Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Fox News Brouhaha and the Tower of Babel Story

The brouhaha this week over the White House's attempt to marginalize or boycott the Fox News network has elicited strong criticisms from right-wing commentators, among them the Washington Post's Charles Krauthammer.

When White House spokeswoman Anita Dunn claimed that Fox is "opinion journalism masquerading as news" and tried to boycott them by preventing Ken Feinberg, the executive pay czar, from giving interviews on Fox, she acted wrongly. The Biblical story of the Tower of Babel, read in this week's parasha Noah, illustrates why her approach is a grave mistake.

In the Tower of Babel episode, the Torah recounts the story of the people who angered God by congregating and building a tower with its top in the sky. It opens with the following verse:

And the whole earth was of one language and of one speech.
Genesis 11:1

The Torah then describes how the people settled in the valley of Shinar and built a city and a tower with its top in the sky "to make a name for ourselves, else we shall be scattered all over the world." God descends, views the tower they had built, and states:

If, as one people and one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach. Id. 11:5
Accordingly, God confounded their language, and decreed that there shall be separate languages, causing confusion and conflict which would prevent them from ever congregating again. In addition, He scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

Why was building the tower a sin?

At first glance, it seems the tower builders committed a sin and God punished them for it. The Biblical text, however, does not specify what was the tower builders' sin. Furthermore, it is not clear what motivated God to confound their languages and disperse them in all directions. In the absence of a clear Scriptural reasoning, the commentators struggled to explain God's actions. While reading the story, one cannot escape the burning question: What is wrong with the desire to seek technological innovations and celebrate human ingenuity?

A midrash - rabbinic legend - attempts to answer this quandry by relating that the people paid no attention if a worker on the tower fell to his death. If a brick fell, however, they lamented the delay in their building project. The obsession to achieve a technological feat caused the people to lose their moral bearings, and treat human life - particularly the lives of menial, day-laborers - as insignificant. Under this interpretation, it's a story of people becoming enamored with improving technology and conquering their environment that human values are lost. This lesson is relevant today as much as - if not more than - it was thousands of years ago.

But this story may be significant not because of the attempt to construct a tower. Perhaps, the original sin refers back to what is stated at the opening of this story, that "the whole earth was of one language and of one speech." It appears that the root of the sin of this generation was not the building of a city or tower, but the aim to use these artificial means to ensure a situation of "one language and one speech" - of centralization, which in modern parlance would be known as totalitarianism.

Many naive people believe that we should strive for a situation of one language and the same ideas - where everyone subscribes to the same ideas. They envision the following ideal situation: all of humanity a single bloc, without differentiation, and as a result, without conflicts. But this story tells us that this situation is, in reality, a grave threat: there is nothing more dangerous to society than this artificial conformism. The city and the tower in this story are the symbols of the concentration of all mankind about a single topic -- where there will be no differences of opinion and there will be no struggle over different viewpoints and values. One cannot imagine greater tyranny than that.

God's decree to separate the languages and disperse the people is, thus, a compassionate act for mankind, aimed at preventing totalitarianism of complete unity. This act ensured that society is blessed with differences and contrasts, differentiation of thought and differentiation of values. It is essential for humanity that people have to struggle for their values and for their goals which differ one from the other.

In the same fashion, the current culture war between right and left in this country is a blessing. It is part and parcel of a thriving and healthy public debate that needs to exist in a democracy. Fox Network is a vital component - like it or not - in this battle for ideas and values. It is not the government's role to meddle in this culture and policy war and start boycotting news networks, attempting to create unity and conformity. As in the Tower of Babel story, such a policy makes one wonder whether the government has caught a whiff of totalitarianism.

It's up to the citizenry to select and grade their media outlets. If certain media organizations are guilty of biased and slanted reporting, the citizens have the option, perhaps even the duty, to boycott them. The government must not intervene and should not leverage its power to delegitimize or impose sanctions on certain news organization, lest it be accused of dangerous centralization of power and stifling of criticism. Leave it to the public to realize that, like in everything in life, there's quality journalism and there's sensational and hysterical journalism. We are mature enough to select what we read and view from a multitude of media sources that must be allowed to compete in the proverbial "marketplace of ideas."

JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh
Midrash Breishit Rabbah
Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Accepting the Yoke of Heaven, Urim Publications 2002