The Digital Journalist
Don't Read This
(It's Too Depressing)

by Peter Howe

May 2006

I think that I must be some kind of a psycho-masochist, because I seem to have spent most of my spare time recently reading really depressing material with an obsession that is worrying. The principal offender is a remarkable book by Kevin Phillips called American Theocracy, the main theme of which is that the United States of America is going down the tubes at a rapid rate, and is conforming to the end-of-hegemony profiles of other former empires, such as Rome, Holland, Spain and Britain. His description of the process by which states lose world dominance is particularly depressing for me because it has a "been there, done that" quality to it. I was born in the United Kingdom at precisely the same time that the "royal throne of kings" was losing the last of her dominions overseas, and I experienced the ensuing painful period when she came to terms with being just a small island off the coast of Europe. It's not that I have any warm feelings for imperialism, but it would be nice to live somewhere that wasn't going downhill just once in my life.

I was looking for relief from these thoughts when I turned to the recent copy of Foreign Affairs that dropped into my mail slot. An article by John Rapley titled "The New Middle Ages" caught my attention. He starts by saying, "The Middle Ages ended when the rise of capitalism on a national scale led to powerful states with sovereignty over particular territories and populations. Now that capitalism is operating globally, those states are eroding and a new medievalism is emerging." He goes on to give examples of the way this works, one of which is the control that drug gangs exert over the favelas in Rio, providing social services that the government can't or won't supply.

His cheery thesis is that we may be about to enter another Dark Ages where the rule of local warlords supplants a central government for many parts of the world, putting the same brake on intellectual and social progress that was the hallmark of those pre-Renaissance days. If he is right then this is as depressing an aspect of globalization as Burger Kings in Kathmandu, or the fact that finding something that wasn't made in China is as rare as meeting a Democrat in Alabama.

Of the triumvirate of indicators of decline that Kevin Phillips discusses in American Theocracy – religious extremism, overdependence on oil, and excessive debt – it is the role of the Christian zealots that I find the most disturbing. These rapture-seeking, Armageddon-welcoming fanatics practice a distorted form of Christianity that is deeply dissimilar to the religion that I was brought up in. Maybe the Church of England was behind the times but it taught me that compassion and forgiveness were virtues, something singularly lacking in a group the most excessive of whom advocate the stoning of adulterers and execution of homosexuals. Not only does this ironically align them with the thinking of the Taliban and other groups that are supposed to be our mortal enemies, but also by raising the hate bar it makes those who merely want gays imprisoned seem reasonable by comparison.

The most depressing aspect of Phillips' thesis (he was a Republican strategist for many years, by the way) is that for most of the book there is a sense of irreversible inevitability about the process of decline. I am still naÏve enough and still believe enough in the democratic system to think that this isn't the case.

One of the things that I love about journalism is that it is a license to indulge the innate sense of curiosity that most of its practitioners possess. During my 13 years as a photojournalist it did that and then some. I found out what it was like to be a cowboy and a rock star, to experience how both the desperately poor and extravagantly rich live, to witness the power of nature in Mount St. Helens and the glaciers of Greenland, to travel by dogsled and in a four-masted schooner. All these and many more encounters widened my view of the world and my understanding of its ways. Nowadays I depend on other people to satisfy my needs. I need to understand the lives of the vast majority of Muslims who don't have AK-47s in their hands or explosives strapped to their backs; I need to be reminded that there are still kind and decent people who quietly live in this country; I also need to see the effects of global warming so that I may remember that it is not a phenomenon of God's Apocalypse, but created by man and therefore reversible by him as well.

More than anything I need to see the face of hatred and the results of violent intolerance that my resolve to deny them may be strengthened. Journalism isn't just a pastime to satisfy inquisitiveness, but a way of shedding light into the darkest corners of our earth and the deepest recesses of our souls. The trouble with blind faith is that it so often leads to blind prejudice, but the more you know about the planet and those with whom you co-inhabit it the less likely you are to take that path. Journalism, when practiced honestly and ethically, is a source of light that is still our best defense against any Dark Ages that may be just around the corner.

But what if Kevin Phillips is right and the incline upon the edge of which America teeters only points down? If this scenario is true then journalists still have a vital role to play. That today's news is tomorrow's history is hardly a new thought, but neither is it an invalid one. The author would not have had the resources to compare the fates of former empires to present day America if somebody hadn't recorded the events that led to their ultimate downfall. At the beginning of the chapter dealing with debt Phillips quotes Thomas G. Donlan, writing in Barron's in 2005, when he said, "The lesson of history is that we don't learn the lessons of history." Whether or not this is true it is still a statement that could not have been made without the benefit of history, and although journalists rarely make history the actions of those who do would be of little consequence without the efforts of those who chronicle them.

And what if the prophets of the end-times are correct? Well history comes to the rescue here as well. To some in Britain the bloodbath of the First World War was the Armageddon that would precede the Second Coming. God disappointed them then and he's likely to do so again. But in the unlikely event that we are entering the final days I'm pretty sure in which direction I'll be going, and it's the same one that Phillips predicts the United States will take. Since I'm afraid of heights and love to be warm I guess it won't be all bad. However I'm reminded of another saying that I heard as a child that says, "Things are rarely as good as you hoped or as bad as you feared" and I suspect that will be the one that rings true in the end.

© Peter Howe
Executive Editor