Fussin’ ’bout Political Blogs

Oliver Kamm – with whom I usually agree strongly – had a quite severe attack on political blogs this week in the Guardian here. His concluding paragraph gives the flavor:

The blogosphere, in short, is a reliable vehicle for the coagulation of opinion and the poisoning of debate. It is a fact of civic life that is changing how politics is conducted – overwhelmingly for the worse, and with no one accountable for the decline.

While I generally believe that political blogs have provided a healthy alternative to the MSM and are overall a positive influence he makes some telling points:

In its paucity of coverage and predictability of conclusions, the blogosphere provides a parody of democratic deliberation. But it gets worse. Politics, wrote the philosopher Michael Oakeshott, is a conversation, not an argument. The conversation bloggers have with their readers is more like an echo chamber, in which conclusions are pre-specified and targets selected. The outcome is horrifying. The intention of drawing readers into the conversation by means of a facility for adding comments results in an immense volume of abusive material directed – and recorded for posterity – at public figures.

Well, there is a vast amount of abusive material in comment threads, I too am horrified and stop reading comment threads and even entire posts the minute that sort of thing occurs. At the same time I seek out blogs that make me feel like I am having a conversation with the author. I certainly include Kamm and Norm Geras in that category, and Wretchard of the Belmont Club, or, say, Austin Bay to balance left and right. Whenever a commenter starts abusing a public figure or, what is actually much more common the blogger and each other, I stop reading.

When I think about it, my personal experience of blogging is pretty much the opposite. Like Neo Neocon who found herself surrounded by friends of a certain liberal/left view, I began to blog anonymously to express my quite different opinions. Because I am an American living in Australia I also found that since 9/11 that I was having to deal with a lot of anti Americanism. When you realize your friends hate your country as a matter of course it’s – well – hard to remain friends. And you need somewhere to express what you really feel without people trying to silence you. While Oliver Kamm feels that blogs poison political debate, I think the poison was already out there – just less publicly visible. So I turned to the web to find people left and right who brought some clarity to my confusion and hurt feelings. I found a lot more on the Web than I did in the MSM too. The single greatest surprise was Norm of Normblog who, having spent his career engaged in the politics of the left, taught me that I had a choice. I might still be someone of the left where I had spent most of my life, not excommunicated, and therefore some kind of neo or cloven hooved conservative by default. I could, for example, because of the political blogosphere, sign the Euston Manifesto with a clear conscience even if I do have a few cloven hooved reservations about it.

Even so, Oliver is right that there is a lot of the echo chamber activity on the web – people of like minds confirming each others opinions without adding anything new or really dealing with other views. But I can’t let go Kamm’s a “paucity of coverage and predictability of conclusions”? That’s my experience of the MSM. I think the nature and exigencies of the news business tends to force coverage into a narrow frame so that the BBC and Fox news are often reporting the same thing and ignoring the same things. The blogosphere really breaks that monopoly. For example from the TV or print media coverage who would get the impression that the death rate in Zimbabwe in October 2006 was about four times that in Iraq? In the news biz, one story is hot – the other not. But I don’t need to spend too much time on the areas of Oliver Kamm’s post I disagree with. Norm Geras disputes some of Oliver Kamm’s points very thoughtfully and conversationally in his post In Defense of Political Blogging. Both Oliver’s original and Norm’s riposte are well worth reading.

Which brings me to my main point. It’s McLuhan again – of course. He says that we are blinded by the content of any medium and miss the impact of the medium itself. So it is to be expected that blogs as a form are playing merry hell with the various older media forms – newspapers, TV, radio. As blogger Glenn Reynolds said in his dead tree book An Army of Davids, the Internet empowers individuals and neutralizes the advantages that size – sheer bigness – has enjoyed since the 19th century. I’ve noticed several articles by mainstream journalists over the past few years who, like Oliver Kamm, have strongly condemned blogs. Part of it, I think, is the quite unsettling experience, from their point of view, of blogs breaking the monopoly that the MSM have enjoyed since the 18th century and the days of pamphleteers. They have been the gatekeepers. Now the gates are wide open and anyone can publish their political ideas. At its worst the MSM gets all it deserves – and I don’t put Oliver Kamm in that category, but publish faked photos or memos or whatever and the connectedness of the Web has a way of locating the people with the expertise to publicly nail you. When the form changes, when the media environment changes, the rules of the game change. Ain’t no sense fussin’ too much ’bout it.

Update: Oliver Kamm promises a rebuttal of those who have criticised his Guardian piece and makes a powerful case I heartily agree with against trying to impose civility codes on the Blogosphere in this blog post.

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