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Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Better to Have Enemies Than Friends

Having been a subscriber to The New Republic (TNR) for many years, I recently received an appeal for a donation to “help support TNR’s award-winning independent journalism.”

The letter, marked “URGENT” in boldfaced capital letters, sounded a familiar tone when it stressed that under President Donald Trump’s administration, “We’re facing the most dangerous challenges to our democracy in history.”

To my surprise, however, the letter went on to stress that TNR is waging a lonely battle: “As the velocity of insults against our democracy continues to accelerate, TNR is doubling down on our mission to report what the mainstream media won’t tell us.” My donation, I was informed, would give TNR’s journalists “the power to uncover the real news behind the fog of lies, evasion and spin that passes for journalism in the corporate media.”

The same day I received TNR’s warning of the deceptive evils of “corporate media” journalism and its cover-up of Trump and his administration, a front-page story in the Los Angeles Times was headlined “Trump’s Plan of Attack: Distract, Deceive.” The sub-headline was “White House steps up its campaign of disinformation about perceived enemies and COVID response.”

The Los Angeles Times certainly is “mainstream” and “corporate media.” So are The Economist and The Wall Street Journal, to which I also subscribe. None of these publications seems to be pulling its punches with respect to the present administration. Nor do The New York Times or The Washington Post. TNR didn’t identify the “real news” about the Trump administration that these various outlets of mainstream corporate media were hiding.

So I began to wonder why TNR was making its appeal in these alarmist and obviously groundless terms. I wasn’t surprised by TNR’s attack on Trump as the embodiment of evil. But why this identification of a new enemy: all other mainstream media? Why not just extol its own journalism? 

Why is identifying a common enemy so effective in gathering support?

TNR, of course, is not alone. Identifying an enemy — even an improbable one — is far more likely to be an effective organizing — or in TNR’s case, promotional — tool than aligning oneself with friends. As professors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt write in their 2018 book, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” expanded from their 2015 essay of the same name in The Atlantic, Americans “take part in political action not by love for their party’s candidate but by hatred of the other party’s candidate …. Please tell me something horrible about the other side, I’ll believe anything.”

That’s what TNR seems to be counting on. As Jews, we also are guilty of this, finding our unity best when fighting against anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism, and least in attempting dialogue and cooperation between our various brands of Judaism.

Why is identifying a common enemy so effective in gathering support?

It would appear the human mind is hardwired to be tribal, a necessity from our earliest history. Tribes have always fought over resources. Once, that meant fertile land; today, in America, it primarily means the distribution of economic resources and benefits.

But whatever the tribe is gathered around — whether land, resources, religion — if the “other” appears to be the same as you, with the same needs and aspirations, it is harder to maintain a fighting spirit. And so the “other” must be deprived of positive qualities, and life becomes a battle between good people and evil people. That’s why enemies are better than friends. Hitler knew this; he had the Jews. Stalin knew it; he had the capitalists and the kulaks. TNR knows it; it now has a new enemy — competing media — all of which, without exception, are purveyors of lies and distortions against which TNR does a lonely battle that requires us to send it money lest evil prevail.

Our best response is to reject this dichotomy. While there is evil, we should not confuse it with honest disagreement. We should not be so easily manipulated by a willingness to believe anything and everything “horrible about the other side.” Although TNR’s fundraising might be a little less successful, we and our political lives would be better for the effort.


Gregory Smith is an appellate attorney practicing in Century City.

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