League: ligament, ligare (tie, bind), lictor (binder), fasces (bundle), fascism. Ordinary: usual, normal, in order, religious order, order of battle. Gentlemen: male, well-to-do, of the right race or clan.
Over the last week or so I’ve been distracted by the discussion of a low level identity crisis at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen. I won’t try to re-capitulate the course of several interconnected, multiply branching, mostly cordial conversations covering hundreds of comments, nor will I re-rebut the post by a League principal in which I was singled out and (gently) chastised. For now I just want to set down the outline of an idea that I did not get around to explaining.
The original jumping off point was a League post on Senate candidate Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” remarks. Several commenters noted the familiar scarcity of female contributors, for obvious reasons felt more strongly in this context, but also tied to larger diversity concerns. At comment #400, I suggested that, well before we got to questions of the site’s actual content and its community of contributors and commenters, its name and self-presentation combined not just to repel non-“Gentlemen,” but to “evoke nostalgia for a cultural moment, an imperial moment, during which white men ruled.” I also noted that the blog “[h]osts mostly polite, thoughtful, across-the-spectrum conversations,” and that the result amounted to a kind of “study in ‘gently’ stabilizing conformity on some axes in order to increase tolerance for diversity on others.”
I received an at best mixed response, but I was also informed that diversity questions as well as the “limiting repercussions” of the site name have been acknowledged by site contributors, and have been the subject of extensive, mostly behind-the-scenes discussion. I was not surprised: Almost any project in our culture, especially any project with any political profile at all, faces this test sooner or later, and will to some extent be defined and assessed according to the results.
Even assuming achievement of a wide enough consensus in favor of change, the problem for the League is that any name change and re-design effort would risk destroying a fairly well-established blogging brand, while otherwise annoying those who are happy enough with the place as it is. That a satisfactory new concept can be found is also far from certain. Nor should the fact be lightly set aside that execution of meaningful changes in a timely, reasonably professional or at least semi-professional manner, would require substantial work on someone’s part.
An actual psychological or possibly ideological resistance to coherence or shared self-consciousness may also be playing a part here. It may even be the the most important factor. The League may in some sense not want to decide what it is or wants to be. It may prefer amorphousness to growing up: Any identity at all has “limiting repercussions.” The lack of named editors or contact-people and of any statement of purpose also reinforces the impression of a somewhat directionless enterprise. In such a circumstance, the site name, the minimal graphics, and seemingly incidental aspects of the overall presentation provide the only answers to the notorious Stockdale questions – “Who are we?” and “What are we doing here?”
The discussion, which has also included some private exchanges, has convinced me that, instead of focusing on a full-frontal assault on itself that it may not be capable of successfully carrying off, the League should consider an alternative, more gradual, organic, and indirect approach, one that also takes the whole of the site into account. Though thought and work on a full re-branding and re-design ought to continue, a first step might begin elsewhere: With augmentation and development of the site’s sub-blogs, of which there are now 10. The overall aim would be extension of a relatively loose, networked, flexible, resilient, ideologically diverse “spheres of influence” (or “polyvocal”) process rather than imposition of a relatively rigid, centralized, uniform, pseudo-coherent “global-imperial” (or “monological”) structure.
As an outsider, I do not really know what the original concept of the sub-blogs was or how it has developed, or whether in fact there is or ever was a shared and fully elaborated vision or plan. Even as a regular at the site for almost a year, I have no idea what many of those blogs are about, nor who many of the contributors are. A site history explains how the League became what it is, but offers nothing approaching an overview or map to the stars. Some of the sub-blogs may be dead weight… or they may be the best part of the site… or they may provide an entirely different way of engaging with the site… I don’t really know which is true, nor how the sub-bloggers really are expected to relate to the site as a whole.
Part of the uncertainty has to do with the lack of any simple, visually distinct and conceptually coherent main page presence for the sub-blogs in their own right. For a visitor to the League home page, the sub-blogs appear only as uninformative titles in a drop down menu, or obscurely within visually completely unprepossessing sidebar items and other incidental links. When actually visited, the sub-blogs themselves appear as reduced-functionality pages, all formatted so that the League brand dominates, and the sub-blog’s own title appears as a sidebar item. (Reversing this visual relationship should be one of the first generally adopted changes.)
My sense that the sub-blogs are at best a secondary function of the site also seems to be shared by the sub-bloggers themselves. Though at least one sub-blogger apparently refrains from posting to the main page at all, others see it as the site’s truly valuable “real estate.” The effect in the latter case is an incipient “tragedy of the commons” effect in which each given author’s desire to reach the largest available audience crowds out every other author’s efforts, while at the same time further demoting the sub-blogs as prime venues, destinations, or “homes.” (I can’t be the only one who’s repeatedly clicked on “HOME” at a sub-blog, wrongly expecting to be taken to the League, even with that oversized “RETURN TO…” link right next to it.) Other features that a stand-alone blog would afford the blogger – in relation to both aesthetics and functionality – appear to be unavailable, further de-valuing the sub-blog for the blogger.
Under the networked/polyvocal approach, the sub-blogs would be better explained and integrated within the main and additional pages, but, as or more important, they would also be encouraged and helped to diversify aesthetically – with customized graphics, fonts, colors, and layouts; lower-profile or radically reduced League branding; and enhanced functionality. Much else would follow naturally from simple or seemingly minor alterations and emendations, as the newly diversified blogs could be allowed to re-vitalize the site, eventually allowing the front page to be less disruptively re-branded and re-addressed, or simply retired. In other words, while this evolutionary process was under way, especially at first, many users would hardly notice any changes: The League as convoked on the main page would not be forced to do anything it was not ready for. That the effect would also be to answer all ethnic, gender, and economic diversity questions in any particular time frame cannot be assumed, but at least the presentation and incentives would be substantially re-aligned in that direction.
My initial use of political-historical analogies – spheres of influence vs. global imperialism – was not accidental, nor was it intended merely to be illustrative. The design of a site covering contemporary politics and culture will inevitably embody or be transparent to its underlying political philosophy and concrete identity. I think the League should implement a decentralized, open, organically developing polyvocal-dialogical concept because the League is, perhaps above all, a decentralized, open, organically developing polyvocal-dialogical enterprise.
The approach I’m recommending would require some overall guidance, based on a much more detailed consideration than I have attempted here, but it would not require a single, all-or-nothing effort at any particular phase. Much might depend on the sophistication, capacities, and enthusiasm of individual sub-bloggers, but each blog would remain “small enough to fail” without doing much harm to the larger enterprise. On the other hand, any particular sub-blog or even sub-network of sub-blogs could end up growing far beyond the current limits of the League. The result could convey the Gentlemen’s characteristic commitment to liberty and human scale, and indeed to diversity, the latter being something that the League has, in fact, thusfar been extraordinarily successful in achieving and sustaining on the level of ideology, if much less so in other ways.