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Alain de Botton more Martha Stewart than Woodstein

Say what you will about Alain de Botton — and many do — but the guy has read a lot of thick and boring books. This scholar’s public value has long inhered in his willingness to take on the thick and boring and report back to us with his personalised PowerPoint account, projected again last night in Melbourne as he returned to promote his latest work on news media, News: A User’s Manual.

On tour with him are Sophocles, Flaubert and Tolstoy. If these men were in the contemporary newsroom instead of mere journalists, the “medium might well give us rather more of what we need to keep our souls from dying”.


This salvation through literature comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with de Botton’s project. He’s been a primary stop for secondary reading since the he visited chez Swann in 1997. How Proust Can Change Your Lifewas, perhaps, the poshest self-help book ever published, eclipsed only by The Consolations of Philosophy in 2000. In this smash-hit, de Botton urged us toward an Aristotelian happiness with the use of foundational Western thought. He remains the only guy I know to put a positive spin on Friedrich Nietzsche. Props to anyone who can read Also Sprach Zarathustra and stay upbeat, I guess.

De Botton turns Nietzsche, and everyone, into a sort of personal trainer for the soul. And this is the public thinker’s great skill: he takes the stuff of his Oxbridge education and turns it into protein bars for mass moral consumption.

I remain pretty cross at de Botton for an interpretation of my favourite philosopher that was almost as wayward as Hitler’s. (Jokes. Jokes.) But there is no doubting his function as a gateway drug to thought.

Whether it is “practical” re-telling of classical, Enlightenment and modern philosophy or his newer syntheses on aesthetic theory, de Botton has long been a popular conduit to reason. Personally, I think it’s the wrong kind of reason. The guy is a rampant individualist whose view that solitary acts of reason and kindness can overcome entire social structures makes me think he probably used to wear one of those Wham! Choose Life T-shirts in the ‘80s.

But still, it’s reason, and a good part of his new book and his talk is mired in this vanishing pursuit. He may be a liberal individualist, but de Botton has no truck with the ad hominem investigation of many journalists. He speaks sensibly of the example of French ultra-Right political leader Marine Le Pen. The personal revulsion many reporters bring to their account of the individual obscure the rather more sinister stories that inform her ideology — an unproductive liberal-Left mistake we see played out daily in local stories on Tony Abbott the evil individual. De Botton reminds his audience several times that it is ideology, not individuals, who should be our political news. He also makes the excellent point that journalists are audiences alike are perpetually and hopelessly looking for their Watergate. Power, he says, is a complex matter. The real scandal is not Watergate in its revelation of impropriety. The real scandal is that terrible things happen slowly and almost imperceptibly over time.

And that is where he stops with the sassy postmodern impatience and resumes talking about Great Art, his peculiar new anti-news website and the need for more beautifully crafted stories in the style of Tolstoy.

“My favourite journalist is Norman Mailer,” he said at the Wheeler Centre last night, and reminded us that it is the stuff of everyday life and everyday people that should really be news.

In his book, de Botton suggests that accounts of Middle Eastern revolution are not meaningful unless they come in a news context that also gives us the “lunchtime ritual of eating tabbouleh and stuffed vine leaves in a bucolic field overlooking the River Jordan”. What he wants is Martha Stewart Living. What he doesn’t want to do for very long is to entertain his quite good ideas about the diffuse nature of power.

If you’re a fan of Noam Chomsky, you’ll be as shitty at his interpretation of Manufacturing Consent as I was at his makeover of Nietzsche into The Secret. “I don’t agree at all with conspiracy theories,” he said. Well, neither does Chomsky. It’s not my favourite book on news media either, but my memory of it is that it provides an account of the many forces brought to bear on news.

In the end, de Botton himself returns just to one force. His beloved individual.

De Botton is praising the Power of One in his latest turn; he is at pains to tell us that it is individual acts of lazy journalists more than it is market conditions that have diminished news quality. It is quite a feat to ignore the Death Star quality of the world’s major newsrooms. Perhaps at the BBC, the media organisation with which he is most familiar, talent, resources and redundancy pay-outs do not haemorrhage at a private sector rate.

It is Great Men who will redeem history and lazy men who will keep it stagnant — this from a guy who quotes Hegel! I mean. Not to be a tedious historical materialist, but to say that news media are impeded less by the absence of a revenue model than they are by the lack of anyone who can tell grand stories about small subjects like Chekhov is just nonsense. Alain needs to see my diminishing tax return. Or, at least, take a walk around the Fairfax office.

Instead, this very good mind tends to wander along its Aristotelian route charted in the Cambridge of his youth. It’s all very well and good to be an aesthete and to praise sentiment and beauty and individual virtue above all else, but the thing is, de Botton is capable of giving his still-eager audience so much more.

With a bit less on the redemptive power of Aristophanes and Universal Human Stories and a bit more of the Frankfurt School and this guy could really do some excellent damage. Do not spend your money on de Botton’s new book but instead send him a reading list. With a bit of Adorno under his belt, he might look beyond the luxury atmosphere of liberalism and really give us news makers something to think about.

18 responses to “Alain de Botton more Martha Stewart than Woodstein

    1. Positive light, and I do see a critique stemming from a very traditional left-wing position. And, while holding no torch for Bottom, I do see the inherent bias of a criticised journalist in this article, especially in the disowned of personal responsibility – it seems to be a convenient position to take.

  1. “If he targets Chomsky as being a conspiracy theorist (as opposed to articulating conspiracy facts as reported in the daily news papers) in this latest book…”

    He doesn’t. Indeed, he doesn’t mention Chomsky at all in the book, positively or negatively.

    And with respect, Helen, speaking as someone else who’s read Nietzsche, if you genuinely find nothing positive in his work—and nothing “upbeat” about Zarathustra in particular—then Alain’s not the one who’s misunderstood him.

  2. Interesting how the semi-intellectuals can either be riled by A de B or love him.

    A de B provides something that is worthwhile, as HR points out, in that he makes people think a bit, even if you think it so execrable as to not deserve the description of ‘thought’. What he does is alert the average non-thinker, which is a large slice of modern day society, and getting larger, that thinking is an option, and you should probably go out and do it.

    When compared to the appalling dialogue and ideas of the chattering classes (the average inner city leftie) of the last 30 years, they look like the very words of wisdom, the Sermon on the Mount and the Commandments all rolled into one. Nothing, nothing at all, has been quite so vacuous as the depth of thought in the average ideological leftie, except of course for the entirety of those on the right.

    A de B is right if he argues that it is ideology that is important, and he is right in that ideology is never reported. Journalist do and have let us down over this for decades, and only Paul Keating had any worth espousing. I very much doubt that Tony Abbott could put together a lucid sentence on the subject. Keating could fill 4 hours of TV and then some.

    And Alastair, you agitation, as a meditator, is amusing. Perhaps it is you seeing the agitation and not actually within A de B’s thoughts at all. I suspect that you aren’t getting the message, or worse still, don’t have the interest to pick out what is worthwhile in A de B’s thoughts, and are caught up in playing the man.

    Not very contemplative of you, more meditation required. (Don’t worry Alastair, I say that as someone who lived and breathed meditation for 15 years)

    1. To be honest it’s many years since I read a book of his but was less than engaged with it. I’ve heard a good many critiques of him from arts grads since too.

  3. So Helen,

    if I’ve got you right, whereas Alain is saying that individual journalists should be responsible for the quality of their output, you are saying that when Australian Newsrooms produce reporting that is crass, lazy and sycophantic to power, you are ‘only obeying orders’ ?

    The number of typos in this piece perhaps give an idea of the amount of attention you gave to this piece, and how much we should give to it.

    Perhaps if individual journalists started showing some responsibility for the work they produced, they might start asking a few more awkward questions of those in power (and Opposition !) and the dysfunctional mess that is your current political system might start operating a bit more effectively.

    I lived in Australia for 9 yrs up to last year, and the only decent questioning of Australian Politicians was on the BBC !

  4. FIrst time I have read every word of a Razer article and thought, “Helen didn’t over cook her argument”. I have to take exception at the final hypothesis “…he might look beyond the luxury atmosphere of liberalism and really give us news makers something to think about”

    I really doubt it. De Botton has spent a life time telling an ‘educated’ class of aspirational people the only way to deal with your materialist cravings is to refine your taste. It’s a puerile shell game and so many Architects, marketers, PR people, scientists I know fall for it. I find it frankly nauseating that a wealthy man can write a list of his favorite lear-jet interiors, palladian villas and pre-raphaelite nudes and tell the down trodden who didn’t go to Oxbridge, ‘you see, just liberate yourself by enjoying these delightful offerings you will never have a chance of owning/experiencing time with’. People I know with degrees in the Arts are much more impervious to this naive-baiting game. So perhaps a good liberal Arts education is worth something still these days after all.

    If he targets Chomsky as being a conspiracy theorist (as opposed to articulating conspiracy facts as reported in the daily news papers) in this latest book then he is as bad as the neo-liberals he pretends to be so concerned about the bad influences of.

    As a meditator I appreciate that agitation is not the path to peace, and if it’s the pursuit of happiness that matters peace is an important piece of that. But if that is all de Botton has to say on the pursuit of peace then he is less than useless.

  5. Good article Miss Razor, he does seem to be an other Limo-Leftie ‘feel-good’ fad with a bit of University cred behind him, as long as he doesn’t bring up Marxist revolution, everyone, remain smug!

  6. Reading de Bot malnourished.tom is like stuffing oneself on white sliced & fizzy pop – feel utterly bloated and completely

  7. Surprised at how sympathetic you are to Alain, Helen: this is not a good mind, let alone a very good one. Like you say, self help books for the posh, and about as well written and thought-out as any of the guff you’ll find in that aisle.

  8. Isn’t Botton’s whole intellectual thrust about living in a way that makes you happy? I wonder if not focusing on the structural, and always coming back to the individual instead, is the natural conclusion to his quest for happiness and personal fulfillment.

  9. Thanks Helen. Being a fan of Alain de Botton I was initially irritated by your report. How dare you write this? I was projecting all sorts of negative thoughts onto you in an ad hominem outburst. And then I thought . . . she is a journalist. . . what do other journalists say about News: A Users Manual? A quick look at the Amazon reviews showed that you are not alone. Another journalist had a similar response. Too much on the individual and not enough about the system. Now it maybe a reaction to Alain encroaching on your turf but in both reviews it didn’t come over that way.
    I have not read the book and I hesitate to go further but here is a thought. To what degree has Alain’s own extraordinary, and well deserved success, as an individual, shaped his views of the Power of One?
    Warmly Peter Rennie

    1. It does seem that Alain might be a bit critical of the ‘individual’ in the news media, which means that reviews by journalists may find it difficult to not be biased or defensive in their reviews. They may be totally right of course, but having not read it, it might be nice just to hear a review by someone, an academic perhaps, who is not in the news media just to hear what they have to say.

  10. Excellent critique of de Botton. I believe Brecht had de Botton in mind when he wrote ‘The Interrogation of the Good’:

    Step foward: we hear
    That you are a good man.
    You cannot be bought, but the lightning
    Which strikes the house, also
    Cannot be bought.
    You hold to what you said.
    But what did you say?
    You are honest, you say your opinion.
    Which opinion?
    You are brave.
    Against whom?
    You are wise.
    For whom?
    You do not consider personal advantages.
    Whose advantages do you consider then?
    You are a good friend
    Are you also a good friend of the good people?

    Hear us then: we know
    You are our enemy. This is why we shall
    Now put you in front of a wall.
    But in consideration of
    your merits and good qualities
    We shall put you in front of a good wall and shoot you
    With a good bullet from from a good gun and bury you
    With a good shovel in the good earth.

  11. I read de botton’s tweets everyday and enjoy the purpose he brings to bear. I felt he over stepped the mark when he suggested that the best way to deal with the conservative agendas and power (in Australia) of T Abbott and G Rhinehart was to like them and understand them and not have ill feelings towards them. It was an interesting option that I felt may gives us a new way to challenge the power and helplessness in the face of their economic, political and cultural power these people have and the destruction they wield. But after some thought I think all De Bottons suggestion achieved was to alleviate my troubling thoughts of the terrible nature of pwoer in Australia for a few hours. It was humourous and personal help but not good wisdom nor solve the issues of power.
    I will take up your very wise suggestion and send De Botton an essential reading list.


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