Google Reading Yglesias: bloggery and book larnin’

by zunguzungu

I’ve been reading Matt Yglesias‘ stuff quite a bit lately; I recently switched from manual surfing to Google Reader assisted blogreading, and the man’s seven post a day output has given him a disproportionate amount of my time, strictly as a result of the way the posts now come to me (taking up seven times as much space on the screen as a blogger who writes one post a day). And one of the more thought provoking pieces I came across at his joint was this Atlantic article (he’s shilling for the company, I suppose, but it really was a good piece), “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” an article about whether or not the way we use the internet is making us increasingly incapable of reading and appreciating longer and more nuanced arguments. It’s a valid question; I’m still very much on the fence about whether or not doing so much of my stuff on the internet is a positive tactic, whether letting the blog medium become a kind of process of writing helps or hurts. A bit of pro, a bit of con, I suppose, and in any case it seems like a worthwhile experiment so far. But the time I spend reading blogs definitely does take away from the brain-time I have available for reading actual books, and I worry about this. Switching over to google-reader has helped, so far; I’ve been more able to focus and control what I read, reducing the time I spend scrolling through my bookmarks. But the larger question does remain (and I’m not alone in this, as posts like this and the Nicholas Carr “stupid-google” article indicate). What changes as the internet increasingly becomes the medium through which we work, read, and think?

For example, I was struck today by a claim that Yglesias made today, to wit:

“American politics isn’t especially ideological and hasn’t historically ever been especially ideological. Tradition and institutional structure have given us a robust two-party system. Geography and immigration have given us an enormous, extremely diverse country. Typical democracies have many fewer people and substantially more political parties. Consequently, practical politics in the United States revolves around a competition between two political coalitions that are, of necessity, pretty slapdash and unwieldy.”

The first thing that struck me was how wrong it feels, based on the book reading I’ve been doing lately. Michael Hunt’s Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy, for example, is a remarkable piece of scholarship that still gets read and cited, precisely because it outlines in great detail the shared ideological consensuses that the US foreign policy establishment has tended to share (and he convinced me that there’s more continuity in the long duree of American history than I would have expected there to be), but one of the things you notice, as you read, is the consistant way that this ideology gets challenged and shaped by local resistance to it (or the ways that politics takes ideological forms). Not only is ideology a central fact of American political history, and political conflicts revolved around ideological positions at odds with each other, but there are real consequences to your ideological stance toward, say, the question local self-determination versus federal state sovereignty. The United States constitution leaves that kind of question really unclear (as compared to European governments, who tend to be clearly centralized, a distinction I picked up from Stephen Skowronek’s Building a New American State…), which means its been an ongoing issue from the beginning to right now. And this means that while the civil war was not really about the issue of state’s rights, it took that form because that kind of ideological conflict was available to be used, and reused (which speaks to why anti-big government conservatives are so quick to look to state’s rights as an ideology: gutting social policies is easier if you have an ideological position, rather than naked class interest).

More than that, though, the statement that “Geography and immigration have given us an enormous, extremely diverse country” is obviously true and, less obviously, a misuse of that truth: whatever geography “gave” us (the Tocquevillian explanation of American exceptionalism), industrialization and integration into the global economy have dramatically reshaped American society, in every possible way. Robert Wiebe’s The Search for Order is a powerful narrative of the period in which this can most clearly be seen to be occurring (though Charles Sellers’ The Market Revolution tells a similar story during the Jacksonian era), and not only do both of these books tell the story of ideological struggle after ideological struggle (of shifting coalitions based on shifting regional interests necessitating shifting ideology), but its a story of national conversation after national conversation on these ideological questions. In other words, while American “diversity” is part of that conversation, it is far more a conversation about diversity than the equilibrium produced when diverse voices blend into harmonious heterogeneity. People have made that argument, in great depth (in fact, the idea that this would occur is at the root of some of the Federalist papers’ most innovative arguments for why democracy could work) but it’s not really a tenable claim, I think, to say it has occurred. Americans have not, in practice, been as different from each other as they have often claimed; it’s been the claiming of whether or not we’re different (an ideological position) that has been important.

To continue, I’m also struck by the statement that “Typical democracies have many fewer people and substantially more political parties,” to which I would point out that the United States has never been one democracy among many, but the exemplar of a kind of historical revolution (as people like Tocqueville saw it) that was sweeping the world. It seems strange to say that the United States is an atypical democracy when so many theorists of “democracy” in the nineteenth century saw that United States as the ideal type, and worried about whether or not European or Latin American republics could follow suit.

To sum up, my basic problem with Yglesias’s claim is that what I know about the nineteenth or early twenty century, stuff I know from reading books, doesn’t seem to match his description of “America.” And this is not to say that he’s somehow factually irresponsible, or that he’s lying about history: these are very much open questions, with reputable scholars on both sides of the question (sides which are, by the way, quite ideologically defined) having written big books about the issue. But he answered a question about American politics and ideology using, I think, the experience of the post-WWII consensus, a very limited (and unusual) period in American history when you could find ideological agreement on most issues across party lines, a historically brief and anomalous time when it was true to say that American politicians were “relatively comfortable acknowledging the essentially grubby and transactional nature of real-world democratic politics rather than one dominated by a lot of aspirations to purism and total victory.” There’s not a moment in the nineteenth century when it would be true to say that, I think, nor much of the twentieth century as well. Distressed wails about partisan politics come from people that have no sense of how it used to be, how dirty a game politics used to be, or how self righteously it was played. But blogging can’t privilege the long duree, can it? It’s vital immediacy comes at a real cost.

Perhaps more importantly, look how long it took me to even explain why I have a problem with what he said, how many books I had to cite (and you’d have to actually look at those books if you wanted to know the substance of what I’m using them to do), and how little of an argument I’ve put forward in response to his clear, concise, and easily paraphrasable statement. Look what it is possible and not possible to do on the internet, or rather, what it is easy and difficult to say. This medium practically requires a kind of snappy set-up and punchline structure (structurally akin to the dreaded five paragraph SAT essay) and this is something that the unbelievably complex texture of the historical record resists becoming without significant losses, especially if you try to do it with any kind of regularity (which the blog medium requires). My guess is that this is why the Edge of the West folks have adopted a “this day in history” format, and why that works so well for blogging: it gives the writing an Archimedean point on which to stand, so it doesn’t lose its focus in historical abstraction. Yglesias, on the other hand, is here making claims about “American politics,” “diversity,” “typical democracies,” and “ideology” that are not only deeply open questions that he doesn’t have anything like the time or space or occasion to explore or explain, but the very medium of the blog-post disinclines a writer from admitting that such questions exist. And so I, an academically oriented writer interested in this particular class of historical problem, find myself calling a foul.

I’m not sure, that said, that any of this is any different than traditional journalism, and, anyway, the standard to which I’m implicitly holding Yglesias to is quite high: I’m demanding that he have, at his fingertips, the particular texts I happened to have read in the last few months, and have taken from the particular lessons and examples that I did, for reasons which were particular to my own project. And one of the positive advantages that the internet has with respect to traditional journalism – its ability to use hyperlinks and comment fields to make a monologue into a dialogue – is not something to be dismissed lightly. But this seems to be the tradeoff: the kind of grand synthetic work that a Wiebe or Sellers does is the kind of thing the internet is least good at. And I go back to the kinds of reading practice that google-reader has introduced into my own reading, the way I’ve been reading bloggers like Yglesias more (precisely because they write short and pithy posts, usually in response to de-contextualized quotes, and usually quite ideological) and I find it’s at the cost, to at least some extent, of reading stuff on jstor, longer post bloggers, or actual books. And as I’ve become more and more regular a blogger, I find that I’ve been writing shorter and shorter pieces, working harder to finish a thing more quickly and in doing so being less ambitious about what I’m trying to do (and more oriented to conversations elsewhere). Whereas the writing I used to do on my computer or in my notebooks (and show to no one) would stretch out towards infinity, teasing at problems without the need to wrap them up and finish, now that I’m writing for actual people, dear reader, I find myself trying top tie a neat bow at the end of each post. It’s good practice, and I’ve become a better writer as a result of doing it. But if there are trade-offs, there’s a fine line between forgetting their existence and tossing the baby out with the bathwater because of the hyperbole of “google is making us stupid.” An Atlantic article, like a blog post, has to have a snappy and almost reducto ad absurdum telos, but we, luckily, do not.