Not a Sandbox

I’ve been struggling to figure out what to say, or whether to say anything, about the issue of blogging in the Edwards campaign. Outside of a few comments threads, I decided to not say anything while the issue was hot, partly because I think the people attacking Amanda Marcotte were largely hypocrites or nutcases. None of them struck me as having an evangelical commitment to online civility or a temperate tone in blogging. I don’t see any of the people on the right complaining about some of the material from Pandagon giving right-wing blogs (including some associated with campaigns) the same kind of going-over for issues of tone and fairness. (They would have had to attack their own blogs to do so.) I’ve read Pandagon for a long time, I like it (and Amanda Marcotte’s writing in particular) sometimes and sometimes I don’t like it so much. That assessment didn’t magically go away because Amanda Marcotte was being attacked, but it’s not a strongly felt sentiment on my part, so it wasn’t terribly relevant to share urgently.

I also was wondering a bit at whether a current political campaign actually needs a “head blogger”. Obviously Edwards was hoping to imitate Dean, both in fundraising terms and in gaining the loyalty of the “netroots”. But paying for it by moving someone onto your staff almost strikes me as buying something you can have for free. Why not just extensively court some of the most influential bloggers, maybe see if you can’t grow a blog yourself within the campaign that has a fresh, aggressive tone, and so on? Again, I might have wondered that at the time of the announcement if it hadn’t turned into such annoying sound-and-fury.

What finally made me want to write something short was reading this thread at Geeky Mom, where she wonders about whether to keep blogging. As readers here know, I’ve wondered the same thing about my own blog. I hope Geeky Mom continues: I find her blog really valuable and interesting.

But the one thing I didn’t like from some of Marcotte’s defenders was the proposition that somehow what we have written in the past in our blogs is trivial, or disposable, that our freedom as writers requires that blogging be understood as Not Ready For Prime Time. I was reminded a bit of a similar discussion at 11D.

In a way, that’s true. I misspell things in my entries here. There’s often grammatical errors. I write hastily, sometimes poorly. I write off-the-cuff. Also, I certainly do not write about some of the things that I might wish to talk about in the context of academic life. I can’t use the blog for some kinds of cathartic release. These are all reasons that I would hope any reader following the trail of digital breadcrumbs into my online archives would do so in a tolerant spirit. Sure, there’s stuff that makes me look kind of dumb. I’ve changed my mind from time to time.

Yes, it’s true, as Marcotte herself has said, that blogging has the rapid-fire liveliness (and sometimes the vileness) of written and spoken political debate in the late 18th and 19th Centuries, and that this is precious. It’s also true, as she said, that it poses a threat to some kinds of mainstream media writing. In my opinion, the threat is to op-ed writing and other kinds of punditry, which is often less well-informed, less well-written and much more smug than what the blogs have to offer.

In earlier cultures of political and polemical writing, as now, you have a choice about what you want to be and how you want what you say to represent your aspirations. I love Mencken and Twain, but if you want to be a 21st Century Mencken, it should hardly be a surprise that your voice doesn’t carry well into all places and contexts. You can warm your pen up in hell, just don’t be surprised if it’s then unwelcome in a church.

Blogs are not greasy kid’s stuff. They’re informal, they’re spontaneous, they’re freer in some ways than the mainstream media, not just because of the genre’s evolving expectations but because of their technological and economic character. But they matter, and they should. We can’t suddenly ask that they be dismissed as mere prologue to whatever else we want to do with our voices, our thought, our politics, when the day before we were trying to do something that mattered.

This is not just about blogging: it’s about history. The more you write, the more your writing is both burden and expectation, a second self whose permission is required before you do something new–or whose betrayal is necessary should you wish to be free of your shadow. I get the vague whiff from some of Marcotte’s most ardent defenders that they want to have it all. I’m free to say what I like, and if I say it at a cocktail party or talking with a friend, I would have every right to say, “Hey, come on, that was not for publication”. When I write it–even in a blog–it has, and ought to have, some greater weight. If that weight becomes like Marley’s chains, forged in life, it’s up to me to do the hard and complicated work of unlocking, not to complain that what I wrote was read.

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10 Responses to Not a Sandbox

  1. Brad says:

    I dunno… I guess I’m just not hip… Anti-religious screeds of the sort that she writes put me off for many reason. First, they are boring and trite (although the authors see them as clever and novel), and more important, as there is far more superstition in feminist or multiculturist worldviews than in old-time religion, they strike me as supremely hypocritical. Also, given the fact that most of the animosity and anger is a cover for tendentious politics (the Gramscian thing), they come across as simply disingenuous.

  2. jim says:

    I think I understand why the Edwards campaign felt it needed a tame blogger (why “head blogger”, though? were there subordinate bloggers?). Neil the Ethical Werewolf is just as pro-Edwards, but he will write a pro-Edwards piece when he gets round to it: when he gets home from work, maybe after he’s eaten something. Edwards’ head blogger will write something NOW; she’ll grab a hamburger later, when she has time. Modern campaigning requires quick reactions to slurs. That’s why bloggers can be helpful to campaigns: the liveliness of 18th, 19th C pamphleteering combined with the speed of the internet.

    I don’t, though, understand why Marcotte took the position — why she felt she could become a professional politician (salaried campaign staff are just as much professional politicians as the candidates that hire them). Once you’ve entered that realm, everything about you becomes fair game. That’s not a rule which got made up yesterday. Indeed, Donahue’s modus operandi has been to attack staffers: they’re more vulnerable; campaigns are willing to let them go; they’re willing to be shed, rather than hurt the campaign; Donahue gets another scalp to persuade his funders he’s effective.

  3. emschwar says:

    Remember the kerfuffle a few years ago when the Bush administration was caught paying various pundits (was there a blogger in the mix? I forget) to say nice things about No Child Left Behind? I suspect this was a case where Edwards wanted to ensure there was a blogger or two on his side by paying them, but was trying to figure a way to do that that didn’t expose him to the same sort of scrutiny. Why Marcotte was dumb enough to agree to do it is, I agree, a mystery.

    That said, I read a few of the posts in question, and found them not only to be in poor taste, but to be simply factually incorrect on a number of points. She seems to have built up a caricature of the Catholic Church in her mind, and for some reason, conflated it with the real one. It’s not surprising that sort of thing came back to bite her later.

  4. Joey Headset says:

    Here’s the thing about the Blog-O-Sphere: There’s nothing interesting or important going on there. Honestly, nothing that happens on a blog MATTERS. Pretty much the best you can hope for from a blog is that it distracts you, for just a few moments, from the crushing horror of your life. And I say this as a card carrying member of the Blog-O-Sphere.

    Like most Americans, I have a LOT to say. And NONE of it is partularly worth listening to. That’s why I have a blog! It’s the perfect place to spew every trite, halfcocked idea that pops into my TV/video game enervated brain. But I promise you this: if it should occur that a genuinely GOOD idea should find its way into my consciousness… you better believe I’m not wasting it on some stupid blog! Like everyone else, I’ll take my great ideas to Washington or Hollywood: where great ideas go to DIE.

    So please don’t worry so much about who the Official Blogger is for this person, or what the effect of Academic Blogging is on that group of people. Always remember: if blogging actually mattered, it would be called something far less idiotic than “blogging”.

  5. Doug says:

    Tim, I thought that Marcotte had been hired for blogging outreach, which is related but a bit different from head blogger, as you’ve described it. In fact, I thought the job was going to be something like intensively courting various online communities. Writing the campaign blog would probably have been part of that, but only part. (Indeed, if writing the campaign blog is just another job to be outsourced, then it’s already failed.)

    Blogs matter to varying degrees; they obviously matter enough to the people who write them because they take the time to write entries. They matter enough to audiences of whatever size to read, to return and to participate. Some matter more than that: Atrios and Kos, for example, have readerships that rival those of medium- to large-sized newspapers. That means they matter as any other bit of the media landscape matters. Josh Marshall has used his blog to aggregate political reporting and constituent feedback; I do think that made a difference in the Social Security fight in 2005, and that fight itself mattered out there in the big room with the blue ceiling overhead. Blogs played an important role in putting Jim Webb in the US Senate instead of George Allen. The activism that comes out of the DailyKos community is significant as well.

    And because some blogs matter, they’re drawing attention and fire. The overarching narratives in newspapers — disparagement, even as the papers rush to launch their own — about blogs are part of this phenomenon. Donahue’s hit is part of this, too. As I said on the 11D thread, this was a political knee-capping pure and simple; the right-wing crazies did it to see if they could, because that is how they play the game, complete with threats of harm to the family of the target.

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    I don’t think blogs are as trivial as Joey does, obviously.

    Neither do I think that Marcotte’s story is purely a political knee-capping by Donahue et al. Marcotte’s blog writing has long been done in the presumptive spirit that most or all disagreements with her major stated principles, particularly on gender, are not only wrong but malevolent. Her writing has often involved hurling abuse and invective in very strong terms at a wide range of targets, not limited to far-right fringe elements. She’s entitled to that. In fact, that’s one way, possibly the best way, to mobilize an audience of readers and commenters for a single blog.

    It is not, by and large, the way to mobilize a political constituency unless you’re running in a very strongly homogenous and strongly ideological district, or unless you’re trying to use an activist-driven campaign in a primary to punch through to a general election, and then hope you can (as Bush did in 2000) convince a wider electorate that you are closer to the center. Maybe that’s what Edwards’ staffers had in mind. Even there, if I were them, I don’t know in purely stratetic terms that I would try to start a mobilization of activists through a strongly feminist direction, which is what Marcotte would have provided. There’s a malevolent knee-capping that came from the right; but there’s also a self-inflicted knee-capping here as well. I’m interested in Edwards, for example, but an appeal from Marcotte to blog about him or contribute to him, would probably have done very little for me. Maybe that’s not true of blogs that are to the left of me and far more influential: I don’t really know, though I would say that the feminism of Marcotte is not strongly echoed at some of the major male-authored liberal-left blogs, though neither is it repudiated or criticized.

  7. emschwar says:

    An interesting parallel, of sorts:

    The skills required to get elected do not serve a politician well when governing.
    The skills required to create an interesting blog do not translate well to political life.

  8. Doug says:

    I think about this cycle (hire-manufactured flap-resignation) in a lot of different ways. First, Pandagon has never really been my cup of tea, not under its original authors and not under the current cast. I’ve been aware of it, and in a vaguer way about where it is on the spectrum and what it’s like, but not generally reading it.

    That said, hiring Marcotte was a signal, one that I took to mean the Edwards campaign is serious about engaging bloggers and the net roots, and that they were not afraid to take on a firebreather. I liked that signal because I think blogging and other aspects of online organization are important and can be good for our republic, and taking them seriously is a sign of a campaign that’s ready to deal with the 21st century. I also liked that signal because I think the 2008 presidential campaign is going to be a vicious fight, one in which the Republicans will plumb new depths, the Washington establishment will continue to propagate the “Democrats weak” narrative and many more hurdles will have to be overcome. A campaign is going to need some hellraisers and some firebreathers to do that. A netroots coordinator works with some of the most informed and most motivated political participants among the citizenry, and I think that’s a great place for a firebreather.

    Presidential candidates also have to show their toughness. In Edwards’ case, a million-dollar smile, winning ways and the right positions are not going to be enough to be President. He’s the small-town North Carolina boy made good, but he’s got to remember enough of where he came up from to know there’s plenty of voters who want to see that a candidate is tough, and that demonstrating that grit is part of the road to 1600 Pennsylvania. There’s a legitimate aspect to this, too: If a candidate can’t put a two-bit Father Coughlin wannabe in his place, how will he respond to the challenges the rest of the world throws at an American President? (Though the current occupant shows that shows of toughness are not sufficient; you have to be smart, too, and you and your administration have to produce results.) Dealing with a Donahue, disgusting slimeball that he is, is part of showing you have what it takes.

    That also leads to a less positive thought about presidential elections, which is that this one looks to be a straightforward measure of dominance and nothing more. I hope I’m wrong about this, I really would prefer a campaign that centers on what to do with the office. But the media landscape isn’t there, and that’s how the vast majority of voters will experience the campaign. Dowd’s schtick about politics as theater of personality is not necessarily a bad one; the problem is that so much of our press has forgotten (if it ever knew) that politics can be anything else. The candidate who can dominate the press and the other candidates at a personal level is the one who will be our next president. I don’t really like that fact, but I think that’s where our national discourse is now.

    (I think we’ve been there for a while, now, too. If there had been a Democratic candidate in 2004 who would have casually and convincingly called Bush “governor” to his face, I think we might have a different president now.)

    So if the Edwards campaign consciously chose a firebreather, I think that’s good for them. They should then have known that a fight of some sort was coming. Heck, any Democrat who throws their hat into the ring should know that a long nasty fight is coming. And I don’t think that Edwards should have backed down, because that only gives the Donahues greater power over our public sphere. Maybe we’re not talking about what a pig Donahue is because that’s taken as read; he’s part of the right-wing noise machine and they are expected to be slimy. Maybe we’re talking about Marcotte because this is presumed to be an intramural discussion about how Democrats can best put one of their own in the White House again. But the threats to people’s families only came from one side of the partisan divide in this incident, and it wasn’t the wild-eyed liberal. When the price of going to work for a political campaign means threats to your family, something is very wrong, and in that setting talking about how effective Marcotte might have been as an organizer strikes me as very much a second-order issue.

  9. Timothy Burke says:

    Didn’t want to let this pass without saying: even though I think I still disagree, somewhat, mildly, that’s pretty persuasive, Doug. Maybe I shouldn’t have written about this at all, and just kept my peace.

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