It’s been a while. Enough to look like this is over.
It remains important to me to think: today, I might blog. And to think: I have a place to do it in.
So why don’t I more often? That is the thing on my mind today.
Reason #1: Because I am storing up some of the thinking that went into this blog for other, as yet unseen, purposes. First, for the Aydelotte Foundation, which I presently co-direct. We’re going to go live in the spring with a new website, and I’ve been writing a lot of content for that, much of which would previously have been grist for my blog mill. Second, I’m working on a long-form manuscript that in some ways arises out of fifteen years of blogging, and that’s absorbing some of the energies that would have gone into this space.
Reason #2: Because the way we’ve come to read in our present public sphere is both boring and terrifying. This N+1 essay in their Fall 2018 issue helped me understand a lot of my own distress. There seems to be almost no appetite now among public readers for interesting, stylistic or exploratory writing. Readers swarm over everything now, stripping any writing down into a series of declarative flags that sort everyone into teams, affinities, objectives. There’s no appetite for difficult problems that can’t be solved or worked, or for testimonies that give us a window into a lived world. No pleasure in the prose itself, and thus none in the writing of it.
Reason #3: Because we seem to arrived at a point where justice means visiting extreme precarity on everyone who says anything rather than making it possible for previously suppressed voices to speak safely. This is a familiar inflection point in struggles for social justice: we despair of a transformation that emancipates and so we settle for a transformation that at least tries to spread the misery. That might even be the right thing to do, for a variety of reasons. Making the powerful fear the consequences of speech that discriminates or hates or creates fear may be all we can do for now. There have been plenty of opportunities for the powerful to instead take a more hopeful and constructive interest in the voices of people who were long excluded from the public, in sentiments that have been unheard, and that opportunity was long unpursued. But the consequence in our current public discourse is that almost everyone is one day away from having someone paint a bullseye on them, deserving or otherwise. There can’t be any pleasure or joy in public writing in our present mood. Moreover, the kind of provocative hooks that I used to really enjoy setting into my blogging feel risky and I don’t have the same taste for risk that I used to. I feel vulnerable and tentative and melancholy even when the visible sociologies of my life and my writing should suggest otherwise.
Reason #4: For all that amateur blogging has faded, there is still a tremendous volume of online writing, and its speed has accelerated. By the time I have thought through my take on something that’s at least a bit timely, it’s been thoroughly masticated and spit out in online conversations. The last thing we need is more roughage to block up the digestive systems.
Reason #5: As I’ve said before, I know too much now and that is producing some of the expected inhibitions–it feels as if almost anything I might say would be taken to be subtweeting even when it’s not.
Reason #6: Everyone I respect who writes online feels smarter and clearer than I feel I am myself. I feel less confident in what I think I know and more conscious of the vastness of the things I do not know. That I know that this is a common feeling does not particularly relieve me of having it.
Reason #7: It’s hard to feel like there’s a point to public writing at the heart of Trump’s ascendancy. Certainly there’s no point to even trying to speak to self-identified conservatives who have aligned themselves with Trump: the will-to-power mendacity and moral vacuity melts anything like honest engagement like a butterfly tossed in a furnace. But it is not merely Trump and his followers. When is the last time you can recall seeing anyone who was meaningfully persuaded by arguments or evidence that contradicted or challenged a belief or position they had previously articulated? When I see people telling me that the only way to deal with people who hold dangerous, untrue or morally bankrupt views is to engage them in a persistently reasonable way, to have a dialogue, I can’t help but think that this is just another untrue idea. Or at least it is a kind of religious dogma by self-anointed rationalist thinkers. It is not an evidence-based proposition about how people shift their values or come to hold new thoughts or ideas. It doesn’t matter whether we are talking about people with whom one has personal or familial standing or total strangers, whether this is about a neighborhood or a nation. What passes for reason and evidence among educated readers and writers often feels as if it is just a value system local to them, and no more likely even so to lead to thoughtful changes in perspectives or beliefs among them. I feel no more likely to persuade a person who is in every respect a peer to change a view they have committed to, no matter how strong my arguments or evidence might be, than I am to persuade a stranger with completely different values and social location. And yet, I feel I am persuadable: that I change what I think about specific issues and arguments quite frequently in response to what others say and argue. Perhaps I am wrong even about myself; perhaps this is an unearned vanity. If I am right, then it feels as if I have chosen the worst strategy in Prisoner’s Dilemma: vulnerable to persuasion in a world that increasingly sees persuadability as a vulnerability to be exploited.
And yet, I remain hopeful about blogging. I am not sure why. I am not sure when. This remains open for business, nevertheless.
I have sent you a kindle copy of my book. It is aimed at people under age 26. I call their group, “the Guardians of Democracy.”
If Amazon is a good as they say they are you should get the book today..
I agree with all your points, especially with #2.
As a kind of hobby, I have studied our systems of government and economics since 1956, before I knew what systems really were. My aim was to find ways to make them better, to make them work for the common good. I later became a professional systems designer and I used the tools I learned in that work to redesign our systems. I published a book a few months ago based on that work and it is difficult to get people to talk about the dangers of letting our current systems continue to create conditions which will destroy our civilization and soon thereafter exterminate our species. My ideas are met with slogans most of them insulting, quotations taken out of context, and explanations of how this or that candidate will save us. I hope your new efforts will lead our young people to become the Guardians of Democracy who will revamp our systems long before 2050.
Thank you for writing this.
I’m glad to see this, Tim. You are one of the bloggers I have learned the most from over the years, and I hope I’ll get the chance to learn from you in the future, either here or elsewhere.
Don’t stop, Tim.
Years ago, when my mom was on the local city council, she shared a tip about how to read the debates during the council meetings. The council was divided into two factions with 4 and 3 members that cut across party lines. If the first two speakers took opposite positions on an issue, it was 99% likely going to be a 4-3 vote along faction lines, and the rest of the debate was just going to consist of justifying their positions for the audience. If you actually wanted to get stuff done, what you needed to do was reach out to a member of the opposite faction before anyone on their side had taken a public position, in which case they would often be able to be persuaded through rational argument, and then have the item pass by unanimous consent. Once things became public, it was too late to change anyone’s mind.
This doesn’t play well with the idealistic model behind open meeting laws, which is that positions are best determined during public debate. What that model fails to account for is that politicians are humans with egos who really hate to be seen as backing down or failing to support their allies. In order to allow them to change their minds while saving face, it was essential to have the initial discussion in private.
Seems relevant to your point #7, especially.
“When is the last time you can recall seeing anyone who was meaningfully persuaded by arguments or evidence that contradicted or challenged a belief or position they had previously articulated?”
This happens very frequently within the effective altruism community, which is one of the central reasons I spend so much time hanging out there. The semi-libertarian blogosphere also isn’t too bad about this (do you read Tyler Cowen or Bryan Caplan?).
I really enjoy the blog, and I hope you keep your hopes up. No matter the state of the media environment, I think the number of good readers hasn’t really gotten smaller; we’re just obscured by the noise.
I second what Alan Jacobs said. You’re one of the bloggers I’ve learned a great deal from. I cherish voices like yours and hope they don’t go dark as time passes. Please keep blogging.
And please post here when the foundation website goes live. I’ll be sure to read your work over there.
I have missed you and your take on the world. I am not a great twitterer, so it took me a long time to find you there and I’m still not in the habit of checking regularly.
I might venture to add that the changing nature of public reading — the strip-mining for “declarative flags” — not only affects writers but readers who want something other than strip-mining.
If it weren’t for the other reasons, I would say that your Reasons #4 and #6 don’t matter. Some of us don’t want only hot takes, or think that if you aren’t as brilliant as Author X, you don’t have anything to add.
But you do have other reasons, all of which I understand, and sympathize with. I don’t think you “owe us” a blog, or anything at all. But please know that there are a few of us who aren’t strip-miners. Some of us still value the things you brought to this platform, are grateful for what you have brought, and will welcome anything else you will bring.
Among the many motivations and rewards for reading and writing, the most common ones (monetization, self-aggrandizement, driving traffic, controlling the narrative) don’t much interest me. Your mention of exploratory writing is what resonates: working things out, almost always provisionally, to come to an understanding that makes sense. That’s a slow process not well aligned with today’s information environment, so feeling left behind but still holding to the value of older forms is a mark of wisdom and restraint sorely lacking in the public sphere.