This week, as I looked forward to the launch of Entanglements, I happened to be reading selections from the Spectator of Addison and Steele. One of the eighteenth-century stock characters lampooned in its pages is “the greatest newsmonger of our quarter,” an upholsterer whose business goes to ruin because of his obsession with world affairs: “I found … that he rose before Day to read the Post-Man; and that he would take Two or Three Turns to the End of the Town before his Neighbours were up, to see if there were any Dutch Mails come in.” Joseph Addison depicted the sorry end of such a news addict: “though his Wife and Children were starving, I found his chief Concern at present was for” the King of Sweden: “pray, says he, do you think there is any Thing in the Story of his Wound?”
Coming across this passage felt like a warning. Who can doubt that, if he were alive today, this poor man would be a great reader of websites. Instead of going to the docks to see if any mail had come from Holland, he would just have to click refresh—and he would, of course, have Entanglements bookmarked. Addison was himself an MP in 1710, when he wrote this essay, and was deeply interested in the state of European politics; in fact, some issues of the Spectator are devoted to exactly the kind of news bulletin he mocks here. Clearly, he knew that keeping up on the news seldom led to actual penury. But he nevertheless raises a good question: what is it, exactly, that makes us so urgently interested in the affairs of leaders and nations we don’t know, will never see, and certainly have no power over? Since most news of the world is news of war, aggression, and disaster, wouldn’t we actually be happier not knowing about it?
The Spectator essay offers two answers. One is that, already three hundred years ago, the average citizen’s personal fate was connected, in some hard to measure but substantial way, with world events. The King of Sweden who fascinated Addison’s newsmonger was Charles XII, who was then fighting a war against Russia, Poland, and Denmark. Within a few years, George I, King of England, would be drawn into the war in his capacity as Elector of Hanover, and English soldiers and taxes would be committed to fighting Sweden. This is a dynamic with which Americans, as citizens of a 21st-century Great Power, are quite familiar: It is impossible to say which of the world’s wars and warlords will turn into our concern tomorrow. The anxiety caused by having to stay abreast of what is happening in the world is homeopathic for the still greater anxiety of knowing that one’s own fate, and one’s country’s, is so unpredictable. Who would have thought, on September 10, 2001, that the intricacies of Pashtun politics and Shiite theology would soon become life-or-death matters for Americans?
This vulnerability is only part of the story, however. There is also the irresistible tendency in human nature towards partisanship: It is impossible to hear about a conflict, no matter how distant or complex, without wondering who to sympathize with. An obscure but unsilenceable instinct makes us always want to be on the right side. This instinct is the beginning of morality in foreign policy, but it can also be the beginning of moralizing, which obscures and distorts reality. Recently, the Guardian website devoted its top headline to an “exclusive” about the publication of a scholarly book documenting that Israel, thirty-five years ago, discussed sharing nuclear technology with South Africa, but didn’t. The news value was practically nil, but the story fed into the current English conception of Israeli wickedness—it confirmed the reader’s sense that he was rooting for (or against) the right side in the Middle East. Often (and not, of course, just in England), following the news actually makes it harder to see things as they really are—a problem that was already evident three hundred years ago, when Addison compared newspaper-readers to Don Quixote, that addict of romances: “What I am now warning the People of is, That the News-Papers of this Island are as pernicious to weak heads in England as ever Books of Chivalry to Spain.”
Adam Kirsch is a senior editor of The New Republic.