Monday, November 17, 2008

One Hundred Years Of I.F. Stone

Well, that was bracing! Yesterday we had a blast honoring my grandfather, I.F. Stone, for his first hundred years and looking forward to the next hundred which he will spend, variously, at Mt. Auburn Cemetery and in cyberspace. There were marvelous speakers, among the best of whom was Jack Beatty, Chris Lydon, and Tony Lewis. Among the most controversial, apparently, was your own Aimai since I had been tasked with speaking of Izzy as a proto-blogger. That set the cat among the pigeons.

I believe firmly that she who blogs first, laughs last so I woke up this morning at four a.m. to get my account into print first. Its rather complicated to explain, of course because of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle surrounding things said at cocktail parties. I hew to a hard, Proustian model of memory "I write, therefore I am" which loosely translates in the real world to "she who gets it down in pixels can lay claim to the experience." So, with a grain of salt, take all my witty rejoinders as actually having been said. I can assure you that no matter what I said, they weren't listening so they weren't heard. And so, to the event: More...

We met yesterday at Mt. Auburn Cemetery to celebrate the life and work of I.F. Stone and it was a beautiful experience and many wonderful things were said about Izzy. He was a true force of nature, and no brief discussion of his works and days could begin to capture his many wonders. But Jack Beatty's talk came close. Jack's book on Curley and the Democratic Machine, The Rascal King, is simply the greatest biography of a man and big city machine politics ever written. He and his wife were old, old, friends of Izzy and Esther and accompanied them to everything from parties to movies. Early in the proceedings he leaped to the podium and his booming, genial voice simply filled the space and cleared out any clutter left by more timid, reverential, hagiographic approaches to Izzy. Look, he said, (more or less and forgive me, Jack, for any misquotes) Izzy was increasingly both blind and deaf. And he was always and eternally himself. He never let the audiences expectations govern his behavior. He spoke at a dinner celebrating Walter Lippman and instead of complimenting the great man launched into a tirade against him, leaving my poor grandmother, who could actually see the faces in the celebrity audience, to face the brunt of the audience's rage and horror as Izzy ceremonially stomped Lippman's legend into the dust. Picture Izzy doing the same thing at a film about the wonders of communism when, as an imagined "man of the left" the audience turns to him for approbation and gets a fifty minute disquisition on the horrors of communism and the glories of the red, white and blue. My favorite of Jack's stories--man, he crammed a lot in--was his technicolor rendering of a Thanksgiving Dinner with Morton Kondracke and Kondracke's family of young children. In high mid-twentieth style the great men assembled for dinner are asked, ceremoniously, to speak on the wonders of g-d and when they came 'round to Izzy he said forthrightly (and oh, how Jewishly) something on the order of "G-d? that *&^%$ criminal? If there is a g-d he's responsible for more war, pestilence, and murder of children than any single human in history. He's got a lot to answer for. I'd rather believe in no g-d than have to impeach the bastard with his crimes." (that's a paraphrase, but thinking back on my own thanksgivings with Izzy probably not by much). Jack left us with the image of the young Kondracke's pleading with their mother and father "but...but...isn't there a g-d?"

Jack's talk was really vaut le voyage. But what of mine? I'm glad you asked. Basically, I seem to have gotten up and from the point of the older journalists there, barked like a puppy or, perhaps more accurately, peed on the carpet. I said what I, and my brother, and probably the entire bloggosphere have long thought. If he'd lived long enough Izzy would certainly have been a blogger. That is because the best of his work, which he famously did alone and without help, wasn't really facilitated in any way by large newspaper bureaus and increasingly, in the modern world, would not require the auspices and the power of a newspaper's backing. That is also because blogs are fundamentally different things than newspapers and though, on reflection, thinking about Izzy's irascibility and pig headedness on all things social perhaps Izzy wouldn't have really been comfortable with the back and forth of blog commentary John (my brother) and I both think that the historical depth, the ability to link, the ability to write as much as you want without increasing cost, and the targeted, partisan nature of blog readership would have made a blog the natural heir to The Weekly.

Frankly, I thought what I had to say was uncontroversial but I had forgotten how much vested interest and angst the self described journalists in the room place on the war between bloggers and journalists. I also hadn't realized, or remembered, what it was like to be parachuted into a room filled with altecockers with turf to defend. I won't name any names but various elder statesmen tried to put me in my place with windy pronouncements on the inability of blogs and bloggers to take the place of journalists. This left my withers unwrung because, of course, I don't think blogs are replacing *journalists*--they seem to be doing a nice job of making themselves extinct--but that blogs are competing with *newspapers* and are, in their own way, a more hospitable place for honest journalistic endeavours than corporate news headquarters.

But we were talking past each other, as that basic mismatch between what I'd said and what they'd heard demonstrates. They don't really read blogs, and they don't appreciate the work that (some) bloggers do and every time I explained to them that global criticisms of blogs were as useful as global criticisms of "the written word" when what you mean is you don't like genre fiction like the romance or you prefer westerns to thrillers they'd simply goggle. I found myself pointing out to one luminary that blogs had a famously non literary style because much of blog commentary and thread growth has to be understood as a kind of online 17th century coffee shop where we are sharing the same texts and leaning over to discuss current events. Saying you are disgusted with the level of literary merit of what is a form of spoken dialogue is utterly beside the point. The conversation is the thing, not the flowery allusions some other writer at some other time would have liked as embellishment. Again, goggling, and then a non sequiteur.

Basically they think blogs and bloggers are "all about opinion and we have too much opinion" so you say "well, what about Josh Marshall at Talking Points and his *&^% Polk? Oh yes, of course *he's good, they say--in fact his award inclines them to think him so much a journalist that he's "like Izzy" even though, much as I love him, JMM is no renaissance man capable of writing a long think piece mixing politics and plato. Or, what about Bilmon? (Chris Lydon (not, repeat, not an altecocker) bless his heart, brought up Bilmon) but the others had never heard of him and what's with the weird name? Or Glenn Greenwald, or Juan Cole? But, they said to me triumphantly, they have "day jobs!"? So, what, they can't be considered journalists? Might we not want to talk about novel ways of distributing research and writing among different kinds of experts so instead of going to a theater or food critic (cough** Frank Bruni** cough) for political commentary we went to an area studies expert for commentary on that area?

Well, anyway, we'll be sorry when we've killed off the newspapers with our cruel inattention. What? How did I kill the Globe? It was destroyed by the new owner's insistence on packing the pages with week old reprints of news from the Washington Post, the AP and the Times. Well, sure, says unnamed altecocker, they made some bad business decisions but that wasn't the Globe's fault, "they" sold the Globe. (I realized then that we were thrashing around in an emotional swamp since apparently there was a Platonic ideal of the "Globe" under discussion. I'd have thought that we were only going to talk about real world entities like the Globe (no air quotes) and its actual owners and their actual decisions but I would have been wrong.)

We got onto what seemed to be of chief concern among the older journalists which was how some of them proposed to save Newspapers by figuring out this darned web advertising thing and learning to charge for content. I pointed out that Times Select had been a hellishly bad trial balloon because what the Times found out was that people didn't want to pay for the content they wanted to provide but that was waved away as not dispositive since my old journalist friend knew for a fact that they'd actually lost tons of money on some other massively stupid financial decisions so the content decision wasn't that big a deal. (!) Yeah. That put me in my place. I made Athenae at First Draft's point that blaming blogs and readers, and even advertisers, for pulling out of papers was putting the cart before the horse. Newspapers choose higher revenues and salaries for non journalists over journalistic excellence as we all knew--like insurance companies that invested in real estate and ended up charging higher premiums to cover losses in those fields. They know all this, by the way, since they were all fresh off congratulating themselves for awarding the IF Stone Award to McClatchy for its coverage of the Iraq War, coverage that famously didn't cost the newspaper company any more than the expensive and hideously bad coverage of the Times (aka Judy "I was proved fucking right" Miller). Nevertheless, they kept offering up these bizarre blogger focussed attacks on blogs and the internet for the downfall of newspapers.

As they wandered in the field discussing ways of forcing google to make a deal to charge for page views of newspaper content (good luck with that!) and insisted to me that no blogs could make enough selling their content to make it worth the bloggers while I brought up Nate Silver ( and DailyKos). Sure, they said, startled that they actually knew somebody's name but unaware that Nate might be classed as a blogger--*he* has a product to sell, his expertise, but....but...he must be some kind of exceptional case. Because they had never thought of him before, and knew him primarily from his TV appearances, they didn't grasp the way Nate's blog and the special election coverage and polling that he had done busted wide open the barriers they thought existed between journalism and blogging. But hey, lets not let facts get in the way of a good group grope on the subject.

I haven't been around that much testosterone poisoning since graduate school. When I tell you that these bright lights--and they were bright lights--proposed Deval Patrick as a good choice for Attorney General--a guy who, with the exception of three years in the Clinton DOJ is mainly memorable for being a corporatist drone for Coca-Cola and for giving good speeches, and turned up their nose at my suggestion of Patrick Fitzgerald you can see what I was working with. Someone who shall remain nameless was doing the beltway freak out that the vagina dentata known as Hillary Clinton had been offered the SOS job--although they admitted that she hadn't been offered it but it was bad of Obama to make it look like she had been--on this they could not agree that Obama might prove to be more machiavellian than moronic. I pointed out that that was the open question, really, whether Obama knew what he was doing on matters of appearance as well as governance but that went over like a lead balloon. They agreed that so far Obama had been more sure footed than not on all matters having to do with the election and managing the transition but he had really, really, really made a huge and unreversible mistake this time with the Hillary Clinton Offer That He Hadn't Made and that They Couldn't Offer Any Proof That She Would Accept. I brought up the parallel case--parallel for what it says about Obama as a poker player capable of a front move and a backhand gesture simultaneously: i.e Lieberman and his chairmanship. To me, and I daresay the bloggosphere, this is a much more important sign, symbol, and reality of Obama's intent to rule the roost. I think I'm safe in saying that the general anti-Lieberman position is this: Obama should keep his hands off any defenestration of Lieberman so he can keep his pacific, let bygones be bygones cred but should firmly grasp the shoulders and crack the sinews of the Senators behind the scenes to make sure Lieberman doesn't keep the Chair of Homeland Security. This is important not only, as Bernie Sanders and others have pointed out, as a gesture of fairness and respect to the people who worked tirelessly to get Obama in over Lieberman's candidate but as a matter of national security since we can't leave Lieberman in charge of such an important position when he is bound, by his very nature, to use it to bring Obama and the Dems down. All of this is quite well known and quite well understood but you will be surprised to learn (not!) that another big swinging dick thought that instead of addressing these issues with me he should explain to me in words of one syllable that the Lieberman decision was utterly distinct from the Clinton as SOS situation because Lieberman's fate had "nothing to do with Obama" and "was up to Harry Reid" because the Senate, apparently, is a different thing than the Executive branch. Who knew? Crazy feeemales with their nutty ideas about governance and leadership and the differential powers accorded SOS and Chair of the Homeland Security Department. Next thing you know they will be asserting that the bloggosphere has fundamentally changed the way ordinary citizens access and understand the political realm.