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I’m Procrastinating

Talking Points Memo Café

Procrastination or Journalism: Is There a Difference?

By Jim Sleeper – February 7, 2009

I’m procrastinating. I’m procrastinating so badly that yesterday I read Samuel Johnson’s essay on procrastination in the June 29, 1751 edition of The Rambler. That leaves many more essays on this important problem to read as I gather strength and resolution for the greater work I intend to complete.

I certainly can’t afford not to complete it. As I read the many richly-informed posts here at TPM, I am reminded that our desperate world can’t afford my procrastination, either.

Yet even the great Johnson procrastinated. He even postponed completing his sentences so often that sometimes they made him sound like the German professor who was so old that he died before he got to the verb:

“Though to a writer whose design is so comprehensive and miscellaneous that he may accommodate himself with a topic from every scene of life, or view of nature, it is no great aggravation of his task to be obliged to a sudden composition, yet I could not forbear to reproach myself for having so long neglected what was unavoidably to be done, and of which every moment’s idleness increased the difficulty.”

So writes Johnson. At least, I think that it’s writing. I’ve been told on good authority that it is. But maybe Johnson is only trying and failing to say that while his wide-ranging interests should make it easy to pick a topic for his next column, he likes dithering too much to decide.

There, you see? I can complete great work if I have to. Then again, isn’t each of my own columns itself a kind of dithering, or a simulation of bold action on some distant and therefore seemingly manageable problem, rather than a determined advance on a real one? Instead of slaying dragons, I seem to be slaying earthworms (David Brooks, for example).

You might ask me which of the world’s great villains or looming disasters is the dragon I intend to slay. I forbear to answer the question. Before I strike at the monster, I’d better have done the careful, painful preparation required to land a fatal blow. I’m working on it, as you can see.

Do be patient. Think of all the things you pretend to have done but haven’t. For example, you pretend you’ve read certain books when actually you’ve read only the reviews (such as mine, coming in Monday’s Commonweal magazine, of Ross Douthat’s and Reihan Salam’s Grand New Party) or the discussions in TPM’s Book Club.

Now, there are also certain things you’ve read but pretend that you haven’t — my columns, for instance! But that’s not procrastination on your part; it’s perversity, surely a separate and important subject in its own right. Silence such as yours is the reason the late Texas iconoclast Molly Ivins entitled a collection of her columns Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She? She knew that most journalists are afraid even to name the dragons she took on.

I suppose that that’s partly because journalists believe that curiosity and judgment run in one direction only — from them to others, not the other way ’round. Their inability to reciprocate is part of the reason they became journalists in the first place: Behind all the excitement, they’re hiding, even from themselves.So they’re procrastinating, too, even in all their busyness.

George Orwell encountered precisely this journalistic hypocrisy when he tried to tell the whole truth about the Spanish Civil War, only to find his writing suppressed or studiously ignored and his motives as a writer questioned by editors and journalists who never questioned their own motives. I myself get questions from such people from time to time – just last Thursday, in fact.

But don’t mind me. In the dark London spring of 1944, Orwell was having an eerily difficult time finding an established publisher for Animal Farm, whose Swiftian send-up of Stalin, Britain’s ally against Hitler, frightened British book publishers out of their wits. Although he was himself a man of the left, Orwell even had to suspend his column in the Tribune because, as he told a friend, its Labourite editor “was terrified there might be a row over Animal Farm which might have been embarrassing [to the Labour Party].” The Manchester Evening News rejected a review by Orwell faulting Harold Laski’s Faith, Reason and Civilization for its blindness to Stalin’s “purges, liquidations, the dictatorship of the minority [and] suppression of criticism.”

The gatekeepers weren’t exactly in thrall to Stalinism, but they were certainly paralyzed by a kind of cowardice toward it that puzzled Orwell. He probed it in “The Freedom of the Press,” a preface he wrote for Animal Farm as he contemplated publishing the book privately, with subventions from friends.

In his preface, as I’ve recounted more thoroughly elsewhere, Orwell sketched the weakness he sensed in editors and reporters all around him and traced the balance he was trying to maintain. Yet he withheld his preface from publication when the manuscript of Animal Farm was accepted at last by a publisher well-enough established to allay his fears that the book would sink into oblivion, as had his Homage to Catalonia, on the Spanish civil war.

Orwell’s preface didn’t see daylight until 1972, when his biographer, Bernard Crick, found it among the papers of Orwell’s publisher. Its best-known sentence is a declaration any dissenter might utter: “If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

Why would publishers and editors, who claim to prize liberty, so often deny a hearing even to reasonable, well-presented views like Orwell’s? He wrote that they “exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print it… not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion. In this country intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face.

“The sinister fact about literary censorship… is that it is largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban… because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact…. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other but it is ‘not done’ to say it …. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing…..”

That’s even more true of opinions about editors and reporters themselves! Seven times in this preface he never published, Orwell accused them of “sheer cowardice,” of harboring “a cowardly desire to keep in with the bulk of the intelligentsia,” of “timidity,” and of “servility” to conventional wisdom. To which I’ll add that that’s true even when they’re trying to appear brave in reinforcing the conventional wisdom itself, as Brooks, Fox News, and a few too many contributors to the New Republic have done in feignedly unconventional attacks on real truth-tellers and dissenters.

Orwell likened such journalists to “circus dogs” who jump when no whip is cracked, and he told the “leftwing journalists and intellectuals” of his time what he ‘d surely tell neo-conservative and liberal war hawks in our own: “Do remember that dishonesty and cowardice always have to be paid for…. Once a whore, always a whore.”

But that’s not really what worries me now. Once a procrastinator, always a procrastinator; that’s my problem. I’d better get back to work. Surely someone will be brave enough to publish it once I’ve completed it.

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I thank Prof. Allan Silver of Columbia for sending me Samuel Johnson’s essay.