On the Rebound

I’ve been quickly re-skimming Doris Lessing’s African Laughter, her musings on a number of trips to Zimbabwe after 1980. In 1988, reflecting on a friend’s growing disillusionment with official corruption, Lessing writes, “To be in love with a country or a political regime is a tricky business. You get your heart broken even more surely than by being in love with a person. You may even lose your life. I knew a woman political activist in the old days–in this case, the 1950s. She spent her days and her nights working to undo the white regime in South Africa. Needing a rest, she went to visit Nigeria, to see her dream made flesh, found it was run by human beings, and committed suicide. Everyone who has been involved with idealistic, rhetorical, politics knows a thousand versions of this story, from all over the world”.

I’ll try to post on Zimbabwe itself soon, but this reflection by Lessing made me think about something entirely different. I’m going through one of my periodic bouts of disaffection with reading aggressively political or partisan blogging, but I don’t feel any comfort or shelter in studied moderation, either. I’m having a hard time putting my finger on it, but it just doesn’t seem worth the time or the bother because there isn’t anything I recognize as a conversation going on a lot of the time in many political blogs, nor does there seem anything like a remotely adult sense of weary awareness about the messiness of the world as it is lived and experienced by most people.

Lessing helped me to recognize that one feeling I’m having is that I simply don’t trust people who are selling this kind of “idealistic, rhetorical, politics” and yet don’t confess to having experienced this kind of heartbreak. Or worse yet, tell themselves that if they can only find the right romantic partner, the next time everything will be perfect and there will be ponies and rainbows for everyone, that it was only this regime, these people, this leader, that disappointed. Or, from what I can see in a lot of American conservative writing, it was the damned political opposition or overseas enemies or corruptors of the youth or some such again that kept all the good magical things from happening which otherwise would inevitably have happened.

Most of the time, it seems to me that trying to write anything more reflective, more ambiguous, more exploratory in a blog is either going to bore an audience that’s come seeking their Two-Minute Hate or it’s just going to be willfully misconstrued by someone else who needs fresh meat for their own hounds to feed upon. Read the comments section at Inside Higher Education, for one example. There’s no point to trying to talk about nuance or complexity or what makes for a good research design or anything else in that kind of back-and-forth.

In most online conversations I’ve been involved with, you eventually come to a point where the people interested in an evolving, exploratory dialogue, in learning something new about themselves and others, in thinking aloud, in working through things, find themselves worn out by a kind of rhetorical infection inflicted by bad faith participants who are just there to affirm what they already know and attack everything that doesn’t conform to that knowledge. (Or by the classic “energy creatures” whose only objective is to satisfy their narcissism.) I used to think that was a function of the size of the room, that in a bigger discursive space, richer possibilities would present themselves. Now I don’t know. Maybe it’s a product of the form itself, maybe it’s a sign of our times, and maybe it’s my own unfair expectations or my own character that’s the problem. I think I’ve mentioned this before, but the nastiest and truest thing that an online antagonist has ever said about me is that online I talk like I think I’m smarter than other people, entitled to scold them, but that somehow I expect them to like me for it. So here’s another of those kind of posts, and thus maybe nothing more than my own hang-ups and inadequacies with this whole blogging thing.

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9 Responses to On the Rebound

  1. luisenrique says:

    I emphasise with what you’re saying here, and like to think that a lot of other people will too (a silent majority, perhaps?). Most blog commentators are there to grind and axe and win an argument, but I have from time to time gotten into a genuinely constructive conversation. I don’t know why there isn’t more nuanced blogging around – I guess there’s axe grinding going on too – but my favourite bloggers display some recognition of genuine difficulties, appreciation of alternatives points of view etc. I happen to think Tyler Cowen is good at this (although I know a lot of people will disagree) and Mark Thoma, to name two, and their blogs are popular enough. Anyway, I’m one reader that appreciates the kind of writing you want to see, so as far as I’m concerned, more power to your elbow.

    Sometimes I try to argue, with other blog commentators, that they’re taking extreme interpreations in order to win an argument, looking only for weaknesses in their opponent’s position and none in their own, etc. and this has not gone down well. Trying to be too clever by half I suppose.

  2. Doug says:

    The estimable Teresa Nielsen Hayden has a number of smart things to say about online conversations, why they work when they do, and how to provide the best space for them to grow in. I think I’ve put up a couple of those links here before; if not, let me know and I will. (Just this moment I’m supposed to be translating, but it turns out that I’m, er, easily distracted.) A couple of quickies: get rid of the bad-faith participants (banning, ridicule, disemvoweling) and feel no regrets. Be present in comments. Cultivate regulars, who will then also enforce the community norms.

    With a bigger room, you’ll get people wandering in from unexpected directions, which I find generally good. But beyond a certain number of participants (which I suspect varies widely among blog proprietors) having an exploratory conversation is extremely difficult. Some topics are also very hard to have thinking-aloud discussions about because of antagonistic priors, self-censorship and/or widely varying points in life.

  3. AndrewSshi says:

    Some political blogging can be good, but the best kind of blogging is the sort of blogging that’s dedicated to particular things on which the blogger has some expertise or great interest. I really, really enjoy your weblog primarily because it’s *not* a political blog.

    Comments on political blogs, OTOH, are almost invariably garbage unless you’re specifically studying the dynamics of an echo chamber.

  4. Ralph says:

    Tim, You do as good a job as anyone I know of in cultivating an audience and a commentariet for reasonable, intelligent discussion. I’d take some comfort in that, if I were you.

  5. freddie says:

    The problem is that this sort of thing inevitably privileges certain positions, and usually self-consciously moderate ones. I know you say you don’t put faith in “studied moderation”, but that’s what, in effect, you advocate. And studied moderation has the same problem as every other ideology: it privileges things other than the pursuit of truth and sound public policy. Everyone has talked to some of these people, the David Broders, who believe that if we just push towards the center of every issue we’ll find righteousness– or worse, who think that by advocating pushing towards the center they reveal themselves to be so much more principled and reasonable than the next man. These are the grab-bag concessionists. They think that if you take a concession from Camp A and a concession from Camp B you’re somehow going to craft a fair and pragmatically preferable public policy. But this is the worst kind of moderation, the kind that ends with just a hodge podge of conflicting ideas that make little sense in relation to one another and are only held together by the self-satisfaction of being “reasonable”.

    And, of course, though there are many issues where historically the moderate position was the correct one, there are also countless issues where the extremists were ultimately completely correct. The abolitionists were the ultimate extremists for a long time, dangerous radicals pushing an uncompromising agenda. But they were absolutely, completely correct. The moderates were the ones asking for

    More importantly, and more unfortunately, what you’ve said here only serves to further marginalize certain perspectives that you deem illegitimate, under the guise of eliminating “idealism”. Look– I’m a foreign policy non-interventionist. Simply put, that means that I want the United States to engage in as few military and espionage entanglements in the outside world as we possibly can while still providing for our self-defense. To me, this is neither extremist or rhetorical. I’ve seen the effects of an aggressive, unilateral foreign policy first hand and I feel ethically bound to advocate against it. I don’t ask that others accept my positions without good reason, but I do ask to be in the conversation, at the table.

    But that’s exactly what your ethic described here would deny me. Again and again, those who are opposed to American military expansionism are derided as ideologs and idealists. And this designation isn’t to combat our arguments but to exclude them. Matt Yglesias has ably described the “Very Serious” in foreign policy discussion. Unless you make certain concessions in your argument– and those concessions are precisely what I argue against– you are not a Very Serious person and you are not to be taken seriously. It’s the worst kind of argument, the kind that advances itself not through better positions or better justification but by the elimination of the other side, the assumption that those who don’t accept arguing in a narrow framework simply don’t deserve to be listened to. That, I’m afraid, is what your denigration of rhetoric and idealism leads to. Not a more mature debate, not a more constructive debate, but a less open, less fair one, one that proclaims narrow limits to what is acceptable dialog and excludes those that don’t fit within it. It inevitably privileges the status quo.

    I find this to be a fundamental problem with what you’re saying. I understand where you’re coming from, and I know that this isn’t your intent. But this kind of thinking is more prevalent than you seem to know or acknowledge, and its inevitable consequence is to delegitimate minority opinion. Which is worse? A loud, angry, sometimes ugly and rarely constructive blog-discourse which contains within it every argument that has someone willing to argue it in good faith? Or a nice, polite, civil discourse that excludes and silences many and calls it maturity?

  6. freddie says:

    the moderates were the ones asking for laws like “Born slaves remain slaves, but no new slaves from Africa.”

    sorry about that.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    I hear you, Freddie. You’re pretty much playing out the other end of a private argument I have inside my own head all the time. Actually, it’s a three-sided argument, because on another side is a kind of cynical or nihilist position that just mocks any principled position.

    But take your defense of non-intervention. That doesn’t strike me as starry-eyed idealism at all. I think what Lessing is talking about is not idealism per se, but that kind of romantic belief that some regime or leader is the achievement of all that we wish for, or an unwillingness to look at the difficulties that a policy or ideal faces when it becomes real. In my view, that’s what I see when I read a lot of American conservative commentary at the moment, a kind of inability to talk about what actually happened when they got a near-total political alignment behind some of their most cherished positions.

    I suppose this is one reason I circle back to my own feeling that we need to rely on habitus or culture on one hand and institutions or processes on the other, rather than simply to put into power people who allege a fidelity to our cherished principles or policies.

  8. . . . an evolving, exploratory dialogue, in learning something new about themselves and others, in thinking aloud, in working through things . . .

    I think this is difficult to manage in an open on-line environment. When you’re exploring, really exploring, you have to be tentative and vulnerable. This pretty much requires a restricted range of discussion. Restricting the range doesn’t mean you’re oblivious to this that or the other objection or alternative view, but only that you cannot deal with them now, not while you’re trying to figure out just what you think. Once you’re had time to work out a new position or model, whatever, then you can deal with those objections.

  9. hestal says:

    Herr Burke, you raise several points that I think I recognize, but probably don??t. Therefore my comments probably are off the mark. But I do mean well.

    ??? because there isn??t anything I recognize as a conversation going on a lot of the time in many political blogs, nor does there seem anything like a remotely adult sense of weary awareness about the messiness of the world as it is lived and experienced by most people.??

    In my working life, I encountered something very much like political blogs almost daily. These ??blogs?? were not computerized, but took place in conference rooms and involved at most three dozen persons at one time. So the size and the technology were different, but the psychology was the same as today. My job was to replace the manual (or nearly so) systems and procedures of a large enterprise with computerized ones. I would make presentations of ideas for the new system and stand back as the employees of the enterprise were given the floor to present their reactions and ideas. There were plenty of criticisms of my ideas, most of them valid and ultimately very helpful, but there were many more arguments that went on about things of interest solely to the employees. They were talking about old grudges, future power allocations, and enterprise goals. They talked past each other. Some of it was posturing for the highest-ranking executive in the room, some of it was to get on the record their opinions of the value or lack of value of other persons or departments, and some of it was to identify allies in struggles taking place in other rooms at other times.

    Believe me, I soon became one of the weary adults in the room. My job, my future, depended on producing a result that pleased the people who hired me. I grew weary of ever finding enterprise employees who would sit down and focus on the new system. The other weary adults were the people who hired me, usually the enterprise owners or top executives. They wanted results as much as I did. The employee infighting was often stupid and self-destructive. But the ??blogs?? of those days were different in very important ways. There was someone involved who had the power to say, ??Stop that, and stop it now!?? or ??Do this, and do it this way!?? The people with the power wanted results. So they got them and people often suffered. The computer was usually blamed, but many people were fired because their “blogging” behavior was found lacking.

    So our modern political blogs are merely reflections of our political system. There is no way to say to our government, ??Stop that, and stop it now!?? or ??Do this, and do it this way.?? There is no reliable, well-defined way to convert a public wish into a public policy. My weariness is still with me. From a system point of view, things will get much worse. The model the Framers threw together in about four months is filled with ??imperfections?? as George Washington himself wrote as the Constitution was submitted to the states for ratification. He said ??evils?? would arise from these imperfections and he said that future generations would have to deal with them. He also said that he thought future generations would be able to do just as good a job as his generation had done. But he was wrong about this. None of the major imperfections, except slavery, has been corrected and look how we butchered correcting it.

    ??There??s no point to trying to talk about nuance or complexity or what makes for a good research design or anything else in that kind of back-and-forth.??

    I learned about nuance the hard way. Early on I made a cataclysmic mistake in one of my first large systems because I heard a nuance but did not run it to ground. I did not determine if it was important to my project. It was essential. By sheer stumbling luck the problem was easy to fix and I got away with my error. But it was a very close thing.

    But in the context of blogging, there is no reason to expect an adult conversation to take place. Blogs do not have specific goals, they don??t have rules of conduct, they have no power to control the dialog, and they ultimately have no impact on our political system. Yes, they claim here and there that they have helped raise funds for a worthy political candidate, or they have discovered some political wrongdoing, but these things have happened for centuries. They clearly do not produce more worthy candidates, either in quantity or quality, than older systems did and they certainly do not produce an overall change for the better.

    So the blogs are just what you have described: a place where people vent, anonymously, where they suffer no consequences, and where they make no unique contributions to society. They are little more than poor video games. I went into computers because they paid much better than teaching. I was willing to accept low pay as a teacher because I loved it, but I did not think it was fair to make my family make the same sacrifice. I found I loved computers because they were complex, but the complexities existed in a closed universe and all the laws of that universe were knowable. By designing systems I found that I could construct elaborate, very complex universes of my own that were of value to others. Take it from me, constructing those universes, in terms of sheer pleasure, makes today’s video games look like toy trains.

    Our Constitutional system needs to be redesigned and the imperfections corrected. I think that most people realize this, but they don??t know what to do about it. I don??t either. But this fact leads to the nastiness the political blogs reveal. That nastiness has long been with us, but not so visibly. Now millions of people are able publicly to vent while in the past that simply was not possible. The frustrations are the same and the lack of solutions is the same, while the magnitude of the problems is greater.

    ??Maybe it??s a product of the form itself, maybe it??s a sign of our times, and maybe it??s my own unfair expectations or my own character that??s the problem. I think I??ve mentioned this before, but the nastiest and truest thing that an online antagonist has ever said about me is that online I talk like I think I??m smarter than other people, entitled to scold them, but that somehow I expect them to like me for it. So here??s another of those kind of posts, and thus maybe nothing more than my own hang-ups and inadequacies with this whole blogging thing.??

    I could have written this paragraph years ago about myself. The nasty and true thing about you has been said about me since I was a freshman in high school.

    So you have identified a problem. Now solve it. Design a process for harnessing the power of the Internet and put it to work changing the future.

    Don’t be so hard on yourself. I don’t care what those people on those political blogs say about you, I think you are okay.

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