Trying to make the world better can make it worse.
By Barbara Oakely
Several decades ago, I spent a couple seasons working for the Soviets as a Russian translator—hauling in fish by day and slugging back samogon by night. (Well, sometimes slugging back homemade vodka by day, too—that's the Russians for you.) I was curious about one of politics’ biggest questions: is extreme socialism beneficial?
What I found was so much propaganda about the wonders of Soviet Socialist Mankind and the horrors of Western Democracy that the people exposed to it might as well have had electrodes implanted to control their thoughts. There were no governmental checks and balances and nothing even close to a free press—so positions of power were filled by nasty sorts who kept good people in fear for their lives if they didn’t think the right thoughts. Soviet Socialism, as it turned out, was a perverse system that killed motivation even as it made fear as natural as breathing.
Why wasn’t this widely reported in the Western press?
As it turns out, the preponderance of journalists are Democrats. And socialism, with its idyllic, “progressive” programs, has formed an increasingly important role in Democratic policies. Who wants to investigate a possible dark side of your own party’s plank?
We’ll get to that. First—why are most journalists Democrats?
Unsurprisingly, self-selection plays an important role in choosing a job. People choosing to do work related to prisons, for example, commonly show quite different characteristics than those who volunteer for work in helping disadvantaged youths. Academicians have very different characteristics than CEOs—or politicians, for that matter.
Harry Stein, former ethics editor of Esquire, once said: "Journalism, like social work, tends to attract individuals with a keen interest in bettering the world.” In other words, journalists self-select based on a desire to help others. Socialism, with its “spread the wealth” mentality intended to help society’s underdogs, sounds ideal.
Most journalists take a number of psychology, sociology, political science, and humanities courses during their early years in college. Unfortunately, these courses have long served as ideological training programs—ignoring biological sources of self-serving, corrupt, and criminal behavior for a number of reasons, including lack of scientific training; postmodern, antiscience bias; and well-intentioned, facts-be-damned desire to have their students view the world from an egalitarian perspective. Instead, these disciplines ram home the idea that troubled behavior can be fixed through expensive socialist programs that, coincidentally, provide employment opportunities for graduates of the social sciences. Modern neuroscience is showing how flawed many of these policies have been—structural differences in the brains of psychopaths, for example, help explain why remedial programs simply helped them become better at conning people.
Academics in the social sciences tend to give short shrift to the dramatic failures and corruption within US educational system or unions. (Think here of the Detroit Public School system, or the National Education Association, whose former officers have written: “The NEA has been the single biggest obstacle to education reform in this country. We know because we worked for the NEA.”) Instead, because of their ideological biases, professors often emphasize that corporations are the bad guys, while unions and the government—at least the type of government that supports higher paychecks for social science professors and jobs for their students—are good. This type of teaching makes the Democratic Party and its increasingly socialist ideals seem naturally desirable, and criticism about how those ideals will supposedly be met less likely. (How many social scientists predicted that the billions spent on busing and the Projects would worsen the situations they were meant to solve, as ultimately happened?) It’s no wonder that journalists enter the profession as Democrats, then keep their beliefs intact through all-too-common tendencies to conform.
Journalists sometimes say conservatives and political independents don’t go into journalism because they’re more interested in money. The unspoken message, of course, is that conservatives are greedy bastards who don’t have a social conscience. But many conservatives go through college to become stay-at-home housewives—they’re hardly Gordon Geckos. More likely, conservatives are turned off by the propaganda dished out in their social science classes. Although I’m a classical liberal myself, last semester my daughter and I got a chuckle at whatever Marxist howler her well-meaning professor spouted that day in her introductory sociology class. She’d have hardly gotten the A she received if she’d constantly challenged that establishment.
This also ignores journalism’s own issues with greed and corruption—most despicably with Walter Duranty, who covered the Soviet Union for the New York Times and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for a series of stories that uncritically backed Stalinist propaganda, denied the Ukrainian famine, and defended Stalin's infamous trials. Duranty lived lavishly in Stalin’s good graces. (Meanwhile, the Times has never returned the Pulitzer.) More recently, the New York Times’ fraudulent reporter Jayson Blair received a mid-six figure advance for his memoirs—even the most egregious reporters can make big bucks and become media darlings.
Professors in the humanities and social sciences are taken aback by the kinds of claims I’m making here. How could there possibly be such problems within a discipline—or multiple disciplines—without most academicians being aware of them? But, having worked among the Soviets, I know that large groups of very intelligent people can fall into a collective delusion that what they are doing in certain areas is the right thing, when it's actually not the right thing at all. It’s rather like the Skinnerian viewpoint on psychology. For a full half century, psychologists insisted it wasn’t proper to posit anything going on inside people’s heads. Advances in psychology ground to a halt during that time, but it was impossible to convince mainstream psychologists that there was anything wrong to their approach. After all--everybody was using Skinner’s approach, and everybody couldn't be wrong.
As far as investigating the dark side of the Major Issues, there’s a critically important concept that students of journalism are rarely taught. It’s easy to find any number of targets to write about in capitalist societies with an open press. But totalitarian governments are journalistic black holes. Journalists can tickle their self-righteous neurocircuitry every day (and many do), by exposing easy-to-find faults in democratic societies. But beyond their event horizon is the bigger story that often remains untold as it occurs—the horrific deaths of millions in totalitarian regimes like the former Soviet Union, Communist China, North Korea and, yes, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. That’s why, when Robert Conquest was asked whether he wanted to retitle his updated The Great Terror, about the Soviet purges, his answer was: Yes, how about I Told You So, You Fucking Fools?
If you’re a journalist, want to help people and want to tell the truth, what truth are you going to tell? Why, the truth you think helps people, of course!
Technically, that’s the truth.
But it’s very different than the truth.
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