The Free Play of Thought

by Robert Allen Warrior

Robert Warrior, a contributing editor of Christianity & Crisis, is New York correspondent for the Lakota times, a member of the Osage Nation, and a doctoral candidate at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

The following essay appeared in Hidden Treasures: Searching for God in Modern Culture, by James M. Wall (The Christian Century Press, Chicago: 1997), pp. 97-99. Used by permission.


Society needs criticism that aspires to transcend immediate practical and political considerations. But today the rule "No conflict, no news" governs cultural criticism.

Matthew Arnold, the 19th-century British poet and critic, aimed, in Morris Dickstein’s words, "to direct a free play of thought onto subjects that had become petrified by received opinion." Arnold believed that the critic should, in his memorable phrase, see life steadily and see it whole. Indeed, for Arnold, the welfare of the nation depended on citizens’ ability to rise above personal, political and practical considerations and exercise a disinterested, critical point of view. This view of the critic sounds quaint in today’s commercial culture. Even since the New York Times hired conservative pundit William Safire to bring "balance" to its pages, columnists have sought not to be judicious but to stridently represent a particular political—or ethnic or social—viewpoint.

Stridency and passion are also the driving forces behind the influential radio and television talk shows. These arbiters of discussion employ blatant distortion of history, Alice in Wonderland definitions of facts, character assassination and the demonization of opponents; they turn our public conversation into hostile shouting matches.

There is no such thing, of course, as completely disinterested or objective criticism. All criticism reflects the position and sensibility of the critic. Still, as Arnold emphasized, society needs criticism that aspires to transcend immediate practical and political considerations.

Arnold’s view of culture was filtered through poetry and literature, but it was ultimately human conduct, not art, that concerned him. According to Dickstein, Arnold thought that "culture is conduct, or at least a firmer, more thoughtful ground on which conduct could be based" (Double Agent: The Critic and Society). "Culture is ‘a study of perfection’ which ‘moves by the force, not merely or primarily of the scientific passion for public knowledge, but also of the moral and social passion for doing good." Arnold was, "above all, a diagnostic critic who uses literature instrumentally, to advance social health and human wholeness."

A random sampling of the so-called big news stories of recent months offers little that is of value in the advancement of social health and human wholeness. Did we, for example, need the extensive coverage of the bizarre and sad mass suicides of the Heaven’s Gate community? Was the social significance of that event of such magnitude that Newsweek needed to devote almost half its editorial pages to the phenomenon? Did we really need to receive such massive daily doses of the two trials of 0. J. Simpson? The coverage of and commentary on these and similar stories has everything to do with profitability and very little to do with the advancement of social health and human wholeness.

Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich are supposed to be conducting the business of the people, but neither man can focus for long on his tasks without being reminded by our noisy cultural critics that the most important things about their lives is their misconduct in the past. Clinton and Gingrich have records that need to be examined and issues that need to be resolved, but what we see on a daily basis is neither news we can use nor information we need. It is more like gossip, peddled to a public far more interested in Paula Jones than in what cuts in food stamps are doing to poor children.

In Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy (Pantheon, 1996), James Fallows writes that "journalism is not mere entertainment. It is the main tool we have for keeping the world’s events in perspective. It is the main source of agreed-upon facts we can use in public decisions." But journalism has become a form of entertainment. Fallows cites Fred Wertheimer on the influence of television talk shows: "If I look at it from the standpoint of a TV talk show producer, a ‘good journalist’ is someone who has ‘energy.’ You hear this all the time. So and so has energy or doesn’t have energy. It means someone who is noisy, opinionated, conflictual."

Fallows recalls a time when it wasn’t this way. After World War II, he suggests, "people with a strong connection to academic life played the role of ‘village explainer’ in America." These explainers addressed the nation’s new role in world affairs, the threats and possibilities of the atomic age, racial segregation and the importance of emerging technologies.

Vannevar Bush, for example, a former president of MIT and director of the government’s Office of Scientific Research and Development during the war, published an influential article in the Atlantic Monthly which "offered an amazingly prescient view of the effect of science on the world economy and of computers in daily life." Other articles written for general consumption in the postwar era came from such eminent figures as Arthur Schlesinger Sr., Richard Hofstadter, Henry Steele Commager and C. Vann Woodward. Public dialogue in that period was not without its frivolous and shallow stories—products such as hula hoops were duly noted—but, Fallows contends, attention was also paid to serious discussion of developments that would affect public policy.

Now the rule "No conflict, no news" governs cultural criticism. Shouting matches on television, and policy discussions viewed as games to be won or lost, set the standard for discussion. This leaves the public not only ill-prepared to make decisions, but also delivers us into the hands of profit-making commercial powers who are more than eager, in Neil Postman’s perceptive phrase, to "amuse us to death."