Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Flight 370 and Samuel Johnson: The Untold Connection

     Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 ... is ... umm ... still missing. 
     That said, I ... ah ... wanted to add that its disappearance is an ... umm ... hugely significant cultural moment. 
    Oh wait, my pal, Gene Weingarten, over at the Washington Post, put it best, in an email chiding me for under-appreciating the news value of the plane's disappearance: "I hunger for the story...this is a world-class, possibly never seen before, amp set to 11, bona fide mystery."
    I think that too! Err, now  I mean. I think that now.
    No I don't. 
    I believe we project our desire for order, for wonder, for elaborate, clever artifice, on sketchy, poorly-understood events, so we can entertain ourselves with the amazing possibilities while the banal truth remains hidden. If I had to bet the ranch on what happened to Flight 370, I would guess the wing fell off. Or something overheated and blew up. Or a pilot spilled his Coke on the controls. We'll probably never know.
     Which I would never even bother to say, here, now.
     So why am I writing about this a second day?
     Well, you see....
     It's like this....
     I happily posted my column here Tuesday on CNN leaping from news coverage into performance art regarding the missing plane, all for a bump in ratings.
     "They're creating a little Theater of Exaggeration, trying to fool us," I wrote, of CNN's constant panting updates about what turns out to be nothing.
     Then Tuesday morning, I glanced at my stats, as I always do. Yowza! Through the roof. Twice what I get on a typical morning.  Fifty people retweeted. My very first, unfiltered thought was: "Geez, I should hit this again."
      Grin of embarrassment. 
      I wonder how many journalists, myself included, if we were suddenly in CNN's position, would do what CNN has done? (I like to think that, even if I did decide to pander, I'd pander more artfully than that. Self-awareness, and reluctance, I hope, balms the sting of today's pandering. Bad enough to be a whore, but to be a desperate, delusional whore...)
     But this is a business. And you have to put the slop where the pigs can get at it. If people really want tripe...
     No, no, no. I didn't write that! We can't conclude that. Hypocrisy is a bad thing. Being a hypocrite because it pays is worse. 
    Or is it? There can be a fine line between hypocrisy and ... ah ... flexibility. 
    My hero, Samuel Johnson, the Great Cham of Literature, produced his namesake dictionary in 1755.  It made him famous but not rich -- that next year, he was arrested for a £5 debt (which, admittedly, was a lot more 250 years ago than today). 
     In 1762, King George III granted him a lifetime pension of £300 a year, which would allow Johnson to pay off his debts and live comfortably, even well. But first he had to get around one uncomfortable point. In his dictionary, he famously defined "pension" thus: "pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country." 
     He was naturally torn, not only by the stench of hypocrisy, but by the idea that he was being bought off by a government he had criticized. He quizzed his friends. "Certainly the definitions in his Dictionary were not applicable to him," Joshua Reynolds replied. "It is not given you for anything you are to do, but for what you have done," said Lord Bute, who had lobbied the king on Johnson's behalf.
    Johnson took the pension. 
    His enemies of course gleefully mocked him, but they were doing that at every opportunity anyway. Johnson later said he wished the pension had been twice as much, so his critics could make "twice as much noise."
     So tomorrow, whatever the ratings, I shift away from Flight 370. It's the right thing to do. And there's no money at stake. That helps.


  1. advocate of the anti-ChristApril 16, 2014 at 7:55 AM

    Here's a headline for you for tomorrow's blog: "Naked women, violence, earn big money, lose weight, and the truth about the missing airplane, JFK assassination, 9/11, plus cute kittens and a recipe for delicious key lime pie." Use the headline and you can then write a column about the merits of reverse mortgages and still pull good numbers.

  2. Opportunities for money-making were limited in Johnson's time: for men of letters the main alternative to government pensions often being private patronage. Johnson, after his dictionary gave him new found fame and some income, felt secure enough to decline an offer of patronage from Lord Chesterfield with this devestating question: "Is not a patron, my lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and when he reaches ground, encumbers him wirh help?"

    1. It was a little more complicated than that. Chesterfield was the supposed patron of the dictionary, did almost nothing, then made a big public display of being the benefactor when the work was done and his help was no longer needed. It wasn't that Johnson declined assistance, it's that it came too late to be of use to anyone beside Chesterfield, who was reaching for undeserved glory.

  3. Don't beat yourself up too hard about this. You've got to make a living.


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