The naked Internet square

Mark Judge Journalist and filmmaker
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For the past several weeks, TBD.com, a new website covering Washington, D.C., has slowly been rolling itself out. The site is owned by Allbritton Communications, the creators of Polico.com and owners of several television stations. TBD.com is boasting that their “hyperlocal” coverage of the D.C. metro area will include cable station NewsChannel 8, ABC affiliate WJLA, and, most impressively, over 100 local blogging sites. As of this writing, there are 107 blogs on TBD.com.

Not a single one is about religion.

There are blogs about politics, blogs by health nuts, a dining blog (one of almost 20) called “Bitches who Brunch.” There are 20 sports blogs. There is a blog about a dog.

TBD.com claims it will cover Washington, D.C. The city is the home of the National Cathedral, The Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (the largest Catholic church in North America), a huge Jewish population, Muslims, Baptists, a large a growing Hindu population, Nation of Islam members, New Agers, Buddhists and scores of other believers. Yet TBD doesn’t have the space for a single blog about a single religion.

It would be difficult to imagine a better example of the bias, or at least the general fecklessness, of modern journalists. Even when presented with the seemingly infinite space of the Internet, and with millions of dollars in seed money from a powerful communications company, the backers and editors of TBD.com don’t have the space or interest for anything religious. The editors, having spent their lives in the airtight echo chamber of journalism, are like those breeding dogs who have never been outside. They can’t even conceive of the idea of grass. Religion simply does not interest them.

I am deliberately using the term religion instead of God. Many religious critics of the media rightly recognize the secularism and Christophobia in the press, but I think there is a deeper and more subtle point. In his landmark book “The Naked Public Square,” Richard John Neuhaus explored how the American public square – our courts, government institutions and media – have been scrubbed of any argument based on religion. This has impoverished our live because many arguments that have a foundation in religion also have a basis in human reason and natural law. In other words, they can appeal to the non-religious as well as the religious. The Civil Rights movement appealed to human reason and natural law as much as to God.

I also think that the secularization of the media has also led to dull writing. When the inherent drama that comes with living a life where things like virtue, holiness, the soul and hell are vital is ruled out of bounds, you are often left with writing that either reads like a taxonomists’ report or is brittle with the kind of smug, ironic hipness that has infected the media and that goes stale very quickly. To echo the theologian David Bentley Hart, I prefer a madman atheist like Nietzsche over a snarky lightweight like Rachel Maddow; Nietzsche, after all, appreciated the enormity of Christianity. In a perverse way he respected the colossal nature of the thing. And rather than cower and snark, he went to battle. That’s why he will be read when Rachel Maddow is forgotten. If she hasn’t been already.

I recently reread one of my favorite pieces of writing, the great critic Lester Gang’s 1971 review of Van Morrison’s masterpiece “Astral Weeks.” Here is how the piece begins:

Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks was released ten years, almost to the day, before this was written. It was particularly important to me because the fall of 1968 was such a terrible time: I was a physical and mental wreck, nerves shredded and ghosts and spiders looming and squatting across the mind. My social contacts had dwindled to almost none; the presence of other people made me nervous and paranoid. I spent endless days and nights sunk in an armchair in my bedroom, reading magazines, watching TV, listening to records, staring into space. I had no idea how to improve the situation and probably wouldn’t have done anything about it if I had.

Astral Weeks would be the subject of this piece – i.e., the rock record with the most significance in my life so far – no matter how I’d been feeling when it came out. But in the condition I was in, it assumed at the time the quality of a beacon, a light on the far shores of the murk; what’s more, it was proof that there was something left to express artistically besides nihilism and destruction. (My other big record of the day was White Light/White Heat.) It sounded like the man who made Astral Weeks was in terrible pain, pain most of Van Morrison’s previous works had only suggested; but like the later albums by the Velvet Underground, there was a redemptive element in the blackness, ultimate compassion for the suffering of others, and a swath of pure beauty and mystical awe that cut right through the heart of the work.

How fresh this reads, how deeply spiritual and human, almost 40 years later. Compare it to Leah Greenblatt’s review of Arcade Fire’s new album in this week’s Entertainment Weekly:

A decade or three ago, Arcade Fire probably wouldn’t have needed the ”indie” appellation; they’d just be rock. Today, the grand, earnest Canadian collective is almost old-fashioned in its commitment to dense and deeply felt albums, the kind of passion projects that defy easy digestion but ultimately yield rich rewards. (Hence, perhaps, the professed Arcade fandom of names like Bono, David Bowie, and Peter Gabriel.)

The band certainly aims for transcendence on The Suburbs — a work of impressively fervent majesty, even if nothing here moves them forward substantially from their enthralling 2004 debut, Funeral, and darker 2007 follow-up, Neon Bible. Frontman Win Butler continues to toggle between near-messianic uplift and flat-out despair, hurtling giddily through ”Empty Room” with wife/bandmate Régine Chassagne one moment, bemoaning the diminished state of ”Modern Man” over a loping Tom Petty riff the next. As on Funeral, the band returns again and again to certain themes – childhood, alienation, the titular suburbs.

With  “a work of impressively fervent majesty” that addresses childhood, alienation and the suburbs, you’d think that Greenblatt would venture out a little from her rock critic thicket of dry abstraction and taxonomy. This is a band that has aimed for transcendence. Can Greenblatt let go a little bit? There are 500 million computers in the world. You can say anything you want. Venture out into the deep.

How strange it is that with the Internet and freedoms unimagined even a decade ago, the liberal media remains largely gutless. When I heard that Newsweek magazine was up for sale, I thought about the great British magazine Melody Maker, which was creatively sputtering in the early 1980s. A young writer named Allan Jones wrote a letter which said, in part, “Melody Maker needs a bullet up its arse. I’m the gun – pull the trigger.” The publisher of Melody Maker had the guts to hire Jones, who became editor and gave the magazine a 15-year run that is still one of the high water marks of music journalism. Sadly, Newsweek’s new owner is 91 years old and has promised to make no changes.

Despite the ever-expanding megabyte universe of the web, mainstream journalism and criticism lacks freedom, creativity. But perhaps it’s not a matter of casting into the new deep as much as it is just returning to a time when editors and publishers had nerve – and humor.  Am I the only one who thinks it strange and telling that H.L. Mencken’s writing form the early 20th century is fresher and funnier, and offers deeper insight into humanity, than what E.J. Dionne wrote three hours ago? Or who finds issues of Melody Maker from twenty years ago more gripping than this week’s Rolling Stone? Or who would rather read Richard John Neuhaus, who died several years ago, than TBD.com? The new site, with its 107 blogs, reminds me of the old joke about the specialist: someone who knows more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing.

Mark Gauvreau Judge is the author of several books, including “Damn Senators,” “God and Man at Georgetown Prep,” and most recently, “A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.” His articles and essays have appeared in various publications.