Tuesday, August 15, 2006

the pathetic little satisfactions of the humble blogger

Blogging doesn't change the world. Most bloggers can't even change a single mind. The activity yields mostly modest satisfactions: an e-mail or comment giving you props or an exchange that inspires a coherent thought. Even flamewars that lead to barbed insults can be fun, if it so happens that you think you got in the better dig. Then there's the satisfaction of learning that your words have found their way to people you admire (or loathe).

That leads to today's installment of little satisfactions: it looks like a snarky little comment on Kevin Drum's blog was highlighted by Robert Wright in an exchange on bloggingheads.tv. I had written:

Watching [Kaus] battle the estimable Robert Wright on bloggingheads.tv is akin to [watching] a one-on-one basketball game between Helen Thomas and Dwayne Wade.
Wright brought up my line in a long exchange with Kaus about how everyone in the blogosphere hates him (for good reason).

Why has this little line-dropping proved so satisfying to me? Here's the context:

(1) Robert Wright is awesome. Robert Wright is probably the intellectual I most admire in public life. His work in evolutionary psychology is mind-blowing, and seemingly everything he's written about geopolitics, bioethics, technology, and what have you has been impeccably reasoned. His lengthy Times op-ed making the case for "progressive realism" is about the most sensible foreign policy doctrine I've seen. What's great about Wright's writing is how clearly he shows his work. He marshalls facts in support of arguments and arrives at conclusions through clear, logical reasoning. He'll address strong counter-arguments and methodological difficulties along the way. In the world of punditry, he's a mad baller.

(2) Mickey Kaus is a smarmy half-wit. On the other hand, there is no contemporary pundit I despise more than Mickey Kaus. Imagine a witless Larry David, except unfurling his neurosis not through self-effacing comedy but through incoherent, bilious screeds against Democrats (the party to which Kaus unconvincingly still insists he belongs) and you have this small, petty man. Like Lieberman, Kaus is the product of the late 80s, when self-loathing Dems were in vogue and not a bad type to be. Nothing wrong with being critical of liberal orthodoxy per se -- I'm all for welfare reform, reducing the power of teacher's unions, means-testing Social Security, and skepticism on affirmative action, etc. It's just that, like Lieberman, he's not making any constructive "centrist" critiques (or taking proportionate measure of the right-wing-led disaster currently playing at a town near you). Instead, we're treated to an endless stream of self-congratulatory nonsequiturs, with the odd snipes at assorted liberal bogeymen. For a man who hasn't uttered a useful idea since the Herbert Walker Bush administration, when he was a leading proponent of welfare reform, Kaus has got quite an ego. I think people still pay attention to him out of habit, since he's published by Slate and is, by all accounts, the first "name" blogger. But he's about as obsolete as the pica font at this point.

(2) (a) Kaus haters of the world unite! The one great thing about Kaus is the bond Kaus-haters have. One day, needing my Kaus-hatin' fix, I googled "Kaus moron" and found this terrific group political blog called Lawyers, Guns and Money, which has a continuing series on why Mickey Kaus blows chunks, weekly battleship blogging, and even a little something on Olivier Assayas' awesomeness for good measure. So Kaus can be a force for good -- by helping Kaus haters locate one another.

(3) bloggingheads.tv is misguided but addictive to hopeless wonks. However smart Wright is, I can't vouch for his business acumen. His current project is bloggingheads.tv. The format pits two talking heads against each other on the topic of the day, with links on the side of the page. The visuals add very little to the debate (except by humanizing the debaters), and it's mostly the kind of dry back-and-forth that can't possible interest anyone outside of the wonkiest of wonks. I am, of course, hooked, mainly because I'm a nerdy wonk, but also because of my fanboy interest in both Wright and guest-blogger Matthew Yglesias's takes on the great issues of the day. Unfortunately Wright is frequently pitted against Kaus, who evinces the same level of intellectual incoherence in these "diavlogs" that he does on his blog. It is like watching Wade play Helen Thomas or Harry Knowles in hoops -- the obvious disparity in intellectual firepower is so staggering as to become distracting within the first two minutes of any diavlog. It's instructive, I suppose, to watch Wright reason through an issue while minutes later Kaus will simply try bulldoze his way to some pre-ordinained conclusion that makes no sense (Kaus's desperate defenses of Nazi drag queen An(thony) Coulter is probably the nadir of many low-points). If you want your kid to learn the value of rigorous thinking as opposed to lazy thinking, you can do worse than to show her these diavlogs. Otherwise, seeing Kaus get destroyed in this debate club format would be more fun if the self-delusional twit actually realized he's getting pwned.

Conclusion: No point, really. I guess it's kind of awesome when you write something that makes an impression on both an intellectual idol and an object of scorn.