How a Caged Bird Learns to Sing | The Nation


How a Caged Bird Learns to Sing

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Like a tribal warrior in the Ramayana, throwing dice, juiced on soma, I want to tell some stories and brood out loud. But it's tricky. My favorite stories are all about what they did to me. What I've done to myself, I am inclined to repress, sublimate or rationalize. Once upon a time, I was a Wunderkind. Now I'm an Old Fart. In between I've done time at National Review, Pacifica Radio and The Nation; the New York Times and Condé Nast; New York magazine during and after Rupert Murdoch; National Public Radio and the Columbia Broadcasting System. I was a columnist for Esquire, whenever Dwight Macdonald failed to turn in his "Politics" essay; at the old weekly Life before it died for People's sins; at Newsweek before the Times made me stop contributing to a wholly owned subsidiary of its principal competitor; at Ms. during its Australian walkabout interim; and at New York Newsday before it was so rudely "disappeared" by a Times-Mirror CEO fresh to journalism from the Hobbesian underworlds of microwave popcorn and breakfast-cereal sugar-bombs. And I have written for anyone who ever asked me at newspapers like the Washington Post, the LA Times and the Boston Globe, at magazines like Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, Vogue and Playboy, and at dot-coms like Salon. I like to think of myself as having published in the New York Review, The New Statesman, the Yale Review and Tikkun. But there was also TV Guide.

This article is adapted from a lecture that was part of a
series on self-censorship in the media given at New York University. The
lecture series is being published this month in The Business of
(New Press).

About the Author

John Leonard
John Leonard, the TV critic for New York magazine, a commentator on CBS Sunday Morning and book critic for The Nation...

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This sounds less careerist than sluttish. It is, however, a sluttishness probably to be expected of someone who had to make a living after he discovered that the novels he reviewed were a lot better than the novels he wrote. We may belong to what the poet Paul Valéry called "the delirious professions"--by which Valéry meant "all those trades whose main tool is one's opinion of one's self, and whose raw material is the opinion others have of you"--but reporters, critics and "cultural journalists," no less than publicists, are caged birds in a corporate canary-cage. Looking back, I see what I required of my employers was that they cherish my every word and leave me alone. If I understand what Warren Beatty was trying to tell us in the movie Reds, it is that John Reed only soured on the Russian Revolution after they fucked with his copy.

On the other hand, as Walter Benjamin once explained:

The great majority of intellectuals--particularly in the arts--are in a desperate plight. The fault lies, however, not with their character, pride, or inaccessibility. Journalists, novelists, and literati are for the most part ready for every compromise. It's just that they do not realize it. And this is the reason for their failures. Because they do not know, or want to know, that they are venal, they do not understand that they should separate out those aspects of their opinions, experiences, and modes of behavior that might be of interest to the market. Instead, they make it a point of honor to be wholly themselves on every issue. Because they want to be sold, so to speak, only "in one piece," they are as unsalable as a calf that the butcher will sell to the housewife only as an undivided whole.

I throw in Walter Benjamin, who killed himself a step ahead of Hitler, to muss the hair of the academics among you. Having been to too many conferences where working reporters and media theorists reach an angry adjournment of minds before the first coffee break, I seek to ingratiate myself. If it'll help to wear a Heidegger safari jacket, Foucault platform heels, Lacan epaulets and a Walter Benjamin boutonniere, I'm willing to bring the Frankfurtives and the Frenchifieds. Indeed, the production process of every major news-gathering organization can be thought of--in Foucault's terms--as an allegory of endless domination, like hangmen torturing murderers or doctors locking up deviants. And whether they know it consciously or not, these organizations are in the "corrective technologies" business of beating down individuals to "neutralize" their "dangerous states"--to create "docile bodies and obedient souls." How we escape their "numbing codes of discipline," if we ever do, is more problematic. Somehow, art, dreams, drugs, madness, "erotic transgression," "secret self-ravishment" and going postal seldom add up to an "insurrection of unsubjugated knowledges." I like to think of myself as Patsy Cline. I sang the same sad country songs before I ever got to the Grand Ole Opry. After the Grand Ole Opry, I can always go back to the honky-tonks.

Another paradigm is sociobiological. Everything is hard-wired, from the behavior of ants, beetles, Egyptian fruit bats and adhesive-padded geckos to the role of women, the caste system in India, the IQ test scores of black schoolchildren and the hierarchy of the newsroom. If the people on top of this Chain of Being are mostly male and mostly pale, in the missionary position, talk to Darwin about it. They've been Naturally Selected. Moreover, inside such a white-noise system, there is a positive feedback loop between nature and nurture, thousands of teensy units of obedience training called "culturgens," dictating what societies can and can't do, obsessing in favor of patriarchy and "objectivity," deploring socialism and "bad taste." Having ceded ultimate authority, on the one hand, to the credentialed nitwits of the mini-sciences, and, on the other, to the chirpy gauchos of the media pampas, we may thus find it difficult, ever again, to think through dilemmas of personal conscience, which look a lot like bad career moves.

Molly Ivins, who was fired from the New York Times for saying "chickenplucker" in its pages, has admitted that if she ever dies, what it will say on her tombstone is she finally made a shrewd career move. Molly also claims that she's actually played, on a jukebox somewhere, a country-western song called "I'm Going Back to Dallas to See if There Could Be Anything Worse Than Losing You."

A third paradigm is novelistic. It's amazing to me how much the controlled environments of both CBS and the New York Times resemble Tsau, the utopian community on a Botswana sand dune in Norman Rush's Mating, with windmills, boomslangs, dung carts, abacus lessons, militant nostalgia, ceramic death masks, "Anti-Imperialist Lamentations," a Mother Committee and an ostrich farm. And how similar the plantations of Murdoch and Newhouse are to Orwell's Animal Farm and Kafka's Penal Colony. Whereas Pacifica Radio and The Nation bring to mind Voltaire's Candide. On these margins, where everyone is paid so poorly that office politics are ideologized into matters of first principle, a little more self-censorship might actually be a good idea. I am reminded of what Amos Oz said in The Slopes of Lebanon about the Israeli left:

The term Phalangist is derived from the Greek word "phalanx." The phalanx, in the Greek and Roman armies, was a unique battle formation. The soldiers were arranged in a closed-square formation, their backs to one another and their faces turned toward an enemy who could neither outflank nor surprise them, because in this formation the men gave full cover to one another in every direction. The lances and spears pointed outward, of course, in all four directions.

The moderate, dovish Israeli left sometimes resembles a reverse phalanx: a square of brave fighters, their backs to the whole world and their faces and their sharpened, unsheathed pens turned on one another.

But, wherever, they always fuck with your copy.

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