only natural that our politicians would cut funding to the arts, humanities and sciences first; they are, after all, creatures of a press that has habitually shortchanged them. The press pretends that these cutbacks are news rather than the predictable result of its own neglect.
It`s rather like our doctors, lawyers and politicians insisting on incomes that prove their idiotic belief that they are more important than our artists, soldiers, teachers, musicians, filmmakers, dancers and scientists.
Newspapers are dying not only because they have been overtaken by technologies they refused to grasp until it was too late but also because they deserve to die. They did not reflect our astonishingly creative society. They did not celebrate and cultivate it; they dealt with it offhandedly, and in the process they helped to create an obsessional and overheated environment in which politics has literally driven us off the deep end.
But even with its diamond-cutter`s focus on politics, the press did not do its job. For example, today, when we are involved in yet another war, the press deigns at last to inform us that Libya is a kleptocracy demanding baksheesh, paybacks, from our businesses operating there. To say this news is a day late and a dollar short is an understatement. All over the country reckless overdevelopment has made lenders rich, ruined the environment and corrupted local politicians. Where was the press? Collecting advertising money from the developers, realtors and lenders, of course.
I hope that as the web becomes the principal purveyor of news the press`s blinkered focus on politics will give way to a grander view of our culture as the real measure of our contribution to society. Our revolutionary political vision in our founding days was almost certain to fixate the press on politics, but somehow in the intervening centuries we seem to have lost sight of politics as the servant of a much larger purpose. And so we find ourselves serving the 24-hour cable cycle and the politicians who were supposed to serve us.
Chronogram is not alone in the Hudson Valley and environs in its mission to reflect the creativity of our daily lives. The Country and Abroad, produced in Pine Plains, New York, and the online Warwick Valley Living are other vital celebrations of how we live when politicians and press are not agitating us. And it would hardly be fair not to say that among regional newspapers, the weekly Woodstock Times and Daily Freeman are exceptions to the rule of uninspired, inconsequential local newspapers.
Djelloul Marbrook is a retired newspaperman. His second book of poems, Brushstrokes and Glances, will be published by Deerbrook Editions on December 20, 2010. His first book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. It won the International Book Award in 2010. His novella, Artemisia`s Wolf, will be published by Prakash Books of India in December. His novella, Saraceno, was recently published as an e-book. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal LattÃ© first prize in fiction in 2008. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller`s Room, in 1999.
Del`s book, Far From Algiers: http://upress.kent.edu/books/Marbrook_D.htm
New review of Far from Algiers: http://www.rattle.com/blog/2009/05/far-from-algiers-by-djelloul-marbrook/
Artists Hill, Literal LattÃ©`s fiction first prize: http://www.literal-latte.com/author/djelloulmarbrook/
His blog: http://www.djelloulmarbrook.com
His mother`s art: http://www.juanitaguccione.com
His aunt`s art: http://www.irenericepereira.com