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.