Public Nuisance

Random commentary and senseless acts of blogging.

The first Republican president once said, "While the people retain their virtue and their vigilance, no administration by any extreme of wickedness or folly can seriously injure the government in the short space of four years." If Mr. Lincoln could see what's happened in these last three-and-a-half years, he might hedge a little on that statement.
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Thursday, September 05, 2002
 
Riffraff and Wannabes and Bottom Feeders - Oh My!

New blogger Norah Vincent is discovering that our bloggy little corner of the internet can be a dispiriting place:

But, I must say that the so-called blogosphere, liberating as it can be, is—as I have had the misfortune of discovering in recent days—also full of nasty riffraff and wannabe pundits who because they haven’t an earnest, original idea in their heads, fill their empty existences sniping impotently at legitimate targets. By legitimate targets I mean people who have actually had some measure of success in their professional lives, people who get published regularly in the mainstream press because, yes, they have a certain degree of talent, but moreso because they have something more to say on a weekly basis than “boo hoo” or “look ma, no hands.”...

All of this has made me regret one of my earliest posts on this site in which I took a hatchet to Maureen Dowd. I was wrong to do so. It was a perfect example of the kind of parasitic, attention-getting crap I’m talking about. The truth is that I, like every other opinion journalist on the planet, would kill to have her spot on the NYT page. I envy her. I also find her snarky attitude irksome, but that, my friends, is my problem, not hers. Nobody is forcing me to read her.

As for my expressed dislike for her, it was tripe. I apologize to her and to you. You deserve better. Besides, there’s nothing more loathsome than someone who blames her own career shortcomings or dashed ambitions on the successes of someone else. There’s also nothing more toad-like than someone who uses another person’s fame to raise her own profile, or uses righteous indignation as an excuse to pass off pure small-minded bitchiness and cheap sarcasm as real critique. Maureen Dowd may be taking up space, but she’s not keeping anyone else down. If we’re all as good as we think we are, then we’ll rise of our own accord. Dowd’s incumbency at the Times has nothing to do with it.

There are plenty of constructive criticisms to be made of Dowd’s opinions, and I will, no doubt, make them here from time to time. But I am determined to do so civilly and with the respect due anyone who labors under the heavy burden of producing two columns a week for the newspaper of record. ...

I, therefore, make the following vow. I will not vituperate against my peers. I will argue, express my disapproval, my dismay, my dissent, and all other opinions of others’ work in a manner worthy of mature public discourse. But I will not rant like a frustrated queen about other journalists’ supposed lack of talent.

As for the aforementioned—though unnamed—blogmonsters, I have hereby railed enough against your poor and shallow tactics and will do so no more. You haven’t earned respect from anyone, but I’ll at least make an effort not to berate you any further. Instead I’ll ignore you. So back to the swamp with you and the deserved obscurity from which you slithered.

Vincent is upset partially because the Rittenhouse Review implied that she was a plagiarist, an accusation that I thought was rather overblown, but generated extensive discussion in blogland. Vincent's rant in response draws a sharp distinction between "legitimate targets.. people who have actually had some measure of success in their professional lives, people who get published regularly in the mainstream press", and her critics who are "blogmonsters", "bottom feeders", "nasty riffraff and wannabe pundits" who, "fill their empty existences sniping impotently at legitimate targets". Ms Vincent clearly places herself in the first group and, with a proud assertion of class privilege that would delight an 18th Century Parisian Marquise, exiles us "back to the swamp... and the deserved obscurity from which you slithered."

Ms Vincent wants to have it both ways. Although she makes regular appearances on the editorial pages of the largest and most respected paper west of Chicago, she likes to think of herself as an oppressed Conservative rebelling against the overwhelming power of the ominpresent Liberal Media Establishment. At she same time, she is insistent on the privileges of her position. As a paid journalist, her opinions Matter. Insignificant amateur bloggers are permitted to admire, but only if they have the decency to know their place and not insult their betters. Clearly, Vincent's only regret for the nasty attacks she makes on bloggers who dare to criticize her is that she has been forced into the unpleasant position of publicly acknowledging their existence, an act which she vows not to repeat.

An entirely different ettiquette applies to her professional peers. Vincent apologizes abjectly to the abysmal Maureen Dowd for having had the temerity to criticize her. (Either from embarassment or lack of blogging know-how, Vincent doesn't link to her criticism, but I will.) If you read the actual criticism it is, although rather clumsily written, almost entirely fair. Dowd really is bitchy, irritating, and pointless. Vincent doesn't deny this so much as apologize for pointing it out. Doing so is "a perfect example of the kind of parasitic, attention-getting crap I’m talking about".

Vincent also says that, "Besides, there’s nothing more loathsome than someone who blames her own career shortcomings or dashed ambitions on the successes of someone else." Aside from the fact that this is simply sloppy - some of us might consider such a person substantially less loathsome than Saddam Hussein or Ted Bundy - there is nothing in the original critique that implies at all that Vincent is blaming Dowd for her (Vincent's) own failings. Bob Somerby has noted many times that never speaking harshly of another member of the club is a universal if unwritten rule of the commentariat. The only way I can understand this sentence is that Vincent's daring to insult a more successful fellow member of the clique is such untoward behavior that she feels required to admit to the sordid motive of jealousy for doing so, sort of like a Maoist self-criticism.

It is particularly ironic that in her self-criticism Vincent declares her contempt for, "someone who uses another person’s fame to raise her own profile, or uses righteous indignation as an excuse to pass off pure small-minded bitchiness and cheap sarcasm as real critique". This is an impressively pithy and apt summary of several years of Dowd mockery of Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, and Al Gore that made her a Pulitzer Prize winner.

Vincent does say that, "there are plenty of constructive criticisms to be made of Dowd’s opinions, and I will, no doubt, make them here from time to time". How can she square this with the far more honest anonymous criticism in the earlier article, "She’s been writing since the mid-90s, and I can’t tell you a single thing she stands for"? You can't criticize a person's principles unless they have some, and Dowd, unless bitchiness and sarcasm are now ethical stances, doesn't. It seems the consistency is that Vincent doesn't retract or apologize for the one part of her critique that is patently ludicrous, labelling Dowd as a "DNC faithful". So while Vincent has vowed never again to cast an unkind eye on Dowd's very real shallowness and pointlessness, we can look forward to future shots at her entirely imaginary liberalism and unquestioning support of the Democratic Party line. It would surely be too much to hope that this future criticism will explain why a "DNC faithful" made her reputation attacking Democrats.

Blogger does have some bugs, but the 'bug' in blogging that Vincent considers the worst is precisely what I and most other bloggers see as the core feature. The firm dividing line between consumer and producer of opinion that she is so respectful of becomes profoundly permeable. It still exists, although some bloggers would like to think it has been obliterated; the very fact that Vincent, within days of starting her site, was getting 500 hits and up a day illustrates that Old Media names still enjoy an inherent advantage in finding a New Media audience. But what was a Berlin Wall has become a permeable border.

A columnist who writes for a major newspaper is essentially different from a reader who sends in a response . The paper can edit the reader's letter as they choose without those who see the letters column ever knowing that it was edited. In most cases, they will simply not publish it at all. If you want to criticize what the paper is saying, you are entirely dependent on their willingness to let you use their columns to make your case. No such difference exists between Norah Vicent's professional blog and my amateur effort to throw some honesty back at the commentariat whose crap I've been listening to for years. Blogjam gets more traffic than this site and probably will continue to, but still both are blogs. Regardless of the difference in the size of the megaphones, what was a one-way conversation has become irreversibly two way.

Update: It's a bottom feeding frenzy! Via Matthew Yglesias, I found some similar discussion on Win Fitzpatrick's blog. Also worth note is this post on Body & Soul, a really excellent blog I don't believe I've linked to previously. And now even conservative bloggers are joining in.



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