Monday, January 23, 2012

800 Words: Where To Go From Here Pt. III

IV will be next.

V. Roger and Me....I’m talking about Ebert

One of the most striking things learned in the course of blogging is that I never know what I’m going to write about until I sit down to do it. I think every writer has this experience - over the course of a day you collect all sorts of ideas to write down, yet many of them prove arid and unmineable once you sit down to do the writing. Instead you simply write about whatever thought is nearest at hand, and these seemingly inconsequential thoughts prove far more fertile. It’s like visiting New York and finding any street-corner more interesting than the usual tourist traps - as you probably should.

At this point in history, we know what the novel is, we know what symphonies are, we even know what comic books and movies are. These are all artforms whose use to the world has reached their apogee, and there will be a steady decline in their influence before they are completely subsumed by other artforms more effective at speaking to people in a future era. But we have no idea yet what a blog is. It could still be something that resembles a book, or it could be utterly unrecognizable from anything the world has yet read. Artists have yet to arrive who can show us what a blog can do.

In the meantime, the time when blogs can be used as a tool to express hard certainties has passed. The echo chamber of blogspin now feels as tired and relentless as the spin we’ve heard for decades on Television. For the Age of Bush, when certainties about America’s place in the world seemed to change every day, blogs were perfect. One day soon, inquisitive readers will look at the hard certainties of Michelle Malkin and Glenn Greenwald and marvel that rational Americans could be in thrall to such uninquisitive certainty. They’ll also look at the musings of Andrew Sullivan or Matthew Yglesias and wonder how smart people could so quickly change one set of hard certainties for another. They’ll look at Huffington Post and be dumbfounded that we could care so much what actors think about political issues, and then they’ll look at PerezHilton and wonder how we could be so influenced by celebrities whose every flaw we knew in such detail. Finally, they’ll read sites like Daily Kos, TPM Cafe, and Atrios, and wonder how a Left Wing that appeared so solidly organized could have so little influence on contemporary American discourse.

It’s most certainly time for a new kind of blogger - one less prone to certainty, less willing to cast the first stone, less in love with brevity, but more in love with doubt, and therefore willing to write outside his/her specialization. This kind of blogger would have less agenda, and would write about a wider array of subjects. This blogger would be more willing to take in all of life’s experience instead of the small sliver in which he or she specializes and interprets through the narrow prism of the blogger’s pre-formed sensibility. The subject which this new blogger covers must be life itself, and to get the full scope of life’s flavor, the writing must necessarily be of much longer dimensions. This new kind of blogger must be more like Roger Ebert.

Here is something I wrote about Roger Ebert at the end of 2010 which seems entirely appropos now:

It amazes me how often we hear this same story: so many people of our generation didn’t come to reading Roger Ebert through developing a passion for movies. They developed a passion for movies through reading Roger Ebert. There was a period in the early-to-mid-90’s when every middle-class household seemed to have an Ebert movie guide. Soon thereafter, every one of his movie reviews and articles got posted on CompuServe, and soon after that he started his own website. For all those decades when Ebert was so omnipresent, it has been fashionable to rag on him for being too generous to mediocre movies and dumbing down criticism with the TV show "Siskel and Ebert" (would that most of today's TV critics could discuss movies on their level...). But what they (at times ‘we’) all missed was that Ebert’s zealous passion for all aspects of his job was clearly just a facet of his larger zeal for life: for food and drink (obviously), for books, for art, for women (and apparently they loved him right back..), for friends, for family, and anything else that enriched. But it was not until Ebert was so debilitated that he found a metier through which we could perceive his life for everything it is.

And with his Pulitzer for Criticism now thirty-five years in the past, Ebert may have only reached the peak of his influence in the past year. Horribly disfigured by thyroid cancer and left without the ability to eat, drink or speak, Ebert has taken to the age of blogging and twitter with a naturalness stunning for anyone in their late 60’s. But there’s simply no adjective to describe the stunning ease with which a person in his condition took to an entirely new technology. Perhaps he understands things about how to use the internet that younger, more fit people never could. Roger Ebert’s blog is simply like nothing else on the internet. Like clockwork, a fully formed essay arrives every week on topics ranging from loneliness to alcoholism to politics to illness. Ebert delves into the most personal crevasses of his experience, and perhaps for the first time in my experience of the blogosphere, the result is wisdom instead of TMI. Self revelation rarely results in deeper appreciation, but Ebert has a humanity that few people are capable of allowing themselves, and through his emotional generosity he’s created a community of ‘the neglected.’ The comments section is filled with posts from all sorts of people who for the first time in their lives feel confident that there is a place where they can share the most personal parts of their lives, openly and without judgement or prejudice. Go to any Ebert blogpost and you find hundreds of extraordinarily well-written essays in of themselves which seem to be written by a confluence of hundreds of articulate, lonely teenagers looking to find a place where people like them belong, unwell people who are desperate to remember how they functioned in their illness’s remission, unhappy people who never got the chance they should have for life to hear their voices. These are all people who thought the world was divided into those who are broken and those who are not, but through each other they all seem to have realize that there is no such division....Or at least there should never be..

It is through Ebert’s example that so many of them found the courage to tell stories of their own: lives torn apart by tragedy, by mental illness, by the unfairness of circumstance. And yet through Roger Ebert each of them has discovered that they have a story to tell and a public who will listen. Only a man of very deep good will could have created something so consoling, so unique and so unforseen that (I don’t use this word lightly) it has enriched the lives of so many whose lives desperately needed enrichment. Had Roger Ebert died on the operating table, life would have been far the poorer for what all these people would have lost.

Roger Ebert’s blog is the best example I know of how the Internet can unite people rather than divide them. Instead of providing ready-made answers for life’s manifold questions, he asks questions of his own. In his willingness to post deeply considered essays about his experiences, he completely re-framed what a blog is capable of doing. Rather than telling people what to think, he asks them to help him better understand what to think. He does this not with the phony blogism: ‘Readers, what do you think?’ But by inspiring them with the depth of his introspection to match his. The result is one of the few comment boards in which people go to feel close to one another rather than berate each other. I can’t help thinking that given the difficulties of his current state, this kind of communal catharsis was his objective from the very beginning.

If the Bush era was one of crumbling certainties, then we’ve now arrived at an age of uncertainty. Barack Obama was elected with a mandate to change virtually everything about America. we may yet find out that he’s steered the country back on course, or that he hasn’t changed America’s direction at all. For the first time in living memory, America seems on the point of precipitous decline, and its debts seem insurmountable. The EU - America’s greatest natural ally - on the verge of collapse. Many of America’s authoritarian allies in the Middle East were overthrown by democratic movements that want new democracies fundamentally different from America’s, and those movements may give way to Islamic autocracies which swear absolute enmity to America. If America never recovers from the recession, China may take America’s place as the world’s dominant nation, or it may collapse into the same financial ruin. With the growing instability in Pakistan, nuclear stockpiles have never been less secure. The Great Recession may have already ended, or it may go on another twenty years.

This is an era with no certainties about our future, only certainties about our past. Today’s blogger needs an eye toward history which yesterday’s never needed - political history, scientific history, and perhaps most importantly, cultural history. The Brave New World of the Internet is turning into something very different from what we once thought it would be. In order to understand it, really understand it, we need precedents. We need people who know the history of film, literature, art, music, mathematics, physics, biology, and politics - and who can draw parallels for today’s developments with previous ones. We need figures online who can consider all of the questions of the present from the vantage point of the past. We don’t need specialists who can inflame us by boiling a few pieces of information down to a single point of view in 300 words. We need Renaissance Men who can bore the crap out of us by considering every piece of information from every point of view, no matter how long it takes.

We arrived in this era by reducing public discourse to a soundbite - in doing so, we virtually obliterated our patience for nuance. There are more educated people today than at any point in world history, yet has there ever been an era when standards for what constitutes ‘education’ has been lower? And as the general public grows less and less interested in ideas, the educated public of academics grows less solicitous of them. The idea that academics should write for a general public is considered a ludicrous dream of the past. Over and over again, we hear that only specialists can understand the latest developments in cosmology, abstract algebra, literary theory, and music composition. Once upon a time, the word for this development was Medievalism.

That’s not to say that the world is about to retread to the era of the Black Death and Crusades. But if we’d like to avoid the possibility of that development, perhaps it’s time to turn back the clock to some very 18th century ideas - that a person can have no higher aim than the accumulation of knowledge in all subjects of life’s experience, that a cultured person has thoughts worth expressing on any subject on which he or she is enthusiastic; that seriousness and humor should never be mutually exclusive, that uniqueness is something we should neither ignore nor berate nor be afraid to mock; that we should be able to see the truth (or falsehood) in grandiose ideas from very small occurrences, or see the nature of a group within an individual, or the nature of an individual within a group. Even if history has proven that most, perhaps all, of these sentiments are not always true, they are certainly more true than they seem to most people in our era. We’re all thinkers and observers, whether we write treatises on Schopenhauer or spend 6 hours a day watching ESPN.

Hopefully, by indulging in these sentiments on a blog, we can shake up the worldview of those tens of thousands or couple dozen who read us. We may often not do it well, but at least we can try. The results, hopefully, do what any other art does - among other things, to converse with the reader, to provoke him and shake up her perceptions, to give ourselves a space away from our lives that still may make us understand our lives better, and to use the order which a confined space gives us to evoke our lives in all their messiness. Like any other art, a blog should resemble life, without all the boring parts....or at least we'll take the boring stuff out when we remember how to do nuance again.

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