Jewish World Review April 12, 2006 / 14 Nissan, 5766

Paul Greenberg

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Mindstream | LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — It was another one of those panel discussions in which the press and politicians try to explain their respective roles to some nice civic group. I'm not sure which was the dreariest aspect of this one. It was probably how few responses we managed to elicit from the audience. Which was understandable, since both journos and pols tend to monopolize any conversation we're in.

Early on, I realized my mind was wandering — while I was talking. Things have gotten pretty bad when you start boring yourself. I kept hearing a line from "2001: A Space Odyssey" in the back of my mind, as I often do these surreal days: Dave, my mind is going, I can feel it.

That was HAL, the berserk computer, speaking. Of the few characters in the movie, he's just about my favorite. Maybe because he seemed the most human, certainly compared to the robotic astronauts, although the apes in the early scenes run a close second in the humanness department.

The most impressive thing about this particular panel, I thought, was my fellow panelists' ability to maintain so avid an interest in their own ideas. Maybe that's because the subtext of each speaker in these discussions is so familiar:

How I Was Right All Along About All the Great Issues I've Ever Been Involved In.

Or, alternatively, How Much I've Learned and Can Now Teach You.

Despite our outward and appropriately adversarial relationship, both pols and pundits tend to play variations on the same theme at these guest appearances:

How Great We Art.

I woke up from my self-induced reverie when question-and-comment time came, and one of the bolder, or maybe just more innocent, members of the audience wanted to know how he could control the press.

It seems that every time he tried to use the media to get a message across, we screwed up and didn't report the news his way.

It's the same question even the most sophisticated types in politics and public relations, those deeply intertwined arts and low crafts, ask themselves. They may just be too cagey to put it as openly and honestly as our questioner had.

Indeed, the politician on the panel had just a moment before spoken about the do's and don'ts of using the press. Because, he explained, the press is very important, and without our cooperation, great issues won't be resolved the right way.

Just what we need to be told, I thought to myself , how powerful we are. As if we don't already have an exaggerated idea of our own importance.

But what I said was: Forget about trying to control the press. It can't and shouldn't be done in a free country, much as all of us would like to from time to time, especially when we're in the news. Or one of our favorite ideas or projects is.

My advice: Forget about three things when it comes to the care and feeding of public opinion:

Using the press.

Controlling the press.

And achieving permanent solutions to great issues. It seems the politician on the panel had just expressed the devout wish that the state legislature could resolve the latest crisis in this state over public education — so its members could move on to more serious and interesting legislative business.

But when this current crisis over what to do about public education in Arkansas passes, surely there'll be another. And another one after that. The debate will go on for as long as we're interested in how to educate the next generation. And if we ever lose interest in that subject, convinced we have achieved perfection, we can write Finis to the whole human enterprise.

A deadening uniformity of ideas in a society is a sure sign they're the wrong ideas. It takes a particularly learned dolt to argue that history has ended. That such a thesis could have been taken seriously for a time in the scholarly journals only demonstrates how easily We the People are taken in by all the intellectual jive out there.

Control? Using others? Permanent solutions? Fuggedaboutit. This country is much too alive to make such ambitions realistic. Or desirable.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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