The Codes of the Political Class

One of Benedict Anderson’s most famous insights into modern nationalism is the role he assigns to national newspapers in creating the sense of “simultaneity” that gave people across the national territory a sense that they were experiencing events together at the same moment as their fellow citizens.

There’s a different kind of simultaneity visible today in the relationship between the US press and the US government. I mention Anderson’s analysis rather than something like Chomsky’s accusation of a deliberate, instrumental collusion between the owners of the press and other capitalist elites because I don’t think the simultaneity of the New York Times editorial staff and the top ranks of the federal government is self-aware or even necessarily self-interested. But when you see it happening, you do get a sense of how tightly bound together the social worlds of the two groups are, how much they look and and speak about the world in the same terms, how tightly the discourse of one institutional world inflects the other.

The best example is to watch the speed and breadth with which the circumlocutions of governmental speech disseminate through the old-guard mainstream media, and how using that speech becomes a self-fetishized sign of reliable “objectivity”. In the Bush Administration, for example, “enhanced interrogation” quickly was adopted in the common language of press reporting. “Torture”, the simpler and clearer word that would be preferred by both E.B. White and George Orwell, became instead the sign of partisan and polemical writing (within the culture of mainstream editorial).

This is not new: I recall day after day of bleak rage reading Christopher S. Wren’s reporting on South Africa in the late 1980s, which took the distinctive discursive language of official reports by the apartheid government as ‘fact’ and information from anyone else as rumor or opinion until witnessed by “reliable sources”. But Wren and other reporters for the dominant US papers in the 1970s and 1980s were often commissioned to fall into line with the Cold War proclivities and loyalties of the old-guard publishers in a manner that now seems almost charmingly quaint in its crude directness. Today it’s become a more automatic, unconscious and sociological kind of simultaneity, a synchronicity.

Case in point: it’s taken only a few days for the Grey Lady to almost autonomically adopt passive-voice constructions like “the military intervention that deposed Mr. Morsi” rather than “coup” (thanks to Robert Wright for spotting this).

I recall while living in Zimbabwe in the 1980s and 1990s that the Zimbabwe Herald, published by the government, was worth reading less for an account of news-worthy events in Zimbabwe and the world and more as a window into what the dominant factions within the government wanted people to believe was happening. While that’s always been true to some extent about the major press in any modern society, it is more and more true lately in the United States in a more and more specific sociological way than it has been for some time.

This is not ideology we are seeing: it is consciousness, a shared imaginary that is both the literal product of overlapping social worlds and evidence of an increasing isolation of the American political class from wider social and cultural networks (both national and otherwise). In that narrower world of the political class, it is more important to operate within elaborated pseudo-statutory discursive frameworks whose etiquette makes a Tokugawa-era tea ceremony look like grabbing a quick bite at the mall food court than it is to make any kind of common-sense connection with either constituents or global publics. Within that sensibility, it is less important for reportage to clearly narrate and describe what is happening than it is to communicate sympathy between press bureaucrats and government bureaucrats. It’s like witnessing two fireflies signalling to each other across the darkness so that they can come together to mate.

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11 Responses to The Codes of the Political Class

  1. jfruh says:

    I definitely felt this way in the aftermath of the Benghazi attack during the endless arguing over whether the administration had properly used the word “terrorism” to describe it, and when they did so or failed to do so. It was really weird thing to focus on, and yet it seemed to be all people could talk about, to the exclusion of the actual events! I guess it came down to one group within the elite asserting that their firefly signal would have signified a different sort of foreign policy than the current faction’s firefly signal?

  2. Withywindle says:

    The critique is made from the right as well as from the left.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    As I said, the phenomenon isn’t ideology, it’s consciousness. Though ideological actors who are aware of it can exploit it by working the discursive ecology inside Washington so that various things happening in the world end up being described in deferred or displaced ways in the press to the advantage of some ideology or another.

  4. Withywindle says:

    Your examples are all from the left; this gives ideological charge to your analysis of consciousness–which you could remove by the relatively simple tack of providing an example from the right.

    But your choice of examples also avoids one of the contentions of the critique from the right: that the shared consciousness (=ideology) is not only that of a narrow political and journalistic elite, but also of a larger liberal social elite–which includes, you know, academics and You. Let us take for granted that I can cite a whole range of examples from the Culture War, where I think your language and your silences indicate your shared consciousness with this governing elite, and that the debate about the substance of those issues would be repetitive and obnoxious. (Or, alternately, if you prefer, your shared consciousness with a radical grouping a slight distance from the governing elite on at least some issues of significance.) You ought, however, to consider this critique as you make your own, and to articulate an acknowledgment of it; self-consciousness on this issue preferable to unconsciousness.

    On the meta-level, I think you frame this as the Insight of a Virtuous Outsider, Critique Reliable because not Complicit. I would avoid this, because I take this sort of critique to be more effective when it involves self-critique–self-situation within the Fallen World, rather than a claim to Authority by dint of Saintly Insight. If it truly isn’t an ideological critique, than it is one which ought to implicate you in the general trends of human nature–and if it doesn’t, then it is a claim to a Higher Consciousness on your behalf, not shared by humanity at large. This is a self-regard I think you do not mean to embrace; hence I would recommend an alternate rhetorical mode.

    We are all fireflies, save Winston Churchill, who was a glow-worm.

    (I know that I’ve said similar things before. On some level, I suppose it’s trivial. And yet, and yet, it still seems important to say, since skipping the articulation of this sort of self-consciousness does lead, it seems to me, to a rather pernicious self-regard, and, consequently, self assurance. You’ve spoken on occasion of the need for a variety of modesties, in epistemology and policy; what I natter on about is what I take to be a complementarily modest mode of approach to the world.)

  5. Seth Green says:

    Hi Professor Burke, the words you’ve quoted from the NYT don’t appear anywhere in the article you’ve linked to — it might have been subsequently edited. As of now, the word deposed occurs 0 times and the word coup comes up twice.

    The general point is well taken though.

  6. It’s definitely been edited.

  7. If you want some archaeological remnants of similar constructions there, try:

    Also, the Ben Hubbard article linked here is still summarized with the phrase that now does not appear in the article body any longer (“The size of the protests underlined the large section of society that has rejected the military intervention that deposed President Mohamed Morsi.”) in various aggregation pages within the Times site. ( or for example.)

  8. Seth Green says:

    Yeah, the passive voice/party line language is clearly there, and I didn’t pay attention to it until I read this. Does the editing mean something? Could the Times’s editors have read recent criticisms and decided to move towards more “call a spade a spade” phrasing?

    It seems possible that they have enough sense of history to have caught that tendency and tried to correct for it.

  9. Rocco DiStreitlmahn says:

    While I agree that it is a politically motivated circumlocution, “the military intervention that deposed Mr. Morsi” is NOT an example of a passive voice construction. Language Log has been over this time and time again:

  10. Barry says:

    Tim: “This is not ideology we are seeing: it is consciousness, a shared imaginary that is both the literal product of overlapping social worlds and evidence of an increasing isolation of the American political class from wider social and cultural networks (both national and otherwise). ”

    I would say that this is ideology; it’s successful ideology, where a group no longer has to consciously maintain it.

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