The Great Stereopticon

Reproduced below are about two pages of the thinking of Richard Weaver, the philosopher whose work we recommended in our third installment of the recent series on American culture. The subject of Weaver’s text: “the great stereopticon.” Borrowing the name of the nineteenth-century pre-film viewing device, the reality the Platonic philosopher critiques is the technologically enhanced thought control to which we are subjected by newspapers, film, radio, and television. It is a machine, this stereopticon: a big gadget built by man, with many parts. And new parts keep getting added to it. Even though Weaver’s work was published in 1948, when television was just getting its start and the Internet was decades away, his considerations are timely. In fact, if we excuse an occasional dated reference, they are now even more timely.

We Catholics love words, or ought to. Why? “In the beginning was the Word” (Jn 1:1). In the “beginning” of eternity – the beginning before the “beginning” of Genesis 1:1 – Saint John tells us that the Father uttered a Word. This Word was His perfectly adequate self knowledge, an expression of all that He is. Therefore, the Word is God, a distinct Person, but of one Substance with the Father. Between the two is exchanged a perfect Love, which is also a Person, the Holy Ghost.

Saint John could have said that God had a Son, but he instead said how the Son was conceived and born, by a purely spiritual generation, analogous to that of human thought and its external expression. Saint John’s language resonated in the Graeco-Roman world of the day, and it should still resonate with us.

In earlier ages, the Father revealed Himself through the mouths of the prophets. It was particularly fitting that, in His definitive revelation to our race, He communicated Himself by making His Word flesh. Now God speaks to us with His own mouth. “God, who, at sundry times and in divers manners, spoke in times past to the fathers by the prophets, last of all, in these days hath spoken to us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the world” (Heb 1:1-2). It is no base pun, therefore, that Saint Peter utters when he says to the Incarnate Word: “thou hast the words of eternal life” (John 6:69).

Consideration of the generation, incarnation, and mission of the eternal Word ought to give us a great reverence for words. When we are at our best, we Catholics have a veneration for words and their proper use. We know that words signify things, identify essences. In naming things we exercise a dominion over the Earth like Adam’s when he originally named the animals. For us words have real meaning, in spite of the best efforts of the lying politician, the agenda-driven journalist, the liberal academic, or any of our other sophistical spin doctors. Catholic societies are fertile in the production of poetry, prose, drama, and song. While we are lovers of words, we know they must be used with a proper restraint. Those who have wrought the most havoc have been men of words – men especially, who could “work over a crowd.” Hitler comes to mind, of course, as do Stalin, Lenin, and other skilled rhetorical madmen.

Concerning our own misspent words, the Word Himself says: “But I say unto you, that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall render an account for it in the day of judgment” (Matt. 12:32). Earlier, the Wise Man had said something similar in the Old Testament: “In the multitude of words there shall not want sin: but he that refraineth his lips is most wise” (Prov. 10:19). Scripture’s most prolonged jeremiad on sins of the tongue comes to us from Saint James. I will not reproduce it here, but read James 3 if you are looking for a good meditation on sins of the tongue. And if you are not looking for such a meditation, you probably should be.

They are words to live by.

After this brief introduction, I present Weaver on one part of the great stereopticon, journalism:

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The Great Stereopticon

From Ideas Have Consequences, by Richard M. Weaver (© 1948, University of Chicago Press), pp. 96-98.

There is much to indicate that modern publication wishes to minimize discussion. Despite many artful pretensions to the contrary it does not want an exchange of views, save perhaps on academic matters. Instead, it encourages men to read in the hope that they will absorb. For one thing, there is the technique of display, with its implied evaluations. This does more of the average man’s thinking for him than he suspects. For another, there is the stereotyping of whole phrases. These are carefully chosen not to stimulate reflection but to evoke stock responses of approbation or disapprobation. Headlines and advertising teem with them, and we seem to approach a point at which failure to make the stock response is regarded as faintly treasonable, like refusal to salute the flag. Especially do the journals of mass circulation exploit the automatic response. So journalism becomes a monstrous discourse of Protagoras, which charms by hypnotizing and thwarts that participation without which one is not a thinking man. If our newspaper reader were trained to look for assumptions, if he were conscious of the rhetoric in lively reporting, we might not fear this product of the printer’s art; but that would be to grant that he is educated. As the modern world is organized, the ordinary reader seems to lose means of private judgment, and the decay of conversation has about destroyed the practice of dialectic. Consequently the habit of credulity grows.

There is yet another circumstance which raises grave doubts about the contribution of journalism to the public weal. Newspapers are under strong pressure to distort in the interest of holding attention. I think we might well afford to overlook the pressure of advertisers upon news and editorial policy. This source of distortion has been fully described and is perhaps sufficiently discounted; but there is at work a far more insidious urge to exaggerate and to color beyond necessity. It is an inescapable fact that newspapers thrive on friction and conflict. One has only to survey the headlines of some popular journal, often presented symbolically in red, to note the kind of thing which is considered news. Behind the big story there nearly always lies a battle of some sort. Conflict, after all, is the essence of drama, and it is a truism that newspapers deliberately start and prolong quarrels; by allegation, by artful quotation, by the accentuation of unimportant differences, they create antagonism where none was felt to exist before. And this is profitable practically, for the opportunity to dramatize a fight is an opportunity for news. Journalism on the whole is glad to see a quarrel start and sorry to see it end. In the more sensational publications this spirit of passion and violence, manifested in a certain recklessness of diction, with vivid verbs and fortissimo adjectives, creeps into the very language. By the attention it gives their misdeeds it makes criminals heroic and politicians larger than life. I have felt that the way in which newspapers raked over every aspect of Adolf Hitler’s life and personality since the end of the war shows that they really have missed him; they now have no one to play anti-Christ against the bourgeois righteousness they represent.

In reviewing the persistent tendency of the newspaper to corrupt, I shall cite a passage from James Fenimore Cooper. Though Cooper lived before the advent of yellow journalism, he seems to have stated the essential situation with a truth and eloquence impossible to improve on when he said in The American Democrat: “As the press of this country now exists, it would seem to be expressly devised by the great agent of mischief, to depress and destroy all that is good, and to elevate and advance all that is evil in the nation. The little truth that is urged, is usually urged coarsely, weakened and rendered vicious, by personalities; while those who live by falsehoods, fallacies, enmities, partialities and the schemes of the designing, find the press the very instrument that the devils would invent to effect their designs.” A hundred years later Huey Long made a statement of impolitic truth when he called his tax on newspapers a “lie tax.”