They are “servants to political power,” courtiers, in truth. By “defending the royal court and attacking anyone who challenges or dissents from it,” they do “what courtiers have always done.” Glenn Greenwald has made the same characterization before, as have others. I hardly dispute the term. The Washington media establishment are courtiers, and as courtiers they are, in Chris Hedges’s words, “hedonists of power” who “feed off the scraps tossed to them by the powerful and serve the interests of the power elite.” No doubt they are watchdogs of a sort, but they are watchdogs for power, not “adversarial watchdogs” over it. They stand vigilant to attack as an enemy anyone who would upset their tidy and cozy company town. “That’s how they maintain their status and access within” their court. “That’s what courtiers to power, by definition, do.”
If there is any fault in these characterizations, it derives from a blending of court and king that conflates the interest of the king and courtier. Courtiers are institutionalists, not devotees of powerful individuals. If they serve and defend the powerful, this is not because they are committed to any persons in power, but because they are committed to their courtly life in the place of power. Serving the king is one possible ancillary effect, not their determinate cause. Polonius lived to prate matterless art for the father and the uncle, just as he would have done, had he not been slain, for the son or Fortinbras.
One cannot quite define a courtier as someone that serves those in power, though often they do. A courtier’s essential interests are the maintenance of both courtly life and their position in that life. They care neither who is in charge, nor what is done, provided that the court continues to afford them a secure and comfortable home. The king does not throw them scraps; he is not their benefactor. Rather, the king is their host, though they are not his guests. Courtiers are less “hedonists of power” than parasites of power. Sometimes the courtier must serve the king, and sometimes he must simply remain tolerated. In any case, the courtier must appear — even be — genial, benign and innocuous. He is obliged to parrot the commonplaces of accepted wisdom, and to incline toward pleasantries and the pretenses of conciliation. The courtier is by necessity and practice unctuous, shallow and trivial.
There is, however, one definite circumstance when the independent interest of the courtier will assert itself within the court. The watchdog for the court will become an adversarial watchdog the instant the conduct of the powerful imperils either the court itself or the courtier’s agreeable life within it.