American Culture

Meanings, pt. 3: public service

by Michael Tracey

Let me return to a period which is widely regarded within the advanced industrial societies as a high water mark of public service broadcasting, the BBC in the early 1960s. A key figure from those years was Sir Arthur fforde (that is the correct, if old-fashioned spelling of his name), in my view quite possibly the greatest of the chairmen of the BBC. In 1963 he published a little booklet called What is Broadcasting About, which was printed privately in an edition of 400. In this at first curious piece he tries to lay out a theological context for what was happening within the BBC, which was then at the height of its creative and social impact on British society, and causing all kinds of heartburn among what used to be called the Establishment.

The Sheer Banality of Contemporary Culture

The book is, on first reading, impenetrably obscure. On second reading what becomes clear is that it is fforde’s attempt to harmonize the BBC’s emergent agnostic and humanistic ethos with a more ancient view of the nature of religious experience. Even as I write that it does feel almost quaint, but there lies within the pages of fforde’s book arguments that are, or should be, central to any contemporary discussion of the role and purpose of broadcasting in an allegedly mature, cultured democracy. He writes:

“By its nature broadcasting must be in a constant and sensitive relationship with the moral condition of society.”

He felt that the moral establishment had failed modern society and that broadcasting was a way in which that failure could be rectified. He added that it

“is of cardinal importance that everyone in a position of responsibility should be ready to set himself or herself the duty of assuring, to those creative members of staff, who must take the daily, hourly, and even instantaneous decisions . . . that measure of freedom, independence and elan without which the arts do not flourish.”

fforde understood that then, just as now, the moral condition of society was undergoing an important change as standards which had for so long, for so many people, been successful route maps, were being redrafted. What concerned him, was not the change per se, but whether the standards which would replace them were worthy, even if they were secular rather than religious? It is a good, always necessary, question.

It goes without saying that it is my firm conviction that it is precisely the absence of such protective layers and imaginative commitments that have nurtured, brought to the surface, the boorishness, sheer banality of contemporary culture, here and elsewhere. That idea of providing a protective layer within which the imaginative spirit might create, lay at the heart of the BBC version of public service broadcasting which increasingly flourished in the post-war years.

Ian Jacob, Director-General of the BBC from 1952 to 1959, refined the notion. In 1958, in an internal document called Basic Propositions, he described public service broadcasting as:

. . . a compound of a system of control, an attitude of mind, and an aim, which if successfully achieved results in a service which cannot be given by any other means. The system of control is full independence, or the maximum degree of independence that Parliament will accord. The attitude of mind is an intelligent one capable of attracting to the service the highest quality of character and intellect. The aim is to give the best and the most comprehensive service of broadcasting to the public that is possible. The motive that underlies the whole operation is a vital factor; it must not be vitiated by political or commercial consideration.

This is one of the best attempts to capture in words a concept and view of broadcasting which remains central to the world of cultural politics. Yet even here the vision, the articulation, is limited. Jacob’s words imply that we understand the nature of public service broadcasting not by defining it, but by recognizing its results, rather as one plots the presence of a hidden planet or a subatomic particle not by “seeing” it, but by measuring the effects of its presence.

The Pilkington Committee, a committee under the chairmanship of Sir Harry Pilkington set up by the British government in 1960 to undertake an inquiry into the future of British broadcasting, said as much when it reported in 1962: “though its standards exist and are recognizable, broadcasting is more nearly an art than an exact science. It deals in tastes and values and is not precisely definable.” The committee added:

“The duty of providing a service of broadcasting, and the responsibility for what is broadcast, are vested in public corporations since the purposes and effects of broadcasting are such that the duty and responsibility should not be left to the ordinary processes of commercial enterprise, and because there are compelling objections to their being undertaken by the State…”

It suggested that the products of these bodies should be a service which fully realizes the purpose of broadcasting, which it later defined as:

“…one which will use the medium with an acute awareness of its power to influence values and moral standards; will respect the public right to choose from amongst the widest possible range of subject matter, purposefully treated; will at the same time be aware of and care about public tastes and attitudes in all their variety; and will constantly be on the watch for and ready to try the new and unusual.”

The Dream of the Mob

The beast that lurks in the shrubbery of these kinds of discussions is that whatever the definitional uncertainties, that great broadcasting can be experienced and recognized but never properly captured by language, means that someone has to decide on what is “good” and “bad,” that there should be a guiding hand, by what has been referred to as “custodians” or the “caretakers” of culture. For much of the history of public broadcasting this idea – so anathema today – was simply taken for granted. Hierarchies of social status and cultural judgment were simply assumed.

A key justification for the custodial role in most societies where public service broadcasting was established was that since the radio frequency used for transmissions was a limited natural resource, someone had to ensure that its use served the public good, and the whole community. The cultural geology of this decision had, however, a deeper level to it, based on 19th Century assumptions about the ways in which the arts and humanities could elevate the human condition.

In fact, one way of looking at the creation of public service broadcasting in the early years of the 20th Century is that it was the relocation of a 19th Century humanistic dream that through culture the fragile structure of civilization could be nurtured and protected. The fear that drove that dream was of “the mob,” the pervasive belief among cultural, religious and political elites that there was indeed a dark side to the human soul that was, when let loose, dangerous and devastating to the flesh as well as the spirit.

And who is to say that they were wrong, nestling as they did between the first great war and a looming second. And let us not forget that John Adams in his dialogue with Jefferson about the nature of democracy made the comment that a “mob is no less a mob because they are with you.” There remained, however, well into the 20th Century, a residual faith, tied to the whole condition of Enlightenment humanism and belief in progress, that popular culture need not be debauched but could in fact transcend itself. Consider these key passages from the Pilkington Report:

“Television does not, and cannot, merely reflect the moral standards of society. It must affect them, either by changing or by reinforcing them…..

Because the range of experience is not finite but constantly growing, and because the growing points are usually most significant, it is on these that challenges to existing assumptions and beliefs are made, where the claims to new knowledge and new awareness are stated. If our society is to respond to the challenges and judge the claims, they must be put before it. All broadcasting, and television especially, must be ready and anxious to experiment, to show the new and unusual, to give a hearing to dissent. Here, broadcasting must be most willing to make mistakes; for if it does not, it will make no discoveries.”

The suggestion here isn’t that public broadcasters are all hoping and dreaming that their programs will transform people from cultural and intellectual slobs into something of which one can more readily approve. But rather that objectively some such argument must be the last line of defense. The language is of standards, quality, excellence, range. The logic is of social enrichment, that in however indefinable a manner this society is “better” for having programs produced from within the framework of those social arguments that pursue a public interest, compared to those programs produced within an environment in which commerce or politics prevail.

The Consequences of Public Taste

It is interesting and extremely useful, to counterpose these principles, values and ambitions documented over the past several pages with the evolving realities of cultural production as a market, since they entail very different world views. I have long suspected that the potency of the market is its simplicity, in that it doesn’t ask very much of anyone – there is no required effort to engage at some deeper level what it is that is being broadcast. The more purposeful, social and cultural agenda of the European model does demand – as it should – some effort on the part of the audience-qua-citizen. The audience-qua-consumer is easier to feed.

There is, however, another ironic potency in the market model, one that speaks to an inherent tension in the deep commitment to the idea of the collective, “the public,” “the public sphere,” the “cultural sphere.” This inevitably rests uneasily with what is an even more basic principle on which our cultures were, and are, established, the foundational sovereignty of the individual. The fact of this latent tension could be avoided for much of the history of broadcasting, for example, by touting the argument that because the natural resource of the radio spectrum was scarce it had to be carefully controlled so that everyone could benefit. This was a useful fiction. The agenda of the founding figures of public broadcasting was always about nurturing social and cultural good, and maintaining standards that would not be populist. In other words there was always a residual fear of the consequences of untrammeled public taste.

The beauty of the idea of the market, for those who wish to make the case rhetorically, is that it represents the triumph of populism – some of which is intelligent, much of which is corrupted, but it is populism nevertheless. Its potency lies in the fact that it embodies a kind of faux democracy, the individual making his or her own choices from the range of cultural goods made available by the market. It is a difficult argument to oppose since the essential premise of western governance and culture in modernity is that society is constituted of individuals who are rational, informed and sovereign, an admittedly nonsensical but nonetheless potent conceptualization. There is obvious utility in this for proponents of the market, because if one cannot interfere with the right of Everyman as citizen to act as Everyman as consumer then one cannot, by definition, interfere with the market because one would thereby not be interfering with this or that company that markets its wares, but with the very stuff of democratic civilization.

Another charge against the kind of values I have been discussing here rests on a rejection of the very idea of making a judgment about what is good or bad, since this implies a hierarchy of values. In the argot of pseudo-postmodernism this is anathema. In his latest book, Richard Hoggart writes well about the problems of this relativistic perspective:

“It is a growing characteristic of mass communications today – in the press, magazines and much broadcasting – that they show no respect at all for the ‘life of the mind’ (a good and essential phrase), but dismiss such things as elitist and not for people ‘such as us’; not that ‘we’ now think ourselves inferior, but quite the opposite; we are members of the overwhelming majority who are going the way the world is going. This is the dead center of popular and unassailable taste. Chat-show hosts and hostesses display it daily, television ‘personalities’ are pleased to indicate that they have no tastes which in anyway differ from those of their mass audiences, and certainly none which might seem ‘better’ than those of the audiences. The broadsheet newspapers often fall backwards into those postures. Such words, words of evaluation, have fallen out of the populist lexicon. Broadcasting interviewers see themselves as ‘the voice of the common man,’ which is a reductive myth; their common man is all too often an invented vulgarian.”

He points out that the Booker Prize for 2001 was not awarded to a writer that public opinion seemed too favor. When asked why, one of the judges said, “This prize is not meant to be a reflection of public taste. It is a prize for literary quality.” Hoggart concludes:

“At the bottom of the acceptance of relativism as the only belief is, paradoxically, a belief that there is no such thing as belief or conviction. That can do much to remove guilt or even the feeling of being somehow lost, since relativism provides a Dead Sea of common feelings in which we float, all warm and supported. The motto used to promote the soap-opera East Enders, repeatedly shown on television, hammers away with: ‘Everyone’s talking about it.’ ‘So what?’ – is the only self-respecting response.”

It is terribly easy to turn this around and to make the accusation of elitism, made all the more weighty in an age where the very idea of a hierarchy of values is called into question, indeed seen as out of date – useless, of course, we are dealing with the majestic superior ability of a Michael Jordan or a Roger Clemens or a Peyton Manning.

Those who would argue for the market, for giving people only what they want, for abandoning other, larger more principled judgments that see human beings, citizens, as something other than statistics in skins, principles that celebrate excellence as much they reject tat, must persuade us that all is well and cheery, must hope that we never do come to understand the comment made by Hector, in Alan Bennett’s History Boys. He suggests that in the presence of great literature (and I would expand this to all great culture, whether in print, or on the screen at home and in the movie theater) it is as if a hand has reached out and taken our own.

The Foundational Principle of the Republic

There is, however, another important lesson from the events of the past ten years, for me most profoundly reflected in the hate mail (e- and snail-) that I received, particularly after Karr was released. This is far from the first time this has happened and it was probably on no greater scale than the attacks that took place after David Mills and I made the first of our documentaries. The reactions then were incredible, with phone-in campaigns to the Dean’s office, letters to the President of CU, to the then-Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, Phil DiStefano, to the Regents, almost all calling for me to be fired. The university was nothing but supportive, for which I was and am grateful. There was even a bizarre attempt by some to get Congress to revoke my green card. It was all very strange and intense, so when Karr happened the flood of attacks was neither unusual nor unexpected. I simply became a useful whipping boy for, well, for what?

I think the answer here is again quite complex. Obviously there were those who hated the position I had taken on the Ramsey case, and the fact that I had been very vocal and public in my belief that John and Patsy were innocent. (That was actually not my position in 1997 and 1998. I didn’t know, because I couldn’t know, what the evidence was so that when we made the first documentary the question of their guilt or innocence was conceptually irrelevant.) To then, in 2002, make a documentary, working with Lou Smit, that laid out the case that an intruder killed JonBenet would inevitably incur further wrath. Clearly, however, what was thrown at those who came out in support of the Ramseys and argued their innocence (one of the lead detectives on the investigation described Lou Smit as a “delusional old man,” a comment that would be offensive if it weren’t so silly), was nothing compared to the intense and unrelenting abuse that the Ramseys and their family had to endure.

However, what perplexed then, as it does now, was, why? Why the fury, the anger, the inability to disagree without hating, a condition which defines not just the narrative around JonBenet, but a vast acreage of public discourse.

Honest disagreement, the ability to engage in rational discourse is the foundational principle of the Republic. On April 13, 1943, the bicentennial of the birth of Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt inaugurated the Jefferson Memorial in Washington and declared:

“Thomas Jefferson believed, as we believe, in Man. He believed, as we believe, that men are capable of their own government, and that no king, no tyrant, no dictator can govern for them as well as they can govern for themselves.” FDR concluded his address by proclaiming Jefferson’s own words that are etched into the memorial, words that are wonderfully and determinedly paradoxical, the very essence of the Enlightenment: “I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” In his 1988 biography of Jefferson, The Pursuit of Reason, Noble Cunningham notes that despite Jefferson’s numerous interests and accomplishments, “…certain basic tenets motivated his life and shaped his actions in whatever challenge he faced. Of these, none was stronger than his belief in ‘the sufficiency of reason for the care of human affairs.’ As a man of the Enlightenment who believed in the application of reason to society as well as to nature, Jefferson throughout his life pursued the use of reason as the means by which mankind could obtain a more perfect society… (He believed) that ‘knowledge is power, that knowledge is safety, that knowledge is happiness’…” His faith in the power of reason “nourished his belief in progress, under-girded his political principles, explained his devotion to learning and to educational opportunity for every person, and produced the optimistic outlook that failed him only as he approached the end of a very long life.”

In 1927, in the case Whitney v. California, Justice Louis Brandeis, in what is widely regarded as the most profound articulation of the meaning and importance of the First Amendment, wrote:

“Those who won our independence believed that the final end of the state was to make men free to develop their faculties; and that in its government the deliberative forces should prevail over the arbitrary. They valued liberty both as an end and as a means. They believed liberty to be the secret of happiness and courage to be the secret of liberty. They believed that freedom to speak as you will and speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth. But they knew that order cannot be secured merely through fear of punishment for its infraction; that it is hazardous to discourage thought, hope and imagination; that fear breeds repression; that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies; and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones…. “

Brandeis’ vision rests on a basic premise: that there is both a human capacity and an urge to use language to pursue truth. The assumption about the power of language and evolved thought has guided the whole history of our culture, or, perhaps more accurately, it has guided the idea of what our culture should look like: informed citizens, engaged in mature reasoning, arriving at decent and proper ends.

The question now in play is this: in a society whose forms of popular, mediated, mass culture are all but bereft of evolved language, whose education system leaves much to be desired in its failure to nurture the critical thinking capabilities of its students, to what extent can it still claim to continue Jefferson’s “pursuit of reason,” and Brandeis’ “secret of liberty”?In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that we live in a place in time in which there is a great demand, from different corners, for a studied silence. It was clear to me, still is, that there was, to many people’s way of thinking, something unseemly about even suggesting a counter-narrative about the Ramsey case.

There is, unfortunately, nothing remarkable about this. Witness the rigidities of great swaths of people, here and elsewhere, with fundamentalist religious beliefs. Consider what happens when the likes of Daniel Moynihan in the 1960s and Bill Cosby more recently tried to engage a debate about the social ills of the African-American family. And, of course, think through the extraordinary difficulty that was faced by anyone who, in the years after 9/11, wished to challenge the brutish and stupid foreign policy of the Bush administration, underpinned as it was by a public hysteria that sought some kind of psychological relief by clinging desperately to the symbol of the flag and the mother’s milk succour of patriotism.

Passion and Reason

There is another, related way of thinking about this that also comes out of 18th Century thought. In that time physicians believed that the mind was divided into three main faculties – reason, feeling and will and that, as Norman Dain wrote in his 1964 book, Concepts of Insanity, “sanity prevailed when reason remained master over feelings and will. Violent emotions would overthrow the power of reason.” The essential premise then, as now, is that we are rational. That is why we expect the juror and the citizen to arrive a conclusion in the wake of a clear and rational engagement with the available information and evidence, even though in neither case are they required to explain how they arrive at any given conclusion. However, as Arthur O. Lovejoy notes in Reflections on Human Nature, while “…the philosophers of the Age of Reason believed that although reason should control the other mental faculties, in fact the passions, or emotions, always ruled supreme: reason served primarily to accomplish the aims of the passions.”

This description fits perfectly to what happened in the Ramsey narrative, where many people were driven by intense, even primal passions, all the while using their capacity to reason to cobble together “information” to demonstrate the legitimacy of the visceral hatred of the Ramseys and of anyone who argued the case that an intruder killed JonBenet. On a larger scale, as I write, fully one-third of the public believes that Saddam Hussein was connected to 9/11, and almost half of the public continues to hold to the idea that humans were created in their current form at one moment in time in the past 10,000 years, offering a mountain of “evidence” to support what the scientific community would deem to be an absurd belief. They hold fast to such beliefs, even in the face of their obvious falsity, because not to do so would shatter whatever semblance of emotional calm they still cling to, and still desperately need.

Another issue that perplexed me was that there was something about Patsy that seemed to make a lot of people not just uneasy, but ready and willing to believe that she was capable of killing her child, possibly with the assistance of John, and then making it like someone else was responsible. The obvious question is: why? Yet again, I think the answer taps into a complex of emotional and psychological conditions of how, in this instance, we come to think about crime, and in particular, how we “see” guilt.

What was important here in understanding the narrative that surrounded Patsy was that it was not the presence of any meaningful evidence that suggested her involvement, and indeed what evidence did exist, such as the DNA, pointed away. Rather, there was a loose and vague perception, held by many, as to who she was. There were many facets to the case, the forensics, the theories, the flawed investigation, the small town Gothic atmospherics, but I had long understood that much of the essential energy within that narrative had literally been looking us in the face, Patsy’s face, and the fact that she entered JonBenet in the pageants reflected, for many people, a moral laxity the depth of which was such that she was indeed capable of brutalizing her daughter in a moment of anger and then pretending that it was someone else. It is not an argument that I can even begin to understand, but it is one which was simply assumed by many people. It was almost as if, in pointing the finger at her, there was some kind of emotional relief.

In her 1990 book, The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm takes a fascinating look at the case of Jeffrey MacDonald and the writer Joe McGinnis. MacDonald was serving three life sentences for murdering his wife and two children. McGinnis had come to prominence in the 1960s for his book The Selling of the President, which told in savage detail the way in which advertising had been used by the Nixon campaign. He had subsequently developed a successful writing career, including a book about the MacDonald case, Fatal Vision.

McGinnis had written the book at the suggestion of MacDonald, whose intent was to have McGinnis vindicate him in his claim that he was innocent. Malcolm’s account points to the way in which McGinnis ingratiated himself with MacDonald, leading him to believe that he was a friend who did indeed believe in MacDonald’s innocence. When the book finally appeared it was a portrait of a psychopathic killer, not the ode to a wrongfully convicted friend which MacDonald had been expecting. MacDonald sued and almost won (one juror refused to support MacDonald) prompting Malcolm’s wry comment: “…five of the six jurors were persuaded that a man who was serving three consecutive life sentences for the murder of his wife and two small children was deserving of more sympathy than the writer who had deceived him.”

There is one passage in Malcolm’s book in which she describes a dinner conversation she had with MacDonald’s attorney, Gary Bostwick, and his wife, Janette, a psychotherapist. At one point Janette interjects:

“In my work, a patient will come in and say, ‘This is the truth about me.’ Then, later in the therapy, a significant and entirely opposite truth may emerge – but they’re both true.” In Malcolm’s account, Bostwick responds: “It’s the same with the judicial process…People feel that it’s a search for the truth. But I don’t think that is its function in this society. I’m convinced that its function is cathartic. It’s a means for allowing people to air their differences, to let them feel as if they had a forum. You release tension in the social body in some way, whether or not you come to the truth.”

There is much to agree with in what Bostwick was saying and in explaining what happened to Patsy. It also perhaps helps explain why the media pay an almost obsessive attention to certain cases, not just to formal legal proceedings, but also to the pseudo-trials that take place on television, talk radio and in print media. They do so in part because they are part of that process of societal catharsis, given energy by rumor, gossip and almost obsessive voyeurism and the cruel brew of “certainty,” as to what “happened.” In the end “truth” is not what judgment of guilt and innocence is about, it is all about mood.

The Unreal Made Real

The problem is compounded by the fact that the media, who should properly have been a countervailing force to these tendencies, were themselves complicit in fueling the firestorm in which the Ramseys found themselves engulfed. It has been pointed out by such people as Tom Patterson, the Benjamin C. Bradlee Professor at the Kennedy School of Government, that at some point in the 1970s, the tradition and character of investigative journalism in the American media began to change. At its best that tradition had journalists going to considerable lengths to unearth facts, to dig beneath the surface of a story to reveal hidden truths or, as with the Pentagon Papers, to offer enriched interpretation of information which already exists. As Patterson told the Committee of Concerned Journalists,

“by the late 1970s we find a substitute for careful, deep, investigative reporting – allegations that surface in the news based on claims by sources that are not combined with factual digging on the reporter’s part. The tendency increased in the 1980s, increased again in the 1990s… The use of unnamed and anonymous sources becomes a larger proportion of the total…”

It certainly characterized the coverage of the Ramsey case.

One particular consequence of this is to allow rumor and gossip to flourish and to establish potent, feverish irrationalities and “understandings” of an event in which the unreal is made real, the stupid profound, ignorance knowledge and the bigoted insightful. There is no question that rumor and gossip are part of who we are, and serve as social and emotional utilities in “explaining” the world around us. In the context of crime rumor, gossip and innuendo can become a potent means of establishing a paradigm from within which one sees something “this” way rather than “that.” The only way to step outside of this is to engage the evidence, think through the narrative of the crime, question commonsensical ways of thinking, use critical faculty, in other words to do what most people, most of the time have neither the patience, the resources nor desire to do. What is clear, though, is that in the vortex of rumor and gossip minor personality traits, small eccentric quirks of character can be quickly transformed into hints of some dark underlying condition.

A particularly odious aspect to rumour, gossip and innuendo is that they are rarely if ever presented as such. They can masquerade as “concern” for the victim, a pretentious proffering of “…it pains me to say this but…” The gossip or rumour-monger is not especially concerned with solving a problem, rather drawing a kind of narcissistic sustenance from them, from “knowing” something that others don’t. I was, for example, told by three different people, who were in no way connected, that they knew someone who had been on the chair lift at the Eldora ski area near Boulder with a cop who told them that the Ramseys were about to be arrested, and I was told this in each case with a kind of knowing glee. And gossips thrive on the negative, the controversial and the sensational – qualities which were present in abundance in the Ramsey case, as neither the media nor their public heeded the admonition of Psalm 34: 13-15: “Guard your tongue from evil, your lips from deceitful speech.”

So at one level the lesson was, yet again, that the idea of reasoned discourse is, in this culture as in much of the rest of the world, on life support. What still plagues me, though, is why, how did this come about? Perhaps it was always there, this corrosive hostility to an idea not liked, a person who is different, “the other,” the “alien,” a fear of narratives that are complex, a demand for that which is simple and readily understood. I’m reminded of William James’ comment that “…a great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” Perhaps there is a deep human instinct to manage neurotic anxiety by projecting outward irrational loathing. One way of thinking about how the culture dealt with the case (and one could put many others cases and situations in here) is to see it all as what one might call a “persecution text,” an acting out of something that, however troubling, seems to be deeply human.

There is in fact an extensive literature on this, such as R. I. Moore’s The Formation of a Persecuting Society, Laurie Carlson’s A Fever in Salem, Richard Sugarman’s Rancour Against Time, Rene Girard’s The Scapegoat, Max Scheler’s Ressentiment, Robert Wuthnow’s Meaning and Moral Order, Hugh Trevor Roper’s work on historical patterns in lynchings and a veritable library of works dealing with Salem, perhaps most notably Kai Erikson’s Wayward Puritans.

This is a rich and fascinating literature, but at its core is a relatively simple argument: that anxiety at the individual and collective level, caused by external circumstance, creates a powerful urge to punish – someone, something, somewhere. The emotional physics are: punish – feel better. It doesn’t, of course, except in a momentary sense, work. This would be troubling in and of itself, but it becomes especially so when the mood is used as fodder for entertainment, and therefore boosts in ratings and circulation.

I have long thought that John and Patsy Ramsey were “guilty” well before JonBenet died, that they would both be, but Patsy in particular, the ready object of resentment, a kind of class loathing, but that in this presumption of guilty evil lay emotional utility and significant profit. It has certainly been my experience that much of the public mind in the Ramsey case was defined by unreason and that its suggestible irrationalities reflected a larger condition, and a fearsome thought, that the Age of Reason never really happened except in the fevered, if would-be noble, utopian imaginings of the Founding Fathers.

Remember those comments I used at the beginning, where people expressed their profound, if unfounded belief in Ramsey guilt. In them I had the first whiff of what I’ve been trying to engage here, a sense of a canker in the social and moral order within which we just happen to dwell. It troubled me partly because of that feeling I expressed earlier of the desire for life to be fair and decent and just, a good and caring place of fine principle with a moral culture (of whatever theological or a-theological stripe) that was not of the Fallen. It also troubled me because within the stench of spite and hate lay a very serious question as to who we really are, of who we should properly see in the morning’s mirror.

Next: An Awful, Dark Year


Categories: American Culture, Crime/Corruption, Education, Freedom/Privacy, History, Journalism, Media/Entertainment, Politics/Law/Government, Religion & Philosophy

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