You’ve heard this one a million times before: when your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
As an observation on obstacles and how we confront them, it’s a two-penny insight. But it cuts deeper. What we like to think of as our store of worldly wisdom might be no more than a bag of reflexes based on intriguing scraps of learning collected as we reached the age of reason. We think of these as proprietary insights even if they aren’t, and apply them to every quandary whether or not we ought to.
For instance, back in college I took a course from John G. Neihardt, who happened to be the poet laureate of Nebraska though he no longer lived in that state. It might have been listed as a history course; it might have been literature—I don’t remember. What it consisted of was Neihardt, who was in his 80s, reading—on closed-circuit TV—from his cycle of epic poems on the shaping of the American west. The two poems we studied were The Song of the Indian Wars and the one about the aftermath of those wars, The Song of the Messiah. The wars were dramatic—Crazy Horse and company—and the aftermath was tragic.
The defeat of the Sioux led to the ghost dance movement, a belief among the despairing losers that new rituals rooted in ancient traditions would rouse the spirits of the dead to join the living, turn back the white settlers occupying the tribal lands, and restore prosperity and peace. Despite the flush of new hope, what these rituals led to was white perplexity, then fear, and in 1890 the slaughter at Wounded Knee.
Whenever someone gets excited about making matters better by turning back the clock I think of The Song of the Messiah.
The other day I wrote a Bleader post on Tribune writers taking buyouts. Times are tough at the Tribune, where no one’s had a pay raise in five years and top talent is bailing out. At the bottom of my piece, readers had their say, and these comments regurgitated a familiar debate. “It’s a sad thing to watch [journalism] die off like this,” someone wrote. “And it’s the Internet that’s killing it.” That’s not exactly true, said the next comment: “It’s not simply the internet’ that has been killing journalism. It has been journalism’s resistance to change that has caused the problems.”
“Good Lord, how sad . . .” said the next reader.
Then the conversation took a turn. “Am I off base suggesting that newspapers stick to print?” someone formerly of the Tribune suggested. He saw advantages in going back to the old ways and he said what they are: “the superiority of print as a reading medium”; its “exclusiveness,” which some advertisers might value; its ability to provide readers with “a calm and uniquely authoritative daily harbor apart from the ceaseless digital crap storm.”
Alan Solomon, also formerly of the Tribune, responded “I heartily agree,” and offered a seven-point plan to put print-only daily journalism back on its feet. “Be prepared to lose millions early,” he advised. But after two decades of desperate investment in digital, Solomon said, newspapers “not only have come up empty but, in most cases, have hastened print’s obsolescence.” He wondered, “Why not redirect all that effort and money in producing a publication that, once again, compels folks to pay attention and pony up?”
The next person to comment was a nonjournalist who spends ample time online yet professed that holding a newspaper in his hands is “the only way I feel I can know what’s happening in the world. . . As newspapers fade out, so will our freedom, I’m convinced.”
I read these hopeful propositions. I got excited. And I thought of The Song of the Messiah.
Is this wisdom or an intellectual impediment of the first order? Do I stare blindly at a sun-spangled future because I once read a long poem about delusion and death? Maybe what newspapers really need to do to stay alive is open casinos.