You ever wonder why Americans so easily follow our leaders into stupid wars or believe such nonsense as it’s uncool to do well in school or be smart?
It’s because hidden in the subtext of what we read, hear and see are a group of ideological assumptions that define how we live and think. The mass media spoon little messages into the information and entertainment they feed us every day. These messages tell us what to believe or assume that we all believe the same thing:
The free market is best. Private sector solutions are always better than government solutions. All human relationships can be expressed and reduced to buying things. Society is best when we all act in our own self interest and not for the good of the whole. Learning and intellectualism are unappealing in both men and women. The United States is an exceptional country with a special role to lead the world.
We’re hammered with these false ideas day after day, and sometimes we don’t even know it.
Ideological subtext infects breaking news stories, but it drives feature news media, such as celebrity news, business, book reviews, entertainment and sports. Today’s New York Times shows two well-worn but contrasting ways to imbed ideology into feature articles.
In his weekly chess article, Dylan Loeb McClain reports on a Canadian TV show, “Endgame,” about a former world chess champion who never leaves his luxury hotel suite because he suffers from agoraphobia, which means he is afraid to be in wide-open spaces, crowds, and uncontrollable social situations such as shopping malls, airports, and on bridges.
Here we go again: a genius with severe emotional or relationship problems, unable to adjust, weird, unappealing, a nerd!!!
McClain, who has been doing a good job of telling the public about an exciting new generation of chess players like Hikaru Nakamura and Fabiano Caruana, did not have to do a story on this foreign TV show, which was never popular and was cancelled after one season. He chose to do the story, which means that he chose to perpetuate the myth that chess players are strange beasts.
Yes, Bobby Fischer, probably the greatest chess player of all time, was a nutcase. But Lasker, Euwe, Botvinnik, Karpov, Kasparov and most other world champs have been pretty normal people. I have hung around chess circles all my life and known hundreds of chess players. And some of them have been socially or emotionally off-balanced. Yet, it’s about the same as the percentage of nuts whom I have encountered among Scrabble players, poets, baseball and softball players, public relations professionals and boards of synagogues, social service agencies and other charitable organizations.
McClain’s completely nonjudgmental article focuses on how “Endgame” tries to get the chess right. But as a promoter of chess, McClain should care more about getting the image of chess right. Based on knowing hundreds of chess players, here’s the accurate image of the typical great chess player: a young man who does well in school, is a great athlete and has lots of friends of both sexes. That describes about 15 of the top 18-20 teenage chess players in the Pittsburgh area when my son was playing.
What we have then is one of the most important promoters of the game most associated with intelligence and intellectualism accepting as a given the premise that chess players are weird.
Now let’s turn to one of the cover stories of today’s Book Review in which Jonathan Freedland proves once again that the Times book section is always interested in airing the full spectrum of opinion from right-of-center to right-of-center.
Freedland reviews new books on contemporary American geopolitics by Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and policy wonk Robert Kagan. The premise of the review, as lifted in a quote made large in the wide outside margin of the page, is that “Brzezinski from the left and Kagan from the right agree that America should remain dominant.”
The first distortion is to label Brzezinski as a leftist. When he first appeared in the public imagination in the mid-70’s, it was as a centrist wanting to continue to normalize relations with China and the Soviet Union and interested in pursuing the business interests of large U.S. based multinational corporations. His views on Israel and the Middle East seem right of center to me. Kagan’s own views, as expressed in his new book, have been endorsed by President Obama, the avatar of right-of-center internationalism. Kagan may be to the right of Brzezinski but only by a hair or two.
After setting up the false dichotomy between left and right by portraying one center-rightist as a leftist and another as a rightist, Freedland expresses surprise to learn “how much they agree with each other, especially on what matters.” Of course they agree with each other. They both belong in the Jack Kennedy-Scoop Jackson-Richard Nixon-Bill Clinton school of right-looking centrists on international matters.
This school, and American government officials and policy wonks in general, always feel the need to justify American imperial power plays abroad by placing the United States on the twin moral pedestals of pursuing democracy and free market capitalism. No wonder, then, that Kagan is able to write that “The two authors agree that it’s in everyone’s interest, not just America’s, for the United States to remain dominant.”
These two distinguished authors may say it and Kagan may repeat it, but it’s little more than a pretty fiction that our leaders have been telling us, and themselves, for decades. I’m not questioning the need for the United States to remain dominant for the benefit of U.S. multinationals and their political and academic factotums to thrive. And with economic and military dominance, it will be easier for these ruling elites to keep most of the rest of us satisfied with the crumbs from their tables.
What I object to is the false statement that U.S. dominance will be good for the rest of the world. It’s self-serving jingoism, and it’s based on the ideology of American exceptionalism. Like McClain’s covert (and perhaps unknowing) advocacy of anti-intellectualism, Freedland embeds the ideology of exceptionalism into his article by accepting it as an undeniable premise.