Question #1: How the hell did I become a blogger and what does that have to do with democracy?
Question #2: What is democracy, anyway?
Isn’t it ironic, maybe even hypocritical, that I would start blogging? I wrote my book What?, a book entirely in the interrogative, because I believe that we are living in a world in which people make too many statements and don’t ask enough questions. Why would that be? First of all there is 24 hour news broadcasting with a painful amount of space to fill up and they fill a lot of the holes with pundits, which can be almost anybody willing to declare themselves on the subject. Isn’t it cool to be a pundit? Doesn’t everybody want to be one? Couldn’t I be as good as that guy? And you probably could. It takes neither knowledge nor real credentials.
I sometimes wonder if I am ever remembered in the village of Mumbles in South Wales. It was during the height of the O.J. Simpson trial and since I seemed to be American –my only credential on the subject, but good enough—I was surrounded in a pub by Welsh men and women wanted to know what the outcome of the trial would be. I carefully explained to them why O.J. would be found guilty. Are there people scattered all over South Wales now who remember that idiot from America?
Probably not. The secret of being a successful pundit is to never apologize for your mistakes or in anyway indicate that you were wrong. The pundits who explained how John McCain was going to win the election were on the show the following day explaining what would happen next.
But if television has encouraged us to be stuck in the declarative, the Internet is even worse. The Internet invites every unqualified person to weigh in on everything. And why is it that you are always invited to make comments but seldom to ask questions? You can write anonymous book reviews without any credentials to be reviewing books. You can, for that matter, self publish books without the least indication that anyone is interested in them. And you can blog –just idly spew out your opinions on most anything without any qualifications whatsoever. In effect you are publishing your own op-ed pieces. This is a little difficult for me to get excited about because other people have been paying me for op ed pieces for the last thirty years. I could sell this piece. So why am I writing it for free?
The argument, frequently heard about all this, is that it is democratizing. This reminds me of the joke frequently heard when the conspicuously incompetent Ronald Reagan was president. People would laugh and say, “it proves that in America, anyone can be president.”
To debase everything and let mediocrity reign by avoiding any standards or gate keeper: is that more democratic? Isn’t the idea of democracy that everyone has an equal chance—educational opportunities, commercial opportunities-- rather than pretending that everyone has equal ability? Commercial publishing is not a perfect filter, they do publish bad books and turn down good ones. But they still have a much higher batting average than self-publishing. On occasion The New York Times Book Review has run mediocre reviews by people who shouldn’t be reviewing. But Times reviews are still a lot better than the reviews found on Amazon.com.
There is in all of this the idea that if money were removed from the equation artists would be more creative. Of course they would also be less productive since they would be forced to do something else to earn a living.
But it is true that commercial interests often interfere with creativity. In the early 1990s after the fall of communism I frequently profiled Eastern European writers for the International Herald Tribune. They would talk about how stultifying writing for state-run publishing had been and talk about pressures to write in certain ways, to have happy endings… I would laugh and say, “Wait until you see commercial publishing.”
Removing money from the arts in order to make culture more democratic was a big idea in the 1960s. It produced a few interesting things such as Living Theater, which denounced money in most of their plays. But it did not produce a flowering of art and writing.
From the Internet there is an explosion of amateur writing, amateur journalism, amateur music badly recorded with inept mixing and poor sound, there is even amateur medicine. There are people rejecting professional doctors for health gurus who claim to know better. They have no science, do no testing and their research is simply reading websites. Now not only can anyone be President—and have you noticed that more and more unqualified candidates are turning up because why shouldn’t running a chain of pizzerias qualify you for the White House—but also anyone can be a doctor , a lawyer, a reporter, an author. Is this democracy? Access to medical school is democracy, but is giving medical advice without training democracy? Are we doomed to a world of bad books, medicine, music? Is everything to be debased in the name of democracy? In what way is that democracy?
In the information age the quality of information itself is at risk. I always warn students that while it is true that they have more information available to them than any previous generation, they probably only have the same amount of accurate information available and they have much more to sift through to get at it.
If you feel like posting something on the Internet chances are a dozen other places will pick it up because that is how people are getting their information. Each of those dozen places will be picked up by another dozen. Erroneous information in time becomes fact. Scientists who study memory find that anything that is repeated often enough becomes lodged in long-term memory and people generally believe as truth anything in their long-term memory.
The Internet will probably somehow change. In the end something will have to serve as a filter so that we can rapidly distinguish the good from the bad because people simply do not have the patience to weed through all this. That was why critics , professional reviewers , were invented. Independent films, alternative theater, small publishing, none of this carries the idea that anybody is good enough. And somehow in time this will also happen with the Internet. Somehow better blogs will get positioned in ways that worse blogs can’t. Some say the Internet will become less democratic. But maybe it will also become better because it is daunting how much garbage you have to wade through now. To publish only good writing and good reporting, to only elect highly capable people to high office, to seek medical help from rigorously trained experts, is not elitism. Isn’t it how democracy is supposed to work?
I see in writing this piece a tendency to meander. If I were to sell it for publication I would need to tighten it up but since this is the Internet, my blog, I don’t have to do anything. Is that a good thing? Is it democracy to say in 1300 words what I could say in a thousand words ?
What our society discourages us from saying is, “I don’t know.” If you don’t know, it would be best to fake it. Every pundit and politician knows that. But this is a blog by somebody who doesn’t know. I was coming into my building recently and two neighbors stopped their discussion and one pointed at me and said, “This is the man who knows everything.”
“I know nothing,” I answered, “And I’m not even sure of that.”
It is going to take time to settle all this and see where it will go but in the meantime, I think I will keep asking questions on this blog so I can have some idea of how it works. But you may notice that I am not inviting comments.