by Masha Gessen (June 24, 2020)
What’s so terrible about moral clarity? A future historian of June of 2020—a year that, historians have joked, will spawn narrow chronological specialties—will have to answer this question. The phrase has become central to a debate about the media and about the possibility of debate itself.
The journalist Wesley Lowery, who won a Pulitzer in 2016, for reporting on the systematic nature of police killings of black people, used the phrase in a tweet earlier this month; he was responding to a decision by the New York Times to run an opinion piece by Senator Tom Cotton that advocated the use of military force to quell protests against racism and police brutality. Lowery wrote, “American view-from-nowhere, ‘objectivity’-obsessed, both-sides journalism is a failed experiment. We need to fundamentally reset the norms of our field. The old way must go. We need to rebuild our industry as one that operates from a place of moral clarity.” Four days later, the Times’ media columnist, Ben Smith, picked up the tweet, cementing the oppositional pair: objectivity versus moral clarity, old white male journalists versus young journalists of color, tradition versus an unknown new world.
After Smith, Andrew Sullivan wrote a column for New York magazine under the headline “Is there still room for debate?” The notion that American society is systemically, foundationally racist is tantamount to a totalitarian ideology, according to Sullivan and others. (The Soviet-born Izabella Tabarovsky made the same argument in a piece for Tablet.) Sullivan leads with a reference to Václav Havel’s essay “The Power of the Powerless,” a classic of totalitarianism literature and a piece I have used extensively in my own work. Sullivan seems to think that this is an essay about the use of tanks and terror to enforce compliance with totalitarian opinion. In fact, as its title indicates, it’s an essay about the surprising power of noncompliance, of refusing to “live within the lie,” in Havel’s words.
In what Havel calls “post-totalitarian” society, and in what I would call late-stage-totalitarian society—a society that remembers state terror but no longer uses it—people obey the rules out of habit. Havel conjures the hypothetical character of a greengrocer who puts a Communist sign in his store window, as everyone does:
People ignore his slogan, but they do so because such slogans are also found in other shop windows, on lampposts, bulletin boards, in apartment windows, and on buildings; they are everywhere, in fact. They form part of the panorama of everyday life. . . . The greengrocer and the office worker have both adapted to the conditions in which they live, but in doing so, they help to create those conditions. They do what is done, what is to be done, what must be done, but at the same time—by that very token—they confirm that it must be done in fact. They conform to a particular requirement and in so doing they themselves perpetuate that requirement.
The greengrocer, under totalitarianism, doesn’t and can’t have an opinion; the putting up of the sign doesn’t appear to be subject to debate. But, Havel argues, if the greengrocer were to take the sign down, or not put it up, he would claim a kind of power that is distinct from the regime’s and will never be equal to it but nonetheless constitutes a threat to it: the power of the powerless.
To compare the changing of the ideological tide in the United States to totalitarian ideology is to fail to take account of the power differential. Totalitarian ideology had the power of the state behind it. The enforcers of totalitarian ideology—be they Central Committee members, Writers’ Union leaders, or the distributors of store-window signs—had the power of state institutions behind them. Protesters in the streets of American cities and the journalists who support them are not backed by state or institutional power, but just the opposite: in every instance, they are in confrontation with it. One of the questions they are asking is, How does a vastly powerful institution such as the Times use its power? Does it amplify the state in its most brutal expression, as it did in publishing the Tom Cotton piece? Or does it raise up voices that have been marginalized throughout history? If the paper opts to do both, should it try to compensate for the power imbalance, and give the marginalized voices more room and the state less? In his own Op-Ed for the Times, Lowery talks about black journalists, historically few and powerless, raising their own voices in the newsroom. Here a comparison to the greengrocer may finally be appropriate: black journalists within mainstream publications are finally suggesting that they should have a say in how journalism is practiced.
In making editorial decisions, the Times defines what it sees as the sphere of legitimate controversy, a term coined by the historian Daniel Hallin to describe what news outlets find suitable to publish. Until recently, ideas such as defunding or abolishing the police fell outside the sphere of legitimate controversy—in Hallin’s terminology, they fell into the sphere of deviance, which meant that the papers did not amplify or even acknowledge them. But the idea of using the military to crush protests used to seem deviant, too. American mainstream media are actively redrawing the boundaries of the sphere of legitimate controversy, and the location of that boundary is, itself, a subject of legitimate controversy.
So what is moral clarity? The philosopher Susan Neiman, who wrote a book on the subject, says that it is not, in fact, a statically defined concept: it can be found only on a case-by-case basis. “Moral clarity, however, is about looking at each particular case, looking at all the facts, looking at all the context, and working out your answers,” she stated in a lecture. It should not be confused with moral simplicity: we may have clearly defined moral values, but the quest for the actual position of moral clarity is always complicated and specific to the circumstances. For Lowery, moral clarity is, he wrote, “first and foremost, about objective facts. Nazis are bad—objective fact. Black lives matter—objective fact. Climate change is real—objective fact. President Trump is a liar—objective fact.” In his Times Op-Ed, Lowery added that moral clarity involves naming what we observe without resorting to euphemisms, which includes labelling the President a racist. Moral clarity can also describe the journalist’s own position in relationship to the subject matter. “So often the questions that get the best/most insightful answers are posed from a place of moral clarity,” Lowery tweeted. “Questioning someone powerful from a place of ‘neutrality’ often, in practice, results in journalism that is inappropriately soft in its framing.”
Klickitat County Sheriff Defies Governor Inslee’s COVID-19 Orders
[Where do the limits of individual rights begin & end in a nation of 360 million with a COVID-19 infection rate among the highest in the world and no end in sight?
The Klickitat County Sheriff argues the U.S. Constitution defines those limits. But does it?
Our U.S. Supreme Court justices have opined the Constitution is not the repository or definition of human rights, but rather a definition dedicated to the limits of government. Clarifying, they observed, the rights of the people are as innumerable as the stars in the heavens. Or, as John F. Kennedy said during his inaugural address to Congress, the rights of man do not flow from the largesse of government, but are endowed upon us by our Creator. i.e. We are born with them! They are inseparable and inalienable from the human condition . We need not ask/plead for what is rightfully ours. We can (and should) TAKE it, for we will lose those rights we do not exercise.
HOWEVER, we are not entitled to gratuitously risk the lives of others in the face of a common enemy such as COVID-19, a flood, hurricane, war, earthquake, or other disaster/calamity. We owe each other respect for the right of each individual to the pursuit of happiness and, indeed, life itself. Thus, the Klickitat County Sheriff errs when he fatuously wraps himself in the Constitution at the expense of those natural rights derived from a higher law. And, in the words of our more radical Declaration of Independence, they are truths which we hold are “self evident”!]
In other words, moral clarity is a quest, guided by clear values and informed by facts and context, and clearly aligned with the original concept of journalistic objectivity. In the early twentieth century, some visionary reformers of American journalism imagined that reporting could strive to emulate science, with every article an experiment of sorts: the writer could lay out all of his evidence and the circumstances under which it was collected before drawing his conclusion—or, better yet, letting readers draw their own. Like a scientific paper, a news article could be written in such a way that if someone else decided to replicate the experiment—go to all the same places and ask all the same people the same questions that the original author did—he would likely draw the same conclusions.
Over time, the assumptions underpinning the ideal of journalistic objectivity faded away. Conventions in approach and tone took over. Objectivity in journalism came to mean presenting both sides of an argument from a position of neutrality. But not every argument has two sides: some have more, and some statements should not be the subject of argument. There cannot be arguments about facts. Whether disinfectant should be used to treat the coronavirus, for example, cannot be portrayed as a matter of debate; we do not argue about whether murder should be allowed, unless we are talking about murder committed by the state.
Just a few years ago, the question of whether couples of the same sex should have the right to marry was up for discussion. Today, there would probably be an outcry if the Times decided to stage a pro-and-con debate on the issue, because the Supreme Court has ruled that marriage is a constitutionally protected right and because public opinion has shifted. Whether Americans should have access to universal, taxpayer-funded health care is currently subject to debate; with any luck, in ten years, it will not be.
Essentially, Sullivan and other opinion writers decrying what they see as a new orthodoxy are arguing that everything should be subject to debate, that the sphere of legitimate controversy ought to be boundless. Part of the bedrock of this argument is the absolute belief in the value of debate unto itself. This is where the spectre of totalitarianism appears. These writers fear that what they see as an emerging new political consensus challenges the primacy of traditional liberal values that should never be debated: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and other individual rights.
Sullivan identifies what he sees as the core beliefs of the new consensus: that “America is systemically racist, and a white-supremacist project from the start,” and that “all the ideals about individual liberty, religious freedom, limited government, and the equality of all human beings were always a falsehood to cover for and justify and entrench the enslavement of human beings under the fiction of race. . . . The liberal system is itself a form of white supremacy—which is why racial inequality endures and why liberalism’s core values and institutions cannot be reformed and can only be dismantled.” He sees this reading of history as reductive and a rejection of America’s aspiration for justice and equality.
“This view of the world certainly has ‘moral clarity,’ ” Sullivan wrote. “What it lacks is moral complexity. No country can be so reduced to one single prism and damned because of it.” At the same time, no country should be seen solely through the prism of its achievements. He seems willing to allow a discussion of racism as an amendment, perhaps a footnote, to the narrative of America as a nation of freedom and justice. But he rejects the idea that this society’s sins are great enough to warrant a reappraisal of its entire character. If the story of the United States is told primarily as one of a nation of immigrants, the story of a society that, over time, enfranchised an ever great number of its members, and where the arc of history has bent toward justice, then the legacy of slavery and the apparently intractable nature of structural racism is obscured. Indeed, the heroic narrative of America is part of why structural racism is so immovable. But Sullivan and others don’t appear to see two competing historical narratives; rather, they see a challenge not to a story but to the truth, an eternal certainty, a natural state of things that the protests are threatening to destroy.
This is not only a shortsighted view but also an outdated one. Donald Trump has already dislodged the story of this country as a nation of immigrants on an inexorable path toward justice and equality, guaranteed by a commitment to individual liberties. For future historians of June, 2020, here is my hypothesis: the reason we seem to be witnessing the emergence of a new political consensus is that the old consensus had already withered. The new story, being shaped right now, is neither dogmatic nor simplistic. It is, however, based on a different set of assumptions than the old story—and this is a good thing, and a necessary thing, as is moral clarity.