Arianna Huffington is the fair, smart, brassy embodiment of a new conversation trying to happen. At a sold-out book party at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, I am interrupting her pitch for Third World America to ask her, as queen of the media transformation: why does our public chatter in a campaign year sound so idiotic? So full of mis- and dis-information, so full of untethered rage?
We got into it by way of Edmund Burke, the 18th Century’s great conservative English Parliamentarian who put the worst malefactors of the British Empire (the Cheneys, Rumsfelds and Bushes of his time) on trial.
CL: You mention Burke… I didn’t realize we were on the same fan-page, but Edmund Burke is to me the missing voice in America today. He believed in empire, but in responsible empire — empire that cared as much for Indian people and Indian prosperity and Indian welfare as it cared for the English…
AH: America is in many ways acting like a declining empire. If you look at Afghanistan for example, only a declining empire with a perverse sense of priorities would be spending hundreds of billions of dollars conducting a war which is unwinnable, which is not in our national security interests … I quote Arnold Toynbee in the book, who said that empires more often die because they commit suicide rather than from murder. Imagine what would happen if that 2 billion dollars a week that we’re spending in Afghanistan were brought here to help rebuild the country and get jobs for people and rebuild our infrastructure. You mentioned Larry Summers and Robert Rubin. There’s no question that the fundamental mistake the Obama White House made was to appoint people whose view of the world was so Wall Street-centric to run economic policy. It was a little bit like having pre-Gallilean people, who believe that everything revolves around the earth, produce navigation maps. It wasn’t going to work, the ships were going to sink.
CL: I want to ask you the media question. Who are we going to believe to tell us this story? Who’s going to confirm in a kind of fundamental American narrative that we’re in the gravest risk of facing a kind of terminal imperial moment?
AH: Well, it’s not a Who. You see that is really what is different. That’s a very important question, because what is different is that we’re not waiting for some Walter Cronkite voice to tell us this is how it is. This is what is new and what is exciting: we all have to tell the story. We all have to tell the story of our time, and people are saying it online. So our job is to collect these thousands of stories and create a mosaic.
CL: I do want Walter Cronkite in a way to announce this. I still want the gods of my youth — Walter Lippmann, and James Reston, and page one of the New York Times — to confirm what we all know, but know in isolation. I’m still looking for a figure that’s vaguely authoritative, in touch with the historical narrative, with a base broader than one, who also can write commanding prose. I want someone not just to tell a story on a video screen, but to change the overall narrative. The overall narrative that people say is going to prevail in the elections this fall is that we’re taxed too much, that the government takes our money and throws it away, or that Obama’s a Muslim, or that some guy in the South wants to burn the Koran. We are awash in these basically idiotic narratives that are fundamentally out of touch.
AH: Chris, Chris, Chris, let me hold your hand. Get over it. There isn’t going to be a Walter Cronkite to tell us how it is.
CL: There is one, and his name is Glenn Beck —
AH: No, that’s the point. Glenn Beck and the Tea Party movement is responding to the incredible abuse of power by our establishments. Their response is potentially dangerous, but there is a lot of legitimate anger out there… If you scratch the surface of whatever the Tea Partiers are saying, underneath it is this incredible anger at the bailout. Right now, there are going to be two forces: the Tea Party response, which very often becomes anti-immigrant, anti-muslim, basically the scapegoating that we’ve seen throughout history. And then there can be a constructive response. Yes, the system is screwed up, we need to try and fix the system, while we’re fixing it we need to see what can we do in our own communities, in our own families, to turn things around. If we don’t do that, we are basically ceding the future to the forces of anger that are really creating these idiotic narratives to make sense of what has happened in their lives.
Arianna Huffington with Chris Lydon at the Brattle Theatre, Cambridge, September 13, 2010