Isn’t Joseph Rago’s invocation of that great Swedenborgian vision that so dominated Henry James, Sr.’s life – the “Vastation” – kind of weird in his column designed to piss off the average blogger (“The Blog Mob”)?
I don’t see Iraq that way & wonder if he does. I suspect it is the kind of allusion he thinks bloggers like us don’t make. Most often used to describe a spiritual emptiness, a profound & deeply disturbing recognition of emptiness, he probably means here a “laying waste, depopulation, devastation”. Some don’t see Iraq this way, but some seem to. (Certainly, it must be how Jamil Hussein sees it, but that is another matter, one worth discussion in places resistant to such considerations, i.e., Kurtz‘s column.)
This is an abyss word. Modern thinkers often draw us to the edge of what they declare to be an abyss; they clearly see it as titillating, as a show of courage. Of course, it isn’t really courage because they don’t feel the fear. They want to use its shock, but don’t, not really, feel it to the depth of their bones. If this is what he truly believes, it should be the subject of the column. He needs to face it – and communicate what he sees – a lot more urgently and honestly. This is far too grim a vision to merely use rhetorically. But I get the feeling he doesn’t really think it is an abyss, he just throws that in, just as he throws in the word itself, to give the illusion of depth.
Rago admits the MSM is an institution imploding (an overstatement, I’m sure) and his sense that it offered much that bloggers cannot is quite valid. As for his column’s real thesis, I wouldn’t argue that he doesn’t have a point – part of the joy of the internet & the blogosphere is finding people with whom one agrees. I just don’t think (but I wouldn’t, would I) we are all that mindless. Reading this blog as well as writing for it has helped me understand myself – ah, we often say, he says what I’d thought. That is part of educating ourselves – it isn’t just coming to see new perspectives but understanding our old ones as well, recognizing them in words we hadn’t had before, hadn’t put together before.
Frederick Douglass puts rather beautifully why finding others who think as we do is empowering:
I met with one of Sheridan’s mighty speeches on and in behalf of Catholic emancipation. These were choice documents to me. I read them over and over again with unabated interest. They gave tongue to interesting thoughts of my own soul, which had frequently flashed through my mind, and died away for want of utterance. The moral which I gained from the dialogue was the power of truth over the conscience of even a slaveholder. What I got from Sheridan was a bold denunciation of slavery, and a powerful vindication of human rights. The reading of these documents enabled me to utter my thoughts, and to meet the arguments brought forward to sustain slavery.
He goes on to describe how such realizations made him more aware of the wrong of his enslavement, both more miserable & more empowered.
Rago may not understand that finding a community in which we feel comfortable expressing our thoughts is important. This may lead to mob-think but it may also lead to its opposite, self-consciousness, self-awareness. The blogosphere joins together those who would not otherwise think of themselves as having all that much in common. I suspect that this is far more true of this blog than most – Jonathan has reached out and drawn together a diverse group, having little in common but some core assumptions about how the world works.
Most blogs are more limited in their perspectives & in their voices. Such brotherhoods can bring out the worst in us – a good example are the remarkably partisan & vapid comments on Youtube responding to Zucker. I’m not going to argue against the comments on Chicagoboyz – Zucker makes me laugh but I don’t confuse him with a profound thinker. But the comments defending & attacking are remarkably vulgar. When Rago sees the “mediocrity of the masses,” he is sometimes right.
But some of the cheerleaders for the blogosphere (Glenn Reynolds, Virginia Postrel) are much more positive about the masses, in true libertarian fashion. While they may be overly optimistic, I don’t think Rago’s perspective is correct merely because it is gloomy. The assumption of our form of government (and economics & public discussion) is not that we aren’t mediocre sometimes, but that we aren’t all mediocre all the time. Life culls out & encourages the good ideas and the good products.
And other comments (I like to think on ours, certainly on Belmont Club’s) lead to thought, greater depth, more of a give & take. Positions are analyzed & modified. Rago doesn’t understand the depth & variety that is the blogosphere, doesn’t understand the level of education nor the level of understanding it plumbs each week. He forgets that the blogosphere, far more than the WSJ, represents the diversity of experience as well as opinion. And that kind of diversity is important in the great open marketplace of ideas. That diversity is not phony, but real. Real diversity includes mediocrity & stubbornness & prejudice as well as insight & reason & creativity, it includes civility as well as bombast.