OMT One Man's Trash...from Norman Leahy

Thursday, December 21, 2006 :::

Thanks, George

Via Danny Glover comes another piece taking bloggers to task for being...well...bloggers. This time, the lashing comes from the always condescending George Will. His hook is the Time Magazine decision to name "You" the entity of the year:

There are, however, essentially no reins on the Web -- few means of control and direction. That is good, but it vitiates the idea that the Web's chaos of entertainment, solipsism and occasional intellectual seriousness and civic engagement is anything like a polity (a "digital democracy"). Time's bow to the amateurs who are, it strangely suggests, no longer obscure, and in the same game that Time is in, is refuted by a glance -- which is all an adult will want -- at YouTube's most popular videos.

Time's issue includes an unenthralled essay by NBC's Brian Williams, who believes that raptures over the Web's egalitarianism arise from the same impulse that causes today's youth soccer programs to award trophies -- "entire bedrooms full" -- to any child who shows up: "The danger just might be that we miss the next great book or the next great idea, or that we will fail to meet the next great challenge . . . because we are too busy celebrating ourselves and listening to the same tune we already know by heart."

The fact that Stengel included Williams's essay proves that Stengel's Time has what 99.9 percent of the Web's content lacks: seriousness.

There can be little doubt that much of what is posted online is filler. And not very good filler, at that. However, Mr. Williams ought to be more concerned with his disappearing audience than "missing the next great idea."

As for Will's charge that the web lacks "seriousness," I suggest that his understanding of what's online is desperately shallow. It's understandable that with the current size and continued growth of web content, it can seem nearly impossible to sift through the muck and find a gem. But it can be done. Will seems either unable or unwilling to make the attempt. It's his loss. However, I'm sure his research minions find the web an invaluable resource.

If only they could slip him a page devoted to strong, manly handshakes, George might turn out okay.

But there's another thread in Will's argument that I found truly lacking in seriousness:

Richard Stengel, Time's managing editor, says, "Thomas Paine was in effect the first blogger" and "Ben Franklin was essentially loading his persona into the MySpace of the 18th century, 'Poor Richard's Almanack.' " Not exactly.

Franklin's extraordinary persona informed what he wrote but was not the subject of what he wrote. Paine was perhaps history's most consequential pamphleteer. There are expected to be 100 million bloggers worldwide by the middle of 2007, which is why none will be like Franklin or Paine. Both were geniuses; genius is scarce. Both had a revolutionary civic purpose, which they accomplished by amazing exertions. Most bloggers have the private purpose of expressing themselves for their own satisfaction. There is nothing wrong with that, but there is nothing demanding or especially admirable about it, either. They do it successfully because there is nothing singular about it, and each is the judge of his or her own success.

I've argued in the past that bloggers have more in common with 18th century pamphelteers than they do with the modern press. While I'm aware of no blogger who can match his importance, let alone his rhetoric, it's a mistake to dismiss all bloggers as a narcissistic mob. Some offer genuine insight. Even more offer opinions that deserve to be heard because they truly add to public discourse. The greatest value of blogs to date is that they have given these people, who might never have been heard if the old media rules still applied, a platform of their own. While hardly perfect, these platforms and the people who use them are (generally) enriching the discussions we all have about politics and public policy.

And as events have shown, these discussions have real consequences, both in elections and in policy. The online mob made congressional earmarks an issue. This same mob helped defeat Joe Lieberman in Connecticut's Democratic primary and exploited George Allen's gaffes with remarkable skill. And in Richmond, a blog run by just two people managed to thwart the best laid plans of the city's monied and political elite over the Performing Arts Center. How can a mob do this? Because their readers are not just basement dwellers and misanthropes, but reporters, editors and others who bring the news to an even wider audience. And even more, when blogs force those same readers to confront their own failings or omissions, change is not only possible, but likely.

In that way, blogs are almost exactly like their pamphleteer ancestors. Not a bad lineage, even if George Will and a host of others pretend otherwise.

::: posted by Norman Leahy at 12/21/2006 5 comments


"You know what the fellow said: In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they also produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love -- they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock." -- Orson Welles, The Third Man

"The graveyards are full of indespensable men" -- Charles de Gaulle

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