TNR and Our Terrible On-Line Culture

100 Years Of TNR

The End

First a comment from “Pinky” at Ordinary Times, which I’ll quote in full:

I don’t know if I’m just in a melancholy mood, but I guess I’ve been thinking lately about the lack of quality online. What strikes me is that the sites you’ve just mentioned are mostly terrible. I mean, Salon and Slate? Gawker? Are we satisfied with these messes being our cultural intersections? I’m not singling out the left, either (although I’d hate to discredit the left by calling Gawker a member of it). I’ve been looking around recently for something new and interesting on the right, and it’s been futile so far. I am just so sick of the garbage that people pass off as political discussion. The so-called middle isn’t any better.

I’m not looking for agreement. I’m not looking for disagreement either. I’m looking for people who are interesting. Or is that selfish of me? Throughout most of human history there hasn’t been a steady supply of provocative 5-to-15-minute-long reads. Have I let my concentration span collapse? Why are we settling for this?

My reply:

It may be useful, both in relation to Pinky’s complaint and in light of the events of the last few days, to read [now former editor] Franklin Foer’s essay on the founding and history of TNR from the recent centennial issue, but for now I just want to point to a contradiction that may help explain Pinky’s dissatisfaction with the state of our political-cultural internet, which I of course share: On the one hand, he just wants to find “interesting people.” On the other hand, he finds the venues for our “cultural intersections” “terrible.” It seems to me that part of what makes those sites such “messes” is that they are so much more interested in being interesting than in being “non-terrible.”

I’m biting my virtual lip about extending the observation in regard to [Ordinary Times], but feel I have to do so at least a little bit, since I see no reason why this interrogation shouldn’t be a self-interrogation wherever it is conducted – whether at Gawker or New York or the US Intellectual History Blog. So, why isn’t this site the site that Pinky wants and possibly needs? I think most of the commenters and regular contributors are interested in being interesting, and every post is posted and comment commented with the obvious expectation that someone will find it “interesting” in one or both senses of the term as we use it – i.e., as entertaining or as engaging in relation to serious matters. Every post strives to be a 5- to 15-minute provocation, and the site wants to offer a steady supply of the same – even if doing so would at the same time somewhat contradict the “ordinary” (sub-optimal) spirit of the place (which may be part of the problem…).

These are all complex matters, and I don’t have time to go into them in much detail today – some will give thanks – but I’ll just note that the debacle at TNR concerns everyone – especially in America, obviously, but not just in America – who might be inclined to venture a serious argument on a political, cultural, or political-cultural matter at all. It raises questions both about the nature of public life and about the possibility of dealing sensibly or self-consciously with those same questions: It raises questions about who and what “we” are. It’s not that the little New Republic, home of racist elitist neo-con rape minimizers or whatever the latest party line on it is, has lately been so important in itself, but that the reduction and potential destruction of its habitat may say something about our larger cultural ecosystem. If the zombie-death of The New Republic isn’t itself the death of the “republic of letters” or of “public reason” in America, and the birth in its place of a zombie culture-state, it evokes the latter as an actual possibility… or makes viewing the state of things that way, even as a fait accompli, just a bit more credible.

Also of interest: discussion at US Intellectual History blog on this topic, including especially the comment by LD Burnett, and the summary of discussion-in-progress at Slate by Seth Stevenson. The latter includes observations on the rather unpleasant confrontation between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jonathan Chait, and links to the latter’s “eulogy” for TNR. Also read: Digby’s and Max Fischer’s I think representative views from the further and very politically correct left, and Clive Crook’s dismissive take from the right – update: Now joined by Jesse Walker.

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