Saturday, December 31, 2011

Ortega y Gasset & Newspapers

Writing in December 1937 from exile in Paris, Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset addressed his essay "With Respect to Pacifism" to the English people, in an attempt to explain to that nation how wrong their foreign policy between the wars was. And this affected him personally because of the attitude many Englishmen were adopting towards the civil war raging in Spain at the time. One of the problems that worried Ortega most was that the Englishmen he read and spoke to thought they knew everything they needed to know about Spain from the newspapers, without knowing much about Spanish history:

The quantity of news that one people is constantly receiving about what it is happening with another people is enormous. How will it be easy to persuade an Englishman that he is not informed about the historical phenomenon that is the Spanish Civil War or another similar crisis? He knows that the English newspapers spend huge sums of money to maintain correspondents in all countries. He knows that, even though there are not a few correspondents who carry out their duty in an impassioned and partisan way, there are many others whose impartiality cannot be questioned and whose grace in relating exact facts cannot easily be beat. All this is true, and because it is true, it turns out to be very dangerous.

What's dangerous is the resulting mix of ignorance and influence. Ortega specifically cites Albert Einstein as an example of the type of European intellectual who, while he may be a genius in his own field, feels that he has a right to speak about other fields, even if he possesses none of the necessary background knowledge. How could anyone, even a man as smart as Einstein, dare to judge an event as messy as the Spanish civil war when he knows nothing about Spain's history?

Ortega cites in a footnote one more frightening example of a journalist for The Times of London reporting all the current events up to the minute, but then constructing an entire analysis on the premise that all Spaniards were descended from the Moors!

What Ortega's complaint about newspapers shows is that without a knowledge history one cannot even properly understand the newspaper. The dispassionate study of history is the only thing that can cast the proper light in which to understand current events. The danger of newspapers, then, is that by feeding the masses lots of information about current events, they give them the illusion of understanding those events.

Or, as Nietzsche might have said, without a knowledge of history, all newspapers do is load us down with "indigestible knowledge-stones."
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