The Role of Journalism in History

In his section on Opium in the book, This is Your Mind on Plants, the author Michael Pollan writes about how his first story that was to appear in the leading newspapers in the 1990s was redacted and cut after a legal review. (The entire essay is printed in the book that was published 20 years later). This essay seems to precede the opioid crises in America that was to surface just a decade later. But it was apparent that the undercurrent was already at play. The world just had no idea how it would pan out. 

This is your mind on plants – Michael Pollan

His sentence on journalism and its bearing on History resonated on so many levels, that I noted it down then and there. 

“There’s a parable here somewhere, about the difference between journalism and history. What might appear to be “the story” in the present moment may actually be a distraction from it, a shiny object preventing us from seeing the truth of what is really going on beneath the surface of our attention, what will most deeply affect people’s lives in time.”

Michael Pollan – Our Mind on Plants

Later in the book, when he is talking about caffeine, he mentions this piece of Asian history that emerged from the tea-drinking habit of the British. By the 1800’s tea drinking had become a normal routine of English life. Jane Austen refers to tea in her books published in the early 1880s. In the book, Alice in Wonderland, published in 1865, tea parties are galore. 

“Yes, that’s it! “, said the Hatter

with a sigh, “it’s always tea time.”

Lewis Carroll – Alice in Wonderland
Alice in Wonderland

Here is the excerpt of the section on the British East India Company’s tea trade with China.

Since the company had to pay for tea in Sterling, and China had little interest in English goods, England began running a ruinous trade deficit with China. The East India Company came up with two clever strategies to improve its balance and payments position: it turned to India, a country it controlled that had no history of large-scale tea production, and transformed it into a leading producer of tea – and opium. The tea was exported to England and the opium, over the strenuous objections of the Chinese government, was smuggled into China, in what would quickly become a ruinous and unconscionable flood.

By 1828, the opium trade represented 16% of the company’s revenues, and within 5 years, the East India company was sending more than 5 million pounds of Indian opium to China per year. This helped close the trade deficit but millions of Chinese became addicted. After the Chinese emperor ordered the seizure of all stores of opium in 1839, Britain declared war to keep the opium flowing. Owing to the Royal Navy’s vastly superior firepower, the British quickly prevailed, forcing open 5 “treaty ports” and taking possession of Hong King in a crushing blow to China’s sovereignty and economy,.

So here was another moral cost of caffeine: in order for the English mind to be sharpened with tea, the Chinese mind had to be clouded with opium.”

Michael Pollan – This is your mind on Plants

The adage ‘History is written by the victor’ does ring true in most cases. How many perspectives of every narrative are there? How does one classify a good side or a bad side? The perspective of time lends a helpful lens. For instance, when Madeleine Albright, the first woman senator met Vladimir Putin in the 1990’s, she was asked of her opinion of him. She recognized him as a despot in the making, and one who was preternaturally occupied with the idea of a United Sovereign States of Russia (USSR before it disintegrated into Russia + all the other smaller countries). I suppose this is an example of a seed taking root in one’s mind and growing and festering with time. The war on Ukraine is but a step in that direction.

More importantly though, what is current journalism missing for the larger picture today? Whether it is in the reporting of Covid, the Ukraine crisis, or the larger commodity of people’s attention spans. Our future generations would point to this day and age of our shrinking attention spans in an attempt to capture our attentions, and see the arc from some place that humanity had reached. Would it be a virtual reality universe designed to give us more options to escape from life, or will life itself change? Nobody knows. But in order to see how it pans out, we need our critical faculties about us. 

‘But I don’t want to go among mad people,’ said Alice.

‘Oh, you can’t help that,’ said the cat. ‘We’re all mad here.’

Lewis Carroll

Hero-Worship, Nicomacean Ethics & Baloney Detection Kits

I have heard friends rave about Dune by Frank Herbert many times over the past few years. I finally got to read the book, and I feel richer in mind and thought for it. The book was long and at times hard to keep track of (especially in the beginning). This is one of those times when I realize how my mind flutters with attention spans that drive calm butterflies to frenzy. But slowly, steadily, I settled into the book, and there were multiple moments when I felt like I must grab a pen and start writing (but that stern butterfly gave me a look, and kept me at my the task of reading). This, is probably the reason I have forgotten half the things I wanted to write about (This is where I glare back at the butterfly guardian who kept me reading)

Dune-Frank_Herbert_(1965)_First_edition
First Edition Cover – Image from Wikipedia

One of the many things that appealed to me in the Dune was the fact though there were vague references made to technology and the number of technological devices used by those living at the time, it is not a mainstay.

The book is a multi-layered piece of literature with over-arching themes of ecology, the art of war, religion, philosophy and politics. There is a particular quote that stuck with me in the Prologue written by Brian Herbert, Frank Herbert’s son, about the dangers of hero worship.

Quote:

As Liet Kynes lay dying in the desert, he remembered the long ago words of his own father: “No more terrible disaster could befall your people than for them to fall into the hands of a Hero.”

Having studied politics carefully, my father believed that heroes made mistakes…mistakes that were simplified by the number of people who followed such leaders slavishly.

In many ways, hero worship is what leads people to choose leaders who then turn into despots and dictators. Adulation affects everyone, and those with fragile egos are the most prone to its lure.

Towards the end of the book, Paul Atreides recognizes that he is being hailed as the Messiah and regardless of his acceptance of the title, there is a holy jihad in his future. He can either lead to the best of his abilities like his able and excellent father, Duke Leto or simply be the mascot of a movement that has already gathered momentum – a force that is much larger than him. This sort of trusting faith in one human being is never a good sign, and is a malady that has affected us for centuries. 

I quite agree with how Aristotle describes the nobility required of politicians: he opines that politicians should take an oath, almost as sacred as a Hippocratic oath, to remain fair and mete out justice. From the Nicomachean Ethics – By Aristotle. 

The lecture on Aristotle and Socrates on How Does One Live The Good Life? From 36 Books That Changed The World (Chapter 8) is an excellent listen.

 

There are no initiation courses for politicians. No training. Though, I have a suggestion to have every politician complete the Butter Battle Course, it is unheeded. (The Butter Battle Course is an excellent course consisting of childrens’ books not more than a few pages each, and should only take a few moments of every leader’s time):

butter_battle

However, till politicians start taking their careers to truly be in service of humanity, we need to equip ourselves with Carl Sagan’s excellent Baloney Detection Kit from the book: The varieties of scientific experience : a personal view of the search for God / Carl Sagan ; edited by Ann Druyan. This book contains the Gifford lectures given by Carl Sagan in 1985.

The_Varieties_of_Scientific_Experience
By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28513011

When someone asked Carl Sagan after his lecture what we can do when the governments do not act in our best interests, he advised us to have Baloney Detection Kits handy.

Quote:

“I would say that the first thing to do is realize that governments, all governments, at least on occasion, lie. And some of them do it all the time – some of them do it only every second statement-but, by and large, governments distort the facts in order to remain in office.

And if we are ignorant of what the issues are and can’t even ask the critical questions, then we’re not going to make much of a difference. If we can understand the issues, if we can pose the right questions, if we can point out the contradictions, then we can make some progress. There are many other things that can done, but it seems to me that those two, the baloney detection kit and use of the democratic process where available are at least two things to consider.”

This seems to be age old wisdom: our oldest myths write about flaws in heroes, what brings about the downfall of the most powerful tyrants  etc; and yet, the reminder for our own Baloney Detection Kits is a timely one.

Books:

  • Dune – Frank Herbert
  • Varieties of Scientific Evidence  – Carl Sagan 
  • Nicomachean Ethics – Aristotle
  • 36 Books That Changed The World – Lectures on Great Courses
  • Butter Battle Book – Dr Seuss

The Lure of NorEaWesSou

I picked up a light hearted book that outlined how journalism was done 100 years ago: Scoop By Evelyn Waugh. Written in the 1930’s, the book deals with how newspapers made do with telegrams from remote locations to fill newspaper columns: How they decided ahead of time on the stance to take, the line to pitch. Journalism was and is a series of Scoops. Which nugget gets scooped by whom?

Screen Shot 2018-03-08 at 9.20.36 AM.png

The book is based on William Boot, a thoroughly good-natured hedgehog type of fellow, who writes the nature column about life in the English countryside. One week his column writes of the country mouse, and the next week about thriving lobelias. Up in high brow London, he is mistaken for a dashing up-and-coming novelist, also Boot, and asked to go to Ishmaelia, a fictional country in Africa to cover the news. Given no choice, he embarks on the journey, and learns a thing or two about journalism from his journalist pals.

Corker looked at him sadly. “You know, you’ve got a lot to learn about journalism. Look at it this way. News is what a chap who doesn’t care much about anything wants to read, and its only news until he’s read it. After that, its dead. We’re afraid to supply news. If someone else  has sent a story before us, our story isn’t news.”

William Boot is not only ignorant of the scoop business, but distinctly inept at keeping his bosses in the know. His telegrams read like stories; and lack buzz and content. When asked by his head office to send regular updates, Boot replies, that nothing much is going on, and that the weather continues to be fine.

The sort of missive that drives his editor mad. “How am I to fill a column based on the weather being fine?

The dilemma is real. Nobody wants to know when things are going well, and the weather is fine. The populace wants sensational news, and if there isn’t any, they have no qualms about creating some.

Purely by accident, William Boot uncovers a plot to overthrow the powers in the country. When he is composing the telegram with his first real piece of news, he receives the sack from the head office.

Telegram by William Boot:

Nothing much has happened except to the president who has been imprisoned in his own palace by revolutionary junta …. but governess says most unusual lovely spring weather …. bubonic plague raging.

He got so far when he was interrupted. Frau Dressler brought him a cable: your contract terminated stop accept this stipulated months notice and acknowledge stop beast.

William added to this message, Sack received safely thought I might as well send this all the same.

The book is not as engaging and funny as its critics claim, but the premise of the book makes for a charming plot. It is amusing to see how little things have changed since the days of the Telegram: our telegrams arrive almost instantly via tweets, but the essence is the same.

In the current era of news, and fake news, how does one discern truth, and in which cases does one have to bother to do so?

bus_stand

I remember being about a decade old, traveling in South India, when I saw the headlines from a local daily: “Prime Minister resigns”. I gasped, and tugged at my father’s arm, and showed him the headline. Apparently, he had resigned from the milking committee of a farm or some such thing.

That is my earliest recollection of questioning the sanctity of print. Up until then, I read anything printed with a wholesome innocence assuming purity of thought and intent. The father noticed my shocked expression, and we went on discuss the nature of the Scoop, and the thrill of Sensationalism. Television had not yet entered into every home, and one waited every morning for the newspaper to bring us news of the wide world. A whole day in which to ruminate on what one read.

Aristotle apparently wrote, It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it. 

Did he really say that? We don’t know.

Sensationalism and Scoop-ism have steadily chipped away at the hallmark of ruminating and discerning narratives having a semblance of truth.

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