A nation of judges

J. Herbert Altschull

June 07, 1993|By J. Herbert Altschull

WE'VE become a highly judgmental nation.

The Case of the Plagued President makes the point vividly. Here the man has been in office less than half a year, and everybody is judging whether his term is a success or a failure.

But it isn't only about Bill Clinton that we have become so judgmental. There is homosexuality. There is abortion. There is Michael Jackson. There is Michael Jordan. And Jay Leno and Barbara Streisand. There are Bosnia and Russia, Iran and Iraq. Family values. Market values.

Whosoever or whatever it may be, we are judging. Mostly, we are condemning.

Occasionally, voices are raised to condemn the media for being judgmental. And it is certainly true that the media -- newspapers, television, magazines, talk-show hosts and hostesses -- all of them are judging.

"If only the media," those voices say, "if only the media would be fair and unbiased. . ." Why, even media folk are judging other media folk, condemning "the media" while representing the media.

This is the most virulent kind of scapegoating. It's as if we are so fearful of being judged ourselves that we can't wait to judge the Other Guy. Pogo had the right idea. "We have met the enemy," he said, "and it is us."

As a historian, I try to take the long view. That means raising a question as to whether all this judgmentalism is something new, or whether it is instead a quality of the human condition that extends deep into the past.

The fact is that human beings have always been critical of other human beings. In the past, however, that criticism was on a small scale. We didn't have the time to go big-scale. As a race, we were so busy surviving that we didn't have enough leisure time to shout our judgments from the rooftops.

We couldn't reach the rooftops easily. We didn't have much of a platform at all. The "communicators," the editors, pamphleteers, politicians, business leaders, church officials, teachers, all did their judging to small audiences -- and, for the most part, recognized that with such small audiences they didn't have a lot of judgmental clout.

Technology has changed all that. We have a lot of leisure time now, enough to go to movies, watch television, read journals, jabber over coffee or cocktails. And so our judgments are hanging out to dry. In this kind of world, how can we expect the media not to shout their judgments from rooftops that now overlook the world?

Before technology changed that world, we didn't know much about our presidents. Most of us didn't even know what they looked like. And until radio, we didn't hear their voices unless they came to town to make a speech. Very few people judged Martin Van Buren or Franklin Pierce or Herbert Hoover four months into their terms of office.

Not only didn't we judge them. We didn't have very high expectations of them, either. Our lives were affected more by the policies of our mayors and city councils than by anybody off there in Washington.

In the past, we didn't expect our presidents to be miracle men. And none of them was, even though it was easier to be a miracle man in Van Buren's day than in our own.

He had the moneyed influence peddlers in his smoke-filled rooms to worry about, but he didn't have to deal with thousands of vote-delivering lobbyists in Washington holding life-and-death

power over lawmakers.

We were more realistic then when we didn't expect our presidents to perform miracles, when we didn't hasten to judge before we knew what was going on. Consider some of the things that have plagued the Clinton presidency: haircuts, travel agents, inexperienced p.r. people. Wow! Headlines from Here to There, tsk-lead stories and crocodile tears on the evening news, enraged callers besieging talk shows.

I don't think the media started this wave of judgmentalism. I think that, more than anything else, they are reacting to the mood of the public. The problems are so big that most of us don't think they can be resolved. And that frightens us.

Journalists and talk-show hosts may have discovered that the quickest way to fame and fabulous ratings today is to sound off loud and clear -- the harsher the judgments, the better.

What we want Mr. Clinton to be is Mr. Perfect -- some kind of superhuman figure Up There in the White House who can spread his arms and bestow on us The Answers. That's asking a lot of the man. Why not let him do his best? That's all he or any human being can do.

It takes time to work out even partial answers. Lots of time. It took us a long time to get into the state we're in.

J. Herbert Altschull is a historian and journalist who teaches in the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars.

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