Tuesday, January 5, 2010


Now that Winston has been dead for a couple of months, I thought I'd conduct a post-mortem to mark the New Year. Kicking the blogging habit was harder than I thought it would be. Blogging offers the type of instant gratification that's rare in life: you write something off the top of your head, or the tip of your emotions, and then up it pops, where a hundred people read your words within 24 hours. No editors, bosses, forms, bills, red-tape, or anything else to keep you from having your say when you want to say it. When you compare this to the real world of family and work -- the world of negotiation, compromise, collective responsibility, and split-the-difference outcomes -- it's not hard to understand why blogging, facebook, and twitter are so popular.

I'm home today recovering from a surgery, typing with my laptop in my lap and without access to my mouse -- so whatever I bang out in this post, it won't have hyperlinks because it's too hard to insert them using the pad. But since I have an hour to spare today, I want to give a post-mortem based on some trends I noticed when I was blogging regularly. Bond Papers recently gave Ed's manifesto on why he writes, which prompted me to reflect on why I started blogging a year ago. For me, the impetus to blog was simple: it was a reaction against bullying. One of the dividing lines between supporters and opponents of Danny Williams is the line between those who accept (either wholeheartedly or reluctantly) his bullying and those who cannot stomach it.

For me, the style and the content of Williamsism cannot be separated into neat political boxes. As much as I would like to overlook the hysteria, hyperbole, and histrionics, I just could not do it. This may place me in a minority -- perhaps a small minority -- but minorities matter. As J.S. Mill observed, the challenge for liberal democracy is to guard against the tyranny of the majority. And, if I'm going to be truly honest with myself, I have to admit that my opposition to Danny Williams was as much emotional as it was intellectual. Whenever I saw a clip of him, I recoiled. My dislike for Williams meant that I had a difficult time understanding his popularity, which I still find puzzling; but it also meant that I didn't have to fight the spell, known as "The Williams Effect."

If there was one thing that struck me the most when blogging about NL politics, it was the Williams spell. This spell works in different ways: from journalists making excuses for his inappropriate behaviour -- or downplaying "they should be shot" comments as if they were somehow acceptable in the football game of politics, or just amusing anecdotes -- to ordinary people angrily (almost gleefully) denouncing Yvonne Jones as a traitor in the comments section of the Telegram or CBC. As 2009 progressed, there were increasing references to the problem of online vulgarity and the perceived descent of public discourse; yet this commentary focused almost exclusively on the public/voters, not on the Premier. When Danny Williams slammed the electorate after the byelection loss in the Straits, no one in the mainstream media called him on it. They took him at his word -- "lessons learned," as it was put -- and there was no investigative reporting based on actual interviews with actual voters about actual reasons for the Tories' loss.

Which brings me to the online dust-up that followed the Straits byelection. In retrospect, the clash that erupted on Geoff Meeker's blog was inevitable. It was just a question of where and when. Before the Tories won the second byelection, there was a moment -- a fleeting moment, as we now know -- when there was blood in the political water. As a result, the online commentary became harsher, more personal, and more emotional. The dust-up had several short-term effects. It marked the end of Geoff Meeker's political commentary; since the incident, Meeker on Media has focused solely on media stories. This is, I think, a significant loss for local political commentary: not only did Geoff write incisive commentaries, but he also facilitated interesting debates, and his blog was the only one where a mixture of bloggers, journalists, and others participated in genuine, substantive discussions. The incident also prompted the suspension of comments on Polemic and Paradox, which has only recently been re-opened. And it illustrated the disdain some (perhaps most) professional journalists have for amateur and semi-amateur bloggers, and vice versa.

But despite the gulf between bloggers and journalists, the dust-up (which quickly spilled over to P&P and other sites) showed that they were both deeply engaged in a culture of machismo. There were repeated references to balls, stones, guts -- as commentators beat their chests as hard as they could. This chest-beating was not an isolated incident but rather part of a longer pattern whereby commentators focused on three principal issues: identity, experience, and partisanship. All three became wrapped into a talisman of masculinity. (Didn't anyone notice the absence of women in this slag-fest?). As commentators fought over who had the most experience and the least partisanship, no one questioned whether having decades of professional experience or a clean political past actually determined the merits of a respective argument. When the dust settled, it became clear that this fight was more about respect than anything else. While commentators disagreed sharply, they all agreed that they felt disrespected. The debate was, in retrospect, a microcosm of Williamsism, where machismo is the only political currency that really matters.

As for my own role in the online dust-up, I cannot claim to be blameless. It's remarkable how emotional (and how quickly emotional) the experience of online debate can become. I should have waited until later to shut-down Orwellian News, which was something I was planning to do; but Peter Jackson's comments got under my skin. I never liked blogging anonymously, and his barbs hit a sore spot. (And, I have to admit, his Ross Perot shot was kinda funny). I also may have been rather pedantic in my comments on P&P, but the sight of reading a blogger tout journalistic standards while being barely literate got to me. I also felt -- and I still strongly feel -- that P&P's attack on Geoff Meeker was grossly unfair and opportunistic.

So where does that leave things for 2010? Bond Papers seems to be consolidating its dominance in terms of political blogs. With its recent makeover, Bond Papers seems to be trying to move away from overt partisanship and towards a greater emphasis on policy. It's interesting to note that the online commentary on Bond Papers tends to spike whenever the question of partisanship and Liberal ties raises its head. When I objected to Peter Jackson's "Ed and Wally show" remark, it was, in part, because it was a slur on bloggers who do not take their marching orders from Labradore or Bond Papers. While Bond Papers will continue to dominate online political commentary, the Telegram will, I suspect, continue to tread a careful editorial line in print journalism. The elliptical metaphors and sports analogies may dull the edge of the editorials (though the string of football analogies was just tiresome), but sooner or later the Telegram will be forced to take a harder, and clearer, position on whether it supports Danny Williams. I have no idea of when this will happen, but when it does, it will be interesting to see if Williams can get away with blacklisting the only daily newspaper in St. John's.

According to Google Analytics, a surprising number of readers in NL still visit Orwellian News. I can dismiss hits from places like China generated via a random google search for the literary Winston Smith, but the continued readership from NL indicates that there was something I said over the past year that stuck. Tracking software is fun at first, but it soon creates pressure to sustain viewership, which is particularly important for the increasing numbers of blogs with online advertisements. To keep your numbers up, you have to blog every day, and this means one of two things: either you devote much of your workday to producing research-based commentary, which means that blogging becomes semi-professional; or you use your blog as a type of exhibitionist diary, which means that blogging becomes hyper-personal. In the case of the former, the blog mirrors a newspaper column; in the case of the latter, it mirrors a facebook page. Some bloggers try to combine the two, with mixed results. In the end, I could not sustain the former because it absorbed too much time (though my blog made no pretenses to actual reporting or objectivity), while I was unwilling to engage in the latter. I'm glad I kept a blog in 2009, but while it was fun to be part of the political debate, it's also easier to be on the sidelines.

This reminds me of the Simpson's Halloween special (sometime in the mid-1990s), when the townspeople repeated the jingle (written by Paul Anka) "just don't look," in order to rid Springfield of a sourge of giant advertising-sign monsters. If only this worked for politics as well as advertising....

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