Sunday, June 17, 2007

As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls

I'm assuming this is the Tena I know from Eschaton and from comments here more recently. I really don't want to comment on the underlying controversy, because I don't want to judge it or the people involved, or even what is, or is not, happening. Frankly, this largely strikes me as: A) Tena's business, and I won't judge it, or B) something appropriate for the late, lamented Metacomments (which more or less lives on as Whiskey Fire).


What prompted me to write on this at all was the prime post up now (though maybe not later), and the comments to it. Again, no comment on the comments (to each her or his own opinion, thank you very much!), just an observation on the situation. I've noticed blog traffic here is down, sharply. So it goes. I've seen indications that it is down on other blogs as well, which leads me to think it's not just me, or the fact I'm not political/funny/religious enough, or whatever drives the traffic in left blogistan. So it goes, again. I'm left wondering, and wouldn't know without the kind of extensive research I have no interest in conducting, if blogistan isn't changing, a change inevitable given the state of play in American politics and its id, left blogistan.

Maybe it's just the summer; but I don't think so. After all, when has a Presidential campaign started earlier than now? And Bush's popularity and approval are hardly rising. But nothing seems to put a dent in their determination to abuse their power as grotesguely as they can, such as the newest wrinkle on the attorney firing scandal:

Gonzales described what he delicately calls ‘a more vigorous and a little bit more formal process’ for annually evaluating prosecutors. What that means, as he explained it, is hauling in every U.S. attorney for a meeting to hear, among other things, politicians’ beefs against the prosecutor.” The Chicago Tribune’s Andrew Zajac writes, “If that should happen, expect the fair-mindedness and independence Americans still count on from their Justice Department to slip.”
"Slip" is putting it mildly. "Disappear" is the verb I would choose. And clearly this is not a bug; it's a feature. So what is left blogistan doing about it?

Getting outraged, of course; but how much outrage can you muster before your outrage output begins to decline? Patrick Leahy is outraged, but Abu Gonzales is still Attorney General, and even the "vote of no-confidence," as much of a political prank as that was, went nowhere. It would seem the GOP is no longer in power, but the Democrats don't know how to wield the power they have. In this interregnum, all manner of monsters appear. And the worst monster is exhaustion. Unable to stir the faithful any longer, left blogistan, even as it rejoices in its power, seems to be losing it.

"Seems to be." Mark that. I'm still a skeptic on whatever power left blogistan ever actually had, but that's another discussion. My point here is not to bring this around to a question of power, but to a question of sociology. Because what's at play here is something even a person with only passing acquaintance with the concepts of sociology (i.e., yours truly) can see as inevitable. It's all a matter of defining the group.

Everything in that post from Tena's blog can be read through the terms of sociology: Group boundaries, meaning and belonging, social solidarity and, especially for this discussion, internal homogeneity. The phenomena of exclusion from the group, in other words, is not a phenomenon at all: it's a function of group dynamics. When the homogeneity stops being about the "trolls" (i.e., those who disagree with the consensus of the group) it inevitably starts being about who is left. Does this mean groups invariably winnow down to one person? No, of course not. But the process is part of group identity. What I see going on, at least as described in Tena's post and the comments, is familiar from American Protestantism, where churches are formed based on whether or not the Sanctuary should have the carpet replaced or the organ restored (I kid you not; I know of churches which have split on such a basis), or perhaps slightly more reasonably, what language should be used in worship. (Up until the 1930's, or even later, it wasn't uncommon to find German churches still worshipping in German, in America). And then there's the Proximity Principle:

"We have to meet people to form relationships with them. Therefore, our relationships form within groups. We rarely become connected with a person from another part of our community unless we meet in organized group activity. As research demonstrates, much of the reason people's networks consist of people so similar to themselves is due to the homogenous nature of their social groups As a group becomes more central for its members, its members more often find friendship within the group."

And as the group becomes more and more the source of friendships, the groups becomes more and more tightly knit.
In the context in which I quoted it, that principle applies to churches which become exclusive groups, passively hostile (without ever meaning to be) to newcomers. Many popular blogs suffer from this problem. But it has a corollary for established members: as friendships form, they don't always form among and betweeen the oldest members of the group (not age old, but in terms of membership in the group). As the group becomes more tightly knit, in other words, it also begins to exclude people out. Powerlines shift, and old members find themselves suddenly no longer the "Inside" members. And as the group becomes more central for its members, who is "in" and who is "out" becomes more important to the group. In the power struggle that inevitably ensues, someone loses.

And that's what we're seeing in left blogistan, too. Blogs have become incredibly important to some people. And yet, in the power struggle to determine who sets the group boundaries, and how the group is identified, what its internal homogeneity will be based on, the zero sum game of groups says someone is left out. And that someone may well be a person who was "in" just a short time before.

Which, you will pardon the observation, is why the kingdom of God is extended to the least and the last, first. Which is why the parable of the workers in the vineyard is so telling. In that parable, no one is excluded from the group, but neither is a hierarchy observed. All the workers are paid the same wage, whether they worked all day, or only for one hour. There is no advantage to the first, no "inside" group which gains more from being in the group longer. But that, of course, is of another world; which is the ethical as well as spiritual point of proclaiming the kingdom. Because you can't proclaim the values of this world, and of another world, simultaneously. And it's why the Kingdom of God is permanent, whereas the kingdoms or blog fiefdoms of this world are transient: because the kingdom of God is based, not on the power to identify the group and who is allowed membership there, but on the powerlessness of God, who offers everything to everyone.

Take that less than seriously, it turns into a maudlin point that critiques human made groups. Take it seriously enough, the squabbles of groups no longer matter. Stand somewhere in between, and look at both, and you can at least see where you are standing.

Set the comparison aside (and admittedly, it is an awkward one if taken as a criticism of the controversy, which it isn't meant to be) and this is still an inevitable "growing pain" of a community which may go from virtual to real, or may simply end up replicating high school all over again, as we are each reminded once more that we aren't sitting at the cool table. And that would be a pity; but it would also be in accord with the observations of sociology.

An Update (making this longer than it needs to be): A colloquy between Phila 'n' me.

Tena was one of the first commenters I regularly read in the months I spent lurking at Eschaton, and she was one of the first to welcome me when I started posting. She's been more or less the heart and soul of the place for me ever since, so I'd take her complaints very seriously even if I didn't know a number of 'em to be true. And the same goes for you.

That said, I can't entirely agree with this:

"And as the group becomes more central for its members, who is "in" and who is "out" becomes more important to the group. In the power struggle that inevitably ensues, someone loses."

Do you really think Eschaton commenters have made an attempt - implicit or otherwise - to define who is "out"? God knows there's a lot of bickering and ill-temper there, and plenty of unnecessary cruelty and aggression, and various shifting allegiances (if you can call 'em that). I've been driven away from there more than once, because I've been irked by regulars or trolls, or because I'm sick unto death of the way I come across on screen.

But it seems to me that a lot of the discussion of who "belongs" comes from people who believe that there really are "Kings and Queens of Eschaton"...which I think is at best a misperception, and at worst a bid for negative attention.

Which is not to say that the problem doesn't boil down to power of an even more pointless kind than usual. But I don't think it's fair to talk about how the group "begins to exclude people out," without acknowledging first that some people who perceive or represent themselves as excluded actually aren't, and second that presenting oneself as "someone who doesn't belong" - and attacking people who allegedly do belong - is a normal way of standing out in a crowd. Thhere's dysfunction and self-aggrandizement on every side of this issue; "groupthink" barely scratches the surface, and as we know from the Culture Wars, accusations of elitism aren't always made in good faith. It's fine to complain about the exclusiveness of the "cool table," but its attractiveness is based on its exclusiveness; as usual, we give people the power they have over us, and then resent them for being who we made them.

None of which is directed at Tena. I'm just confused sometimes about what people expect from blog communities, or to what extent blogs actually are communities in any really realistic sense. Just as there's more fighting and flirting in comment threads than you'll usually see in real life, there's a tendency to project one's idealized notions of community on to what I see as a fairly ambiguous and unnatural form of interaction.

If that makes any sense...
Phila, Pizen Sarpint
My reply:


I would split the baby: yes, I think there's a tendency toward hierarchy at Eschton, as there is in any group that begins to self-identify. No, I don't think it's fatal. Yes, I agree, the interaction is entirely unnatural.

The latter is the real rub.

There were a lot of comments about Tena the other day at Eschaton, most of them very negative ("Ding, dong, the witch is dead!"), although even to say "most" is to commit the sin of noticing that is negative and ignoring what is positive. There were also the usual defenses: (A) it's Atrios' blog or (B) "Get over yourself!" None of it was terribly insightful, compassionate, nor even particularly constructive. But at heart, it all had to do with defending the right of the "Community" to be what it wanted to be, and to reject the antibody of critique, even from someone like Tena.

You disagree with the "consensus" of any commenting community, even at Eschaton, at your peril.

The curious thing is the nature of the community. Upwards of 150 people on Haloscan there at anyone time and maybe 10% or so of that number actively commenting. Who's zoomin' who? It is, to me, the entirely unnatural nature of the interaction that's most curious, and most problematic. Obviously some take it as merely a place to spout off. Some see it, in harshly naturalistic terms, as a place of no pity (I met similar opinions at "Table Talk" on Salon back in the Clinton years).

And some see it as an extended family, and are quite hurt when the family stops being...familial. I didn't know the story of what happened for Tena until she posted it here in comments. But I think the incident arose, still, from the desire of someone (in this case Atrios) to decide who was "in" and who was "out" of the community. And the dominant opinion of the community, judging from the other day, seemed to be: justice served, on Woody if not (necessarily) on Tena. And justice is almost always a way of deciding who is "in" and who is "out."

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous11:23 PM

    So what the fuck is the meaning of "as Wichita Falls, so Falls Wichita Falls"?
    How damm am I? I can't get it.