A Call for a Moratorium on Cranky Old Writers Complaining about the Internet
Writing on the internet is not committed to paper nor subjected to the same bureaucratic intercession of minders charged with protecting institutional reputations. For loathsome New Republic Leon Wieseltier, this makes the web suspect and newfangled and just annoying.
While Wieseltier's interminable indictment of Andrew Sullivan on charges of anti-Semitism may have seemed like an unhinged shriek of tribal defense, he's really just another old guy complaining about the internet. Wieseltier's attack on Sullivan earlier this month was couched in scolding moral terms as a rebuke against what he regards (unreasonably and stupidly) as Sullivan's sloppy descent into anti-Semitic tropes. But the subtext was clear: What bothers Wieseltier so much about Sullivan's views on Israel isn't so much what he says as the way he says it:
He is the master, and the prisoner, of the technology of sickly obsession: blogging–-and the divine right of bloggers to exempt themselves from the interrogations of editors–-is also a method of hounding.
Sullivan doesn't "dive deep into the substance of anything," Wieseltier says, because he's too busy "cursing and linking." His rapid-fire posts and prodigious output—"ejaculations," as Wieseltier puts it—are not so much arguments as "bar-room retorts; moody explosions of verbal violence; more invective from another American crank." In other words, he writes a blog. When Sullivan countered that, to the extent that whatever excesses he's guilty of were in part a function of the fact that he produces a continuous recording his unmediated reactions and thoughts and frames of mind, Wieseltier scoffed:
Compose yourself, man, and think. For a deeply felt opinion may be false, and even pernicious. In intellectual life, volatility has no authority, and spontaneity is not a virtue, and neither is sincerity.... And when Sullivan boasts about his Proteanism—one of the reasons I dislike blogging is that it is often the perfect vindication of the postmodern glorification of the self as discontinuous and promiscuous—why should his blog be read as anything more than a psychological document, as a record of his shifts and his seasons?
These aren't accusations of on anti-Semitism, or arguments against a view of the propriety of Israeli actions over the past decade. They're complaints about the volatility and moodiness and spontaneity that comes with writing things down quickly, all day, for consumption over the internet. It first hit us that Wieseltier was masking a tired anti-blogging tirade with a shameless and irresponsible accusation of anti-Semitism when Philip Weiss at MondoWeiss helpfully published the preposterously pompous toast that Wieseltier delivered at the wedding of Cass Sunstein and Samantha Power in 2008. How would Weiss have the text of a wedding toast handy? Wieseltier was so pleased with it that he e-mailed it to some friends lest they miss out on its profound lessons simply for not rating an invite: "Love is a revolution in scale, a revision of magnitudes; it is private and it is particular; its object is the specificity of this man and that woman, the distinctness of this spirit and that flesh." Seriously. Read it. But he regaled Power and Sunnstein's guests with this dour little note that, taken with his vicious sniffing at Sullivan, smacks of the striver trying to knock out the rungs of the ladder beneath him:
We are ceaselessly in motion, spinning up and out, mentally and physically.... We deny distance and we revere speed, not least as proof that we may bend reality to our wishes and our needs; and we have taught ourselves to think swiftly, and also to feel swiftly. We are accustomed to celebrating ourselves, and to being celebrated, and what we accomplish in our various callings is often worthy of celebration.
These are bad things—bloggy things—to which a lovely wedding is an antidote. Wieseltier is finished with motion and spinning and swift feeling, and he's decided that the spinners are ruining everything and hate the Jews, to boot.
His feelings on the matter were clarified on Friday when Wieseltier issued another diatribe, this time against the crime that interns, young upstarts, and unemployed nonprofessional writers are poorly paid, if at all, when they write for the internet. We are all for editorial workers getting paid for their services (perhaps in free iPads?), so we're not going to argue with Wieseltier on that point. But he betrays the codger in him by going after the medium of wired and wireless text communication as the villain. Otherwise he would have written the same lament two decades ago upon learning that certain venerable magazines like the New Republic, the Washington Monthly, Harper's Magazine, Dissent, Mother Jones, the Nation, Commentary, and all manner of literary reviews that we're sure Wieseltier feels better about himself for reading have a lengthy history of paying below-market salaries to their editors and writers. Some are even known to employ interns without paying them anything!
But since they're institutional members of the Manhattan-D.C. print aristocracy and not part of the "cheap entropy of the web," they escape Wieseltier's gaze. It's not that web sites don't pay writers enough—it's that they're peopled by "brats" as he described the (paid!) writers here at Gawker, which he confessed to reading with the telling excuse, "see what insomnia can do to a man?" Our understanding of what insomnia can do to a man is that it can prevent them from sleeping and cause them to read whatever it is that they choose to read, you prick. This particular brat happens to be a 36-year-old father of a 16-month-old brat of his own.
Wieseltier's beef is literally with a suite of communications technologies, and the fact that the people who use them are young and unschooled by his lights. "Leave aside the question of the relation of blogging to writing, of posting to publishing," he writes at one point, appearing to take seriously the idea the blogging and writing are different things, or that publication only occurs by virtue of some mystical alchemy of ink and paper. The only difference between the Wieseltier-approved forms of communication and the lowly digital variants are cultural. "Blogging" is done quickly by brats, "writing" is done in garrets or university libraries by people Wieseltier has heard of. "Posting" is a vulgar and lonely thing done by means of a button, "publishing" is a grand process paid for by publications Wieseltier reads. The former is a seedy affair to which virtually anyone has access; the latter is a privilege granted to those who've navigated a decades-old professional maze to Wieseltier's satisfaction.
It's fine to hate Andrew Sullivan, or Gawker, or all manner of bloggers. We do! But it's deeply reactionary to reflexively and arrogantly sneer at anyone who publishes things online simply because they publish things online. Wieseltier's wordy war on "blogging" is as stupid and empty as the 18th century worry that reading novels—not certain novels, just novels—corrupted the morals of young women. Some writing published online is useful, and some isn't. But all of it is fast and scary and cheap and ejaculatory to Wieseltier, because it doesn't conform to the rules that he's become comfortable with. And because it's not long enough:
Brevity may be the soul of wit, or lingerie, or texting, or quail eggs, but all subjects are not the same. Efficiency of expression is in some realms a virtue and in some realms a vice. Brevity is certainly not the soul of news, if by news you mean more than information. "The point" is not always easy. There is not always a "takeaway." Anyway, this is already an abbreviating age. The forces of concision and distillation are winning. After the death of waiting, I do not see the wisdom of preaching impatience. A culture cannot thrive upon a fear of discourse.
We're not quite sure what Wieseltier's concern is: We're not suffering from a shortage of long, pointless magazine articles that require patience to finish. The section of the New Republic that Wieseltier edits replenishes the supply on a biweekly basis. His real fear seems to be that no one likes to real long pointless things anymore, notably the long pointless things that he writes—though he's recently learned that long, pointless, reckless allegations of Jew-hatred certainly goose the pageviews. Anyway, the culture will not thrive without them, just as it collapsed after the use of the telegraph became routine. Here's an Atlantic Monthly writer anticipating Wieseltier's whinging 119 years ago:
The frantic haste with which we bolt everything we take, seconded by the eager wish of the journalist not to be a day behind his competitor, abolishes deliberation from judgment and sound digestion from our mental constitutions. We have no time to go below surfaces, and as a general thing no disposition.
New Yorker writer George Packer's arguments against Twitter—which were "published" rather than "posted" on the New Yorker's web site, we gather—are similarly anachronistic. While Packer was simply speaking for himself when he likened Twitter to crack, rather than pronouncing on the bankruptcy of a whole means of communicating with an audience, his irrational fear of what reading people's thoughts via Twitter will do to his mind comes from fear and a reflexive unwillingness to understand what he's talking about rather than curiosity. Packer quotes David Carr's Twitter love in the New York Times—"There is always something more interesting on Twitter than whatever you happen to be working on"—adding, "This last is what really worries me." You're worried that you might learn about interesting things? And your job is to tell other people interesting stories? If Packer bothered to hit the pipe for an hour or so he would have quickly learned that a) nothing anyone writes on Twitter is ever even remotely interesting and b) it's a really easy way to find out about other interesting things that people are writing on the internet. While I wholeheartedly support Packer's decision to not read the things people write on Twitter, it would be easier to understand if he had an actual reason not to that amounted to more than a generalized phobia of Blackberries and such.
These things come in threes, so we're really looking forward to director Michael Haneke's take on the internet—he has reportedly dropped a film about "the humiliation of old age" in favor a to-be-written film about the online world. Perhaps he should combine the ideas and just option the recent works of Leon Wieseltier.