Friday, September 23, 2005

Picking Sides [LONG]

This post started churning about in my head shortly after Alan Stewart Carl published his final piece here last week. Unfortunately, I was busy racing out of town for a blog-free vacation at just that time, so the piece had a good long while to ferment. It is, as a result, rather lengthy and involved, not to mention meandering, senseless, and probably hallucinatory in a few places. Read at your own risk.


In his recent farewell to blogging, Alan Stewart Carl offered a withering (and well-written!) critique of the political blogosphere:

And to say blogging is a form of debate is giving most who practice in the medium too much credit. There are extremely good blogs out there, but most blogs are just noise. Most bloggers aren't citizen journalists or even citizen essayists. They are citizen spin doctors. They aren't debating ideas. They're spinning the truth. They're wasting their intelligence and time trying to force every event, every moment into their pre-conceived notion of the world. They don't want to add to the national debate. They want to keep debate from ever happening.

For bloggers of moderate sensibilities, Alan's observations are something of a challenge -- in their way, reminiscent of the challenge Daily Show host Jon Stewart offered up on Crossfire last year. If the blogosphere is indeed such a relentlessly partisan din, what are we doing here? Would our energy indeed be better spent on other efforts? What should those who want to create substantial change for the better do?

One might argue that the blogosphere is more open and rational than Alan allows. I think the right person could make an interesting argument there. While its inarguably true that moderate blogs are few in number and tiny in size, it's possible that they can have outsize impact. Well- placed links and marketing can get good ideas into the funniest places; there are plenty of odd little "pockets" of moderation even on the most famously partisan blogs, the Koses and Powerlines. Moreover, one could argue that the diversity among blogs makes up for the frequency of shrill tones within them. As a reader, I've certainly been exposed to a far wider range of opinions through the internet than I ever would have without it.

Unfortunately, I'm not the person to make that argument, because I basically agree with Alan. Blogs are, on the whole, a din. Right and left are filled with misleading information, often intentionally so. The vast majority of really successful bloggers are highly partisan activists, and I expect with time that more and more of these will be compensated for their efforts. And the vast majority of comment window space is wasted on inane levels of name-calling, semantics, and general obfuscation.

When all is said and done, it may very well be that the blogging age is best remembered for its destruction of two old debating standbyes: politeness and facts. The blogosphere is well-known for its abundance of the rude, and unfortunately we have no Hannibal Lecter to eat them for us. Actually, to be fair: I truly believe that the anonymity and facelessness of blogging encourages rudeness to a disturbing extent. Most people find me to be a terribly polite person in real life (excepting of course my loved ones, who never knew prior to registration what a stream of belches, glazed-over eyes, and vicious swearing such a quiet, unassuming fellow could produce). Yet on anonymous message boards I can be an out-and-out devil, flaming wingnuts and mediots right and left for the sake of sheer sadism (I swear it's not me, it's the medium!).

Meanwhile, the Fact, which already took a terrible bruising during the the twentieth century, may very well face extinction in the salad days of this one. What Fact is out there that can no longer be challenged? Face it, there are none - and if you're as much of an information addict as me, you've read the rebuttals to gravity, the rotation of the earth, and the existence of the sun twelve times already. While the blogosphere is not responsible for the slow decline of the Fact, it may very well be the technology by which we deliver the killing blow.


So, all that said - yes, I agree with Alan. And yet, I continue to blog, at my admittedly slothful pace. Why?

Well, for starters, I think the phenomena described above and in his post is not just relegated to the blogosphere. Rudeness, partisan shillery, and the steady erosion of truth are to be found throughout the various media, and really throughout the political world itself. I also believe there's a simple reason for this, and that reason is: we are not rational. (And yes, that probably does mean that I blog because I'm not rational).

The point has been made many times, by people much smarter than myself. It goes like this: Humans generally do not choose their political affiliations rationally, by determining what their opinions are and then choosing a party that supports them. Instead, we are far more likely to do the opposite -- choosing a party based on childhood preoccupations or tribal instincts, and then choosing our opinions based on those around us. However, despite all this, we almost always believe that our opinions are chosen rationally, because we have come up with rationales which support them.

This is not to argue that we are completely irrational beings. After all, we may change our affiliations, often through process of reason. Rather, it is to argue that first, rationality is not core to our being; it is more like a tool that we have access to, and can use when properly motivated. Second, it is to argue that we may believe we are acting rationally even when we are not.

This belief is a core component of what currently passes as my political philosophy. And I try, as much as I can, to apply this belief to everything. Sometimes when I state it, people attack me as elitist - suggesting that I believe that "the rubes" are irrational and make poor political decisions. But actually, the evidence suggests that the higher your education level, the more likely you are to be decisively partisan one way or the other. Lots of people know this, including lots of bloggers...yet very few actually bother to apply it to themselves.

Let's give it a shot: I'm a well-educated person...and if I'm really honest about it, I have to admit that my political stances have been pretty irrational. For instance: I have a long, grudging tolerance for the Democratic Party - and an equally long, half-tempered dislike for the Republican Party. The reasons seem pretty simple to me: my parents were both loyal Democrats, as were most of the families around us; I grew up in New York City, about as blue an area as you can find; I was not a rebellious child, and so accepted the belief system that I inherited; I tend to root for underdogs, and for most of my life the Dems have held the weaker hand.

That last one is pretty important, actually, because by late high schoolI realized that my Democratic affiliation was irrational, and instead decided to be anti-system. I couldn't vote in the '92 election, but if I could I would have voted for Perot. By '96 I started identifying as a radical and refused to vote entirely; in 2000 I would have voted for Nader, but having been radicalized, forgot my ID at home and was denied access to the polls.

Looking back, I don't doubt that all of these decisions were irrational too. At each step, I was deeply influenced by the thoughts of friends and loved ones. Moreover, my constant desire to support the underdog led me from the Democrats, to the radicals, to a brief flirtation with Libertarianism -- and today, to "moderate liberalism," "centrism," and "radical middlism". With the significant exception of The New York Yankees - who I have also drifted from - I have never supported a big-time winner.

Rooting for the underdog is a common trait, and a beautiful one to my mind. It indicates a desire to live in a just world. Unfortunately, it has never been demonstrated to be the crux of a rationalist belief system.


I've offered up a fair amount of personal information in this post, but it's not just about me. Without trying to sound too clichéd, it's about us.

It's amazing to me sometimes how easy it was for me to make the transition from being a WTO-protesting, Green-voting, hippie-clad, self-proclaimed "anarchist" to being a member of the "sensible middle." It happened in the space of a few short years, with no change in any of my closest relationships, no change really in my core beliefs about the world. The main thing that changed was probably my mode of dress. I think I've become more open-minded about some things, but those things tend to be Means rather than Ends, so to speak. I still want to live in a world that is more just and fair, where human happiness is more abundant than it currently is. I've simply accepted that I haven't yet imagined all the ways to get there, and that I may have something to learn about it from those with whom I'm used to disagreeing.

But I think that transition was easy for me for a pretty simple reason: it's an easy transition to make, period. Both "radicals" and "sensible centrists" are basically consigned to being political outsiders. The insiders, these days and all days, are political partisans, party people. If you like to root for underdogs, you will eventually find yourself outside all parties, looking in.

I think my story will probably be familiar to most readers and writers on this blog, and of most self-styled centrist blogs. And if this is indeed true, I must leave you with a warning: If the thinking that led me here was not necessarily rational, can you say otherwise for yourself?

Centrists, moderates, and the like often pride themselves above all on rationality. As Alan writes:

We created The Yellow Line as an attempt to battle that trend. I'm not claiming a purity of vision. All I'm claiming is that Joe and I (and those who've joined us) have made an honest attempt to keep truths as truths and our opinions as opinions and we've tried not to mingle or purposefully confuse the two. We haven't always succeeded, but we've always made the effort.

I don't intend to pick on Alan - as I said, I mostly agree with him on this topic, and it sounds like it was both personally and politically sensible for him to forge a new path. I also believe that this focus on rationality and reason from moderate bloggers is an essential part of their voice, their sense. However, I also believe that there is nothing unique about this. Democrats also believe that they are rational, as do Republicans, libertarians, radicals, anarchists, communists, religious fundamentalists, racists, and ideologues of all stripes. Every group believes that it has the truth, and every group believes that its truth is the highest one. That's even true for those of us who believe that the truth may be found in different places.

Which is to say as well - if you want to create change in the world, don't look at rationality as the way to get you there. Up to a point, a shared sense of what is rational and true is essential for community-building. If you want to get some people together, you have to start by figuring out what you have in common. Reason is a fine basis for this; in many ways, it's the only such basis that has ever existed. All of our meetings are meetings of the mind.

However - and this is the "point" I've been working towards - we cannot live by reason alone. Moderates, centrists, radical middlists -- do you realize that the organizational problems that plague you are the very same ones that plague Naderites and Greens, Libertarians and Socialists? At some point, it's no longer about reason, it's no longer about moderation, it's no longer about finding common ground. At that point, it's about two things: the often grinding work of building or transforming institutions, and fighting to win.

Like all other outcast groups, moderates need to learn to fight to win. The middle can't just be radical; it also needs to be partisan! And given the inherent nature of "middle" blogs - reasonable, open-minded, peaceable - that is going to be the hardest job of all. At this point, blogging as a political tool is only going to be useful to moderates if it can contribute as a partisan device. Moderates cannot win unless we form a common identity, even if it is somehow inclusive of membership in major and minor parties - and then fight to win.

That doesn't necessarily mean a third-party run -- although I'd certainly enjoy that. It may need to be more of an inside job. But more than anything, it needs to be a movement. People don't always get persuaded through reason. Sometimes they need to be swept up by momentum. That in turn means that all of our tactics and approaches need not be rational - and for that matter, need not even be nice. Democrats nowadays often speak of trying to learn from Republican tactics. Moderates in turn shudder or snort and look away. Maybe, just maybe, we should try studying what other groups are doing, and using those techniques we can stand to use?

Or maybe - there is no "we" at all? Just how much are we willing to turn away from our partisan instincts and backgrounds.


I recently read the books Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler. Like many science-fiction writers, Butler's as much of a thinker as a storyteller, if not more so. The two books tell the story of Lauren Olamina, a young woman living in a near-future, very believably dystopian America. How believable, you ask? Let's just say that Butler's books very ably predict the recent, unnerving descent into chaos in New Orleans -- and the latter of the two books was written in 1998.

Olamina's response to the growing chaos and violence around her is very peculiar: she decides to start a religion, called Earthseed, whose god is Change, and whose goal is for people to leave Earth and populate other planets. This at a time when the space program has fallen into complete disarray, and is mocked by nearly everyone. Her religion begins as kind of a cult, attracting a few followers here and there, who together form a fragile community. I won't give away the ending of the novels, but suffice to say that what is interesting about Earthseed is that it is a semi-rational ideology that ends up being a surprisingly rational response to the real circumstances in the books.

Butler identifies as an atheist, yet she is remarkably open-minded about religion, to the point of writing a series of novels that ask the question of how a religion can be useful even if it is not rational or even true. Her works suggests that sometimes one can serve the greater good by telling a little fiction now and then.

I would like the readers of this blog to think about this. It should not be too controversial to point out that "centrism" or "radical middleism" is to politics as atheism or at least agnosticism is to religion. Many of us moderates often pride ourselves on our attachment to making politics rational; we also want politics to serve the greater good. What if serving the greater good requires bending the truth, discarding rationality for utility?

Like most moderates, I have no easy answers. I leave my questions for your consideration.


At 8:44 PM, Blogger M. Takhallus. said...

linked to by

At 11:19 AM, Blogger amba said...

So basically the question is: What are moderates or centrists passionate about? Let's continue that discussion.

A related question: can we come up with a better name than the tepid "moderates" or "centrists"? Would we take heart if we incorporated the word "heart," as in the use of "heartland" for the center of America? We wouldn't want to be mistaken for midwesterners ;-P -- that is, midwesterners only.

At 7:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Politics is a spectator sport in this country and polittical blogs are part of the game. Some of us view them as a place to sample things, but to the extent serious people use blogs they are on more specialized subjects such as finance, economics, application of technology to development in Africa etc.

Political opinions do get formulated in such blogs, but they are not about mass readership. They are about providing useful information to individuals who act or wish to act in this world. And of course thay are in their own ways very effective. When individuals whose interest is financial see serious critiques of our economic situation, they are less subject to spin, their money and interests are at stake.

Political blogs add an arena of populist debate to the political sphere, on balance they are good. The partisan nonsense was always there and always well be, but now there are comments and thousands of bloggers so one does get a better picture of the ferment. And there is some discussion and fact checking and elements that didn't happen when bloggers combined their monologues to like thinking friends in bars.

At 5:56 PM, Blogger BigBuddhaPuppy said...

What are centrists passionate about? Who knows...

As for the liberals and conversatives, we unfortunately know there rhetoric is cut in granite.

We seem to have to put a label on every moment in politics. So the hope is we might see a new moment and a new label eventually. At the moment we can neatly put all our labels under one umbrella, yes there is one big tent from all political persuasions, it is "Money". Capitalism is good as long as it doesn't run the show, it needs to be a mechanism, not "the mechanism".

America is the new Roman Empire, read your heavy rich, with no need of the plebians...spread too thin at war for conquest to keep the economic machine rolling...history is repeating itself...

Labels: if they are needed for me...Then I am socially liberal, and fiscially conservative. Our laws need to lean libertarian and federal. An even playing board across the country. Am I a centrist, only if a left, a right make center...maybe we need to bring back some old good labels like progressive, or pragmatist...but we will never bring back any labels as long as our country is ran by money. We need to put people back in the equation...

Maybe Blogging is one step....any other steps anyone can think of?

At 12:02 PM, Blogger Alan Stewart Carl said...

Great post.

But I think the "quest for rationality" is not quite the right definition. I would say, more bluntly, centrists are on a quest to "stop the bullshit."

The political world is full of purposeful lies. And bad lies at that. I read Daily Kos or Powerline (or listen to Limbaugh or Al Franken) and I can't help but think those writers/commentators must know damn well they are full of it. They know they are spewing b.s. and their readers/listeners, for the most part, know they are being fed b.s. But they all go on pretending like it's truth because the b.s. fits better into their world view and makes their side look better.

So I think most centrists are on the forefront of an American thirst for straight-talk. That's what centrists have in common--a revulsion to the bullshit all around.

But the problem is that most Centrists (and I'd include myself here) are caught up in a b.s. line of their own. Centrists like to say that all debates are good debates, and almost all points of view worth discussing. That's b.s. A lot of people are idiots and their points are not worth discussing seriously. But until Centrists learn how to tell people off (without becoming down-right mean) the Centrist movement is going to keep spinning its wheels. We need some cajones and some egotism.

I think centrists are right on a lot of issues. But I have wasted a lot of time engaging idiots in an attempt to be “moderate”. And I think the Centrist movement as a whole has wasted a lot of time on being moderate when it needs to be bold. We need leadership that is ballsy, that is more focused on winning battles than it is on appearing “reasonable.” Don’t get me wrong, we want to be reasonable, but that doesn’t always mean being nice.

Childishness has overtaken the political sphere. Centrists have the chance to be the grown-ups who come in and restore order. But we have to be confident, even a little hubristic to do that.

As for blogging--well, that's another topic. I think blogging has, for the most part, increased the tribalism of our political environment. But I also think it can (and sometimes does) increase the number of views that get aired.

If I ever start blogging again, I'd probably be a lot less polite and a lot more forceful. I'm not saying Centrists need to get mad--anger wins converts but not elections. But Centrist do need to get tough. We’re too much of an intellectual group. We need to be more passionate.

At 3:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is possible to be both centrist and passionate.

You will be labeled as "rude" by both left and right. You will leave enemies slathering for your blood in your wake -- but most of those enemies will be idiots anyway, incapable of hurting you without stabbing you in the back.

Have someone watching your back and you should be OK.


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