Thursday, June 21, 2007

"Meet the New Boss/Same as the Old Boss"

What Digby said.

No, I mean that literally. Follow that link, you will find "what Digby said." Which, frankly, was interesting, as far as it goes. But unlike most of left blogistan, I didn't find it particularly insightful. Maybe it's because I spend too much time reading Derrida and Proust and Trollope (or Richard Rorty or William James or Reinhold Niebuhr), or maybe it's because I've spent too many years in academia where "criticism" doesn't first mean "You suck!", but rather first means "careful analysis" (or at least it's supposed to; far too much of criticism in academia is, of course, "You're ugly and your mother dresses you funny, and your scholarship sucks!," just dressed up in nicer prose. Still....) I know it casts me as a person to be avoided, derided, or just flat out ignored, but: I'm not a fan of "Digby."

No particular reason; just not a writer of great interest to me. In truth, I don't know of a writer on blogs whom I truly admire as a writer, with the exception of Athenae. I admire Scout Prime because of her dedication to New Orleans. I admire Grandmere Mimi because of her devotion to the faith (one I share more than anything else I share with anyone else in left blogistan, but not something I necessarily share here). I go to Eschaton because "expression is the need of my soul," and I find it far too easy to eat the peanuts of commentary (it's hardly ever a conversation) on the open bar there. Problem is, I can never eat just one...handful. I used to harangue my friends in long letters. Now I harangue anonymous strangers and stand on a soap box and sound my barbaric but well-educated and overly modulated and all too civilized "yawp" out to the rooftops. Over which it barely carries, it being so polite and tamed and all.

I really should find my way back to writing to my friends.....

But do I have an animus toward Digby? No, not at all. "Digby" has come to represent left blogistan now, and, ironically, the fit is just about perfect. Start with Howard Beale, prominently displayed at Hullabaloo. I saw "Network" again recently, having not seen it since it was in the theaters. I'd forgotten what a caustic, cynical, honest piece of work it was. It was like a shot of raw whisky. And while we who saw it then, and everyone since, remembers the iconic shout "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not gonna take it anymore!", and maybe remember the quote at Hullabaloo was part of that scene. But how many of us remember that it was Howard Beale telling the people they were angry, and urging them to go to their windows, that got them to do it? And then what did they do?

Nothing. They sat down in front of their televisions and waited for Howard Beale to come on again. And his network, UBS, turned him into a media star, the ringmaster of a media circus. Until they finally shot him, on live TV, because of poor ratings.

Sic transit gloria.

So it's ironic (or it should be) that this is the image I associate with "Digby," a commenter still as pseudonymous (I have a face to associate with the name, but not a person. I no more "know" Digby than I know Atrios) as Howard Beale. The "real" Howard Beale was never real in that marvelous film. He was a character, a plaything of the network, a puppet on a string, the captive of "primal forces" as the head of the network so memorably intones. He never had a choice because he had been emptied out by the very system which gave him a voice in the first place. And the minute he stepped before those cameras dripping wet and urged his audience to get up out of their seats and go to their windows, he stopped being a journalist. Literally. From that point in the movie forward, Howard Beale never reports on another story, never reads another line of copy. He becomes the world's first video-blogger. He stands in front of a camera, and he pontificates. He swears and rants and raves and harangues, until he collapses on the floor in what always looks like an epileptic fit. Everytime he goes down you think: "That's it! He's surely had a stroke this time!" And the camera hovers over him, to get the shot just perfect, to show the prophet fallen to the ground, overcome by channeling the voices of the gods.

Which is not to say that Digby thinks of herself as a channel for the gods; or that anyone in left blogistan does. Digby herself says who she is:

I’m a blogger-pundit, a role for which I am eminently qualified since, exactly like pundits on television and in newspapers, I have opinions, I write them down, and a lot of people read them. Yes, that’s all there is to it. Sorry, Mr. Broder.
Which is fine, so far as it goes. But it's hardly revolutionary. It's hardly even "participatory democracy." It's just David Broder, without the media platform, and without the journalistic experience. Once upon a time, David Broder was a journalist (hard to believe now). So was Molly Ivins. I'd say the fairer comparison to Digby is actually George Will, a man whom, so far as I know, has never held a job as a journalist. Paul Krugman, either; and I very much admire Mr. Krugman's writings. Charles Krauthammer, I understand, is actually a psychiatrist (or is it psychologist?). You can run the list on and on; but it's very hard to find any "pundit" any longer, who has any journalistic background. Why do I mention this? For one simple reason: it's always seemed to me that people who are journalists and "rise" to the level of "pundit" are a bit better grounded to sniff out the details of a story. They don't have to rely on the regurgitated soundbites of TV talking heads and prominent journalists like Judy Miller or Jeff Gerth. They can assess things for themselves and even, from time to time, actually investigate the facts on their own. I listened, recently, to Molly's last collection of her columns, Who Let the Dogs In? Much of what she had to say about politicians, for example, came from talking to them, personally; from interviews, from being on the campaign trail, from following them around and talking to other people about them. When the Texas Legislature was in session, Molly could write about it because she'd covered it as a journalist for years. She didn't write about what she saw on Hannity & Colmes or heard on Rush Limbaugh or read in the Washington Post. She wrote about what she knew; not about what other people know.

And the prime complaint against David Broder is that he writes about what other people know, and claims it as his own knowledge. In academia, we call that plagiarism. And the reason we despise it so, is because it is so intellectually lazy, dishonest, and dishonorable. Besides, its stealing, and in the land of ideas, it's all we have to trade in.

So, does this mean Digby is our Broder? No, but in a sense she might as well be. Broder is the "Dean" of the DC press corps because he's so widely respected. Wasn't always so, of course. Tim Crouse wrote a wonderful book about a Presidential campaign back when Hunter Thompson inspired a whole generation of journalists to write what they knew, rather than what their editors expected. Maybe it's not coincidence Rolling Stone published both Thompson and Crouse. Anyway, in The Boys on the Bus, Crouse famously labelled Broder with the name every working journalist (it seemed) had for him, but never said to his face: "Bigfoot." A "Bigfoot," like Broder, was a journalist who had "risen above" the rank and file reporters who had to eat on the campaign trail and hear the same speech over and over and over, sleep on the bus and in plastic hotel rooms that never changed, no matter where they were. "Bigfoot" would join the bus as some convenient point (convenient to the pundit's schedule), take in "the speech" once, and then write a pontificating column on "what it was all about."

Sometimes, the only difference between "Bigfoot" and prominent bloggers is that the prominent bloggers don't even get invited onto the bus.

I was listening to Laura Flanders today, from a talk she gave in a bookstore in Boulder, Colorado about her new book, Blue Grit. She didn't talk about bloggers and pundits and the distortions of the media, except in passing (I'm not sure she mentioned bloggers at all, frankly. Never hear 'em mentioned on Democracy Now!, either, come to think of it. Aside from Jon Stewart, that's about all the news I listen to, save for NPR; so maybe I'm not getting out enough....). What she talked about was grass-roots organizing, was vote drives to get people registered, and more drives to get them to vote; was how activist groups have pushed mayors to make enough ballots and machines available to the people who want to vote (when the numbers go up and the number of ballots or machines doesn't, well....), and how many American cities with over 500,000 population have Democratic mayors (Bill White is not officially a Democrat, because Houston "officially" has non-partisan city elections, but he worked in Clinton's administration), and how Howard Dean's effort to make the Democratic party a presence in all 50 states was both effective and would eventually pay off. And in short, after 1 hour, I had more sense of hope in the political process than I've had from weeks spent grousing about Harry Reid and John McCain and the MSM. These are not stories about people blogging or even complaining about how unfair and one-sided the MSM is, or how obtuse and worthless the "Beltway crowd" is. These are stories of people actually making a difference in the political process. Ms. Flanders is convinced they are creating a real change in national politics.

Greil Marcus has a new book coming out soon. According to the publisher:

Marcus considers the birth of America as a New Jerusalem, a place of promises so vast that they could only be betrayed--and how from that betrayal emerged the nation's prophetic voice, the voice that calls America's citizens to self-judgment. Over the course of our history, Marcus finds that the prophetic voice has sounded less and less in the political realm--where it can be heard in the words of John Winthrop, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, Jr.--and more in the work of individual artists, including Philip Roth, David Lynch, Sinclair Lewis, John Dos Passos, David Thomas of Pere Ubu, Allen Ginsberg, the band Heavens to Betsy, Bill Pullman, and Sheryl Lee.
Obviously I haven't read it yet, and the reviews at Amazon take a different spin than the publisher's puffery. But still, it's an interesting notion that we have a national voice that calls us to self-judgment. That seems to be where blogs stem from, oddly enough. I say "oddly enough" because the "call to self-judgment" is so clearly a religious one (Marcus apparently focusses on the work of two prominent American pastors, and only one politician), and left blogistan is often so allergic to any talk of religion at all. History, of course, is rife with such ironies. And maybe Marcus is right, maybe he's wrong; but I not one binding thread among the three figures he cites: they all had serious responsibilities for their positions in the real world. By "serious responsibilities," I mean they had obligations both to an abstraction (their faith, their political philosophy) and to other people; lots of other people. What obligations do bloggers have, beyond the ones they try to pin on people like David Broder, who in turn tries, in his columns, to pin those same obligations on politicians? An obligation to the "truth"? Hmmmm...the greatest abstraction of them all. Does blogging, then, reduce to Ezra Pound's exclamation: "Hang it all, Robert Browning, there can be but one 'Sordello'! But 'Sordello,' and my 'Sordello'?" Which truth, in other words, are bloggers to commit to? Even Digby doesn't know:

The netroots – the progressive blogosphere – consists of a very lively and disparate group of citizens who are political observers, activists, readers, writers, entrepreneurs, communicating and organizing via the Internet. We have opera-loving liberals from Georgia, NASCAR-loving progressives from Chicago, and Grateful Dead-loving Democrats from Florida. We are from everywhere, and our common tribal signifiers aren’t social status or professional authority or region.
It's an almost Whitmanesque catalog, but ultimately it means nothing. The only connective tissue she identifies is passion, and "in this era of Republican corruption, excess, and failure, that passion sometimes manifests itself as anger." All well and good, but as I've stated elsewhere, even that anger seems to be running its course. How long, after all, can you stay angry? How often can you return to the well of outrage without either blowing up, or giving up? As the Desert Fathers understood, passion may well lead you to the pursuit of your life, but sooner or later acedie sets in, and then what? Has left blogistan reached the point of acedie? If not now, it will; inevitably.

With only a center pole to hold up the big tent bloggers like Digby imagine the internet has cast over this vast realm of the passionately involved, the group itself gathers only around that pole and wraps itself more tightly and tightly against it, especially as the tent itself shrinks into the truest of the true believers. What is needed are many tent poles to hold the tent up in many places, but those poles come from a broader sense of purpose, and a greater appreciation of both history and tradition. Left blogistan has neither. I've yet to encounter anyone who appreciates the Democratic loss of 1972 in the contest of the Iraq war today, mostly because the majority of people I encounter on blogs weren't alive in 1972. Vietnam is a history lesson for them. The Cold War is as remote as the Middle Ages, and just as unimaginable. Which is not a criticism, but an observation. Left blogistan will gain some roots, some purpose, some value, when it gains a real sense of history, a real sense of reality. Journalists don't notably have a strong sense of history, but good journalists have a better grasp of causation, of connection, of what preceded and why, than columnists ever display.

Bloggers could learn a thing or two from that. If blogging is going to amount to anything, it's going to have to do the kind of work Laura Flanders describes, not ape the kind of work bloggers despise. So far, left blogistan seems to be better at knowing what it doesn't like.

It's not a lot to build on.

Does this mean, then, we swing to the other extreme: that blogs are useless because they aren't bodies in the streets or canvassers covering neighborhoods? No. Back to Richard Rorty, as interpreted by Robert Bauer:

Orwell's claim was (as Rorty interpreted it) more modest, holding that when we try to find our political footing, "we do so by talking to other people... [and] we hope that these others will say something to keep our web of beliefs and desires coherent," and steer us on a course toward progressive goals.
That's surely a worthy goal and laudable effort of blogs. In fact, Bauer links the two for me: the Bush Presidency, and blogging:

Reflecting on Rorty's views, it is hard not to see how this also marks out a crucial point of distinction between Bush and progressive politics. A conservative think-tank scribe, who has had quite enough of the current administration, once explained that in the Bush White House, there is no respect for argument. The president is a "decider": he governs by instinct, and he appeals to the public to accept that it is for the best because he means to do his best. In the last years, the death of argument within the Republican Party -- the attempted enforcement of orthodoxy, defined as a primal form of loyalty to presidential will -- has cost it and the country dearly.

This administration has not given up the form, the outward appearance, of argument. Its advocacy is tied to specific conclusions; it assembles "facts" toward judgments that are already made and not to be relinquished, except under irresistible political pressure. Here we have talking points, the message of the day, the execution of a game-plan. Richard Hofstadter eloquently captured the feel of this kind of argument; and his analysis is by no means limited to the "paranoid" argumentative style that he famously described. What Hofstadter exposed was a kind of argument mounted as a defense against genuine exchange: "a defensive act which shuts off his [the exponent's] receptive apparatus and protects him from having to attend to disturbing considerations that do not fortify his ideas. He has all the evidence he needs; he is not a receiver, he is a transmitter."

The death of argument has contributed, for this president, to a disfigured brand of conservatism. Rorty would have observed, too, that the conservatism that emerged from this dialectical void did not work. Rorty would urge that progressives avoid the same mistake, by embarking on vigorous, continuous and open argument, in the interests of conceiving, adapting and achieving a progressive -- and no less important, functional -- program to relieve unnecessary human suffering.
I must admit, I'm not sure what "necessary human suffering" would look like, but we'll leave that rhetorical examination for another time. I'm not, in other words, adopting Bauer's words here, so much as confiscating them to make my point. Bloggers like to draw a cause and effect relationship between their anger and the decline in the President's standing in opinion polls. It's always struck me as small beer at best, considering Congress seems as unimpressed with those polls as the Administration is, but let that pass. It's the causal link I simply don't see. Many who didn't live through Vietnam also imagine the anti-war movement ended that war. It did nothing of the sort, although, as Bauer notes Rorty acknowledged, it did help hasten the end of that war. But what ended Vietnam is also what is ending the Iraq debacle: the entire policy has been a complete failure. Vietnam was at least partically dedicated to the "domino theory" of the spread of Communism, an idea so vague and general it could never be proven nor disproven, except in disaster (which, ironically, is what finally disproved it). As Bauer points out, Bush's failure of argument, his refusal to countenance argument, is collapsing under its own weight. Perhaps in a monarchy he'd have fared a bit better, but in a democracy the failure to allow argument is always, ultimately, fatal. It's not the kind of end we'd like to give someone credit for, so much as the kind of end inevitable from the failed premises of the enterprise. We in left blogistan are not even in the position of slouching toward Bethlehem to give birth to something new; the entire structure is simply collapsing from design failure. The best we can do now is clear away the rubble and present new and better plans for the future. And recognize that, if we are going to be prophets calling America to self-judgment, we've got to have more going for us than internet access and opinions.

We've got to do things like organize voters; and get out the vote; and insist local bodies make the voting machines and ballots available to all of us who want to participate in this democracy; which, after all, is ours, not theirs. Whoever "they" are.

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