Thursday, June 29, 2006

An Iliad of Woes

In the third book of the Iliad, the Greeks and Trojans get the brilliant idea of settling their ten-year long war by a single combat between Paris, the abductor of Helen, and Menelaus, the outraged cuckold. For thousands of years now, students have been asking why this solution didn’t occur to anybody before so many warriors had already become a feast for the vultures. I have a similar question as I read about the Iraqi government’s proposal to end the civil war by trading an agreement for the withdrawal of all foreign troops for a general cessation of hostilities. After all, in the immediate aftermath of our invasion, the United States could have promised to leave at a time certain and thus preempted the main motive of the insurrection.

One knows the answer to the Homeric riddle. Troy was doomed. A reasonable composition of the quarrel would have thwarted the will of the Gods, and even a postponed duel between the aggrieved parties could not be allowed to resolve things until every drop of fated blood had been shed. Aphrodite duly intervenes to save Paris before Menelaus can finish him off. Things are much the same in Mesopotamia. In the Iraqi instance, our own Zeus can be counted on to guarantee the continued misery of all concerned, though it may be a challenge to figure out how to twist the arms of our erstwhile local allies and ensure that all five acts of the tragedy be performed before the curtain.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Gummed to Death by Gabby Hayes

One of the most persistent and mysterious myths about political blogging is the notion that the average blogger is young, poor, and badly educated. In fact, to judge by recent surveys, most bloggers and most readers of blogs are down-right long in the tooth—in a study of those whippersnapper Kos people, the most overrepresented age bracket was the over 65 set. Bloggers also tend to be both better educated than the average American, which is hardly surprising since people who are comfortable with writing are likely to more highly literate than the norm. They are also relatively well-off.

I’m skeptical of the political potential of the Blogosphere, at least as a medium for mass mobilization. Communicating in whole sentences is just too demanding for most people, especially since even people with the requisite English skills are often too busy or too distracted to relish an activity as high-energy as writing or even reading blog posts. For the common reader, the seriousness, novelty, and complexity of the arguments one finds on many sites are far more apotropaic than the often bewailed tendency of some bloggers to operate at a level of obscenity reminiscent of Deadwood. Because they are highly articulate, however, the bloggers may exert an indirect effect on future politics by working on the minds of members of political elites. And because they and their readers have considerable disposable income, they do have the wherewithal to get politicians to listen to them.

A character in one of my old science fiction stories notices that the headline on Time magazine cover reads “The Baby Boomers Turn 80 This Year!” Well, we aren’t 80 yet, but maybe the true secret meaning of the Blogging vogue is the advent of a generational geezer attack, something rather like what takes place in a zombie movie except that the web’s shambling monsters make a lot more editorial comments than the traditional brain-eaters.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

A Looming Threat

As many people have pointed out, it is more than a little ironic that so many established journalists are currently publishing attacks on the blogosphere on the theory that it is under the control of puppet masters like Marcos, the founder of the Daily Kos. After all, the pundit counter-offensive appears to be far more coordinated than the normal activities of the anarchistic net. Indeed, when the Op-ed writers aren’t calling the bloggers on their groupthink, they are complaining about net-based opinion precisely because it is uncontrollable. Nothing on the net corresponds to the editorial section of the New York Times. There is no permanent high ground. Anybody is liable to say anything, including, for example, pointing out that the defining feature of American elite journalism is its startling lack of talent.

Like most people who actually blog, I doubt if blogging is going to bring the millennium or even turn out to be politically important except at the margins. Indeed, the greatest the new modality’s most significant impact may be to accelerate the tempo of serious debate in academic and scientific disciplines. Participation in the electronic conversation is rather too strenuous to attract mass participation, which partly explains why so many bloggers are in their 50s and 60s. There just aren’t that many younger people who are willing or able to write paragraphs in the dead of night. But I doubt if the Swift Boating of the bloggers is motivated as much by the realistic political threat they represent to conservative and liberal orthodoxy as by the pundits’ anger at the recognition of their own increasing marginalization. The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Republic, and the rest are steadily losing readers and credibility. The blogosphere—as opposed to the Internet as a whole—may have little to do with the downfall of the traditional media and the declining status of the talking heads; but it is a convenient scapegoat. As usual, the defense of privilege is more fervent than the defense of principle.