Swimming Against the Riptide
© 2006 Ross Williams
I am an essayist. I see something in the news, or in the real world, that irks me, I look it up and down to find out why it is irksome, I research the matter, and I write essays that describes the irksome item in unflattering detail. My talent lies in unflattering the nonflatterworthy. Then I slap these essays into a free, public, electronic notebook called a "blog".
"Blog" is internet shorthand for "web log", and it is not typically used by essayists to collect their essays. It is typically used by subject-area hobbyists and other neophytes to collect quotes, internet links, a phrase or two of their own and plagiarize endlessly into that good night. A blog is typically little more than a public scrapbook containing bits of semi-thought. An electronic button box. The internet's junk drawer and penny jar.
A penny for your thoughts?
Why spend that much? The internet’s free, and there’s blogs everywhere.
There are blogs relating to every subject imaginable. I’ve run across people who wax digital on the random self-importance of being a single cat-owner in Boston. Hourly updates on Mister Mitten’s activities, complete with 75 uploaded photographs of the beast mauling a ball of yarn. Unfortunately, there is an audience for such tedium.
I’ve seen blogs describing in suicide-inspiring detail how Mary, Mary, quite contrary gets her garden to grow. And there is an audience for that as well. Two or three lines of such insight as “Well, the predicted overnight rains didn’t come after all, so it looks like I’ll have to water the lemon basil *YET AGAIN*!!! :(” Twenty minutes later we read “Watered my basil; found what looks like scaly fungus on the radicchio. Another trip to the garden center is in my plans now, it looks like. Seems I live there lately!!!”
And aren’t we all the richer for knowing this.
Note the three exclamation points!!! Their world is triple-important.
Other people read these entries and add their own helpful hints – which is how we can tell there’s an audience for such scintillating reports – and always the comment sections are chock full of reaffirming pablum as “Thank you for the information you post, Mary Mary. You are an inspiration to us weekend gardeners! :)”
Not once have I read an entry in these world-revolves-around-me diaries saying “If you spent half the time in your garden as you do writing about it, you could brush the scaly fungus off the radicchio with a toothbrush while blindfolded. Try buying a life at the garden center next time you go. You’re bo-o-o-oring” I would suspect that we won’t see such comments, honest though they are, because it would be an admission that the commentator is so life-bereft himself that he is reduced to pinging lifeless dweebs on the internet for their lack of a life. The bland denouncing the bland.
Then, of course, there are the political blogs. These turn political punditry – the art of watching politics and analyzing its ramifications – into the scaly fungus of a garden blog. “Well, the predicted voter revolt didn’t happen after all, so it looks like I’ll have to check my civil rights at the door for another four years *YET AGAIN*!!! :(”
The inevitable responses to this self-pitying swill typically range between jet black and pure white, and consist of, at most, bumper-sticker slogans. “Yeah! me too!!” or “Nuh-UH!!!” This passes for political discourse among our nation’s computer-savvy voters.
“Yuh huh!!” “Nuh uh!!” “Yuh huh!!” “Nuh uh!!” “Yuh huh!!” “Nuh uh!!” It’s like watching Meet the Press for Kindergarteners. Today’s issue: Did little Bobby Brown take the blue crayon from Susie Jones. “Yuh huh!!” “Nuh uh!!” “Yuh huh!!” “Nuh uh!!” “Yuh huh!!” “Nuh uh!!” Any parent worth a damn wants to throttle anyone involved. Everyone goes to bed without supper and if there’s even a peep, out comes the belt.
Among the saddest aspects of this is: the people engaging in such superficial twaddle are usually high school, and commonly college, graduates. Yet they can’t very often form sentences, let alone collect those sentences into meaningful paragraphs, let alone assemble meaningful paragraphs into a coherent theme the purpose of which is to lay out facts, pertinently connect those facts, and thus demonstrate the validity of their conclusion.
They skip merrily past the research needed to assemble facts; they eschew the drudgery of analyzing facts – at most, they select one or two out of literally thousands and construct vivid and magical worlds upon these few data points; and they finally come skidding to a halt at their opinion, which they assert is authoritative, and announce that all is solved.
“I think so, therefore it is.”
The fact that they have an opinion does not make their opinion fact.
But the saddest part is, though, to me, … blogs are supposed to be the next wave of the information age. Gone are the days when a few media outlets – now pejoratively called “mainstream media” – control what information the people have in order to form their opinions. We now have blogs!
And this helps … how?
Blogs aren’t journalism; many aren’t even literate. Most that are [more or less] literate don’t do any investigation beyond what is contained in a handful of other blogs which, coincidentally, agree with the one doing the investigation. Only a few do any actual analysis of anything bordering on factual information, and a scant handful are anything but cheerleader collection points for their own political -ism. …and which thereupon serve to announce where drive-by denunciations might be tossed out by internetters of differing ideology.
Most political blogs I’ve seen – on the left, on the right, and in the center – spend their days quoting and denouncing each other. Occasionally they’ll issue the peremptory “…and this shows we’re better than the mainstream media…” self-delusion, and then go back to checking each other’s navels for lint. “Trackback”, they call it.
Any given piece of information found on a typical blog can be traced through trackbacks in a full circle never leaving the cozy confines of the blogosphere. On the rare occasion that actual fact enters their dizzying universe, it’s either ignored as pedestrian, or it’s denounced as heretical. My essays are for the most part, seemingly, ignored. Although the few which have drawn non-spamvertising response – which I uniformly delete – have been denounced.
As much as criticism of the mainstream media is warranted, and for all the reasons that blogs and bloggers cite, blogs are themselves no better. In many ways, they are arguably worse. It was blogs that somehow toppled the Mighty Dan Rather, with their no-holds-barred “honesty”.
In all actuality, what happened was that several bloggers who [justifiably] detested the smug and self-righteous Rather asked questions that the smug and self-righteous Rather, and his smug and self-righteous producer, refused to ask. Rather and Mapes would rather have built their vivid and magical reality upon one data point than to concede that, maybe, perhaps, the old “AWOL” story was just over-played out on a disinterested public.
Many blogs asked “…and just where did this new information come from all of a sudden…?” Well, somebody heard from someone that such-and-so, and a thousand different conspiracy theories were born overnight on the internet. One of those conspiracy theories was that the letter was typed in Microsoft Word™, and printed in a font not available on the standard Texas Air National Guard IBM Selectric™ circa 1970. This is an angle into which any responsible investigative journalist would have looked – which necessarily excludes Rather in his dotage, and Mapes in her ideological imperiousness.
The entire nation of journalists, though, was too busy constructing their vivid and magical realities instead of committing journalism. But that doesn’t mean that the blog which theorized this conspiracy did anything more than get lucky. It didn’t break the story. The team that gets one hit in a thousand at-bats – even if it’s a home run – is still hitting .001.
UFOlogists who circle Groom Lake like vagrant vultures can’t say “Ah HA! Area 51 does exist and they design and experiment with next-generation aircraft – so we were right all along!”
No, Mr Salinger, TWA-800 was not shot down by the US Navy.
Stopped clocks are guaranteed to be correct twice a day – which is about as often as Rush Limbaugh, MoveOn.org and the rest of the political blogosphere.
And instant punditry in bumper-sticker slogans does not substitute for analysis or rational discourse.
To be the next wave of the information age, try these tricks: collect facts, even ones you don’t like; assemble those facts into pertinent collections, drawing connections between them; and draw conclusions which draw on all the facts – even, and especially, the ones you don’t like. And I know it sound bizarre, but try actually writing out your answers in full sentences, paragraphs and themes.
Essays: not just for grade-school nerds anymore.
 A head-shaking blog-war erupted a few weeks ago between “Protein Wisdom” operated by Jeff Goldstein – a blog I have occasionally run across – and the one run by a Deborah Frisch, a PhD in psychology, ex-adjunct professor at the University of Arizona. Her blog is called Southwest Media [?? I’m going by memory here; I’m too ambivalent to look it up right now], in which the differences of political opinion devolved rather more quickly into its kindergartenish components, and even became quasi-criminal in nature. It was as if the gossip columnist for the Los Angeles Times and the advice columnist for the New York Daily News met in Des Moines Iowa to have a purse-fight.
 One blog commentator I’ve had the displeasure of running across more than once continually asserts that the job of a free press in a free country is to be “adversarial” to the government. Which is grossly and sanctimoniously incorrect. The job of a free press in a free country is to be skeptical of the government. Skeptical means: “Prove to me you’re right”; adversarial means: “No matter what you do you’re wrong.”