Friday, July 15, 2011

A Response To Jonathan Rauch's Trolling

I suppose Rauch believes he's communicating some edgy, insightful truth that blogger self-righteousness censors when he makes his maiden post a treatise against blogging as a medium, but really, his critique is little more than a commentary on the limits of his tastes - which are often extensions of limitations in exposure. Like most crypto-conservatives, he veils his distaste in the language of concern for some broader principle (in this case, quality in the whole of writing and thinking) and fear that a blasphemous new thing can presume to rival or take over something he's familiar with. And like all crypto-conservatism, it's simply a reworded variant of the same refrain: "how dare something new come up and get popular without me liking it":
Every time someone who could have done good science does sloppy science, or does worse journalism instead of better journalism, or mediocre writing instead of fine writing, it's a loss. When resources are scarce—and of course human talent is the most scarce and precious resource of all—it matters if blogging is inducing ADD in many of our best writers and thinkers, or driving talent away altogether.

I watch with growing concern as young journalists get channeled into content mills where they post three, seven, who knows how many blog snippets a day. I spoke with one young guy who told me he puts up seven posts a day and would like to break into longer form by doing only three. One of the most promising young journalists I know couldn't take it and quit for medical school. Another young writer tells me he longs to "get off the hamster wheel."

To learn writing and thinking in this environment is to be conditioned to compete with a blizzard of links and ads and comments and emails and IMs and...and...and... You can't assume the reader will stay with you beyond the next link. You learn to deliver a payoff in every sentence and apply attitude with a trowel. Once you acclimate to pushy, punchy blogspeak, the habit can be hard to break.

Naturally, he ignores how easily this vacuous and non-specific list of complaints can be switched. One could complain that reporting is inherently bad because you can't assume that the reader will stay beyond the next page. Or how the conventions of traditional reporting are structurally hazardous to creativity in prose and exhaustive explanations of policy. Or how the political environment of reporting creates a philosophical restriction on the kinds of view one can express and the level of openness they can be expressed with. Or how the economic constraints of magazines and newspapers inherently limits the flow of information - both in amount and variety. Or how the nature of hiring tends to overwhelmingly favor people from backgrounds that are detached from the class-concerns and class-realities of the less financed and less educated. But I'm not going to do that because I've read enough reporting to see how its flaws don't diminish its capacity for value, which is the key problem with Rauch's posts. He thinks the flaws are definining and insurmountable while ignoring the two sentences that undermine the medium-inherent scope of his case:

There are a few great bloggers out there. Andrew Sullivan is one of them.

He didn't expound, but a few assumptions can be made about why he thinks this: Sullivan's supposed quality as a blogger doesn't solely come from his value as a writer - and I'm sure he doesn't think that. It comes from his ability to manipulate the demands of the medium to produce a steady flow of art, link aggregation and real-time analysis. You don't just get to see the completed forms of his "developed thoughts", you can see the information and the arguments that inspired his conclusions. It's not a detached "View From Olympus" presented as something he's always thought and felt; it's an exhaustive, understandable and - sometimes - human framework that isn't fairly processed in one-post snippets but in whole months of posts. That's something that only writing combined with the internet can accomplish and it's something that blogging has accomplished continuously. If the medium is inherently bad, how can quality material that couldn't be produced without the medium be possible?

Seeing what caused John Cole's gradual, information/event-led evolution from a conservative reactionary/Bush supporter to being one of the most openly supportive Democratic/liberal voices on the internet is something that couldn't have been observed through just a magazine or a newspaper. The impact of Ta-Nehisi's righteous several year project to understand and contextualize the Civil War couldn't have happened in a book or a newspaper (nor could his exceptional Confederate History Month series). Bloggers who rely on insightful-but-pithy descriptions of institutions they have little respect for (like Atrios or Digby) wouldn't be able to bring concepts like "The Village" and "High Broderism" into full view without spending months (if not years) linking examples and tying those examples into longstanding concepts. The entire campaign against torture (and, indeed, the popularizing of torture writers like Scott Horton, Marcy Wheeler and Glenn Greenwald) wouldn't have been nearly as pronounced without blogging's ability to frame a collection of constant thoughts into a narrative and rawly express the shock and disgust Bush's torture regime (and its defenses) evoked.

Jonathan Rauch's argument is conveniently detached from these events, so there's no reality for him to be accountable to. As long as his argument about the Superiority of Other Mediums is premised entirely on whether it coincides with the reading standard he's used to, or "editorial standards" that limit the range of available voices, he feels he has no reason to note them. By basing his standards on nostalgia, he merely serves to obscure his argument from any reality or standard contrary to the one he's cultivated for himself. He will continue to wriggle and wail against the Uncivil, Useless Blogging strawman he's propped up to justify his narrowly antiquated tastes, and the blogosphere will persevere without his acknowledgment. And in the end, he's either wittingly or unwittingly left with the unsettling truth that the only thing a newspaper and a magazine can do that a blog can't is be liked by him. An endorsement that will be met by the blogosphere with all the relevance it warrants.

Edit: None of this is a de-endorsement of my posts praising Rauch for his excellent pro-gay marriage arguments nor is this a re-endorsement of Sullivan, whose stock in my eyes has decreased even further.

Edit 2: In case the title doesn't make it clear, I'm engaging his argument seriously, even if I'm aware that its presentation, wording, and substance means that it's likely not. I'll be disappointed if his closing post isn't "syke!"