Tuesday, April 10, 2007

IMHO, or: Why Your Blog Sucks

Everytime I think I'm out, they drag me back in!

It's my fault, of course. I spend too much of my time reading blogs. I recognize this. I am an addict. I need a support group.

But I can quit anytime I want to. I just don't want to, yet.

Here, for example, is how this post started almost a month ago:

Let's start with a simple premise: Tom Friedman is an idiot.

(cf. joan didion. Ex: digby; atrios; wounded bird)

I keep saying I won't publish this post, and then I keep coming across something like this:

I've been piling up examples of this. They aren't hard to find, like this one, recounting the foibles of The Weekly Standard. Chris Matthews compared this war to the Bay of Pigs, before it started? Who knew?

And now this blogwar wants to start. It's funny because people take blogs so damned seriously.
As you can see, it never got beyond the stage of making notes. I think the reference to Joan Didion actually came from a mental comparison I was making between Tom Friedman and Molly Ivins. Like Didion, the late Ms. Ivins was an actual reporter (a despised term in left blogistan, by and large) because she actually went out and talked to people like George W. Bush, and talked to people who knew George W. Bush, and so when she wrote about people like George W. Bush, she actually had, you know, first hand knowledge of the subject. Unlike, say, Thomas Friedman; or, for that matter, Glenn Greenwald, who seems to get all his information the same place I do, or the same place almost every other blogger does: from the media we all claim is so biased and untrustworthy.

Well, that was one direction I was going to go in. But I set it aside, went on about my Lenten business, tried to forget it. Then I wrote the bulk of this post. Then I set it aside again, decided I wouldn't bother with it, that it was pointless and whinging and didn't serve any purpose very well. "This just might do nobody any good," I pretty much concluded, and not having the chops of an Edward R. Murrow, I was pretty sure I had concluded rightly. But the blogwars on civility are out in force again, and once again we are all called upon to take ourselves oh so seriously, and to defend our turf against all complainers, and to fight to the last breath for our right to print 'obscene' words (which really don't matter to me, one way or the other), and to justify our high dudgeon. So now I'm wondering again if this is a topic worth bothering with at all?

And maybe, if only for a few reasons buried here amid the dunghill of my response, it is. Who knows? It won't add to my blogging significance or insignificance (which is really the point, isn't it? That blogs make nothing happen, that they exist in the valley of their own making, a way of happening, a mouth, as Auden said to Yeats). So, what the heck?

Blogging, we all like to declare, is all about accuracy and authenticity. Except those two words are defined in much the same way many people want to define religion: as entirely personal concepts which should be kept personal. Of course, you can't do that when you are talking about politics; or religion, for that matter. Both are inevitably and unavoidably public topics. Religion and politics both take place in the polis, the public marketplace. And both go far beyond mere ideas.

But blogs don't. Blogs exist in a world of their own making, a way of happening, a mouth. Like poetry, they make nothing happen. But, like a thousand little W.B. Yeats, bloggers imagine they do; or at least, that they should.

Political discourse is never moral (“are these things right, or wrong?”); it is only, at best, ethical (“Is this an approved path to happiness?”), and often, in the hands of a Karl Rove, it isn’t even that: it’s only about raw power. Atrios and most political bloggers aren’t interested in debating, evaluating, or considering ideas. They are only interested in who has access to the biggest megaphone. The leading concern in blogistan, left and right, is about who controls the “mainstream discourse.” Just the other day, Atrios didn’t want to engage E.J. Dionne in a debate on the merits of the issue of militant atheism v. religious belief. He simply wanted to shut Dionne up, to so debase Dionne’s right to speak on a particular topic that the latter would have no right to speak at all. He didn’t address the subject of Dionne’s column, but instead set up a straw man in the guise of wholly unrelated comments by Rick Warren, comments Dionne didn’t even allude to, and proceeded to use those poorly argued words to tar Dionne’s right, not to have an opinion, but to publicly express one.

And this is common currency in blogistan, especially when the topic is religion or politics, two topics we all learned could not be discussed in polite company. So, in left blogistan especially, we feel free to use all the “dirty words” our parents told us not to use ever, and pretend we are all latter day Lenny Bruces bravely speaking our minds in words we know the “pundits” consider “uncivil.” But when everybody else on the schoolyard is using those words and all the “adults” are shocked by our brazen behavior, are we really speaking our minds? Or are we reveling in the chance to discuss matters we can’t discuss in “polite company” in terms we also can’t use in such company? Is it honest discourse, in other words, or just the false courage of naughty children? Well, when was the last time Josh Marshall used a four letter word in a post? And when was the last time NPR, or any other major news outlet, interviewed any other blogger about his or her impact on a Bush Administration scandal such as the firing of the U.S. attorneys? Is there a correlation there? I certainly think so.

Politics and religion both inflame these kinds of discussions. Politics in left blogistan must be “liberal” or “progressive” or the comments are considered those of “trolls.” Religion, likewise, is widely suspect and subject to fierce derision for no other reason than it proves the commenter “brave” and, in the 19th century term, a “free thinker.” I should hasten to add here I do not mean to include Atrios in that company. He has included my on his blogroll and never harassed me about my comments or the very religious posts I made on his blog as a guest, before I started this one. I don’t even mean to paint him as intolerant and close-minded; but his recent diatribe against E.J. Dionne serves as an example for me of what blogging is clearly all about. It is about grabbing control of the public discourse, and turning it to your own ends. Which is certainly a laudable goal in most circles, one hotly pursued by bloggers and pundits and politicans alike. Up until a year or so ago, the conventional wisdom bestowed upon Karl Rove the mantle of ruler of that discourse, at least as far as the Bush Administration was concerned, and it was bestowed with great admiration for the results he produced. There is certainly nothing inherently wrong with seeking to redirect that discourse in a direction more in keeping with one’s own opinions, and Atrios has labored mightily in that effort. It may well be he will ultimately succeed in ways I cannot envision. I do not rise here to bury Atrios, or to praise him. I only mean to state my own observations about blogging and political discourse. Consider Eschaton a model for an abstraction, not the particular example most in need of correction. But Eschaton and Kos are where much of the action is in left blogistan, and I avoid Kos for the same reasons I spend too much time at Eschaton: I know the latter far better than the former, and find it, over all, a more congenial place. There: my first paradox.

Politics and religions inflame discussions because both, ultimately, are about power. There is no use in denying that. This is not a problem of a Constantinian church, a church too enamored of “the world” in which it must exist, of which it cannot but be a part. This is a problem of human nature, where all problems are presumably solved by the proper application of power: either by an ethical application, or even a moral one. Thus Woodrow Wilson promised to make the world safe for democracy, and some fifty years after the attempt had clearly failed, Walt Kelly could say: “We gotta make democracy safe for the world!” A lesson, as Iraq has once again taught us, that this nation still has not learned. A generation later, Reinhold Niebuhr would decisively put to rest the idealism of Wilson, or so one would have thought. But Wilson was a President, Niebuhr merely a theologian and seminary professor; one is not equivalent to the other, and so the game goes one.

Ironically, though, the two are connected. Power is the question at the heart of Christianity, because hospitality is at the center of Christian practice, which is to say at the center of Christian doctrine and theology. All of Christianity begins in praxis, not in theoria or even in pioesis. It begins in the actual doing. Thus Jesus of Nazareth was an itinerant rabbi, with no place to lay his head from night to night. Thus his teachings were all about what should be done, or about shaking up what we thought was right and good; were all about making us do and God would have us do, and only afterward think about how God might wish us to think. Jeremiah said it best when he spoke for God: “The heart is devious above all things. Who can fathom it? I, God, test the heart….” Luther understood this, too. His heart was not his to control, to make pure as an offering to God. Luther realized he could never know his own thoughts well enough to know they could be pure enough for God, so Luther had to rely on God’s grace and do as best he could from that starting point.

Power is all about praxis. Theoria and even pioesis mean nothing until power has acted. They are always explanations after the fact: either justification for what has been done, or reflection on what has been produced. But both of them begin in power, and power is to be understood in terms of praxis. So power is at the center of Christianity, and yet power is immediately displaced by the teaching of hospitality. It is not what you do with power that counts, but how you give up power. The central teaching of Christianity then becomes not salvation (the exercise of power over sinners, and the exercise of power by sinners to escape judgment through repentance), but the paradox of powerlessness, which is the only real power. That is the central lesson of the crucifixion, and the central lesson of hospitality. “Lord, when did we see you?” If you do not believe in the Risen Lord, there is no reason to see him in others. If you do not accept the truth of the Resurrection, you have no need to look for Jesus in Galilee, or, indeed, anywhere else. And so his teachings may mean something to you, but they do not necessarily mean life itself. This, of course, is an idea addressed to professing Christians. Non-Christians are not bound by it, damned by ignoring, cursed by not accepting it. They stand wholly outside of it, and can stay there or choose to come in, as they please. Hospitality is not compulsion to make a guest of a stranger; it is only the offer. The host does not damn the wayfarer who does not stay the night in his house. Neither should Christians condemn those who do not believe as they do. That we still do is an issue of boundaries and identities and human nature; not a requirement of Christian praxis.

This will be misunderstood (if it is noticed), so let me make the thesis statement explicit: blogs have not created discussion. If they have had any effect at all, they have killed discussion as surely as talk radio and TV talk shows did. This is not a new phenomenon, of course. As "long ago" as the 1950's, Ray Bradbury could predict that TV would kill human conversation in Fahrenheit 451. Harlan Ellison noted, 20 years later, that "conversation" was now considered what Johnny Carson did on "The Tonight Show," which was nothing more than banter emptily with starlets and celebrities with something to sell, or who just needed more exposure on TV. Nothing has changed except the medium for the tedious and one-sided exchange. Most conversation on blogs is of like-minded people reaffirming each other's opinions. Nothing wrong with that, of course. But getting a true conversation, a true meeting of minds, started, is hard work. It's easy to be misunderstood. Easier, still, to just find a group that supplies meaning and belonging, rather than make the sacrifices first that lead to true, and deeper, meaning and belonging. So maybe blogs haven't really killed discussion. Maybe all they've done is to do exactly what they claim the do not do: maintain the status quo.

Consider yet another exhibit:

We bloggers didn't make this toxic, fetid environment, we just live in it. And toxic and fetid it is. At some point the prim and proper MSM are going to have to put down the smelling salts over the uncivil blogosphere and deal with the fact that the world they enabled with their convivial chuckling and snorting at Rush and Imus over the years has brought us to this place. The rest of us are little busy fighting off the neanderthal thugs they helped create.
No, bloggers didn't. But, you know what? It's been around so long, the notion that public (which is to say political) discourse was ever civil is just so much eyewash. It's the "objective" journalist that's the aberration in human, or just U.S., history. Journalists who:

all share the politics and beliefs of Rush and Imus and O'Reilly and Hannity and Savage [and].... could be crude racists and misogynists and haters of all forms of liberalism who love to make vulgar jokes at others' expense
is actually that culture reasserting itself after an all-too brief absence (in the movie version, Edward R. Murrow managed to hold out until McCarthy was shamed into submission. He then descended into the dark night of "Person to Person." That's how long the man who could talk to the industry like this lasted. Today, we don't even have Walter Cronkite.). The problem is not that they are misogynistic racist pigs. The problem is that we are surprised by that.

Maybe it's my Calvinist upbringing. Maybe it's my experience in family law, or in the church; but I'm not surprised at all. What? Human beings are irrational, venal, small-minded, churlish, and cruel? I'm shocked, shocked! The next thing you'll be telling me is that they gamble, too! You know what? The discourse wasn't polluted by rich white men sometime in the recent past. It's always been polluted. Great Caesar's Ghost, doesn't anybody read Shakespeare anymore? Othello? MacBeth? Hamlet? King Lear? Do any of these ring a bell? I Henry IV? Anthony Burgess reported teaching Richard III in Malaysia.

This story of assassination of innocents, including children, Machiavellian massacre, and the eventual defeat of a tyrant was typical of their own history, even their own contemporary experience, and they accepted Shakespeare as a great poet. [T.S.] Eliot would not have registered with them at all. Translation is not a matter of words only; it is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture.
I never thought I'd be saying this, but I see a value of being a Christian, a thoughtful, learned Christian, in this. Perhaps Jews feel the same way, the ones who take their faith earnestly enough to really invest themselves in it. I don't know, and I mention it only so as not to seem exclusionary about it. But as a Christian, as one who grew up among Christians as convinced I was a benighted fool as ever Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris ever could, I learned to understand both my culture, and the culture of Abraham and Jesus and Paul, in order to understand what it was I believed, and why. I don't mean I'm an expert in ancient cultures, or anything so grand and serious. But Burgess says a very true thing there, and it gets to the heart of what keeps bugging me about this conversation I keep stumbling across in left blogistan. "Translation... is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture." And rather than do that, the conversation in left blogistan seems to keep going 'round and 'round on the point of bashing their culture and declaring "Our is better!" As a committed, learned, deeply serious Christian (serious to the point of entering the ministry, of now pursuing the priesthood, which I know puts me in rarified company), I've learned to make a whole culture intelligible to a wholly other culture. How else does one incorporate into one's life the teachings of scriptures 3000 years old from a Semitic culture as unlike my own as mine is unlike the culture of Hindu India? I've learned to add to my understand of both God and human nature the Exodux, the Exile, the Massacre of the Innocents; the denial of Peter; the crucifixion; the martyrdom of the saints; the visions of Ezekiel, the weeping of Jeremiah, the humility of Amos, the family of Hosea, even the sacrifice of Isaac on Moriah. And in that effort you begin to recognize the similarities and accept, yes, the evil that men and women do. And frankly, the evil of debating the merits of civil speech in left blogistan, is so petty and minor and parochial a thing, it offends me when it is taken seriously. Not because Atrios or Digby or anyone else must bow to my whims, but because it is such a petty distraction, such a minor and inconsequential thing! Do I care what Howard Kurtz thinks of me? He doesn't even know I exist. Do I care what Digby thinks, or Atrios? No more than I care what Kurtz does. But does that mean they should not care, either?

No. But I could wish there was a better recognition of what's important, and what is not, and why. I could wish there was less ego involved in such discussions, and more understanding; less heat, and more light. Despite the universal example of the lightbulb, one does not necessarily lead to the other. Is it really a problem that the New York Times thinks bloggers are dirty, uncivil hippies who need to be corralled? Is it any greater a problem than the latest stupid thing that dribbled out of the mouth of Don Imus? Or is the difference only that one is personal, and the other simply offensive to right-minded people? But there are a lot of wrong-minded people out there. Taking them on, either one by one or en masse, is a bootless and bottomless task. Like a talk show host in St. Louis used to intone: "You can't fix stupid." Maybe the whole system really is corrupt from the bottom up, and the top of the ladder is inhabited by venal and small-minded persons rather than Plato's philosopher kings; but you know what? I knew that already. I learned that a long time ago. I've come to grips with it. Dese are de conditions dat prevail. Are our airwaves filled with pointless diatribes day and night? Why is that surprising? If left blogistan has proven anything, it's proven that it's always easier to complain than to construct, to tear down rather than to build up, to propose wholesale replacement of the bums in charge with our bums, because once our bums have the power, they'll use it wisely!

But the difference between Karl Rove and the preferred replacement of left blogistan (if, indeed, that herd of cats could agree on a single replacement) is one of degree more than it is one of kind. Karl Rove is just more extreme than James Carville or Dick Morris. I'm not sure he's fundamentally different. Certainly he's more venal than Carville or Morris, but the difference between Lear and Goneril and Regan was less vast than between Lear and Cordelia. The former are more clearly his daughters than the latter. Iago was the worst of the lot, but almost every character in the play except Desdemona was all too willing to listen to what he said, and have their own weaknesses that make them all too susceptible to his guile. In the end, Carville and Morris were after the same things Rove was. The only question was where they would stop in pursuing it. That is not as large a difference as it appears, from a moral, or even a legal, standpoint. Does that redeem Iago, or Cordelia's cruel siblings? No. But it does mean we shouldn't be quite so shocked at the state of things; as if we expected royal families and career military officers to be better human beings than we know we could ever be.

Power cannot be used wisely. It can only be used. It can be used as well as possible, but there are always unintended consequences. Power is, indeed, a necessary evil in this fallen world (another Christian concept), but the power to tear down should not be confused with the power to build up. And control of the power is always illusory. James Taylor gave me the best metaphor for it in one of his songs: "There's a man up here who claims/To have his hands upon the reins/There are chains upon those hands/He is just riding on a train."

Power is all about praxis. But that doesn't mean praxis is all about power. In Christian terms, this is the paradox: that we have theoria (Tillich said time is in love with the production of eternity; blogistan, especially left blogistan, is in love with the production of theoria); we have pioesis (which blogistan loves to think it is responsible for; but I think we are no more capable of that than Yeats' poetry was capable of changing mad Ireland), and then we have praxis, which we do even by not doing anything. One guides us, one follows, and one springs from whatever we choose, no matter the reason we choose it. The paradox is that this is not power; it is the very opposite. It is powerlessness. We can tell ourselves it is power; we are wrong. And there's the paradox: the powerlessness, rightly understood, rightly wielded, is the most powerful thing of all. And not to be confused with impotence.

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