Sunday, September 16, 2012

blogic and the ways of the wonk

During the arguments about teacher unions this past week, I made a simple point: we say we value education, but we don't pay teachers nearly as well as jobs that do nothing of benefit to society. A rejoinder I heard constantly was "see, the difference between a public school teacher and Well-Compensated Useless Job X is that taxes pay for the former. That's why people want to fight to reduce teacher compensation." And I really think that's indicative of a certain shortsightedness that comes from constantly reading and thinking the types of arguments that are featured on blogs. Yes: in a deracinated kind of way, that argument makes sense. But in the larger perspective, it doesn't matter why we don't want to pay teachers. In capitalism, what is valued is what is paid for. As long as teachers make less than those in their same educational cohort, teaching will be correctly perceived as a low paying occupation. The genesis of opposition is irrelevant. And that's what really matters for what we were talking about, what the consequences are for our society.

But the fact that this argument was so incomplete and so unsatisfying (in an discussion where I was explicitly speaking about larger-order societal values) ultimately didn't matter; it was blogical, and in that context that's all that mattered. It ignored the broader substantive implications of what was being discussed, but followed the well-worn patterns of Twitter-friendly argumentation. Blogical arguments proceed from A then to B then to C, even if what we're discussing lives in the interstices between L and Q. Common to blogic are responses that neither reflect on the deeper concerns at hand nor rebut the arguments they consider but rather drag the conversation down whatever alleyway of obfuscation and minutiae is necessary to win a temporary victory. Blogic is the language of those who look for the missing key under the lamp because the light is there.

Blogic is a signalling-laden communicative mode. In addition to expressing the point at hand, blogical argument performs the frequently more-important task of demonstrating that the speaker knows how insiders argue. Terms common to a sophomore economics seminar are the coin of the realm, and their significance and appropriateness are always assumed, never proven. Typically they are dispensed they way an inexperienced cook uses spices, a little more thrown in here and there. These terms are used to defend some simplistic deductive explanation of a complex and shifting phenomena, using the human capacity for narrative to give the sheen of plausibility to explanations that cannot possibly be verified through evidence. All blogical stories are just so stories.

I thought Dylan Matthews fared quite poorly during the Twitter debate that ensued over the CTU strike. (Pardon me for not being able to gracefully link to it all, but then, ephemerality is part of why people like Twitter.) In part this is simply because people like Doug Henwood and Corey Robin are smart and good at arguing. But on a deeper level, I think he failed simply because he is so thoroughly a creature of a narrow blogical mindset. Confronted by people who do not believe that moral arguments can be settled through reference to pie charts, Matthews's instinct was to dig deeper, to reduce away precisely the issues that his interlocuters wanted to discuss. Typical of blogic is the claim "that is not an argument," which always actually means "that is not an argument expressed in the idiom that I expect." This insistence should naturally attract suspicion and rejection, but because so many of prominence are existentially blogical, you can usually get away with it, and thus your substantive weakness becomes rhetorical strength.

Matthews is Ezra Klein's researcher. He's not bad at that job. But research for blogs is a particular, peculiar kind of research. It involves the sifting of abstracts for choice nuggets that can be shined to perfection by removing the sediment of context, limitation, and qualification which researchers stubbornly provide. This is then referred to as "the research" or "the data." The research and the data are dispositive when they confirm the preexisting assumptions of the blogical and not when they don't. (In discussions of education, they very rarely do, for school reform types.) The misunderstandings of what research says is ultimately a consequence of misunderstanding what research is. Shorn of the necessary context developed by spending hours reading full studies in a particular field, and invoked by those who lack the experience of generating research and the attendant skeptical  understanding that comes with it, research become just another argumentative piece, used to assemble some jigsaw puzzle of cleverness, plausibility, and "seriousness."

None of which is to say that all blogical discourse is unhelpful or unnecessary. Wonks are sometimes necessary. You need look no further than Klein's blog, and Matthews's research within, during the debate on health care reform. Their work was essential. When discussing complex situations like American health care, which lies in the intersection of politics and economics and science and morality, it is essential to have populizers and explainers. Of all the potential complaints about the wonks, the oddest to me are complaints about their generalism. Policy generalism is a consequence of democracy; the idea of a polity is founded on the idea that all citizens should aspire to be informed on as many issues as possible. And though wonkery is usually underpinned by the intellectual architecture of capitalism, it needn't necessarily be. Mike Konczal is a leftist wonk, as well as one of my favorite people on the Internet. I don't deny the importance of wonks and blogic; I merely deny that their mode is universally applicable. Ezra Klein is necessary but not sufficient.

The trouble is that the popular Internet discourse has become dominated by blogic, and I encounter people all the time who seem literally incapable of assimilating arguments not expressed in that style. And that's what was happening in the arguments during this strike; sundry Tweeters complaining that those supporting the teachers weren't "arguing in the right way." It wasn't that they were choosing a preferred kind of argument; that was all they knew. Blogic dominates professional blogs for various structural reasons. Professional blogging is largely made up of magazines, think tanks, and nonprofits, and the leadership of magazines, think tanks, and nonprofits is dominated by the kind of Ivy League pedants who want to be knowing more than they want knowledge. And because networking effects from the earliest days of the blogosphere still define the contours of the blogosphere, to a great degree, many of the most prominent voices out there sound very much the same. The more that people see argument expressed in the same mode again and again, the more they start to believe that there is no other mode, and the harder and harder it becomes for us to understand other ways to address our problems. There are alternatives.

Wonks should work their work, and the rest of us ours. But too often I find them defensively, angrily protective of their prominence, quick to dismiss arguments outside their own idiom with a "LOL" or some shitty invocation of what a big deal they are. We have big problems, intractable problems, and solving them means we have to not just look for new solutions but look for a new language in which to express them. Everyone should feel free to float around in their own pond, just stop insisting that there are no other waters in which to swim.

I cannot tell you how many times I've gotten counsel, from strangers and friends, telling me that I could be somebody if I just played ball a little bit more and expressed myself the right way. And there are indeed times when I know that I could express my arguments in the expected way and see them get better play. But I reject the internal logic of that mode of argument, and the professional apparatus which rests upon it. And ultimately my rejection comes from a desire to oppose not just the arguments but the deep structure, the firmament of our system, the architecture of capitalism.

20 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think they're talking about stuff like this Fred:

Seriously: what in the holy name of fuck has Jacob Weisberg ever contributed to the human species, beyond occasional sensual shoulder rubs for Mickey Kaus

pencil-dicked mawkish "post-political" Harvard-philosophy-major careerist grinders whose sole concerns are playing grabass with underage interns

late night Gchat mutual fellatio sessions

And aren't these blogasms? Or is this how your average boilermaker grad student dishes his rhetoric. It's hardly that the people you condemn are worthy of refined discourse, but let's stop kidding ourselves that your alternative pond is pure as the driven snow. People hate and bar you often not b/c of the underlying content of your ideas but b/c they're distracted by the ad hominem on acid shtick. Plus, your whining about not getting into their wonkish orgy sounds a lot like the HS wanker pissed that he's not in the popular set. For the love of god, just ignore them and their twitter streams and monk out. You're a trainwreck, which is compelling in splatter fest sort of way but jesus know thyself.

"I like everyone I argue with, it's just one of those things"

No, obvious for all to see, no you don't and worse yet is how much you loathe yourself.

And don't be a jerk!? WTF, it's your raison d'etre bro.

Phil Freeman said...

"Blogic is the language of those who look for the missing key under the lamp because the light is there."

No, blogic is the language of those who declare that whatever they find under the lamp is, in fact, the missing key.

Freddie said...

Here's the thing, anonymous coward: I am not asking for your permission, your approval, your attention, or your respect. I have undertaken this project with a particular philosophy. I have never deviated from it. I draw strength from that commitment. I have never and will never ask for anything "pure as the driven snow," and anyone who has read here for more than a little while would know that. Besides: I am talking about a very specific kind of discourse, here. "Blogasms" has nothing to do with it. Reading comprehension, friend!

I know you're trying to implicitly threaten by mentioning my real life-- people do that, sometimes. But look, homie: I say what I think and I sign my name to it. Anything less is cowardice. Dig?

Anonymous said...

I see, all bloggers or commenters who fail to self ID are cowards. Especially in an age when your iphone can tell the man where you are at any dissident moment, yes, that's brilliant. The fact that you're a named prick and I'm an anonymous one means not a lick. Do you feel virile after that little riff. You're such a cunt.

Freddie said...

Boy, I really got to you, didn't I?

Anonymous said...

No, just a little fun over my evening absinthe. And forgive the C-word. I work with a bunch of Aussies. You can't talk about the weather without its use.

Freddie said...

Hey man, I'm no shrinking violet. I ain't mad at ya.

ovaut said...

Lovely

Some pedantry: a firmament isn't a deep structure? If you mean 'the deep structure and firmament', say that.

Freddie said...

You're right, as usual.

redscott said...

I agree with everything you said about the evidence-free argumentation, the leaps in logic, the obfuscation and the minutiae. But, in addition to everything else, there's one thing you didn't mention. Our blogical Boy Kings are radically uncomfortable with emotion on a pretty deep level. If the evidence shows that the fuck ups of our financial leaders have led to the misery of millions with no accountability, they don't want to take the next step and express anger, rage, and build on a desire to do something about a system that they could actually call immoral. That kind of rhetoric would really clarify matters and demand that they tell us where they stand, as in Whose Side Are You On? But Whose Side Are You On is quite inconvenient for careers, social interaction, and future revenue streams. And I believe that they distrust expressions of emotions like that as not really serious and subverting the image of serious professionalism that they clearly aspire to. So they place nice and do none of those things, instead throwing spitballs at the ways things are, critiquing them gently and responsibly and tangentially and uselessly. But, as anonymous says, at least they're Nice Boys who don't say mean things like you do. Although you weren't the one to use the C word, oddly enough.

redscott said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jon said...

Anonymous coward misunderstands monks.

Anonymous said...

Neoliberals aren't in the business of telling the truth. Wonks such as Ezra Klein and his pet squirrel Dylan Matthews are paid gate-keepers. To imagine that they could be anything else than what they are is delusional.
I like your writing, but I suggest you walk by these turds on the sidewalk and get on with the business at hand.

redscott said...

On the other hand, pointing out to other pedestrians the turds on the sidewalk so that they don't step in them is a useful bit of kindness.

Dave said...

"I know that I could express my arguments in the expected way and see them get better play. But I reject the internal logic of that mode of argument, and the professional apparatus which rests upon it. And ultimately my rejection comes from a desire to oppose not just the arguments but the deep structure, the firmament of our system, the architecture of capitalism."

Spoken like a true graduate student. Just make your argument, mate. No one gives a shit whether your long paragraphs or whatever are bringing down capitalism. Please.

Freddie said...

It is exactly that thinking that I reject, and it is exactly the thinking that there is only one way to make an argument that hurts us. I know-- you think you're being very clever. But you're actually just being obtuse.

Anonymous said...

"I know that I could express my arguments in the expected way and see them get better play. But I reject the internal logic of that mode of argument, and the professional apparatus which rests upon it. And ultimately my rejection comes from a desire to oppose not just the arguments but the deep structure, the firmament of our system, the architecture of capitalism."

Yeah, I'm convinced. If only Thoreau or MLK Jr. or Chomsky had thrown in a few more fellatio jokes we'd have dismantled the state by now. Not to mention all that work in the trenches at Gawker, you know, helped the disenfranchised, like real activism.

Freddie said...

But, of course, that's not the point, you know it's not the point, and you know that you are intentionally diverting attention from the actual point. Because it frightens and challenges you. But like I said: you knew that. Didn't you?

Anonymous said...

God, but you get a lot of ignorant trolls, Freddie

Freddie said...

Haters gonna hate, man, don't worry about it. They wouldn't get mad if they didn't know that there was something there.