Half Past the Month: Commentary Against Commentary

March 7, 2011

AFTER a weekend of watching talk shows and talks shows about talk shows, this must be said: Our commentators are falling alarmingly behind in alarming us about our need to be alarmed. We are at a crisis point in the discussion of crises points.

You can see it on Fox News even, not to mention the networks. The staffs are struggling to synchronize with a world spinning wildly out of control — “Khadafi Wins United Nations Plaudits”; “Snow Storms Signal Global Warming”; “Biden Explains Budget,” “Sheen Highest Paid TV Actor.”

One longs for an extended weather report.

You also can think of it as an application of Grisham’s Law. On television at least, the number of alarming events has created such a demand for explication that bad commentary is driving out good. There is a cacophony of commentary.

How apt is that phrase?

What else explains that seventh-eighths of the world’s experts on any given subject are comely young women exhibiting cleavage? Have they really come that far or are they themselves the message, another display of marketing most cynical?

Whatever, we need a break.

A pastor suggests we give up our public opinions for Lent. The purpose of Lent, after all, is the preparation of the believer through prayer and penitence — a perfect formula for an improved point of view.

Martin Luther, the inventor of journalism, installed an editorial policy rigidly free of opinion. His pamphlets focused on the factual reporting of floods, fires, earthquakes and assorted acts of God.

And there are secular arguments for curbing one’s opinions.

The Romans made it a practice to pull from the field even their most experienced and successful generals for a period of reflection. It was understood that a general might know immediately why he lost a battle. He would need time, though, to figure out why he had won, his ego being woven into the battle plan.

While we are on military history, there is an example that nails down the point. It comes from notes of an interview with the chief of the military-science section of the Library of Congress.

Q. “The genius of the German Blitzkrieg against the Maginot Line?”

A. “Genius, perhaps, but armored cavalry had little to do with it. The French fell victims to their own conflicting and uninformed opinions as to what exactly had happened.”

Q. “Isn’t that the fog of war?”

A. “Yes, but in this case the very nature of the battle was misunderstood. Some of the French high command thought the isolated columns of the Blitzkrieg were a general assault on the line. Others thought if was a feign to set up a flanking action. Both interpretations recommended an immediate (and ultimately disastrous) retreat. Additional time and resources were lost deciding how men and equipment should be repositioned to the rear. It was impossible to see in those first hours that the French Army, by simply turning to attack the flanks of the vulnerable and strung-out German columns racing to Paris, could have won the war — by itself then and there.”

Q. “Do you mean that if the French had just sat still for half a day — doing absolutely nothing —the winning battle plan would have become obvious?”

A. “Yes. The Blitzkrieg would have been just a column of tanks and light infantry speeding toward a French prisoner-of-war camp.”

There is one more example to share. At age of 32, R. Buckmeister Fuller, the great architect, was broken and on the verge of suicide. The thought struck him, though, that if he had not been right about anything up to that point why should he believe he was right about his own end.

So he vowed to spend a year in silence contemplating an experiment “to find what a single individual could contribute to changing the world and benefiting all humanity.”

The geodesic dome and 28 patents would follow. Ronald Reagan would award him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Let the period of silence begin, for we may or may not overcome but we ought to shut up. — Craig Ladwig


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