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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Noted & Quoted

TV pundits and op-ed writers of every major newspaper epitomize how the Democratic establishment has already reached a consensus: the 2020 nominee must be a centrist, a Joe Biden, Cory Booker or Kamala Harris–type, preferably. They say that Joe Biden should "run because [his] populist image fits the Democrats’ most successful political strategy of the past generation" (David Leonhardt, New York Times), and though Biden "would be far from an ideal president," he "looks most like the person who could beat Trump" (David Ignatius, Washington Post). Likewise, the same elite pundit class is working overtime to torpedo left-Democratic candidates like Sanders.

For someone who was not acquainted with Piketty's paper, the argument for a centrist Democrat might sound compelling. If the country has tilted to the right, should we elect a candidate closer to the middle than the fringe? If the electorate resembles a left-to-right line, and each voter has a bracketed range of acceptability in which they vote, this would make perfect sense. The only problem is that it doesn't work like that, as Piketty shows.

The reason is that nominating centrist Democrats who don't speak to class issues will result in a great swathe of voters simply not voting. Conversely, right-wing candidates who speak to class issues, but who do so by harnessing a false consciousness — i.e. blaming immigrants and minorities for capitalism's ills, rather than capitalists — will win those same voters who would have voted for a more class-conscious left candidate. Piketty calls this a "bifurcated" voting situation, meaning many voters will connect either with far-right xenophobic nationalists or left-egalitarian internationalists, but perhaps nothing in-between.

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Understanding Trump’s charisma offers important clues to understanding the problems that the Democrats need to address. Most important, the Democratic candidate must convey a sense that he or she will fulfil the promise of 2008: not piecemeal reform but a genuine, full-scale change in America’s way of thinking. It’s also crucial to recognise that, like Britain, America is at a turning point and must go in one direction or another. Finally, the candidate must speak to Americans’ sense of self-respect linked to social justice and inclusion. While Weber’s analysis of charisma arose from the German situation, it has special relevance to the United States of America, the first mass democracy, whose Constitution invented the institution of the presidency as a recognition of the indispensable role that unique individuals play in history.

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[E]ven Fox didn’t tout Bartiromo’s big scoops on Trump’s legislative agenda, because 10 months into the Trump presidency, nobody is so foolish as to believe that him saying, “We’re doing a big infrastructure bill,” means that the Trump administration is, in fact, doing a big infrastructure bill. The president just mouths off at turns ignorantly and dishonestly, and nobody pays much attention to it unless he says something unusually inflammatory.On some level, it’s a little bit funny. On another level, Puerto Rico is still languishing in the dark without power (and in many cases without safe drinking water) with no end in sight. Trump is less popular at this point in his administration than any previous president despite a generally benign economic climate, and shows no sign of changing course. Perhaps it will all work out for the best, and someday we’ll look back and chuckle about the time when we had a president who didn’t know anything about anything that was happening and could never be counted on to make coherent, factual statements on any subject. But traditionally, we haven’t elected presidents like that — for what have always seemed like pretty good reasons — and the risks of compounding disaster are still very much out there.

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