A review of Yuval Levin’s Book The Great Debate
Jon Bishop writes: We too often assume that the left and right divide began with the eruptions of the ’60s or with the presidency of FDR. It is in fact much older — ancient, even, for it is not out of the question to assume that Greece and Rome faced similar questions. So Yuval Levin, with his The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left, has done modern American political discourse an incredible service by reminding us to always consider the historical context.
Levin takes the reader on a guided tour of the Enlightenment-drenched late 18th century and demonstrates how Burke and Paine, who serve as Levin’s representatives for conservative liberalism and progressive liberalism, respectively, adapted the thinking of the age to their approach to political questions. He draws from both their letters and published works — which make for great reading, by the way. Both, after all, were wonderful rhetoricians.
John Sexton notes: Last weekend the NY Times published a “Sunday dialogue” which included a letter to the editor by a Connecticut bookseller and some responses. The topic was media bias. Both the letter–and some of the responses to it–present a perspective on media bias one might not expect to find in the NY Times.
Here’s a portion of the initial letter by Mark Godburn:
Relying on one source, or even on several sources with the same bias, will leave you with only part of the story.
That’s why the much maligned right-wing media is just as important as the so-called mainstream press. Fox News and others on the right certainly have a deeply embedded conservative bias, but the liberal bias on the other side is just as pervasive. Taken together, they roughly fill each other’s omissions.
Fairness in journalism requires not that every story or point of view receive equal weight but that every valid position receive equal respect. Thus the pro-life position should be treated with the same validity as pro-choice; small-government conservatives with the same respect as tax-and-spend liberals; Republicans as more compassionate than they sound and Democrats as less omniscient than they think.
But since journalists and news organizations are partisan at heart, one must sift through the best reporting and punditry from each side of the journalistic divide and take all the biases and agendas into account to arrive at an informed understanding of any story.
And their consequences—for his era and ours
From the Autumn 2013 Edition of City Journal, this is a long article but highly recommended, save this to read at leisure, it’s good — Sunday Nov. 10 – The Butcher
Myron Magnet writes: On November 30, 1774, a 37-year-old Englishman—an ex-privateer, ex–corset stay maker, ex–tax collector (fired twice for dereliction of duty), and ex-husband (also twice over)—arrived in Philadelphia with a letter of recommendation from Benjamin Franklin in his pocket. The old philosopher’s praise was understandably restrained. This “ingenious worthy young man,” Franklin wrote, would make a useful “clerk, or assistant tutor in a school, or assistant surveyor.” Four months later, however, the shots that rang out at Lexington and Concord galvanized the newcomer’s hitherto aimless life into focus and purpose. “When the country into which I had just set foot was set on fire about my ears, it was time to stir,” he recalled. “It was time for every man to stir.” And so, adding a final “e” to soften the surname he was born with, he began to write under the byline “Thomas Paine.”
Celebrated around the world for his key role in the American Revolution, Paine went on to play an important part in the French Revolution, as well.
He found he had a literary gift that almost instantly turned him into one of history’s greatest revolutionary propagandists—not just of one major revolution, as it happened, but of two. But as his thought developed—and except for the Norfolk grammar-school education that ended when he was 13, he was self-taught—his radicalism, so lucid and solidly grounded during the American Revolution, lost sight of the darker realities of human nature. As a result, when he and his close, like-minded friends, the Marquis de Lafayette and United States ambassador to France Thomas Jefferson, plotted reform together in Paris in the fateful final years of the 1780s, they disastrously misread the French Revolution as it gathered and burst forth. While Jefferson luckily went home to America with his illusions intact, Paine and Lafayette both ended up wasted with illness in pestilential prisons, and Paine escaped the guillotine by the most capricious of chances.
To paraphrase the great polemicist Thomas Paine, these are times that try the souls of optimists. The country is shuffling through a very weak recovery, and public opinion remains distinctly negative, with nearly half of Americans saying China has already leapfrogged us and nearly 60 percent convinced the country is headed in the wrong direction. Belief in the political leadership of both parties stands at record lows, not surprisingly, since we are experiencing what may be remembered as the worst period of presidential leadership, under both parties, since the pre-Civil War days of Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan.
Yet, despite the many challenges facing the United States, this country remains, by far, the best-favored part of the world, and is likely to become more so in the decade ahead. The reasons lie in the fundamentals: natural resources, technological excellence, a budding manufacturing recovery and, most important, healthier demographics. The rest of the world is not likely to cheer us on, since they now have a generally lower opinion of us than in 2009; apparently the “bounce” we got from electing our articulate, handsome, biracial Nobel laureate president is clearly, as Pew suggests, “a thing of the past.”
The First Amendment guarantees a free press, not a fair press
In the modern age, the general public expects their news to be “objective” and “unbiased.” We want the “facts” and believe that the talking head, newspaper reporter or cable news correspondent is interested in the same thing. The members of the mainstream media tell us they are unbiased, even when reporters engage in coordinated attacks against political figures they dislike.
Of course, most astute observers understand that the media leans left. Tim Groseclose wrote a book on the issue in 2011. Conservative media outlets consistently hammer their liberal counterparts on their bias, only to receive jabs from the president and other liberal politicians for their “venomous” behavior.
To those who have grown up with the fantasy that American media has, until recently, been the mecca for objectivity, it seems our media outlets are falling apart, warped by the same supposed partisanship that clouds the American political process. If only we could return to the glory days of early news reporting when we could trust the “facts” and receive the whole truth and nothing but the truth. They need a swift kick of reality. The First Amendment — and the 50 state amendments on the issue — guarantee a free press, but not a fair press. The press has always been a snake pit.
“…Americans will generally gravitate toward the news that suits their worldview…”
George Washington was savagely attacked in the press, with Thomas Paine, his one-time ally, publicly wishing for his death. The relentless attacks in the press against John Adams in 1800 were financed by his long-time friend Thomas Jefferson. In return, Jefferson was publicly roasted by James Callender, the man he paid to filet Adams. In the mid-nineteenth century, Thomas Ritchie, editor of the Richmond Enquirer, was a one-man wrecking ball against his political opponents. Horace Greeley used his New York Tribune as a sounding board for the Republican Party and his various social crusades in the ante and post bellum periods. Some of these newspapers were in fact financed by the members of Congress that their editors supported! Everyone knew it and no one expected an “unbiased” story, for as historians have understood for years, “unbiased” stories do not exist. Even reporters’ story selection shows bias.
“…The press has always been a snake pit…”
Yet, Americans like biased news. Historical data proves it, as do the current television cable news and talk-show ratings. We like to know what our “newsmen” think before they give us the scoop. People like to hear their own thoughts reaffirmed and echoed. As long as the press remains free — and the Internet is the key — then Americans will generally gravitate toward the news that suits their worldview. This should come as no surprise, and Americans should and do embrace it. Let the “mainstream” media tarnish its image by cozying up to the Obama administration. There are counterweights, and Americans have found them in large numbers. The founding generation and those that followed in the nineteenth century understood that only a free press mattered. Fair was subjective and unnecessary. ..