Sunday, January 15, 2012

800 Words: Where To Go From Here Pt. I

I. The Canned Outrage of Andrew Sullivan

Andrew Sullivan likes to say that the great strength of blogging is the impermanence of thought it requires. On blogs, thoughts and facts are reinterpreted every day, and constantly reinterpreted through a process of merciless criticism - both from others and from oneself. To his thinking, blogs are the best catalogue of which we humans have yet thought to record what we feel at any moment. That way, when enough ephemeral moments go recorded, a composite picture of lasting truth comes into focus. To be a good blogger, at least according to the Sullivan worldview, would require a process of merciless introspection simultaneously to possessing an endless reservoir of self-righteousness. It requires a blogger to have a desire to seek out his/her own faults as burning as it is to find fault in others. It requires a rare combination of theorist and streetfighter who views ideas as something to be debated rather than developed. It requires a limitless vitality that enables the writer to be constantly confident, even if (s)he knows that what appears 100% true at the moment might be 100% false in an hour. It requires the ability to post an endless series of speculations that might seem ridiculous, pretentious, and downright offensive within a few minutes, and to do so without shame.

From the moment I started reading Sullivan’s blog, I had two reactions to it:
1. What an idiot.
2. Sign me the f-ck up.

Now let’s be clear, in his way Andrew Sullivan is nothing short of a genius. This is the person who invented blogging as we currently know it. But like many geniuses, he also is yet another in the world’s endless variety of brilliant idiots. As a political thinker, Sullivan was always second-rate; he’s never found an extreme he couldn’t endorse at some point, yet he never seems to arrive at that extreme a second before conventional wisdom blows there first. In 2002 he was lock-step with the Bush administration, by 2009 he was lock-step with the Obamas, yet in both years he found himself in the exact mainstream of the ‘zeitgeist.’ Whether the issue was gay marriage, health care, or torture, he’s always had an uncanny ability to wait until the most risk-free moment to endorse a principled stand, yet he’s still lauded as courageous in each instance. You simply can’t change opinions so quickly on so many issues as Sullivan has without either being a toady to figures of authority, which he criticizes far too often to ever be considered; or having a screw loose, which he clearly does.

I’m hard on Sullivan, yet over the same seven years, I had a similarly screwy leftward journey. Mine was milder, yet it was still weirder than his. I arrived in college just in time for 9/11: upon leaving high school I considered myself a lock-step leftist, yet within fourteen months of college I’d convinced myself that the Iraq War was absolutely necessary, that the Israeli Palestinian conflict could never be solved by negotiation, and that the Iraqi Invasion was simply a necessary first layover in a larger plan to reconstruct the Middle East according to a more Western image. It wasn’t until late 2006 in which I came to realize that only a lunatic could believe all of this. Believe it or not, I still considered myself left-of-center all the way through these years, and I still think I was correct to do so. But if I was, what was I but just another delusional leftist who had dreams far too big of what the world can achieve? Whether the dream is a social democracy or a worker’s paradise, it can never be done without lots of means that some people are going to consider imperialist. In order to make an omlette...

Perhaps this thinking is exactly as crazy as it probably seems to most people who read this. But then again, I’m not claiming to be a great thinker. I’m not held to as high a standard as Andrew Sullivan, nor should I be. Andrew Sullivan is an extremely successful person, and therefore is obbligated to be held to a higher standard. So far, I’m a failure as a musician, writer, actor, journalist, music critic, international affairs student, and tipper. In the six months I’ve done these 800-Word things, I’m read by 50 people on a good day. Not a single entry of mine ever got more than 216 pageviews, and that was for a playlist. I know that my thinking is second-rate at best. If there were ever any points in my life in which I had delusions of being smarter than I am, life showed me otherwise far too many times to not accept it. I know my track record, so I have no doubt I’ll entertain such delusions again in the not-too-distant future, and if there is one thing about life in which I retain no doubt, it is that life will put my hubris in place just as it always has.

And therein lies the problem for today’s bloggers. There is still no mechanism to punish hubris like mine. Just because the internet lets me state anything with complete certainty does not mean that I should. And yet I often do. And once a piece of false information is committed to print, it cannot be rescinded - some people will think it's true, and will not be around to read the (hopefully) inevitable self-correction that follows. One day, a famous blogger will get sued for something (s)he wrote, and that will change blogging forever.

But for the moment, the blogging world we know is in many ways a world of whomever has the audacity to commit the most flagrant misinformation to print. Sometimes the medium becomes your message, and the inflammatory invariably rises above the well-considered. And because of that, there is something about the flat simplicity about the world as Sullivan would have us blog it that can never allow for the truly composite picture which blogs are supposed to capture. Where is the room in this for doubt? If you read a blog, how often do you read “I wonder if...” or “I still can’t make up my mind...”? Surely, statements of that nature can be found anywhere in a place as large as the internets, but you and I both know the awful truth....:

Nuance is either on blogs we don’t read, or in the posts we skip over. In order to be read by a wide public while thinking out loud, bloggers require an absolute surety of conviction that their first thoughts are worth preserving. And these thoughts have to be uncomplicated enough that people can read them in far less time than it takes to read an essay. Whatever the subject, how else can you articulate a coherent view of it in less than 500 words? Many bloggers would rebut that they allow for nuance by hyperlinking to other sources. But even if we allow for the possibility that these hyperlinks are any more complex than the original text, how many people actually read the hyperlinks? After a certain point, an old fashioned coherent essay that is cogently argued will teach you much more than a discombobulated series of simple links that take the same amount of time to read. So let’s face it, blogs as we currently know them are designed for intellectual second-raters like me who can fulminate to their heart’s content and weigh in with opinions more entertaining than they are substantial. The internet is supposed to make us more connected than ever before, and for a truly inquisitive mind, that’s exactly what it is. By its very meaning, the Internet can let us soak up more information from more sources than any library. But most minds are not inquisitive most of the time, and most of us simply want to read their own opinions confirmed most of the time. And with the internet, the echo chamber we crave like chocolate is louder than ever. A victory like Barack Obama’s could not have been possible before the Internet Age, but neither could the Birther movement. Unlike the age of television news in which the majority of people received world information from the same three sources, we can now receive our information from whomever we like to have our every opinion confirmed, and if somebody writes something with which we disagree, we can simply ignore them. There used to be a famous saying from a New York Senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “People are entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts.” How very 20th century that now sounds. Even if the facts which newspapers reported were wrong, they were accepted as correct - and to diverge from them was considered a conspiracy theory. But conspiracy theories are the lingua franca of contemporary discourse - be they birther conspiracies or election-tampering conspiracies, they involve the assumption that a group of people colluded to withhold the truth from the public. Perhaps some of these conspiracies are correct. Hell, perhaps all of them are. But assuming that others conspire to withhold the truth from us is the de facto bedrock of what many Americans now believe, and this trait only shows signs of growing.


  1. Like most complex ecosystems, the blogosphere is a broad and varied ecosystem. You've still got extremely widely-read bloggers like Chait (who you introduced me to), whose ability to engage in arguments in a nuanced way has always impressed me. There are blogs like Presidential Power, which makes a very serious attempt to address electoral politics from a non-partisan position. There are blogs like Overthinking It, which makes elaborate and unlikely academic arguments about pop culture fluff (a sort of semi-serious conspiracy theory approach, in keeping with your understanding of blogs). And it's hard to argue that blogging is entirely specious and shallow when you acknowledge that Ebert is one of its great icons -- he's sort of a meandering memoirist more than anything else at this point.

    But your point is very applicable when it comes to the mass media blogs that get enormous amounts of traffic... conservative echo-chamber blogs, pop-culture industry news blogs, gossip blogs, stuff like that. It seems like a massive mechanical generator of ill-considered opinions and hysterical reactions. Luckily, that stuff always seems to vanish as quickly as it materializes.

  2. Don't misunderstand, I'm not saying that blogs are incapable of doing lots of great work, merely that the great work goes comparatively unrecognized. The people who read Chait and Ebert, numerous and commendable as they are among friends of ours, still make up a much too small quotient of internet readers. That said, wait a few days, I'm actually going to discuss Ebert as a sort of 2.0 version of what blogs can do.

    But I have to differ entirely on the issue that the gossip generated by rumor mill blogs vanishes as quickly as it materializes. The information we read matters, and a steady diet of misinformation will lead to believing it. There's a famous line from the Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, 'if you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.' Not every lie told has to stick, nor is every lie meant to. But some of them do penetrate through reality's filter. Would anything like the Birther movement or the 9/11 truth movement have been possible without blogs?

    All Golden Ages come to an end, and the near-complete intellectual freedom which blogs currently allow for will also be their undoing. But in the meantime it will result in lots of great work, much of it done by many bloggers whom we and the rest of the world won't even recognize as being great for decades to come.