I have read books published by major publishers that have less meat in them than a single blog post by John Holbo.
Here are two:
John & Belle Have A Blog: Dead Right: A fortnight ago Josh Marshall recommended... David Frum’s Dead Right (1994). That David Frum? Off to library went I.... I can see why Marshall finds Frum’s book... interesting. Its thesis is clearly stated in the final chapter’s final paragraph:
Conservatives suffer a very different political problem from liberals these days. Avowed liberals have a difficult time winning power in this country; avowed conservatives do not. You no longer get far in public life by preaching that the poor are poor because someone else is not poor, or that criminals can be rehabilitated, or that American troops should get their orders from the United Nations. There’s no liberal Rush Limbaugh. But exercising power -- that is a very different business. When conservatism’s glittering generalities, “you are overtaxed,” turn into legislative specifics, “you must pay more to send your kid to the state university,” we run into as much trouble in midsession as the liberals do at election time. Twelve years of twisting and struggling to escape this snare have just entangled us ever more deeply in it, until we have arrived at the unhappy destination this book describes. Is there a way out? Only one: conservative intellectuals should learn to care a little less about the electoral prospects of the Republican Party, indulge less in policy cleverness and ethnic demagoguery, and do what intellectuals of all descriptions are obliged to do: practice honesty, and pay the price. (p. 205)
Frum’s conception of liberals as unhappy until there’s a paroled murderer and UN bluehelmet on every corner -- is subject to doubt. But we pass over in silence; the man, to his credit, does not mince words about the faults of his party.... My compass is evidently twitchy and unreliable. Wouldn’t advise anyone else to use it. But I do find the following piece of simple woodcraft has its rugged employments: figure out which side of the trees the NRO is growing on. Then head dead-straight in the opposite direction until you hit civilization....
Let’s start at the very beginning....
Social conservatism is potentially more popular than economic conservatism. But severed from economic conservatism, social conservatism too easily degenerates into mere posturing. The force driving the social trends that offend conservatives, from family breakup to unassimilated immigration, is the welfare function of modern government. Attempting to solve these social problems while government continues to exacerbate them is like coping with a sewer main explosition by bolting all the manhole covers to the pavement. Overweening government may not be the sole cause of America’s maladies. But without overweening government, none would rage as fiercely as it now does. The nearly 1$ trillion the federal government spends each year on social services and income maintenance – and the additional hundreds of billions spent by the states – is a colossal lure tempting citizens to reckless. Remove those alluring heaps of money, and the risks of personal misconduct would again deter almost everyone, as they did before 1933 and even 1965.
It’s a bit-- um, ripe -- to analogize immigrants and single-parent families directly to sewage. Nevertheless, this can still be read as more or less pure economic libertarianism (with just a layer of slime on top.)... It turns out economic inefficiency isn’t what ‘offends’ conservatives after all, at least not Frum.
The great, overwhelming fact of a capitalist economy is risk. Everyone is at constant risk of the loss of his job, or of the destruction of his business by a competitor, or of the crash of his investment portfolio. Risk makes people circumspect. It disciplines them and teaches them self-control. Without a safety net, people won’t try to vault across the big top. Social security, student loans, and other government programs make it far less catastrophic than it used to be for middle-class people to dissolve their families. Without welfare and food stamps, poor people would cling harder to working-class respectability than they do not.
The thing that makes capitalism good, apparently, is not that it generates wealth more efficiently than other known economic engines. No, the thing that makes capitalism good is that, by forcing people to live precarious lives, it causes them to live in fear of losing everything and therefore to adopt – as fearful people will -- a cowed and subservient posture: in a word, they behave ‘conservatively’. Of course, crouching to protect themselves and their loved ones from the eternal lash of risk precisely won’t preserve these workers from risk. But the point isn’t to induce a society-wide conformist crouch by way of making the workers safe and happy. The point is to induce a society-wide conformist crouch. Period. A solid foundaton is hereby laid for a desirable social order.
Let’s call this position (what would be an evocative name?) ‘dark satanic millian liberalism’: the ethico-political theory that says laissez faire capitalism is good if and only if under capitalism the masses are forced to work in environments that break their will to want to ‘jump across the big top’, i.e. behave in a self-assertive, celebratorily individualist manner. Ergo, a dark satanic millian liberal will tend to oppose capitalism to the degree that, say, Virginia Postrel turns out to be right about capitalism ushering in a bright new age of individual liberty, in which people try new things for the sheer joy of realizing themselves, etc., etc....
Contemporary conservatives still value that old American character.... [T]here have been hundreds of such changes -- never mind since the Donner party’s day, just since 1945....
All of these changes have had the same effect: the emancipation of the individual appetite from restrictions imposed on it by limited resources, or religious dread, or community disapproval, or the risk of disease or personal catastophe. (p. 202-3)
Words fail me; links not much better. The Donner party? Where did all these people go? Into each other, to a dismaying extent. A passage from one of those moving, stoical diary entries:
...Mrs. Murphy said here yesterday that [she] thought she would commence on Milt and eat him. I don't think she has done so yet, [but] it is distresing. The Donno[r]s told the California folks that they [would] commence to eat the dead people 4 days ago, if they did not succeed in finding their cattle then under ten or twelve feet of snow & did not know the spot or near it, I suppose they have [cannibalized] ...ere this time.
The stoical endurance of the Donner party in the face of almost unimaginable suffering is indeed moving. The perseverance of the survivors is a lasting testament to the endurance of the human spirit. (On the other hand, the deaths of all who stoically refused to cannibalize their fellows might be deemed an equal, perhaps a greater testament.) But it is by no means obvious – some further demonstration would seem in order -- that lawmakers and formulators of public policy should therefore make concerted efforts to emulate the Donner’s dire circumstances. What will the bumper-stickers say? “It’s the economy, stupid! We need to bury it under ten to twelve feet of snow so that we will be forced to cannibalize the dead and generally be objects of moral edification to future generations.”
I think we are beginning to see why Frum feels that his philosophy may be a loser come election time. I think the Donner party -- who, be it noted, set out seeking economic prosperity in the West, not snow and starvation -- would not vote Republican on the strength of William Bennett’s comfortable edification at the spectacle of their abject misery....
At this point let me step back and make quite clear: I don’t actually think Frum... is actually advocating the intentional infliction of dire economic hardship and suffering -- let alone cannibalism -- on the American people for the sake of hardening them up, stiffening the national spine. I think if there were some Americans caught in the snowy mountains these days, he’d advocating sending in the helicopters and so forth....
Luckily, we have conservatives holding the line against moral arrogance with their (Frum’s own words) “sweeping moral claims” and deep convictions about how everything is interrelated -- kente cloths, handicapped access, not enough British history in school, foreign policy -- and only they hold the secret key of knowledge. It’s. All. Connected. (You may not be able to see it. But that's just because you are benighted.)
'It is not new,' Whittaker Chambers observed of this creed in another seminal conservative book, Witness. 'It is, in fact, man’s second oldest faith. Its promise was whispered in the first days of the Creation under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil: ‘Ye shall be as gods.'”...
In short, conservatism, properly conceived, is not a philosophy whose practical implications are in the material interests of the middle-class.... Frum actually thinks that conservatism means forcing the poor and middle-class to sacrifice government programs whose existence is, or may be, in their economic interest. And why? Near as I can figure, for the sake of making over the poor and middle-class into more agreeable objects of aesthetic contemplation for (wealthy) conservatives, whose tastes run to: Donner party-like look-alike doughty leatherstocking hard-bitten frontier-type workers (respectful hats in hand.) And the word for this aesthetic transformation is: making people free....
I've got no problem with economic libertarianism. At any rate, I can reason with such folk. But Frum is a cultural and a social conservative. What's his philosophy? I’ve had enough of this. I’m stopping.
The funny thing about this book is: it isn’t nearly as bad I just made it sound.... The middle chapters -- full of history and policy detail, so forth -- are quite cogent. Just the main chapters have problems. Frum has written a book about the need for a reflective, conservative philosophy. And: that’s the one thing he hasn’t got. He just has no clue why he is a conservative, or why being one might be a good idea -- or even what ‘conservatism’ ought to mean. Whenever he starts trying to talk about that stuff, his mind just goes blank and he fantasizes about... the Donner party.
Those folks at the NRO are often weird.
1 draft 12/29/2006: FORM FOLLOWS THE FUNCTION OF THE LITTLE MAGAZINE
- John Holbo:
Blogging does a lot of things well that academic publishing flat-out needs to do a lot better.
Like circulation. Maybe you remember Stephen Greenblatt’s 2002 MLA Presidential
Address. And I had another piece by Peter Brooks lined up.... Brooks laments that critical culture seems moribund in part because
review culture has atrophied; no more ‘mediating organs’—like Partisan Review. So no hope
of contact with the public sphere; this takes a lot of wind out of the sails.
Greenblatt says we
can’t all be Lionel Trilling or Edmund Wilson, and the problem goes deeper. We aren’t even
reading each other. Never mind that the ivory tower can’t contact the public sphere. The
ivory tower can’t even contact the ivory tower any more. If I write a scholarly book about
literary criticism, how can I get anyone to read it?
Now, this is NOT a problem for blogs. In my own case: Crooked Timber-—8,000 visits a
day; and The Valve-—5,000. Academic publishing not only should, but frankly needs to, tap
that energy. But how?...
James Madison said standing armies were the greatest threat to liberty—-were standing
invitations to tyranny, you see. It sounds strange, but a standing army of literary critics—-that
would be us; the MLA-—are a threat to intellectual liberty, in that we are a standing invitation
to the tyranny of the monograph. Or, if not that, something like it. Our number is, crudely, a function of the volume of undergrad papers that need grading; our number is not a function
of any independent sense of a critical project or set of projects requiring approximately this
many hands. We must produce work of ‘scholarly value’ yet our number is corrosive of our
sense of it, which ends up having its level settled somewhat arbitrarily—-an uncertain
equilibrium point between pedagogic need and economic constraint. Not that we wouldn’t
all be happy to read a great book. I hope we know ‘scholarly value’ when we see it. But in
the aggregate, 30,000 members of the MLA worth, we don’t know it. This volume of
production is—-to repeat—-a function of a demand for teaching credentials, not for scholar-authors. Scholarly overpopulation AND overproduction, with respect to intellectual
demand, is deeply rooted in our institution.
I don’t think we need to beat ourselves up about
it. It’s good that kids get college educations. So here we are. But we need to acknowledge the
shape of the problem. All the money you could hope to throw at it wouldn’t buy a better conversation. For that you need serious, industrial strength mediating forms, specifically
engineered to compensate for inevitable overproduction. You need to prevent the library
from turning into some sort of disposal site for run-off from the industrial manufacture of
professional humanists. If I may say so: before the web, there was no hope. Paper not strong
enough. The good news is: we’ve got web.
So: if we stage the end of the Gutenberg era as some sort of Buecherdaemmerung, we squander a
fantastic opportunity. Gestures of doomed idealism are only noble if idealism is doomed.
We’ve got good work to do....
What will happen is that, in a perennially tight market,
candidates will be obliged to generate the greatest possible impression of productivity....
The forms of academic publishing follow two functions.... You
publish to share ideas, contribute to knowledge, take part in conversation. And you publish
to fill your CV. These functions don’t HAVE to pull apart. But when they do, which
function should form follow? Obviously intellectual....
[V]anity publishing is arranging for publication of your work in a form
that is self-deceptive or self-outwitting, in that it effectively aims not at shaping the opinion
of others, but at shaping the apparent shape of the opinion of others. Your book is
hardbound, promising solid influence. Handsome artifact. Makes a sound if you rap it with
your knuckle. (But only 200 copies sold.)...
Then there’s cost. But really I’ve made the point already: high-minded indifference to profit
no proof of intellectual honor. A system for haphazardly sprinkling 200 libraries with copies
of your book, at great cost, is intellectually inefficient. In an age in which it is possible to
distribute a book as a PDF for free, you might be better off vanity publishing the true old-fashioned way; just plain self-publishing.... But now it isn’t peer-
reviewed and all that. Well yes, we’ve lost quite a lot, haven’t we?...
What we need now is a taskforce for evaluating scholarship NOT for
promotion and tenure. We ought to get clear about what the system would look like, ideally,
the better to beat back inevitably deforming, institutional demands.... Trilling, “The Function of the Little “Magazine”. My point was
that blogs can be wonderful Little Magazines....
First, I want to be a public intellectual. I want one foot in the ivory
tower, the other in the public sphere. And I don’t just want to wear two hats. I want the two
roles to be mutually informing....
Second, even specialists can affirm the spirit of that quote from Trilling...
you don’t write an idiotic paper just because you expect your audience to be a bunch of
idiots. The publishing system ought not to compel you to deform your writing....
Finally, Trilling’s essay was written on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the founding of
Partisan Review. After 10 years they had 6,000 subscribers. Slightly more than the Valve,
slightly fewer than Crooked Timber. God, we bloggers are lucky....
normative principle. Every scholarly book published in the humanities should be widely
read, discussed and reviewed. Because any scholarly book incapable of rousing a modest
measure of sustained, considerate, intelligent discussion shouldn't have been published as a
book. Turning the point around: in the information age, any book worth the time and
expense of publishing, that fails to be read, discussed and reviewed—-has been
catastrophically failed by the mediating function of the academic culture in which it was so
unfortunate as to be born....
We need three kinds of things....
First, new media, made possible by new technology. New publication forms. If anyone
complains that this mucks up the credentialing process, tar them as vanity publishers....
Second, new mediation, made possible by new media. Not every book event is brilliant, but
the form is just fantastic. Every author wants one. And should get one. Keep battering those
institutional benchmarks until they reward this stuff in proportion to its vital importance to
Third... [t]he loss of peer-review and
other mediating functions of academic publishing as we know is pretty intolerable, even in
exchange for great circulation. But now: suppose we ‘event’ this author. What do we have
now:? Post-publication peer review. Of a highly rigorous sort—-and transparent-—although
it’s highly unconventional, admittedly.
Do you see what I just did? Give me my book event—-and I invent not just one new kind of
book but two. This one, which we’ve got. And a more utopian one, which admittedly we
don’t got: a post-publication peer-reviewed book, potentially.
Am I advocating self-publishing? No. I am advocating experiments on... micro-publishing. I can’t do everything, but I can
do many things ‘good enough’. What I am counting on, in part, is that efficient new media
allow for efficient new mediation. Through better distribution you get to the point of
enabling distributed, at least partially post-publication quality control.
At this point I go on talking for another half hour about power laws, 80/20 (20% of books
are sure to get 80% of the attention); the long tail, and how my ideas are, in effect, plans for
maximizing the circulation of all that stuff under the thin end. But we really don’t have the
time. (And I am very sorry the severe brevity of my presentation makes me sound like I
don’t see all the obstacles in the path of what I have proposed. Of course I do.)