A Lesson in Bias

 In Blog, Lessons and Ideas, Neil Andersen, Professional Development, Secondary

by Neil Andersen

  1. The following article by Lewis Lapham is clearly an opinion piece, a guest column, yet appeared on the front page, which has been traditionally reserved for hard news.  Students might debate its placement on the front page and suggest a more appropriate placement.  There is also a subtle advert in the credit line, which informs readers of Lewis Lapham’s timely book release.  Is this an opinion piece or a promotion?
  2. Another way in which it is unusual is in its tone, which is critical of the way that American leaders and the American media are framing the Sept. 11 memorials.  Most articles have been cheerleading, but this one dissents.  Students might consider the dissenting opinions expressed in the article and the emphasis given to it by the editors when they placed it on the front page.  They might search for other dissenting articles.  They might research to discover more about Lewis Lapham.  They might discuss the meaning and significance of the headline: ‘A resistance to the disease of thought’
  3. A third way in which the article is anomalous is in its language level.  The Star is usually written at a grade 7 – 9 reading level in order to accommodate as many readers as possible.  This column has language characteristics that suggest its reading level is much higher: words such as ‘mawkish,’ references to Wittgenstein and Wagner, etc. require a higher level of education.  Students might debate whether the article is less effective because it excludes some readers, and might re-write it in a lower register so that it would appeal to and be understood by the grade 7 readers.
  4. Finally, the article makes some predictions that students might test.  It suggests that most Sept. 11 ceremonies will be weakened because they will not be thoughtful, will not really help Americans move beyond the event, but will be maudlin and xenophobic.  Students might research specific TV programs or watch specific ceremonies, with some form of rubric in hand, to note those that stall growth and those that help repair the national psyche.  With hours of programming, there will be lots to examine and analyze.  Which ceremonies manifest ‘a resistance to the disease of thought?’  Which are thoughtful?

September 8, 2002 ( The Toronto Star)

A resistance to the disease of thought
On historic day, U.S. turns away from eloquence
by Lewis H. Lapham

“The boundaries of my language are the boundaries of my world.”  – Ludwig Wittgenstein

For six weeks I’ve been reading through a list of events scheduled to take place in New York City on Sept. 11 – a long list, updated and augmented every 24 hours – but I’m still at a loss to know what purpose the sponsors have in mind. Apparently they intend a ceremony of innocence, but does one celebrate or mourn? Toss hats in the air, or stand around wearing expressions of brave and quiet dignity? Is America the milk-white maiden or the sacrificial bull? If a funeral service, who is the deceased – 3,000 fellow citizens, a work of architecture or a flag? If a ritual of purification, for what hideous sin or crime does America seek ablution? If a tribute to the dark and terrible power of Osama bin Laden, why no prayers to Allah?

The confusion follows from New York’s municipal command that, above all else, everybody must “feel comfortable.” Having gone to considerable trouble to provide a program not unlike a Super Bowl half-time show, the authorities can’t afford to run the risk that in the midst of all the commemorative observances somebody might say something worth remembering, and they have enough mawkish sentiment on hand to suppress with the rhetorical equivalents of tear gas any sudden outbreak of meaning. The permits issued by the parks department require strict conformity to the codes of political correctness – no angry polemics or tasteless jokes, nothing that might offend the sensibilities of a six-year old girl visiting the ruin of the World Trade Center with candlelight trembling in her tiny hand. The television networks have agreed to a sparing use of “traumatic” or “assaultive” images; big-name corporations like Coca-Cola have forsworn all forms of advertising between sun-up and sundown on Sept. 11; important department stores stand ready to decorate their display windows with murals painted by nursery school children. It isn’t that anybody objects to the marketing of grief as a consumer product, but nobody wishes to be thought vulgar or exploitive.

Consistent with the tone of bleached and antiseptic pathos, the entertainments scheduled for Victims’ Day can be relied upon to serve as inoculations against the disease of thought – solemn processions of bagpipes and muffled drums, buglers playing taps, moments of silence interspersed with the tolling of church bells, sacred dances performed by ballet companies in Brooklyn and Queens, free museum screenings of The West Wing and Sesame Street, inspirational readings, numerous exhibitions of inspirational quilts, the timely appearance of helpful books (Chicken Soup for the Soul of America), the New York Stock Exchange suspending operations in the hours before noon and Broadway theatres dimming their marquee lights for one minute at 8 p.m., a PBS documentary that asks, Where Was God on September 11th? and answers the question in words suitable for a throw pillow.

Citizens unable to join the mourners in the art galleries or the revellers in the streets can turn to a long day’s festival of television programming, 90 hours of it continuously recycling the message that arrived, on a bright September morning out of a clear sky remembered by the writer Erica Jong (in a phrase colour-coordinated with the spirit of the day’s events) as being very, very blue, “as blue as Alice in Wonderland’s Victorian pinafore.” The promotions for both the cable and the network shows embrace the theme of death and transfiguration, “The Day America Changed,” “The Day That Changed America,” “The Day That Changed The World.” I think it’s safe to guess that the producers will find themselves hard-pressed to make good on the Wagnerian hyperbole.

During the first months after the disappearance of the trade towers the newspapers burbled with predictions of America on the verge of a moral and political awakening, forced to new ways of thinking not only about the world on the far side of its once protective oceans but also about itself. Now that a year has passed, the prophecies have been proven false. Still bound by our presumptions of grace – still dependent on Arab oil and indifferent to the news from abroad, still content with a sham democracy and the lullaby of fairy-tale celebrity – the country chooses to stay in bed. It’s too much trouble to get up and open a window. Accustomed to the climate-controlled atmosphere under the dome of brightly packaged images placed over the stadium of the national imagination, we can rely on the technical staff to repair structural damage caused by low-flying aircraft or the weather – to plug the holes, fix the leaks, seal the cracks with quilts and Mozart’s Requiem.

The sophistication of our communications technology provides us with what the late Swiss playwright Max Frisch recognized as “the knack of so arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it.” Between dawn and dusk on Sept. 11 the mindless coverage of everything and nothing will sit every demographic division of the audience in the warm bath of its own tears, and if the media are themselves the message, then by filling up with a President George W. Bush exclusive to CBS, groundbreaking for the Garden of Healing on Staten Island and an afternoon of reflection with Maus cartoonist Art Spiegelman at the 92nd St. Y, surely we can go back to sleep.

What we lose, of course, is language. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was careful to confirm the point. He obliged the politicians appearing in public on Sept. 11 to say nothing in their own voices – lest they be thought vulgar or exploitive, their remarks mistaken for tasteless electioneering. At a moment when the country supposedly stands in peril we thus can look forward not to new and needed words with which to tell ourselves a new and truer story but to a sanctimonious recitation of the country’s sacred texts (Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address) by politicians (New York Governor George E. Pataki, Mayor Bloomberg) little noted nor apt to be long remembered either for their honesty or their prose. The audible silence comes as no surprise. We’ve lost the tools of eloquence, and for the last 50 years no prominent American politician has written his or her own speeches. Why bother? To say what?

No law of nature holds that a society must come forward with acts of the political or moral imagination. But if it is no disgrace for any nation at any particular time in its history to rest content among the relics of a lost language and an imaginary past, it is a terrifying failure in a country that possesses the power to poison the earth and yet possesses neither the desire nor the courage to know itself.


Lewis H. Lapham is editor of Harper’s Magazine. His book, Theater of War, was published by New Press Sept. 11 2002.

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