Monday, October 17, 2011

blogging is a system of control

Matt Yglesias calls attention to an interview with Glenn Greenwald. Both the interview and Yglesias's commentary on it invoke ideas that are close to my heart. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Yglesias and Greenwald are considerably more optimistic about the state of blogging than I am. In fact what's remarkable to me is that the current status of blogging is the absolute worst of both worlds from traditional media and the conditions of the early blogosphere.

The first and most important thing to understand about mainstream blogging is that it is made up of a numerically tiny and considerably homogeneous group of connected insiders. Criticisms of the prominent blogosphere are often blunted by online mythology, and that is nowhere more clear than in the idea that there is this vast swath of disparate people from different backgrounds, all of whom contribute to this open and accessible online forum where ideas are judged on merit.

The truth of the matter is that the blogosphere is largely a closed loop. The ability of individuals, particularly those dedicated to amateur blogging (out of principle or out of practicality), to penetrate the larger conversation is quite small. As Yglesias laments, the capture of the blogosphere by the media and think tank apparatus means that there are now a whole host of gatekeepers who rigorously police the online discussion and determine which voices are heard. It's hard to think of anyone who has come up in prominence the last few years who was not quickly co-opted into the service of a large media or political entity. This ensures that those who participate in the prominent blogosphere (the "official" conversation) are from a very limited set of backgrounds, both personal and ideological. Because mainstream media publications and major political organizations draw from only those blessed by the shambling apparatus of American achievement, those who make it in now are almost all coming from the world of status games, big name colleges, and perennial overachievement-- a subset of our young people that has far more in common, demographically and ideologically, than it has in difference. And because mainstream media and our political policy edifice are dedicated to the protection of a particular economic system and strata, getting in also means kowtowing to a narrow range of political argument. As is usual in our politics the appearance of internal disagreement gives cover for a broad conformity of ideas.

I am aware that, if this critique penetrates, it will speak against exactly what I am arguing. And I don't mean to suggest that the system is beyond reform, or that the broad conditions I'm describing don't permit exceptions. The question is whether the system is conducive to internal critique, whether ideas like mine could ever exceed my small readership, and whether this kind of criticism could come from someone who has not been met with considerable opprobrium.

Then there is the system of social control that I have long identified. The world of elite media and politics is dominated by social relationships. The environment in which most of these people work and live is a small fishbowl in which the connected and influential rub shoulders all the time. It's an open secret that those from supposedly antagonistic political backgrounds socialize together. There's nothing wrong with that in any specific instance of friendship and camaraderie, and even I'm not critic enough to suggest that people shouldn't be friends. (Indeed, it's precisely that this social environment is so natural, human, and understandable that makes addressing its consequences tricky.) But in aggregate you get a tremendous amount of social capture, and it has real relevance. Those who have social commitments to their ideological enemies have great incentive to moderate their political messages and express disagreement in particular and anodyne terms that lead towards certain outcomes in discussion. My standard example is the case of health care reform, a straightforwardly moral issue where the moral argument was often ignored in favor of a bloodless policy argument. In an environment where the public was often skeptical of or hostile towards particular policy details about health care reform, the refusal to speak about the need for that reform in unambiguously moral terms was a tremendous failure by the liberal messaging machine. I have no doubt that this failure was caused in part by the discomfort many connected liberal bloggers felt in expressing moral condemnation of the selfsame conservatives and libertarians they were drinking buddies with.

(You'll note that a lot of these problems could be avoided if the DC media and policy system was decentralized. Obviously, there's got to be a central locus of national government, and that requires a DC press corp. But in the Internet age, the vast majority of policy people have no legitimate need to reside in DC. Many of the media and think tank operations currently operating out of Washington could be removed from that environment without any meaningful impact on their ability to analyze, explain, or advocate. These institutions remain where they are, I think, primarily out of inertia and drift.)

There are exceptions. Greenwald has remained independent, and his geographical distance from DC is both symbolically and practically important. Atrios is truly independent, buttressed by his longevity and grandfathered in from a time when you could be prominent without being attached to any particular legitimizing institution. And there are of course plenty of voices that are smart and principled and worthwhile operating within the bounds of the conventional, approved ideological range. Being within the enforced political boundaries doesn't render someone unprincipled, unworthy of being listened to, or illegitimate. It's just that there are tons of those voices in the establishment blogosphere, almost none from outside the approved alternatives, and the common assumption that there is great disagreement and ideological diversity is the kind of distortion that has negative consequences.

As usual, this is a critique that people will think I am making with great personal judgment, and as usual I'm actually not. (Actually, the insistence on the personal origin of system-wide critique is one of the ways the system is protected.) I have a great deal of sympathy for a lot of the young people who come up into the political media world. People who have legitimate and noble desire to live and work in this environment aren't bad people in any sense. But they face an environment that relentlessly influences their political makeup and steers them again and again towards establishment orthodoxy. From the minute young politicos emerge into the DC system, they are taught the importance of coloring within the lines and of not rocking the boat socially. The message that is delivered unambiguously is that those who want to make a life and career in these fields must do so by playing ball and deferring to authority, convention, and the social authority. I'm sure many who have gone through the process or are going through it now could diagnose the problem far better than I can. But if they want to remain in the game, they have to play by the rules, and so you see their dilemma. The end result is that generations of passionate young people arrive fiery and combative, ready to buck the system, and leave as creatures of that system. It's perverse.

You should note that the personal doesn't have to operate in the actual social sphere for social conditioning to happen. Razib Khan mentioned me in a post earlier this year that I think is indicative of a certain kind of subtle control. Khan is right that I have a certain reputation, to the degree that anyone thinks about me online at all. (Which isn't much.) But note that he is both describing reality and reinforcing that reality. When someone like Khan speaks obliquely about bad reputations, he is reinforcing the idea of "blogosphere as high school," and further separating the officially condoned from the officially excluded. People are very aware of these kinds of cues, and they are all over the place in blogs. I imagine that Khan or others enforcing these social constraints would say that my reputation is the product of my conduct and not of the content of my opinions, but I find this divide totally illusory. People with fringe views are constantly buffeted with accusations of bad interpersonal conduct. But there's nowhere that the ideological ends and the social begins. People who hold ideas that are outside of the narrow partisan boilerplate will inevitable be accused of violating some sort of community standards, when in fact the reason for their marginalization is the unpopularity of their ideas.

(You'll note that these are not mutually exclusive. It could be that I both have a bad reputation because I don't conform to narrow political constraints and also that I'm an asshole.)

Finally, one of the most important mechanisms of control is the cone of silence. I've been making some version or another of this argument for the four years or so that I've been blogging. And while I've gotten some limited attention to some of the issues that I've written about in that time, I've gotten no purchase whatsoever for the ideas presented in this post. I am sure people disagree with my opinions on how blogs work, but I've never read any counterargument. I don't mean that I've never agreed with arguments against my ideas. I mean that I've literally never encountered one. I am unaware of anyone even trying to rebut me here. That doesn't mean that I'm right, but it does mean that these ideas go undiscussed and thus unamplified.

The point isn't that people should be paying attention to me and my ideas specifically. The point is that when such a small number of people account for such a large amount of the linking and commentary that creates discussion points, there's tremendous opportunity for unapproved ideas to disappear into the ether of an intentional lack of attention. Arguments don't need to be rebutted in a context where they can be effectively ignored. In fact the very act of rebuttal suggests that an idea has at least merit enough to require argument. An ignored argument enjoys no such legitimacy.

I'm not alleging coordinated conspiracy here. People don't email each other and say "shh, nobody respond to such and such argument, it's too uncomfortable for our social circle." It's just the natural consequence of symmetry in the professional and social needs of influential and connected people. Impolite and impolitic ideas are excluded by bloggers of influence because that is human nature. The conformity and homogeneity of bloggers of influence means that most will find the same ideas impolite and impolitic. Conspiracy isn't necessary when mutual necessity will do. The end result is an arena of ideas that is neither open nor varied nor democratic nor fair.

Now, in the interest of self-disclosure: as a graduate student, I am myself part of a system that suggests broad political and ideological latitude for its constituents that nevertheless influences and corrupts personal opinion endlessly. I think that the controls are far more subtle and effectively less noxious than those within the political realm, but as a paid-up (in all but the literal sense, I'm sorry to say) member of that system I am of course inclined to think that. I express no criticism here that wouldn't in one way or the other be an apt description of the compromises I make all the time in my own quest to professionalize. It's just that my own petty corruptions don't help to dictate the political policy of the United States.

43 comments:

thedukeofurl said...

A similar pattern takes place in the print sphere. Here is an ex.

Oh, @Jemima_Khan is joining us at @NewStatesman as Associate Editor bit.ly/pUal7t

Why have they selected here rather than someone who might need the job? I think we know.

maria said...

I remain extremely unconvinced that bloggers actually have much of an impact on U.S. political policy. It is slight, of course ... Yglesias being at CAP has probably influenced CAP to some small extent. I think Greenwald has probably had some small measureable impact on a couple issues.

Yet I work in the think tank world in DC (as an editor) and my anecdotal impression is that politicans, policy analysts, and people in academia (all of whom very rarely blog / read blogs) have almost all of the real power in terms of setting policy. The blogosphere is a relatively small echo chamber which perhaps seems much bigger to the people in it.

Steve Roth said...

Manufacturing Consent...

Anonymous said...

Noam Chomsky is regarded worldwide as the most important left intellectual in America, perhaps the most important left intellectual America has ever produced (don't take my word for it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Top_100_Public_Intellectuals_Poll). He is an unbelievably prolific writer and interviewee. I remember killing some time in the reference section of an academic library back in the 80s and running across a one-volume bibliography of Chomsky. Let that sink in for a moment; his bibliography was book-length 25 years ago. So of course, if you read the liberal-left American blogsphere you will find constant references to Chomsky, right?

Well, no. With rare exceptions they dare not even breathe his name, and when they do it's almost invariably paired with the formulation, "I don't agree with everything Noam Chomsky says but..."

If there was ever a demonstration of Freddie's thesis here, that's it.

Handle said...

There's only so much room on the A-list of any niche.

Razib said...

I imagine that Khan or others enforcing these social constraints would say that my reputation is the product of my conduct and not of the content of my opinions, but I find this divide totally illusory.

i don't know. seems like you have more in common in substance (policy) with some of your critics than i do with them. and i generally start to skip over your comments on other blogs not because of their substance (i'm right-wing, but i can grant some validity in your critiques), but because of the often personalized and accusatory nature.

so, for example, you sent me an email which totally mistook a misanthropic lefty college student for a neo-eugenicist. i can see where you came from on the substance, but you made a personal assessment of katherine which was offbase on the substance.

also, it seems conflicts between you and other bloggers tends to explode into drama. it's kind of interesting in a car-crash sort of way, but it gets old.

glenn greenwald has some of the same issues. but he doesn't go "meta" as often as you freddie.

Paul said...

"Corp" for "corps" was a pretty rad slip.

Freddie said...

If you want to avoid drama, you probably shouldn't make vague allusions to a years-old email that you cite out of context and without direct quotation. Just some free advice.

Anonymous said...

It's the Ron Paul theory of the blogosphere. No matter how brilliant Ron's ideas, no matter that he has been ideologically consistent for decades, the mainstream media completely ignore him. Why? Because it's high school and he isn't one of the cool kids.

individualfrog said...

substance (policy)

My favorite Yglesian notion is back!

Razib said...

freddie, empty rhetoric. you have a proven track record of dramatic interpersonal conflicts which others have to read about because they see references all over the blogsophere. i don't so much. but hey, if you think your riposte was clever, that's cool.

Freddie said...

It is not a coincidence that I make critiques such as this one and that people within conventional boundaries talk incessantly about my "reputation." You are here enacting exactly the kind of social conditioning I'm talking about.

Freddie said...

But suit yourself.

Spencer Thomas said...

I think that you really may be onto something here. Good post.

Jargon said...

It's always great when someone like Razib here offers strong evidence in support of a post right in the comments.

Razib said...

lol. ok. first time i've been accused of having 'conventional boundaries.'

Freddie said...

I don't think you are a conventional thinker-- I think you are among the most interesting thinkers I read online. I think that when you focus on my reputation you unintentionally reinforce the social capture that I'm describing. (I would never accuse you of being a boring thinker!)

I just don't know what good talk of reputation does, personally.

Razib said...

ok, ok. i read your whole post, but i'm wondering if i honestly didn't "get it." i mean, i'm not much into political blogging, but i've seen references to you online (and sometimes offline!) all the time. i don't see you as a social outsider or anything, and i speak as someone who's not really "in the mix" in the internet circles you run in (since i focus on science and don't engage with other blogs much).

Anonymous said...

Are you sure you aren't just getting the 'Crazy Uncle at the Wedding' cone of silence? See the aforementioned Noam Chomsky, minister of socialist-anarchist (a fictitious political system, at least heretofore) propaganda. People shouting about unicorns tend to be ignored unless they are at the D and D festival. I recommend coming forth with some specific policy recommendations and maybe some hard numbers and see how if you get noticed more.

individualfrog said...

specific policy recommendations

I am just loving this

jcapan said...

As Steve Roth says, the following passage clearly echoes Manufacturing Consent:

"But they face an environment that relentlessly influences their political makeup and steers them again and again towards establishment orthodoxy. From the minute young politicos emerge into the DC system, they are taught the importance of coloring within the lines and of not rocking the boat socially. The message that is delivered unambiguously is that those who want to make a life and career in these fields must do so by playing ball and deferring to authority, convention, and the social authority. I'm sure many who have gone through the process or are going through it now could diagnose the problem far better than I can. But if they want to remain in the game, they have to play by the rules, and so you see their dilemma. The end result is that generations of passionate young people arrive fiery and combative, ready to buck the system, and leave as creatures of that system."

Chomsky made this case about journalism school grads entering corporate media over 20 years ago. He added that the grooming began long before their interviews, that a principal objective at top universities was delineating the appropriate scope of dissent. Whatever their origins, and setting aside their “outsider pose,” it’s rich to observe mainstream bloggers aping the establishment mores of media they sought to change/replace. They’ve merely replicated (generally speaking) the same incestuous, ego-stroking, circular discourse. By doing so, they’ve self-contained in such a way that they’re no longer a real threat to power. And thus their irrelevancy compared to the protest movements underway—they sit there scratching their heads, trying to reconcile what the fuck it is that they’ve been doing in the age of Obama with what the folks in sleeping bags are doing.

As for the HCR debate:

“I have no doubt that this failure was caused in part by the discomfort many connected liberal bloggers felt in expressing moral condemnation of the selfsame conservatives and libertarians they were drinking buddies with.”

I think they were far more concerned about alienating their think tanks and the democratic party apparatus they depend on for funding or access, let alone friendship. The “liberal” establishment abandoned moral policy objectives, and bloggers who provided them cover are complicit with the travesty that resulted. Ascribing that failure to concerns about their drinking buddies is to give them a pass they don’t merit. They rolled over b/c it was in their interest to do so.

Michael said...

I think I for one just honestly don't follow. What exactly is happening in this blogosphere that would not be happening in a nearly-ideal blogosphere? Who has to do what differently so that the blogosphere we have more closely approaches the ideal?

Or is this about something that would happen in an ideal blogosphere as well - just pointing out an inherent limitation of the structure? If so, as a result of the unfortunateness of this inherent limitation, would we like to have a different thing rather than any blogosphere? What would that thing be?

grahamghana said...

This was an enjoyable post. The elite have always tried to co-opt mailable voices to their own agenda. Over here in Ghana, some embassy's have tried to use bloggers to disseminate their own propaganda. We often feel flattered by these invitations especially if we don't understand the role of the media (and blogosphere). Like other commentators, reading this article brought to mind Chomsky but also the Situationist concept of recuperation.

Freddie said...

I am just loving this

I really believe that they can't help themselves. I mean literally can't help it.

Paul said...

Freddie, I think your writing on "the blogosphere" is always interesting, and your theories on the subject seem promising. Have you thought about devoting the blog specifically to this subject, or at least addressing it more regularly? It's a topic you return to frequently as it is; it seems to really engage you. Why not try to make a real case for it?

People keep bringing up Chomsky and _Manufacturing Consent_; there's a good example right there. Chomsky didn't just keep referencing his idea about a systemic propaganda institution---he demonstrated it. I know it would be a lot of work, but it seems the Net and blogosphere would be, in some ways, uniquely suited to such a project.

I think what you do now is valuable, but it's kind of what everyone else does. Your thoughts on the news of the day are more developed, more conscientious, and better expressed than most, but they're still just your thoughts on the news of the day. I know a sustained thesis project would be difficult and time consuming, and it's easy for me to just sit here telling you to do it. I guess I just want to let you know that I'm never bored when you write about this stuff, and others don't seem bored either, and I think more people than you realize would welcome it if you wanted to go deeper.

(By the same token, I think IOZ's blog would be more valuable if he devoted it to bolstering his recurring thesis---that oppressive government is not a malfunction but rather the system's intended function---instead of just using it as a stick with which to clobber Digby over the head. But I can't imagine IOZ taking advice. You, on the other hand, seem open to it; I hope I'm not misreading that.)

Anonymous said...

You know what the least represented group is in the blogosphere? People who aren't smart. I'm not being facetious here - look at political bloggers and you won't find a whole lot of people (I'm hesitant to say "anyone", although I think that's the case) who is below average in terms of that combination of verbal skills and analysis that we generally call "intelligence." Why is that? Well, I'd imagine that people who aren't good at writing/being persuasive don't make very good political bloggers.

I bring this up because this post is focused on material impediments to blogging - basically "who owns the machinery." But there are fewer impediments of that sense to being a successful blogger than there are to practically anything else one could do. The sorting we see happening is happening not because anyone owns the machinery of blogger but precisely because readers make judgements about who they want to read based on content, and people decide whether they want to blog and if so, what about.

So: Matthew Yglesias went to Harvard. Which do you think is more likely - that there was some sort of Harvard-related sheepskin effect, or that the qualities that Harvard recognized in him (and possibly the qualities he cultivated there) matched his writing well with what readers wanted to read? And if it's the latter, what exactly is anyone supposed to do about it? And if you agree that people who aren't very smart or verbal are vastly underrepresented among bloggers, are you going to start searching them out and reading them?

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

"It's hard to think of anyone who has come up in prominence the last few years who was not quickly co-opted into the service of a large media or political entity."

Wait, doesn't co-opted here mean "hired"? So you're saying that it's hard to think of anyone whose writing was interesting enough to get much notice who didn't get rewarded with a job as a blogger? That sounds like the system works!

I assume you're mostly thinking about Ta-Neshi Coats, who you've mildly dissed before. But he's pretty much the opposite of the caste you seem to be talking about --- dude went to Howard! Do you think being hired by The Atlantic changed the quality of his writing? I mean, I know you find him somewhat unsympathetic to some of your views, but he's hardly part of the elite. Or rather, he has a background as far from the media elite as it gets, but wrote so well that the elite had to recognize him as merit-having, which is a pretty good way for a system to work (unless you really think that poor writers and weak thinkers needs to be better represented).

Or are you more saying it's not where you're from, it's where you're at? That is, you're mad because no one in the blogging big leagues is an Chomskyite anarcho-syndicalist? If that's so, then all this manufacturing consent stuff is a dodge. There's lot of ideologies that are regarded as outside the realm of serious conversation---prolific and entertaining (but racist and genuinely evil) writer Steve Sailer isn't going to get hired by Newsweek either, and I can't imagine that bugs you much. If you're mad because your ideology isn't in there, you're better off making the case for that ideology rather than trying to insist that elite media outlets shouldn't discriminate on the basis of ideology. If you think media outlets should offer more representation to ideologies of The People, anti-immigrant hysteria is way ahead of you in line.

Also: You can't possibly really mean you find totally illusory a divide between conduct and content. Do you really and truly believe that a person who's expressing a correct thought can't push himself out of the conversation by being such a dick that no one listens? Really, you think such a distinction is illusory? Really?

Freddie said...

I assume you're mostly thinking about Ta-Neshi Coats

Not at all, actually.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Well okay then---how 'bout this?
(feel free to delete previous comment or not, as you prefer)


"It's hard to think of anyone who has come up in prominence the last few years who was not quickly co-opted into the service of a large media or political entity."

Wait, doesn't co-opted here mean "hired"? So you're saying that it's hard to think of anyone whose writing was interesting enough to get much notice who didn't get rewarded with a job as a blogger? That sounds like the system works!

Someone like Ta-Neshi Coates, who emphatically did not come from the Ivy Leagues, got hired by East Coast establishment center The Atlantic because they liked his writing. That is in part because they find it ideologically congenial, but what media outlet doesn't hire people they find ideologically congenial? That's kind of the point of a media outlet! But is that co-option? Only if you think his expressed value system changed once he was hired; otherwise, it's simply rewarding merit, which is rather not the same thing.


Or are you more saying it's not where you're from, it's where you're at? That is, you're mad because no one in the blogging big leagues is an Chomskyite anarcho-syndicalist? If that's so, then all this manufacturing consent stuff is a dodge. There's lot of ideologies that are regarded as outside the realm of serious conversation---prolific, entertaining, racist and evil writer Steve Sailer isn't going to get hired by Newsweek either, and I can't imagine that bugs you much. If you're mad because your ideology isn't represented, you're better off making the case for that ideology rather than trying to insist that elite media outlets shouldn't discriminate on the basis of ideology. If you just think media outlets should offer more representation to ideologies of The People, anti-immigrant hysteria is way ahead of you in line.



Also: You can't possibly really mean you find totally illusory a divide between conduct and content. Do you really and truly believe that a person who's expressing a correct thought can't push himself out of the conversation by being such a dick that no one listens? Really, you think such a distinction is illusory? That as long as you're making an argument for the right side, no rhetorical technique is off limits? Really?

Freddie said...

Nah, I wouldn't ever delete a comment.

Freddie said...

Well, not never never. Spam. I deleted some personal threats once. And there are a few choice slurs I would delete.

Gadfly said...

Freddie, I think you overrate Atrios. Really, not much different than a Kos.

Speaking as a left-liberal of sorts, yes, the political blogosohere of the alleged "left" likes to squash or tut-tut voices that wander too far left of Democratic support. And, then, you have alleged liberal followers who swallow that. When a solid one-third of OWS thinks Obama is the answer, it's a sad state.

Beyond that, I'd largely agree with Maria. So, let's call this a #newmediafail.

jcapan said...

"When a solid one-third of OWS thinks Obama is the answer, it's a sad state."

Fuck, seriously!? You got a link for that poll?

Gadfly said...

Jcapan ... IIRC, one of the AP stories about OWS, about a week ago, had that as a comment. I don't know how scientific the survey was, but, to be honest, it wouldn't surprise me. Given the number of younger people there wearing a fair amount of "branded" clothes or accessories, the "branding" background of Adbusters and other things, that one-third wouldn't surprise this Green voter at all. After all, what is Obama but a brand vacuous of real content?

jcapan said...

Gadfly,

I've read some more promising descriptions (see below) but from afar it's hard getting good content.

http://symbalitics.blogspot.com/2011/10/some-notes-from-ows.html

http://www.correntewire.com/dont_be_afraid_to_say_revolution

Just really hard for me to fathom that that many of the occupiers are that daft, to think WS is the problem and Obama is (even part of) the solution.

J. Otto Pohl said...

Judging by the number of comments you get I am willing to wager a lot more people read your blog than read mine. But, I found there is little that can be done to garner readership. But, since I live in Ghana maybe I can get some of that embassy money for blogging. ;-)

Anonymous said...

In every or nearly every aspect, I've been making these arguments about the internet for years. So, excuse me if I applaud your analysis.

Your site, which I found linked via "nakedcapitalism", is now on my required browsing list.

"proximity1"

--sig. line: Read Neil Postman's Technopoly and Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason, Vintage Books, Random House, New York.--

Paul said...

nakedcapitalism linked to here? Freddie, you may not be reaching the masses directly, but it's obvious that many of the best bloggers are reading you. That in itself must be moving the Overton Window leftward.

proximity1 said...

RE:

" Anonymous said...

You know what the least represented group is in the blogosphere? People who aren't smart. I'm not being facetious here - look at political bloggers and you won't find a whole lot of people (I'm hesitant to say "anyone", although I think that's the case) who is below average in terms of that combination of verbal skills and analysis that we generally call "intelligence." Why is that? Well, I'd imagine that people who aren't good at writing/being persuasive don't make very good political bloggers.

I bring this up because this post is focused on material impediments to blogging - basically "who owns the machinery." But there are fewer impediments of that sense to being a successful blogger than there are to practically anything else one could do. The sorting we see happening is happening not because anyone owns the machinery of blogger but precisely because readers make judgements about who they want to read based on content, and people decide whether they want to blog and if so, what about. "

-----

Unfortunately, this is an illusion. Even in the 'discussion' end of the 'blogosphere' the quality of opinion and analysis is roughly reflective of the generally very poor level found in other media outside of the internets. Think about it: the web can hardly be better than the society in which, from which, it's produced. English-speaking societies are poor in insight and analysis (which is true of Western industrial societies in general, scandinavia excepted in part).

This is true across the spectrum, from the so-called "elite" class to the rest of society. Think of any opinion, however absurd, ridiculous, and you can find it expressed and defended by these supposedly smarter, more articulate opinion bloggers somewhere (or many places) in blogs.

Unfortunately, as elsewhere, "people who aren't smart" are not just well represented on the discussion blogs, they predominate.

Adam said...

I'm not sure that this describes a problem as much as it describes the mechanism of democracy. That is, certainly one's opinions are influenced by surroundings and by personal relationships (whether they be social connections between bloggers or among graduate students).

How else would consensus or agreement develop? Through the pure unadulterated force of sound logic? Personally, I do not think human beings work that way. We compromise because there are social pressures to do so, not because we make some coldly rational decision.

That said, I certainly agree that the quality of any discourse is enhanced by seeking to pull in voices that disrupt the existing consensus. The challenge is how to do that effectively.

Adam said...

Also, as to the health care example, I don't think people shied away from moral argument because it is impolite to call the other side immoral (and some, e.g., Alan Grayson, didn't shy away). I think people shied away from the moral arguments because they felt that we lost on the moral arguments in the 1990s. That is, left of center notions of fairness and providing for all simply don't work in the current political environment.

And I really think that's be bottom line. Right wing ideas have so thoroughly trounced the leftists of the past that they are either ridiculed or dismissed out of hand by a general audience. Perhaps it's an artifact of the New Democrat and New Labour movements, or maybe those movements are the result of how thoroughly the left lost the argument. It's just too easy and too effective to be rebutted by the accusation that you simply favor inefficient big government.

Regardless, I think anyone with left of center sensibilities tends to be mortally afraid of expressing them directly. Social capture might play a role in that. But I think self preservation plays a bigger role.

Biggie said...

I know I'm late to the comments but this confused me:

"socialist-anarchist (a fictitious political system, at least heretofore)..."

What do you mean by that? Do you mean "fictitious " in the sense that there aren't really any societies organized along social anarchist lines? Would you consider something anarcho-capitalism to be fictious as well? If so my confusion is a matter of word choice; calling unused politcal systems like social anarchism or anarcho-capitalism "fictitious" just seems odd to me.