Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Panic Politics, Jittery Journalism

What W. H. Auden poetically called "The Age of Anxiety" at the dawn of the nuclear era is back to haunt us, a climate of constant dread where bad news always crowds out good.

Politicians, abetted by headline-hungry 24/7 media, inflate every occurrence into a crisis and, after each is resolved or fades away, go on to the next occasion for Chicken Little howls that the sky is falling.

After months of panic-mongering about the Gulf oil spill, the leak is now plugged and Adm. Chad Allen, who managed the response with firm leadership and candor (in contrast to Brownie's bumbling after Katrina), is ready to step down, an administrator is sorting out claims against BP and the President is taking his daughter for a dip to show that Florida beaches are safe

But the cleanup, serious as it is, will now go on under the news radar as headlines replace oil worries with a raging debate about whether or not Muslims should build a mosque near Ground Zero.

The subject of Anxiety--its nature, intensity and realistic connection to our lives--is less important than its effect on our nerve endings and the need for politicians and media people to keep their constituents stirred up.

Such attacks on the public's peace mind create an atmosphere in which it's hard to distinguish between what matters and what can be used to keep the anxiety pot boiling.

Little wonder that the President, in the face of still falling approval ratings, is sounding an election theme of "Don't give in to fear, let's reach for hope," telling voters, "The worst thing we could do is to go back to the very same policies that created this mess in the first place."

But will that message be heard?

Auden, who was a keen social critic as well as poet, once wrote, "Cocktail party chatter and journalism in the pejorative sense are two aspects of the same disease, what the Bible calls Idle Words for which at Judgment Day God will hold us accountable.

"Since the chatterer has nothing he really wishes to say, and the journalist nothing he wishes to write, it is of no consequence to either what words they actually use. In consequence, it is not long before they forget the exact meaning of words and their precise grammatical relations and, presently, without knowing it, are talking and writing nonsense."

In this new Age of Anxiety, politicians and media pundits are doing their best to drown us in scary nonsense.

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