Sunday Pages: "Public Opinion"
A book by Walter Lippmann
I’m pleased to report that I had a lovely Thanksgiving. My wife cooked a juicy bird with the requisite yummy side dishes, my in-laws (father-, mother-, brother-, sister-, and my two nephews) were excellent company, I watched all four football games, and for two full days, we managed to have a good time without once mentioning, even in passing, a single item that would constitute “news.” Indeed, the only tragic occurrence during their visit was the Jets’ inept backup quarterback somehow throwing a Hail Mary Pick Six, which has never happened before in the history of the NFL. All of this is a privilege—especially the part about ignoring world events—and for that, I am thankful.
Speaking of which: This year, my 52nd Thanksgiving, I noticed that some joyless individuals were protesting a holiday I’ve long loved for its inclusivity, its durable purpose (we gather, we give thanks, we feast), and its menu. These protests seem to be backlash against the mythology involving Pilgrims and Native Americans sharing a meal—a fairy tale cooked up by advertising agencies to sell turkey. As Steven Beschloss pointed out in his Thanksgiving newsletter, the holiday dates to the Civil War:
On October 3, 1863, amid what he called “a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity,” President Abraham Lincoln wrote an official proclamation “to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise” and to seek “the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”
To oppose Thanksgiving, then, is to oppose peace, harmony, tranquility, Union (i.e., the states fighting to end slavery), and the enjoyment of all of the above. In the United States, we are free to celebrate a holiday or not. But I beseech these historically ignorant wet blankets not to spoil the long weekend for the rest of us. For that, we have the New York Jets.
For some time, I’ve had the rough outline of a longer piece I want to write, and this weekend, I finally had some time to work on it. During the course of my research, I took a little detour, fell down a rabbit hole, and wound up yesterday reading through Public Opinion, a book published in 1922 by the eminent reporter and political commentator Walter Lippmann (1889-1974). He was, among other things, a founder of The New Republic, an influential thinker on the intersection of journalism and democracy, and the coiner of the terms stereotype and Cold War.
In Public Opinion, Lippmann explores the key role journalism plays in a democracy. Because it is impossible for all of us to know everything, we all make certain assumptions to help us make sense of the world. Because we only learn about things happening beyond our immediate orbit from other sources, journalists are vital to shaping public opinion—itself a fickle and untamable beast. Because a democracy depends on the voting public having some baseline understanding of what’s happening, we cannot function as a government of the people, by the people, for the people without reliable information (“intelligence,” as Lippmann calls it). Because of all of these factors, we all—yeoman and Congressman alike—must rely on the wisdom and insight of experts.
Lippmann includes many examples of how public opinion was shaped during the Great War and the Russian Revolution, events that transpired just a few years before he sat down at the typewriter. It’s fascinating to read a 100-year-old book and apply its prescient lessons to the here and now. I kept thinking about Dr. Fauci, the expert made famous during the pandemic, and how the people most opposed to his take on the situation tended to be both non-Democrats and non-democrats—capital and lowercase “D.” The Trump Administration’s war on expertise was, we might say, a proxy war on democracy itself.
For “Sunday Pages,” I’m sharing the final few paragraphs of Public Opinion—per Lippman, one of several endings he produced. “Over all of [the endings],” he writes, “there hung that fatality of last chapters, in which every idea seems to find its place, and all the mysteries, that the writer has not forgotten, are unravelled. In politics the hero does not live happily ever after, or end his life perfectly.”
There is, he says,
an inherent difficulty about using the method of reason to deal with an unreasoning world. Even if you assume with Plato that the true pilot knows what is best for the ship, you have to recall that he is not so easy to recognize, and that this uncertainty leaves a large part of the crew unconvinced. By definition the crew does not know what he knows, and the pilot, fascinated by the stars and winds, does not know how to make the crew realize the importance of what he knows. There is no time during mutiny at sea to make each sailor an expert judge of experts. There is no time for the pilot to consult his crew and find out whether he is really as wise as he thinks he is. For education is a matter of years, the emergency a matter of hours. It would be altogether academic, then, to tell the pilot that the true remedy is, for example, an education that will endow sailors with a better sense of evidence. You can tell that only to shipmasters on dry land. In the crisis, the only advice is to use a gun, or make a speech, utter a stirring slogan, offer a compromise, employ any quick means available to quell the mutiny, the sense of evidence being what it is. It is only on shore where men plan for many voyages, that they can afford to, and must for their own salvation, deal with those causes that take a long time to remove. They will be dealing in years and generations, not in emergencies alone. And nothing will put a greater strain upon their wisdom than the necessity of distinguishing false crises from real ones. For when there is panic in the air, with one crisis tripping over the heels of another, actual dangers mixed with imaginary scares, there is no chance at all for the constructive use of reason, and any order soon seems preferable to any disorder. . . .
It is hard to obey reason in politics, because you are trying to make two processes march together, which have as yet a different gait and a different pace. Until reason is subtle and particular, the immediate struggle of politics will continue to require an amount of native wit, force, and unprovable faith, that reason can neither provide nor control, because the facts of life are too undifferentiated for its powers of understanding. The methods of social science are so little perfected that in many of the serious decisions and most of the casual ones, there is as 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 it is 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 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 longer run they are a poison; and taking our stand upon a view of the world which outlasts our own predicaments, and our 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 1919, not Armageddon, as we rhetorically said. The more realistically men have faced out the brutality and the 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. . . 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.
This certainly applies to this decade, the one that began in 2015, when the orange monstrosity descended the golden escalator, leading the charge of the dark brigade. The horror was great, yes, but hardly universal. There were corrupt individuals, Lord knows—Trump pardoned a lot of them—but also those who did not allow themselves to be corrupted. And amidst the evils, there was also hope, and joy, and indefatigability, and higher purpose—and human beings who exemplified all of those qualities.
I have certainly known moments that I wish could be replicated. I have certainly seen men and women that I wish we could clone. Our community here is full of such people—you, Dear Reader, and everyone who has proved to me that intelligence, courage and effort can indeed make for all of us a good life.
For that—for you—I am thankful.
NEWS & NOTES
After two dark Fridays, both the PREVAIL podcast and The Five 8 return this coming Friday, December 1.
My friend and PREVAIL community member Elisabeth Grace, a professional astrologer who writes a fascinating column called “The Forecast,” has produced a series of Sun Sign forecasts for 2024. Included in the package is a genuine Zodiac coin. If you’re in the market for low-cost stocking stuffers not found at the checkout line at Target or Walmart, look no further:
Photo credit: Harris & Ewing, photographer. Lippmann in ca. 1920.
PREVAIL by Greg Olear is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.