It’s unusual to come across two excellent pieces of journalism in the Sunday papers, but here are two I highly recommend. I don’t agree with every jot and tittle these writers write, but I love the way they approach their subjects and I enjoy the workings of their minds.
When I used to teach persuasive writing, we talked about the “persona” writers project in a piece of work–who do they seem to be, what do they know, do they seem sincere and intellectually honest and trustworthy? Best of all, of course, is to actually be, not just seem to be, those things. If you are, it comes across.
A great example is George Orwell. Pick even the slightest of his essays and within a few paragraphs you know you’re in the presence of an honest man who will not say just anything to win an argument. He may be wrong, but you have a strong sense that if he is, he’ll be the first to figure it out and confess his mistakes a few days later.
Over the past few years I’ve discovered that I can read almost anybody from anywhere on the political spectrum, even if I starkly disagree, if they seem to be people of good will. That may seem a wimpy, amorphous test, but, like Justice Stewart’s famous definition of obscenity, we know good will when we see it. You can tell when a writer is really working on ideas, fearlessly following his light, wrestling with the subject to find some truth and not just trying to score cheap points, play to the home crowd and twist the knife in the guts of his “enemy.” The person of good will is not a narcissistic free agent; he or she is bound (not blinded) by ethics and standards that shape their work.
What I can no longer read or watch on TV is what I defined a few years ago, acronymically of course, as the TAOII–the Tedious Argument of Insidious Intent,with a nod to T. S. Eliot. We learn nothing from the TAOII. After you’ve seen/read 500 of them, you’ve seen them all.
But back to these essays. I like the way both writers treat us as adults. In these essays, you won’t find the taunting frat-boy rhetoric and the bumper-sticker bromides that pass for debate among the cable TV warriors. From what I can tell, one of the writers might be classified as a “liberal” and the other a “conservative,” to use those fast-dying words, but I don’t really care. Give me your ideas, not your labels.
OK, enough drum roll.
In this piece, the writer tries to figure out why President Obama has not been the fighter and the champion the country needs in the face of frightening challenges. In this piece, the writer looks at the global and domestic financial crises and asks whether the dreams of the welfare state, however noble and desirable its ends, can be realized today.