"The Journalism of Ideas"
The New York Observer
Northwestern University "Literature of Fact" Lecture Series
May 12, 2003
I've called this talk "The Journalism of Ideas", although I'm not sure what I do is exclusively is the journalism of ideas, or exactly literary journalism either. I really despise the term literary journalism because it suggests kind of flourishes, hyphens, prose, et cetera, et cetera, I prefer the idea- the name "journalism that asks questions that literature asks". I myself like to mix genres, to include narrative drama, hardcore investigation of documents, court transcripts, personal reflections, cultural observations, and metaphysical speculation, not all of them necessarily in the same paragraph, but the kind of journalism I like to read mostly these days is the journalism of ideas. For some years my favorite magazine was (garbled)
Anyway, my advice to people who are interested in the journalism of ideas is go to a library. Find old copies of (garbled) it's an education in itself, the journalism of ideas, how to do it: there's just so much smart stuff there. Anyway, I guess the most dramatic way of putting the way I feel about the journalism of ideas is that, in the 70s the watch word of journalism was "follow the money" that line from Deep Throat in Woodward and Bernstein's Watergate book. A lot of valuable work was done under the rubric of "follow the money." Exposing political corruption, exposing the hidden financial agendas, it's still valuable and I wouldn't want to deter anyone, if that's your kind of talent, if that's what you're good at. But the assumption that money is the root of all evils is, I think, a limited one. One thing I turn away from in the ten years I've spent researching my book on the origins of Hitler's evil, is that bad ideas is the root of a more dangerous evil. And on a more mundane level, bad ideas can be the root of routine stupidity, bad public policy, bankrupt conventional wisdom about human nature, human society.
So I tend to think that the future of investigative journalism, the future of great journalism, is not "follow the money" but "follow the ideas." Examine, challenge the origin of conventional wisdom, the hidden agendas and unexamined ideologies of supposed impartial experts, the thinking behind think tanks; expose the corruption, the sloppy thinking, the supposedly objective and scientific ideas that help shape not just policy but culture, behavior, belief of who we are. There's a world of fat targets awaiting those who are willing to go after them.
Let me just give you an example of unchallenged conventional wisdom that I've found in my research on Hitler theory. One of the most uncritical, unchallenged rhetoric is still given by the talented people who do psychoanalysis, and psychoanalytic methods of analyzing history. In the case of Hitler it's doubly important because it raises the question of a pretension to tell us what is at the root of the nature of evil, at the heart of perhaps the most evil person in our century; perhaps the most evil person in many centuries. One of annoying things I've found while working on explaining Hitler is that everyone feels the need to say they've got it figured out; no mystery to that. Someone once told me they thought that my entire work as a journalist was fueled by impatience with people who think they've got it all figured out- you know, know-it-alls. I don't know if that's true, but it may be a good guide for you in finding subjects. But if you run into someone who thinks they've got some great mystery, which has eluded the best minds in history for centuries, figured it out on the basis of one book, go after that book, go after that. But anyway, back to Hitler.
As I said, during that time when I was doing a book on Hitler, people would say- smart people would say- "Have you read Alice Miller's book?", or "You have to read Alice Miller's book." Now Alice Miller is a swift psychoanalyst, a smart woman and a shrewd woman whose best-known work is called "The Drama of the Gifted Child". There's a sense of awe in her shrewdness in calling her book "The Drama of the Gifted Child", because who would not like to go up to a book cashier and buy "The Drama of a Gifted Child"? It's a way of saying "I'm a gifted child. I have drama."
Anyway, she also wrote a book that includes a posthumous psychoanalysis of Adolph Hitler, and a theory on the origin of his evil. She was part of the rubric called "psycho-history," of course itŐs a problematic discipline because psychoanalysis is supposed to be performed by people lying on a couch with coffee. Not lying mute in a grave. But it was very popular for awhile, and Alice's theory was that everything about Hitler could be explained by his father's physical abuse of him. And you know there's a Hitler miniseries coming up next Sunday on CBS, and you can see that they followed the Alice Miller abusive-father theory in the opening credit sequence; you seem him with his little scars and poor little Adolph, sensitive Adolph, as his father's beating him.
But anyway, Alice Miller believed that Adolph's father's abusive- oh, poor little Adolph- could be explained by his father's fear that his father had been Jewish and in beating poor little Adolph he was really beating the Jew within himself. And, that Adolph replicated this. In exterminating the Jews of Europe, Adolph was really exterminating the Jew within himself. Voila, case closed.
Well, it's very neat but once you investigate a grand theory like this you find several things; one of the problems is she built this elaborate theory on a bogus historical foundation. There is no substantiated evidence that Hitler's father's father was Jewish, despite rumors spread by Nazi defectors who found a way to blame the Jews somehow, blame the victims for Hitler.
Furthermore there's no evidence that Hitler's father thought his father was Jewish. What's more there's very little reliable evidence except from Hitler's self-pitying passages in "Mein Kampf" that his father abused him. Many in fact said he father was kind. But when Alice Miller confronted this objection that there was evidence to the contrary of her grand theory, she drew upon the rhetoric of the recovered memory- Santanic Ritual Abuse movement, who mobilized "Believe the Children". And she actually said in her book, "who are we to believe about this, this child Adolph Hitler?" And of course Adolph Hitler, known for his truthfulness and reliability, deserves uncritical credulity. I've never seen that statement as the only foundation for a period about the origin of the greatest perpetrator of evil in the century, but I don't really believe, and I began to study other psycho-historical theories. What's fascinating is that psychoanalysis is a science that gives a warning or clue to distrust and investigate all theories of human nature that call themselves sciences. It's reassuring but never that simple. If it's a science for instance, all practitioners should come to the same conclusion. It's just a matter of applying the scientific method to the facts. But with Hitler's psychohistory that's not the case. You have Alice Miller saying it was the father, then you have another famous psychoanalyst, Eric Fromm, who declared; "No it wasn't the father, the father was an immense guy, he loved his honeybees. It was the mother, the mother was responsible."
The mother had established a, quote, "malignant, incestuous bond" with little Adolph, which led to his quote- "necrophiliac personality disorder." Now at this point Eric Fromm is just winging it, he's just making up terms out of thin air. And then he comes to his grand conclusion- Hitler didn't hate the Jews. Hitler hated Germany. Get this- because Hitler identified Germany with his mother and he started the war and killed the Jews in order to get Germany destroyed- to get back at mom. This stuff is taken seriously; it's taken with a straight face by those who still take psychoanalysis seriously. But if you are one of those- and I hope I'm not offending those who are keen psychoanalysts- but you really need to read the work of Frederick Cruz, sort of the best single body of the kind of fraud of psychoanalysis, which in fact is not much more scientific than chronology.
Anyway finally we come to third psycho-historical theory of Hitler- the missing testicle theory. Here's where I make my investigative contribution. Freudians had a field day with the missing testicle theory, and then they found sketchy evidence at best. There's a 1968 report released on the 1945 autopsy of Adolph Hitler which claims not to have found evidence in the charred remains of Hitler's body of a left testicle. Well, Freudians went wild with that. You know, forget the father, forget the mother, it's now an entire theory of Hitler's evil built on the missing testicle. And there's a problem with this- I reported skeptically on this in my New Yorker piece on Hitler theories. I got a letter from a 90-year-old woman who was a psychotherapist living on the upper west side who told me she had been part of the secret OSS World War II investigation into the mind of Adolph Hitler. This was an investigation conducted at the request of FDR, and that as part of that investigation, she had located Hitler's family doctor, Dr. Bloch; a Jewish doctor who Hitler had allowed to emigrate from Austria after he took it over. It turned out that Hitler's family doctor was living in the Bronx, and she and the top OSS guy went up there to interview him and at the end of the interview she asked Dr. Bloch if there was anything abnormal about Hitler- particularly sexuality. And he assured her that he had examined Hitler as a child and that whatever else was abnormal about him he was, in his words, "genitally normal". So there goes the one testicle theory. But it's all of the involved bogus theories of Hitler's sexuality- and here supports the agendum at heart, and here's what I think is what you can do with the journalism of ideas- look at these theories and critique them and offer to expose them and find out why are people so attached to them? Well, there are a lot of theories about Hitler's abnormal sexuality- very little evidence to support it- why people attach themselves to it? I think it has to do with- if we can think of Hitler as abnormal, as a pervert and distant from ourselves, its comforting, its consoling. Hitler's not like us; he's a monster of some sort. And in some ways, itŐs a lot more frightening to think of a Hitler that is normal in some respects, or like us in some respects.
On the cover of my book I put Hitler's baby picture, and I put it there because there's a big controversy over Hitler's baby picture. (Garbled)
But what I also found was that is raises a question of Hitler's normality- I mean, this is a very normal looking baby picture. (Garbled)
É this normal looking baby was really kind of threatening. My book was translated into ten languages by five publishers, and none of the foreign publishers wanted to put Hitler's baby picture on the cover. They put a picture of Hitler shaking his fist or Hitler in a military uniform, Hitler scowling as an adult, but certainly this child, this baby was more threatening because it somehow implicated us more, it implicated normality.
I'm not patting myself on the back for critiquing Hitler theories but I'm suggesting a skeptical attitude toward sweeping theories and a little investigation on your part can bring a lot of great theories crumbling down. There's just too much uncritical reliance on designated experts in American society, whose theories are quoted in newspapers- I mean, my beef with newspaper stories is that always in paragraph four they call some expert at a university and you know, all their experts are their experts, and usually, newspapers feed their readers expert testimony, expert quotes that are not very well examined. Anyway, let me give you a couple more examples of stories that illustrate this.
There's one story I did for the New York Times magazine that was called "The Great Ivy League Nude Posture Photo Scandal", and another from Harper's about Elizabeth Kubler Ross and her famous "Five Stages of Dying". The "Posture Scandal" was about a bizarre ritual that I went through at a freshman in Yale that was described as scientific, but we didn't know at the time it was part of this research project that was headed by W.H. Sheldon (garbled) could be analyzed down to a 3-digit number, which was composed of measurements of body parts. And these measurements had to be done using nude photographs, and he talked just about every Ivy League institution into- women's colleges too, into using their freshmen as his subjects under the guise of taking posture pictures. These so-called posture pictures were weird and demeaning and what they did is they pasted pins down your spine- they said to measure the arc of curvature- it was a serious thing but it was done under the solemn mantle of science and we were like, you know, naive freshmen so we complied. Anyway, after decades of which I successfully repressed this memory, there was a two-paragraph letter in the New York Times in the early 90s which brought it all back. The letter was from a Yale professor who weighed in and said what she had studied about the whole posture picture and about W.H. Sheldon that behind it all was a sinister Nazi-influenced eugenics agenda brought by this pseudo-scientist Sheldon.
For one thing, I think that a lot of great stories come from two-paragraph letters that people ignore stories but have amazing stuff behind it. Of course, one of the things I wanted to know about these posture photos was; where did they all go? I mean, there were tens of thousands of them, where were they? I finally tracked down this 80-year-old guy who was living in a rooming house in Iowa, and he was the photographic assistant to the posture photo guy and he told me that he had facilitated the transfer of these tens of thousands of photos from a storage warehouse in Boston to an obscure anthropological wing of the Smithsonian. So I spent another year applying for a research grant to look at these photos, and I finally got in and saw them. I didn't see every one of them but, you know, the reason this story was in the New York Times magazine instead of the National Inquirer was that there is a journalism of ideas aspect to it which was that this guy Sheldon has convinced everyone that all of human nature could be reduced to a 3-digit number and that he has the "theory of everything" in terms of human nature.
Anyway, while this is an extreme example, but I have the feeling that people in this room could come up with- if you examined- I mean, I'll just throw this out but I think evolutionary psychology and sociobiology is just rife with punctures and is just filled with gashes of unsupported generalizations about gender and human behavior.
Anyway, it's often useful, as I said, to ask, you know; what's the agenda? In a Hitler psycho-historian chapter, the agenda was the longing for certainty, and you know, the fear of Hitler being normal in someway and believe if we can Hitler a syndrome, a name, malignant narcissistic disorder, we can somehow control it more.
In another story I did for the New Yorker- in some ways it was the opposite of the Hitler story- Shakespeare's genius is in some way as unbearable as Hitler's evil. It's sort of off the charts. The story I wrote for the New Yorker was about the debate over, you know, was Shakespeare the Shakespeare in "Shakespeare in Love", or was he a conscious artist more like other artists who revised and worried about his manuscripts?
Anyway, the final story that I'll throw out is the Elizabeth Ross "Five Stages of Dying", which is fascinating. As the weeks go by, how are you supposed to die? You know, you have to go through denial, anger, bargaining, acceptance, death; and if you don't go through the five stages in the right order you won't die properly and you know, and her wisdom is taught in nursing schools, hospitals, and not one asked; well, says who? You know, like on what basis? She just made it up out of thin air, she sorta went crazy too, and again the two or three-paragraph story I found was this story where Kubler-Ross had become the queen of death, the queen of a cult of death, and she set up this retreat in Escondido, California, where she introduced her acolytes to afterlife entities. She hooked up with this guy Barham who claimed that he could materialize afterlife entities. (Garbled) É.went up to these rustic cabins, naked except for turban and had sex with them. And they were so mesmerized by Kubler-Ross that until the afterlife entity, who was Barham in the turban gave just about everyone a sexually transmitted disease, you would somewhat start to question whether there was something wrong with her.
You know, I did a long article in Harper's in which I was rather cruel about the whole enterprise and I got a lot of angry letters, but you know again its this- what passes for conventional wisdom- its out there and you're the people who are going to challenge it. One thing I'll finally say is that one thing I learned from doing this type of reporting is that your goal is not necessarily certainty, you know, for me the wisest thing said about journalism of ideas was said by a poet, by John Keats, who had this concept of negative capability and he was commenting on Shakespeare, and so much of Shakespeare forces you to hold two conflicting ideas at one time without, said Keats, an irritable reaching for certainty, and I think that journalism of ideas is at its best when - (garbled) uncertainty, is to poke holes in other people's certainties but not necessarily feel you have to come up with the right answer to these questions that have been troubling people for ages. But add some uncertainty or conflict or write about the debate, since I think that's the contribution journalism of ideas has to make. Thank you.
Copyright 2003 Ron Rosenbaum. All rights reserved.