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.