alien & sedition.
Wednesday, February 07, 2007
  Blogs: the Literature of Revolution?

Rick Perlstein has a nice article at the New Republic on how bloggers often outperform the major media, largely because of the same media weakness that politicians have learned to exploit so skillfully: ego. Quoting Marcy Wheeler's book, he draws a parallel to another age in American history:
"[T]he CIA leak case is a story about how our elected representatives exploited the weakness of our media." Part of that weakness was their overweening self-regard. At first, in the eighteenth century, when an anonymous writer launched charges against "gentlemen"--quite often in the rudest language imaginable--it was a scandal "in a social order of deference," Warner writes in Letters of the Republic. But, by striking down deference, pseudonyms forced arguments to be stronger; Warner even argues that the anonymous culture of print is what made republican consciousness possible.
I've thought about this, too. Perlstein refers to the work of historian Michael Warner, who observed that
many Founding Fathers insisted that public debates be carried out by pseudonym. "Publius," he points out--the pen name under which the newspaper arguments for ratifying the Constitution collected as The Federalist Papers were published--"speaks in the utmost generality of print, denying in his very existence the mediating of particular persons." In other words, it wasn't supposed to matter that the author was the distinguished gentleman Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, or James Madison. You were just supposed to judge according to the words on the page.
I've been reading The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, by the great scholar Bernard Bailyn, who begins his book by discussing "the literature of revolution": the pamphlets, which "had particular virtues as a medium of communication... [It] allowed one to do things that were not possible in any other form."

Bailyn cites a passage from Orwell:
The pamphlet is a one-man show. One has complete freedom of expression, including, if one chooses, the freedom to be scurrilous, abusive, and seditious; or, on the other hand, to be more detailed, serious and "highbrow" than is ever possible in a newspaper or in most kinds of periodicals. At the same time, since the pamphlet is always short and unbound, it can be produced much more quickly than a book, and in principle, at any rate, can reach a bigger public. Above all, the pamphlet does not have to follow any prescribed pattern ... All that is required of it is that it shall be topical, polemical, and short.
Good advice!

As Bailyn says:
It was in this form that 'the best thought of the day expressed itself'; it was in this form that 'the solid framework of constitutional thought' was developed; it was in this form that 'the basic elements of American political thought of the Revolutionary period appeared first.' [...]

[Pamphlets] were always essentially polemical, and aimed at immediate and rapidly shifting targets: at suddenly developing problems, unanticipated arguments, and swiftly rising, controversial figures. The best of the writing that appeared in this form, consequently, had a rare combination of spontaneity and solidity, of dash and detail, of casualness and care.
Many of the pamphleteers were and remain anonymous; no doubt a great many of them are lost to us today. Some of the better remembered include Jonathan Mayhew, the patriotic liberal minister, Richard Bland, the Virginia planter with a gift for vicious satire who "succeeded to such an extent in ridiculing his antagonist by reversing roles with him and condemning him from his own mouth that the victim was forced to reply weakly by explaining to his readers who was really who," (a talent that is not entirely lost), and of course the well-known heroes like the radical Tom Paine and the Founders themselves.

The patriots' opponents, whom they so utterly defeated that the political line they represented disappeared from the American tradition, were the Tories: desperate conservatives like Samuel Seabury, Thomas Bradbury Chandler, whose American Querist "consisted of an even hone hundred rhetorical questions aimed at the pretensions of the first Continental Congres," (some historians seem to attribute this work to Myles Cooper) and Charles Inglis, whose True Interest of America took up the daunting task of rebutting Paine's Common Sense.

The pamphleteers fired back and forth in a familiar pattern, in
what might be called chain-reacting personal polemics: strings of individual exchanges - arguments, replies, rebuttals, and counter-rebuttals ... A bold statement on a sensitive issue was often sufficient to start such a series, which characteristically proceeded with increasing shrillness until it ended in bitter personal vituperation.
And this two centuries before Michelle Malkin was even born!

Leading figures of the day were not exempt from the mud-slinging:
[I]t took a degree of restaint no one sought to employ to keep from depicting George Washington as the corrupter of a washerwoman's daughter, John Hancock as both impotent and the stud of an illegitimate brood ... and Judge John Martin Howard, Jr., as a well-known cardsharper.
Nasty, brutish, short - and to the point.

The major media, who have in so many cases become far too smug, far too lazy, and far too weak to do the job of a vital democratic press, will point to the blogosphere and dismiss it as a cesspool of unpedigreed shouters, and their dismissal will give cover to those who want to crack down on the dirty bloggers. And yes, there's nastiness, and yes there's anonymity and pseudonymity and anyone with a computer and a grudge can join in. And yet, and yet.

And yet, it won't be the first time history is forged in such disreputable discourse.

Cross-posted at Daily Kos.

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We're not worthy! We're not worthy!

In seriousness - fantastic essay. I'd love to know where you both have been hiding for the last few years because your work is fantastic/
Sheer laziness, idio. We were hiding behind sheer laziness.

But once you start, it's addictive isn't it?

Thanks for your very kind words.
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