Notes & Comments May 1992
A Pulitzer for liberal piety
It has long been recognized that there is a distinct political dimension to the awarding of the Pulitzer Prizes. Briefly stated, the Pulitzers favor the expression of liberal opinion. No other mode of political belief is considered eligible for Pulitzer consideration. It is thus the main business of the Pulitzer committees to hand out the Prizes to other liberals, both in the press and in the arts.
Exactly what constitutes liberal opinion at any given moment may vary, of course, but only within certain limits. Once upon a time liberal opinion tended to be anti-Communist. It was also opposed to quota systems in employment, in college admissions, and in other spheres of public life. No longer. As we all know, the anti-Communist component of liberalism proved to be a casualty of the Vietnam War, and anti-quota sentiment made its embarrassed exit from liberal opinion in the face of “affirmative action” programs. What had been established as liberal doctrine one day was declared to be illiberal—if not something worse: conservative—the next. What remained constant was that the Pulitzer Prizes continued to be lavished upon whatever was thought to constitute liberal orthodoxy at the moment.
This year’s Pulitzers were no different, in this respect, from last year’s, or indeed from those in many recent years. What is interesting, however, is to see what specific mutations in the expression of liberal opinion are now being singled out for commendation. From this perspective, the most emblematic of this year’s Pulitzers was the award to Anna Quindlen, the often angry, always lachrymose columnist for The New York Times, in the category called “Commentary.”
Quindlen, who writes a twice-a-week syndicated column called “Public & Private,” represents a significant development in liberal journalism. It is a development that has little or nothing to do with liberal punditry of the old school, with its high ideals of civic virtue and its aura of moral uplift. It focuses instead almost entirely upon what has come to be called lifestyle. It is mainly concerned, in other words, with the emancipation and gratification of the self. From the perspective of this new mode of lifestyle liberalism, all political thought is judged according to its contribution or opposition to an expanding, non-negotiable agenda of personal emancipation.
It is mainly concerned, in other words, with the emancipation and gratification of the self.
Given this preoccupation with the self, lifestyle liberalism has inevitably created a new mode of liberal journalism that specializes in self-promotion and self-exculpation. What used to be known as private life, whether the journalist’s own or that of his subjects, becomes the principal peg and focus of all political and social analysis. Indeed, lifestyle becomes the only politics worth talking about, the only politics that are really believed in. Society comes to be looked upon exclusively as a coefficient of personal autonomy, and where it fails to meet the requisite standard in assisting the self in its pursuit of immediate gratification, it is condemned as repressive.
One result of this lifestyle liberalism is that it tends to turn all journalistic discourse into a species of political soap opera. Which is to say that it sentimentalizes politics to a degree that places it beyond the reach of intelligent argument. Journalism written out of this lifestyle imperative is not so much a mode of reporting or analysis as it is a form of emotional blackmail. “Every four years,” we were told in a recent Quindlen column, “idealism seizes me by the throat and I wait for a white knight. Perhaps this is the character flaw of someone whose first seminal political act was kneeling on a linoleum floor, saying a rosary with the sixth grade the day John F. Kennedy was killed.” In a column the same week, however, her rosary wasn’t much in evidence as Quindlen campaigned once again for abortion rights, though there were some ironic invocations of “God’s law” and “my study of the Bible.” Whatever the issue, there is always the same Quindlen scenario of outraged virtue and self-satisfied liberal piety.
Another result of this lifestyle journalism is that it inevitably leads to wholesale violations of the very privacy—including that of the writer—it believes itself to be exalting. The title of Anna Quindlen’s column, “Public & Private,” says it all. Every public issue is turned into a private psychodrama while the old liberal notion of the commonwealth is martyred on the altar of the self and its unappeasable needs and desires. It is the ultimate paradox of this lifestyle liberal journalism that it looks more and more to the state to guarantee the autonomy of the self as the first principle of social policy, thus ensuring greater and greater political control over our private lives.
Anna Quindlen didn’t invent this mode of lifestyle liberal journalism. It had become a staple of the feminist press—and of the swiftly expanding feminist component of the mainstream press—long before she won her slot on the op-ed pages of the nation’s newspapers. She is merely its latest captive and beneficiary. In conferring one of its Prizes upon this melancholy example of degeneration in journalistic standards, the Pulitzer organization has once again made a notable contribution to the decline of the American press.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 10 Number 9, on page 1
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