Commonplace
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Publick Occurrences 2.0

November 26, 2008

Historical Bloviations in “Newsweek”

Filed under: Democracy,Media,Political culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 11:08 am

I am not exactly sure what the purpose of the weekly newsmagazines is anymore when perspectives on the news are so much more easily available, and more timely to boot, via the Internet and cable. Actually, I do know two purposes: providing credentials for people to appear on TV with, and free advertising for books by the newsmagazines’ staffs. (This was about as a corrupt a “feature” as I ever seen.)

Not that there isn’t some good material published by Time and Newsweek. It is just that the pressure to serve some higher journalistic purpose leads to overreaching for perspective, and that way lies pseudo-scholarly bloviation, especially when the subject is American history. So, uncharacteristically checking Newsweek‘s web site a few weeks in a row this month, I found a couple of bloviations that start with a moderately accurate observation, then inflate it to the point of being deeply misleading.

So for instance, we have Fareed Zakaria, finger in the wind but generally trenchant (if a bit scolding and Cato (Institute)-inflected) on the consequences of the recent financial apocalypse. But then Zakaria has to reach for the American Character, and poor James Madison gets caught up in the process:

It’s a fundamental American belief that competition is good — in business, athletics and life. Checks and balances are James Madison’s crucial mechanisms, exposing and countering abuse and arrogance and forcing discipline on people.

Undoubtedly there was some point in American history where competition emerged as a value in itself, and perhaps it always was in the southern male culture of horse-racing and cock-fighting, but of course competition was exactly what Madison wanted to prevent in politics (and also in many areas of the economy, such as financial markets). The idea of checks and balances (and “extending the sphere” as in The Federalist 10) was to contain and cancel out the competition for power and resources that could not be avoided — in other words, exactly the opposite of encouraging competition. What Zakaria really invokes in the comment above is the late 20th-century mental habit of applying sports analogies to all other areas of life, a problem that the ESPN-less Madison did not have.

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