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An American in England
Diana Feygin • Patrick Belton on Blogging, Politics, and Clam Chowder
Freshman Edition 2004

Patrick Belton, writer and president of the nationwide Nathan Hale Foreign Policy Society, is co-editor of Oxblog (www.oxblog.com), a highly popular electronic magazine. With a government, philosophy, and pre-medicine triple major and a minor in public policy, Patrick completed a master’s in international relations at Yale in 2001. A Fulbright scholar, he is currently a doctoral candidate in politics and international relations at Oxford University.

Patrick has appeared as a political commentator on NPR, CNN, C-SPAN, CBS radio, and in the New York Times and the Washington Post.  In July, he was one of 20 bloggers credentialed to cover the Democratic Convention. Recently, Patrick chatted with The Yale Free Press from his Oxford flat about the ins and outs of the blogosphere and the political world.

YFP:  You run a very successful blog. How do you find the incentive to write sophisticated, high quality, interesting work without pay?

PB:  Well, it has really been a pleasurable experience, and I do it because it’s enjoyable. The most rewarding dimension of all has been the opportunity OxBlog has afforded to hold a running, often very searching conversation with two of my closest friends from Yale and Oxford, whom I deeply respect intellectually and for their moral idealism. Also, given my trade as a writer, whether plied in academia or in writing books, then writing daily is a useful, perhaps the only, way to hone that craft. There is something holy in writing as a calling, and nothing in the least wrong with perfectionism as a writer—if words do actually matter, then you bloody well ought to be a perfectionist when it comes to choosing and placing them. But it must be a creative rather than a paralytic perfectionism, one that keeps you writing each day in respectful devotion to words and their power.

Every major communicative technology that has ever arisen has spawned a form of journalism. In the 16th century, you have the rise of printing presses in London, and Elizabethan journalism as a result. In the early 20th century, you have the introduction of broadcast technology, and, as a result, broadcast journalism, which later in the century expands beyond radio into television and other sub-genres. The Internet was fairly ineluctably going to spawn its own sort of journalism. Now that a few years have passed, we can begin to ask what is unique about blogs as a journalism indigenous to the Internet.

Blogs restore a personal voice to journalism comparatively absent since the Victorian period—though it still persists in some arenas, particularly in the more conservative British press. When American newspapers adopted their contemporary form in the 1950s, they imbibed that decade’s prevailing philosophy of knowledge. The epistemology of Karl Popper and positivism were in the air, and newspapers consequently began to assume that unique, authoritative representations of reality were possible, through the proper application of correct methodology. The presence of individual journalists was somewhat an embarrassment, though someone had to be there to apply the methodology.

This meant newspapers had to treat other newspapers with something of the disdain with which you would treat a mildly distasteful neighbor. It represents an assault on the entire enterprise that there could be different, competing interpretations, each claiming authoritative status. Meanwhile we witnessed the gradual disappearance of the “I” from reporting and its subversion into the unsituated speech of page one and the editorial page’s quasi-sovereign “we,” with all its affectations of power.

Within the past twenty years, we have seen figures such as Jürgen Habermas trying to resuscitate and defend the promise of modernity and Enlightenment against its post-modern critiques. This, for Habermas, was done rather by grounding truth in conversations among individuals, “I”s, who might share their perspectives with one another, challenging each other to articulate, then defend or rebut, their tacit assumptions—with truth and the promise of progress coming out of this running conversation of humankind, centered precisely on individual voices, in dialogue to form a quite different “we”.

This notion of inter-subjectivity captures what happens in blogs, where you have individual voices engaging with each other not in vitriol but in discourse. It comes quite close to justifying the project of Enlightenment and modernity, with their possibility of democratic governance, if a discourse of rational expression and communication can arrive at truth. The analogy I have been contemplating lately is scientific discussion. In science as actually practiced, you don’t have these authoritative representations stripped clean of individuals who assert them, but rather an enormous number of individuals holding a running conversation, in scholarly journals and conferences, in which the defining marker of the prose style is, indeed, the name of the speaker followed by the moment of the utterance: Feygin (2004), for instance. This seems fairly coherent with the model which structures the blogosphere, the first unique and new prose style produced by our cultural moment.

The more negative exegesis of the blogosphere at the moment is that it partakes of something of the character of an echo chamber, particularly on the ideological extremes, with speakers seeking not to engage other viewpoints in conversation, but rather to convince themselves and others of assertions with greater and greater degrees of quasi-religious conviction; it is like the recitation of a creed. But you also have another set of people who come from rather different points ideologically yet engage in running conversations with each other in discourses that rely upon fair-mindedness, argument, and evidence, those indispensable linchpins of modernity and liberalism. They are comparatively unique in public discourse in any medium at the moment, and they may well constitute the running conversation of the republic in our day.

The reason that we have got a superficial politics in this country is that we’ve got a superficial press. At the convention, journalists were the most attractive people—the brainiest, the most affable, the most conversationally insightful, the most fun to go to the pub with, in distinction to the fawning and sycophancy of the politicos—but the coverage which they produced was superficial, perfunctory, and wooden. Newspapers ignored the fact that, for the purposes of filming a declining few minutes of “roll call of the states” footage, the Democrats had gone to the trouble of gathering in one place representatives of every ideological or personality-driven orbit of the Party. Instead, they wrote pro forma stories, either stringing together series of quotes from the grand speeches or, in the case of the New York Times, devoting half a page of precious national resources to a delegate from the South who was having her first clam chowder in Copley Place. They were not asking any questions about the role of ideas, or even strategy.

But as blogs are run by amateurs not socialized into journalistic short-sightedness and not restricted by word limits, they allow coverage beyond the 5-second sound bite of the CNN prose style, and the communicative technology they’re built upon is furthermore at its root bi-directional. In a print or broadcast publication, someone has to actually look up your email address on, say, the New York Times’s website to write to you—and the only people very likely to do that are probably recent parolees from a mental institution. With blogs, it’s remarkable how frequently you hear from policy experts at universities, research institutions, or government offices, development workers in Mazar-e-Sharif who went to Yale with you, all of whom provide analyses and overlooked bits of information which you won’t read from the journalists who are loathe to leave their hotel bar in Kabul. One of the great potentials of blogs is to elevate the quality of the conversation of the republic at a time when it’s painfully diminished. Their running conversation is one of the few points which bridge partially the yawning partisan and ideological divides that have become quite ferocious.

Broadcast and print journalists are particularly wont to privilege process and mechanics over the role of ideas and trends in the longer term. The most interesting questions to be asked at the Convention were: “It’s been four years since we’ve heard much from New Democrats or Clintonites, but they very well might be influencing a new administration in the White House come January. How has their thinking developed since we heard from them last, on foreign or social policy?  What would the grand strategic considerations underpinning a Kerry administration look like?” These weren’t treated at all by journalists, so ... you had a lot of clam chowder. 

YFP:  There has recently been some discussion of media bias, particularly in print and broadcast journalism. Given the blogosphere’s irreverent and explicit acknowledgement of this bias, where would you say the two stand in juxtaposition? Do you see blogs working to make the media more responsible, or is that just an inevitable contrast between the two mediums?

PB:  I don’t mean to be too harsh on print and broadcast journalists; there are an enormous number of them who do quite good work, often under demanding circumstances. Reporters do tend to focus on mechanics, processes, and the urgent event of the moment, neglecting the merely important long-term trends or the roles of ideas. There’s also a distressing incidence of pack journalism, and the analytical or narrative assumptions that ingrain themselves in coverage are much more pernicious than any partisan predisposition among members of the trade. I’d be much more worried about a tendency to tell the same stories as the people on adjacent barstools in Kabul than any more blatant preference for one specific party. Famously, the New York Times’s Andrew Rosenthal single-handedly created the story of the former Bush being astonished by the supermarket scanner, even though the consensus among other journalists at the time was that it simply didn’t happen—and what’s more, even if had, Rosenthal himself wasn’t there to cover it. All too often, the press manufactures a story to fit its own, often quite lazy prior conceptions or narratives, and it generally gets away with that practice more often than not. It was, after all, tellingly Bush and not the Times’s Rosenthal who lost his job.

As a prose style, blogs include an interesting innovation. They place in the foreground editorial conversations that happen off the page in newspaper offices, when reporters are arguing with their editors over whether to run a particular unattributed piece of information, or whether to run with some story. These conversations that are invisible and off the page in print journalism are in blogs foregrounded and visible in the public conservation between bloggers. Blogs are more open with the reader about different forms of information and competing analyses, and they can also acknowledge the arguments, and existence, of other blog writers, which the splendid isolation of newspapers, each offering a purportedly authoritative account of reality, simply does not permit them to do. Howard Kurtz writing in Washington Post can’t reach into page 8 of the previous day’s Times and say to Jenny Lee, “You know, Jenny, I’m a big admirer, but on this one point I’m not really convinced yet. Here’s why.” And Jenny Lee would have to respond the next day, either accepting his criticism or offering arguments against it—the very idea is ludicrous; it would never happen!  But that’s precisely how blogs work.

Since Woodward, reporters have seen themselves as a fourth estate acting as the ultimate check safeguarding against government corruption or mismanagement—but there are no checks on reporters to the same extent. You’d think that might come from other reporters, but the press cycle operates in ways that are fairly established at this point. One person writes a story, and then other major venues will have a market incentive to write similar stories from the same perspective. With time, they’ll give up on the subject and its journalistic potentialities and move on to something else. It’s more a snowball effect than a dialectic, where the latest contribution most likely disagrees with the previously stated opinion. I except from this criticism, and the others, weeklies such as The New Republic.

As there isn’t within the journalistic establishment a trustworthy, reliable check on its own arbitrariness and oversight, blogs are able to exercise that ombudsperson function. As principally opinion journalists, we concern ourselves much more with commenting on the way news is reported, contesting dominant analyses of events in the reportorial press, and uncovering pack journalistic motifs in the coverage that otherwise would seep unhindered into the public consciousness.

YFP:  Do you foresee politicians incorporating the blogosphere more heavily into their political campaigns than they have already?

PB:  I don’t think it’s terribly likely you’ll see the Howard Dean/Joe Trippi phenomenon, where Dean relied upon blogs as a linchpin of his grassroots and fundraising strategy, really catching on. Candidate blogs are, unfortunately, too canned, at a moment when political oratory is quite scripted as it is. Our political moment is not the 19th century golden age which produced Webster and Douglas in the Senate, and where politicians were judged by their skills in classical oratory and ability to debate on their toes. Our dominant egalitarianism and Romanticism give the prize to candidates who can create, and generally in ways that are quite scripted, the impression of being unpretentious and authentic. Politics today is a much more risk-averse, poll-tested profession than it used to be, and that makes for very bad blogging. You’ll see most campaigns trotting out campaign blogs, but I can’t see them ever being awfully interesting, and that’s perhaps a shame.

YFP:  Where would you place yourself on the political spectrum?

PB:  I try to be a centrist. The classical criticism of centrism is that centrists simply choose their positions based on convenient arithmetic means, but I believe there are a set of principles that might underpin a centrist politics, based on ideas such as increasing opportunity and promoting democracy overseas. I try to write, though, as an ideological agnostic, willing to consider ideas from either stripe on their merits. Centrism is an exciting position in many ways, as you need to think a great deal more and weigh both sides of each debate, since you can’t get your ideas as automatically.

YFP:  Did you become a moderate because you found your policy preferences to be equally balanced between those proposed by the right and the left, or, as you mentioned, was it based on an ideological belief in the core philosophical truth to centrism?

PB:  I do think there are a set of distinct principles which can characterize a centrist politics. In foreign policy, the commitment to assisting democrats in authoritarian countries and nations attempting transitions to democracy has popular support and derives from a distinctive American political tradition in foreign policy that far antedates Kennedy’s inaugural address. At home, increasing opportunity as a goal of social policy has an attractive potential to sidestep old struggles between egalitarians and libertarians. And you can see groups begun by recent Yale graduates working in each of these. The Hope Street Group is one nonpartisan attempt to develop thought-out policies deriving from a commitment to greater opportunity, which candidates of either party might adopt in their campaigns. The Truman National Security Project is a foreign policy group attempting to create a new Democratic foreign policy premised on strength and idealism, and rejecting the post-Vietnam tendency in that party to view national power as something that inevitably will be compromised morally. My own foreign policy society is non-partisan: an effort to create spaces in each American city for friendly, bipartisan, rigorous discussion of foreign policy as well as to bring together the rising generation of foreign policy professionals to make a creative, distinct generational contribution to the policy conversation. Each of these groups has websites and can always use current Yale students as interns. A movement toward reformist, technocratic programs can exert a strong healing force in our divided public space, seeking a set of inspiring national projects that have a potential to unite and capture the imagination of both the blue and red Americas.

YFP:  Young people are often seen as politically apathetic. Many believe that politics is just a propaganda tool for the elites, having no real impact on people’s lives. Are there still ideals worth fighting for in the political realm broader than those limited to specific policies, fundamental ideas about what it means to be an American or the value of democracy?

PB:  Statements decrying the current younger generation as somehow apolitical animals are, I think, premature. They are, though, likely to embrace a new politics. The post-Cold-War or post-9/11 generation—however you choose to name it—believe there should be fewer restrictions on liberty, especially on such issues as the freedom of same-sex couples to marry, and particularly compared to a baby boomer generation for whom these issues were key signpoints in a divisive cultural war. The young generation also seeks a greater independence from political parties and will likely figure as swing voters in their career as voters, which is heartening from the standpoint of a centrist politics.

YFP:  Why should anyone care about politics? What is the impact of voting or not voting, particularly in the upcoming election?

PB:  Well, unless a great deal has changed on Old Campus in the past four years, you most likely don’t have to convince Yalies to be interested in public affairs. This is a collection of people who since the cradle have been interested in affecting the public decisions of our generation. When you’re talking about ethnic or linguistic groups who are historically marginalized in the political process, then you face a different set of questions. How do you create an inspiring new politics that will bring residents of inner cities and marginalized ethnic groups into the public conversation? I haven’t got any answers. But quite frequently young, creative political leaders can create a new politics in a community to overcome its feelings of apathy and marginalization and its factional tensions. Many of us were hoping that Cory Booker, YLS ’97, would prove such a leader when as a Newark City Councilman he spent five months living in a motor home which he parked in the most drug-infested corner in Newark, as a Gandhian gesture to indicate solidarity with the neighborhood’s residents and help them unite against the drug dealers who were making their neighborhood unlivable. Another young law school graduate, Rohit Khanna, has been trying to create a similar new politics in the Indian community of the Bay area, beginning with a surprisingly successful primary challenge to the sitting congressman. We can all do a great deal of good by finding people like that—and they might very well be your friends or classmates—and doing everything we can to support them.

YFP:  A lot of people also feel that voting is unimportant because the political parties are increasingly similar. Do you feel that our political system accurately reflects differences in voter ideology?

PB: In terms of their ideological bases, the two parties are actually probably farther apart than at any point since the New Deal. This is the culmination of a political trend which manifested itself with the Republican congressional gains in 1994, and began much earlier, probably with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, when the South began to turn away from the Democratic party and found its ideological home on the Republican side of the aisle. As a result, the South has since become more ideologically coherent. While a strong plurality of Republican voters are conservative—a result of the Reagan revolution—roughly 40 percent of Democrats are moderate, about one-third liberal, and the rest conservative. So Republicans can rally their conservative base to elect their candidates, while Democrats can’t do the same with their own liberal base. This explains to a great extent why centrism, spearheaded by groups such as the Democratic Leadership Council and Progressive Policy Institute, is resurgent in the Democratic party, whereas Rockefeller Republicans are unfortunately withering away.

The present contest will also lead to some pragmatic convergence. You talk to Kerry advisors and they will admit a reluctance to produce too bold a programmatic agenda, since anything controversial might turn off swing voters who might vote for Kerry simply for not being Bush. Kerry’s advisors are also counting on the strong, unavoidable counter cyclical tendency confronting a party that has controlled the White House and both houses of Congress. Clinton was fortunate enough to have the midterm elections of 1994 to vent this pressure, but in 2002 Republicans were benefiting from President Bush’s near-90 percent approval levels after 9/11.

YFP:  Would you say that these simplistic, less idealistic platforms you describe have something to do with the declining quality of rhetoric you mentioned earlier?

PB:  America has got spaces in its political institutions that encourage oratory, principally the Senate. The difference between Britain and the U.S. lies principally in how the two countries recruit candidates for the highest level of office. Britain still selects leaders largely by virtue of their success in parliamentary debate. In the States, the track record of senators seeking promotion to the presidency is poor enough that in Europe it would probably qualify as a violation of the European Convention of Human Rights; far better to be a governor, preferably southern. In the Senate, legislator-orators like Robert Byrd see themselves as self-consciously inhabiting a Senatorial oratorical tradition. But the rest of American politics has not followed suit. The peculiar species of rhetoric of the 19th century golden age of the Senate ultimately could not survive the transition to a conversational, egalitarian politics conducted through CNN.

You could not deliver the perorations of Daniel Webster today in the Senate, but that is not to say that senators are no longer rewarded for good speeches. There is ample room to adapt and update that oratorical tradition. Every politician alive in America aspires to the rhetorical memorability of John F. Kennedy, or of Ronald Reagan.

CNN has not had a good effect on American political oratory—contrary to the strong suspicion of its producers, the universe of questions posable in human existence cannot all be answered in four, or even eight, seconds. I personally can’t see why anyone would willingly undergo the experience twice, barring a predilection for masochism worthy of the East Village. But there are other venues for oratory; politicians spend a great deal of time giving speeches to potential voters. They are certainly much more likely to be made fun of making bad speeches than good ones.

One of the most remarkable things about American politics is that in a country as big as ours, we haven’t got that many truly outstanding office seekers in a generation. I think that’s likely a reflection of the role of money in politics—you see a Clinton or a Reagan or an FDR come along even more rarely when they also need to be capable of raising $20 million to fund a credible primary effort.

But you can still be optimistic for the future. And I think, incidentally, that a promising career as a creative statesman and orator all starts with reading great undergraduate publications.

Diana Feygin is Editor-in-Chief; contact her at diana.feygin@yale.edu.


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