Saturday, June 9, 2012

Organized Intelligence by Walter Lippman

The press has come to be regarded as an organ of direct democracy, charged on a wide scale, and from day to day, with a function often attributed to the initiative, referendum, and recall. The Court of Public Opinion, open day and night, is to lay down the law for everything all the time. It is not workable. And when you consider the nature of the news, it is not even thinkable; as social truth is organized today the press is in no way constituted to furnish from one edition to the next the amount of knowledge which the democratic theory of public opinion demands. The news is primarily constructed of stereotypes according to the press’s own peculiar code and the urgency of its own self-interest; ‘a dome of multi-colored glass which stains the white radiance of eternity’ (Shelly). At its best the press is a servant and guardian of institutions; at its worse it is a means by which a few exploit social disorganization to their own ends. In the degree which institutions fail to function, the unscrupulous journalist can fish in troubled waters, and the conscientious reader must ever gamble with the uncertainties which the news presents.

The press is no substitute for institutions. It is like the beam of a searchlight that moves restlessly about, bringing one episode and then another out of the darkness into vision. Men cannot do the work of the world by this light alone. They cannot govern society by episodes, incidents, and eruptions. It is only when they work by a steady light of their own, that the press, when it is turned upon them, reveals a situation intelligible enough for a popular decision. The trouble lies deeper than the press, and so does the remedy. It lies in social organization based on a system of analysis and record, and in all the corollaries of that principle; in the abandonment of the theory of the omni-competent citizen and decentralization of decision, in the coordination of decision by comparable record and analysis. If at the center of management there is a running audit, which makes work intelligible to those who do it, and those who superintendent it, issues when they arise are not the mere collisions of the blind. Then, too, the news is uncovered for the press by a system of intelligence that is also a check on the press.

That is the radical way. For the troubles of the press, like the troubles of representative government, be it territorial or functional, like the troubles of industry, be it capitalist, cooperative, or communist, go back to a common source: the failure of self-governing people to transcend their casual experience and their prejudice, by inventing, creating, and organizing a machinery of knowledge. It is because they are compelled to act without a reliable picture of the world, that governments, schools, newspapers and churches make such small headway against the more obvious failings of democracy, against violent prejudice, apathy, preference for the curious trivial as against the dull important, and the hunger for sideshows and three legged calves. This is the primary defect of popular government, a defect inherent in its traditions, and all its other defects can, I believe, be traced to this one.

Today the machinery of social and political science are so little perfected ( and when they are developed unavailable to average citizens) that in many serious decisions and most of the casual ones, there is yet no choice but to gamble with fate as intuition prompts. But we can make a belief in reason one of those intuitions. We can use our wit and our force to make footholds for reason. Behind our pictures of the world, we can try to see the vista of a longer duration of events, and wherever possible to escape from the urgent present, allow this longer time to control our decisions. And yet, even when there is this will to let the future count, we find again and again that we do not know for certain how to act according to the dictates of reason. The number of human problems on which reason is prepared to dictate is actually very small.

There is, however, a noble counterfeit in that charity which comes from self-knowledge and an unarguable belief that no one of our gregarious species is alone in his longing for a friendlier world. So many of the grimaces men make at each other go with a flutter of their pulse, that they are not all of them important. And where so much is uncertain, where so many actions have to be carried out on guesses, the demand upon the reserves of mere decency is enormous, and it is necessary to live as if good will would work. We cannot prove in every instance that it will, nor why hatred, intolerance, suspicion, bigotry, secrecy, fear, and lying are the seven deadly sins against public opinion. We can only insist that they have no place in the appeal to reason , that in the long run they are a poison; and in taking our stand on the view of the world which outlasts our own predicament, and own lives, we can cherish a hearty prejudice against them.

We can do this all the better if we do not allow frightfulness and fanaticism to impress us so deeply that we throw up our hands peevishly, and lose interest in the longer run of time because we have lost faith in the future of man. There is no ground for this despair, because all the ifs on which, as William James said, our destiny hangs, are as pregnant as they ever were. What we have seen of brutality, we have seen, and because it was strange, it was not conclusive. It was only Berlin, Moscow, Versailles in 1914 to 1918, not Armageddon, as we rhetorically said. The more realistically men have faced out the brutality and hysteria, the more they have earned the right to say that it is not foolish for men to believe, because another great war took place, that intelligence, courage and effort cannot ever contrive a good life for all men.

Great as was the horror, it was not universal. There were corrupt, and there were incorruptible. There was muddle and there were miracles. There was huge lying. There were men with the will to uncover it. It is no judgment, but only a mood, when men deny that what some men have been, more men, and ultimately enough men, might be. You can despair of what has never been. You can despair of ever having three heads, though Mr. Shaw has declined to despair of even that. But you cannot despair of the possibilities that could exist by virtue of any human quality which a human being has exhibited. And if amidst all the evils of this decade, you have not seen men and women, known moments that you would like to multiply, the Lord himself cannot help you.

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