Newspeak in Movementland

Mother Jones a new monthly magazine available at the Square newstands; $1

ONE OF THE BEST parts of 1984 comes when Winston Smith talks about his country's history, how Big Brother is constantly changing who the country's allies are and how the war is progressing. The hero tells himself he can't decide what the history is, he'd better wait until the afternoon news broadcast to find out. Orwell's point in 1984, that a government can keep shifting the terms of its existence, not only historical but linguistic--in Newspeak euphemisms--is an important point and one often stressed by critics of the present U.S. government, who are, for the most part, right. But it's not the kind of criticism one bandies about on "The Left" or within "The Movement."

Mother Jones, or, in its own definition, "A Magazine for the Rest of Us," is as it stands now, a magazine largely for Movement people. It's for people like Richard Parker, who claims behind the packaged Newspeak of the magazine's soliciting letter that he's interested in "a politics as if people mattered," that after learning "How I relate to people," he writes that he's tired of the society he lives in, and "can't honestly support it." Mother Jones, in short, is the Time magazine of "The Movement" or "The Left" or whatever it is people call themselves to avoid committing themselves to hard questions of ideology and belief.

It's hard to criticize Mother Jones for this, because it's at least a little more intelligent than Time and it offers news judgment in its articles like this:

Quick, what's the big trial of national significance going on in San Francisco? Patty Hearst, right? Guess again. While reporters from across the nation swarm all over the heiress's family, friends, lawyers and psychiatrists, five black and Latino men sit chained and padlocked to their chairs in the Marin County Courthouse just 15 miles away . . . They have become known as the San Quentin Six.

Whether the trial is more significant or not, the article attempts at least to argue the case for some perspective in news-judgment the writer seeks a more balanced view of all that is happening in the U.S. legal system at any one time, not what the latest hot news is. And in this way, it's fighting the kind of judgment reflected in CBS, which, on an off-day in the Hearst trial, broadcast no news of the San Quentin Six, but a feature story on the many green plants in the government offices beneath the Hearst trial courtroom.


In the first two issues of Mother Jones there are a couple of good articles.

An investigative article in the premier February/March issue on nuclear power plants by Paul Jacobs turns up some interesting material on the problems in nuclear power plant engineering, in foreign countries that U.S. construction firms suppress. There's also a two-part series on so-called "radical activism" in America by Bo Burlingham that not only outlines some of the strong points of the kind of journalism Mother Jones proffers, but underlines its weaknesses as well.

Burlingham's article, "They've All Gone to Look for America," attempts to find out what activists are doing today. Burlingham's thesis is stated between the lines: "I had heard from other friends that changes were taking place in America." He then goes on to document some of these changes in a somewhat thorough manner. He shows how Arkansas Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), for instance, is working on a community basis to get utility rates lowered. But Burlingham's emphasis is strange. "Politics as if people mattered" turns out to be how picking the utility rates issue was "fortuitous for the organization [ACORN]," how other so-called radical organizations are involving, more activists "because it worked . . . they have a common vision . . . they must show results." Burlingham's biases are usually stated, which is generally true of Mother Jones articles, but the advocacy journalism sometimes hides other biases. For example, Burlingham says some people view the utility rates drive in Arkansas as "one step toward public ownership and control of the power industry." In the very next line, the writer interrupts his narrative--the first-person traumatic journalist angle is a constant problem with the magazine--to say, "(I do not mean to suggest, however, that their real purpose in promoting lifeline is to take over the utilities. The issue's popularity reflects the situations of the groups which have adopted it. Most are large organizations. Several have annual budgets in six figures, and hundreds, or even thousands, of members who are looking for more than the pie in the sky. To survive and grow they must show results.)" What Burlingham seems to be saying is that only bureaucratic self-perpetuation is keeping people involved in the utility rates issue. Some people involved probably are interested in taking over the utilities; but Burlingham implies none are because that's his bias; he doesn't want to say that anybody has an ideology that might offend the liberal consciences of the Mother Jones readership.

"Radical" in fact simply means being concerned about ecology, day care systems, more public transit and all of the other issues of reform that should've been dealt with five years ago. Ideology, according to Burlingham is no longer as important as a "shift from a politics of protest to a creative--and increasingly effective--brand of positive action."

This basic political bias is what Mother Jones will probably be offering in its articles in the future. What's effective, what will coalesce into a new majority of slow reform based not on what people envision, but what they can work out in a compromise with unstated beliefs working beneath their packaged statements. Mother Jones has lots of reprint though, a T.V. Quiz from The Real Paper, and what "some of the wisdom of the American working class" says about "which clothes to buy" from San Francisco's City magazine.

Mother Jones, by the way, was Mary Harris Jones, who was an organizer, "starting unions, running strikes, fighting for prison reform, helping found the IWW, supporting the Mexican Revolution, and even sending weeks at a time in prison, a victim of the now-forgotten American class war." She called herself a "Hellraiser," according to Mother Jones. But she didn't seem to hold any beliefs.