Ecce Holbo

by John Holbo on February 24, 2004

Thanks, Henry. I am delighted to be here – and … and I’d just like to thank all the little people who made it possible, such as myself, and everyone else, and God.

I guess – since you’ve got a back button – I’ll say a few words about John & Belle’s place in the history of the blogosphere, the true meaning of blogging, etc.

Belle and I discovered blogs in February, 2002. A&L Daily linked to Lilek’s “Notes From the Olive Garden” screed. We thought it was highly amusing and became Bleat readers; Lileks linked to the Instapundit. That’s a gateway drug. So a year passed, and in January 2003 I gave our little family one of our own. We passed 100,000 visitors a couple days ago. So let me take this opportunity to thank the 60,000 or so of you John & Belle readers for your google searches for ‘porn + socks + shoes’, etc. Many paths up the mountain of wisdom. Hope you found what you were looking for. Or – so wise men have said: Buddha, Boole, others – maybe all along it wasn’t the answer you needed. Maybe you were really looking for a better question. I know, I know, but that’s the sort of guy I am. Everything I need to know I learned in graduate school.

In our year of blogging – culminating in this invitation to shimmer briefly as facets in one of the jewels in the blogospheric crown: thanks again, Henry! – we have gotten to know many fine folks, including several Timberjacks, or whatever they are. Henry and I have had really vast fun trading posts about sci-fi, Tolkien and such. (Perhaps a bit more of that later in the week.) Belle got Matthew Yglesias – yes, the Matthew Yglesias – to come to our X-Mas party, promising to dress one of the cats as Richard Perle, because Big Media Matt is still not big enough to get invited to the worst sort of party. And that led to me breaking the story about how Matt is tall in an email I sent him. And then he wrote about it. And everyone commented.

Looking back, the grand, blogospheric expanse has changed a lot in two years, and it has changed me a lot. No point pretending I’m above that kind of thing, like dear old Plato. Speaking just for myself, after 9/11 – after being a moderate lefty for as long as I’d been thinking about anything but what cartoon came on next – I sort of took a sharp right turn. I’d never been in favor of a war before, for example, but I sure thought it was a good idea to invade Afghanistan, and I became annoyed at those who didn’t see things that way. And, now that I look back, I see that my annoyance sort of slopped out over some other stuff that it didn’t belong all over. Did that happen to anyone else? And it was right to invade Afghanistan, make no mistake, but it turned my silly head. I did a Hitchens, basically. But I’m better now. Really, I feel fine. And it’s nice of all these socialist types here at Crooked Timber to like me enough to have me over. And when I think how much slack I’ve cut George Bush over the last two years; he’s spent that loan of good will like a drunken sailor; so much so his budget looks pennypinching by comparison … But I’m sort of sad about how writers I used to enjoy – like Lileks and the Instapundit – I really don’t enjoy any more. Oh, I still read them. But it’s for old time’s sake. I owe them a lot. If it isn’t obvious, I do a grade-B Lileks schtick most days. It’s nothing special, I know. It’s possible I missed my calling as a failed comedy writer. But I do talk this way. (I remember Brian Weatherson asking in some post way back: do you talk the way you write? Well, I do, when I blog.) When we first found Lileks, Belle said: he sounds like you. It’s true, except he’s better at it than I am, formally, and he’s a much bigger pain, politically. But he’s got a little girl he adores, and an iBook, and he messes with GoLive and Photoshop. (You know what he’s like.) Anyway, it had just never occurred to me that it was possible to write the way I talk, to sort of just let the mass of it bulge disproportionately and waddle with studied indirection – then SNARK! a kick below the belt! I’m not allowed in philosophy papers. On the other hand, I think if Lileks had gone to graduate school for a decade, he would have turned out better – more skeptical and tormented with doubt and wincing and scratching like a normal person. He keeps hitting the same note because he’s sure which one is right. It’s more interesting to hear different notes, if you are going to play every day.

And the Instapundit. Well again, it just never occurred to me that you could do this thing. It was so new and astonishing. I guess we’re all a bit jaded now, but – damn, it felt new and different and clean and unencrusted with cant at the start of 2002. It seemed like people from all across the political compass were really getting together and having surprisingly civil and intelligent conversations. And Glenn was sort of a host, and seemed so gracious. And now it seems to me – I don’t think it is just me – his jaw is set unpleasantly. No doubt he feels he only did that after half the guests started to behave badly. (It was really his refusal to acknowledge the seriousness of the whole Plame affair that permanently tore it for me, if you are curious.) Election year 2004 is not going to thaw these frigidities. Ah, well. No matter how bad it gets at least we can all agree – each and every one of us – that Eugene Volokh is really, really smart.

It sounds dumb to suggest there was a Golden Age of blogging. That’s a perfect example of a kind of thing that just couldn’t possibly be true, so go ahead and roast me. Maybe I’m misremembering. Maybe if I went and poked around I would conclude: nope, you just went funny in the head for a while.

Not that I think it’s bad now – but different, more fragmented, settling into itself. It’s interesting to me that these days I mostly read blogs by fellow academics. (As opposed to blogs by non-academics.) That’s not so surprising; so many academics blog. But it’s nice because it actually confirms me in my original suspicion – when I got to college – that I liked it there and wanted to stay, if only my little cubby hole could get a bit more fresh air and light.

Henry has a nice post below about blogging and ‘little magazines’, like Dissent. It is truly remarkable that a site like Crooked Timber has as many daily readers as this venerable minor organ has monthly subscribers. I think it entails that Crooked Timber is much more influential. (Is that a fallacy?)

It’s worth asking, I think, why so many of us find it so compulsively satisfying to begin our days by reading too many blogs. Because, of course, People Magazine has Crooked Timber and Dissent beat senseless. The fact that Crooked Timber is more popular than Dissent obviously does not mean it is superior. It could be that Crooked Timber – and John & Belle, in our small way – are winning the eternal struggle for eyeballs by cheap gouging, pandering to lower tastes for mordant clashes that will be forgotten in a week. We half-bake and half-bake again tomorrow and the silly stuff flies off the shelves. Schopenhauer has a funny line: “Journalism is the second hand on the clock of history.” I like that for the obviously double implication of: it’s never right, and it’s what you watch when you are bored out of your skull with nothing to do. Some people clearly think something of the sort about blogging; it is obviously sometimes true. Certainly anything superabundant is suspect. But it is also true that the ninth course doesn’t look as appealing after you have eaten the first eight. That’s not the ninth course’s fault, necessarily. It could be that, every day, there’s just more good stuff out there than you can read. (Of course, you also have to chew through the bad.) The effect would be the same either way: it would all start to look vaguely cheap and stomach-turning.

There are really two features of blogging – academic blogging, maybe – that seem to me truly superior, and worthy of celebration and acclaim and reinforcement. First, the willingness of some of us, at least some of the time, to do the very opposite of pandering to our audience: we suddenly start teaching a seminar on some arcane subject, concerning which there is no legitimate presumption that another soul in the universe is interested; and if they aren’t – that’s why there’s back buttons. But the fannish enthusiasm for whatever twiddle it may be is so often infectious. Reading, you are sure this person cares. So you are infected. So you find something new and interesting. As simple as that. Magazines like Dissent have to play it straighter than that, but that means less infectious excitement. And academic articles – well, twiddles aplenty; but one frankly has no prima facie confidence the twiddle even interested its author originally. It’s a tenurable twiddle. That ‘s enough to explain its presence. Why postulate any less economical explanation of how this thing got in this journal? That’s too harsh, but you see the point. Blogging often has the courage to ignore the audience yet is seldom disrespectful to its audience, simply because it’s audience is highly idealized. It is the author’s own better nature.

Lionel Trilling has some nice things to say about this in a nice little essay in The Liberal Imagination, “The Function of the Little Magazine”:

From the democratic point of view, we must say that in a true democracy nothing should be done for the people. The writer who defines his audience by its limitations is indulging in the unforgivable arrogance. The writer must define his audience by its abilities, by its perfections, so far as he is gifted to conceive them. He does well, if he cannot see his right audience within immediate reach of his voice, to direct his words to his spiritual ancestors, or to posterity, or even, if need be, to a coterie. The writer serves his daemon and his subject. And the democracy that does not know that the daemon and the subject must be served is not, in any ideal sense of the word, a democracy at all.

I think good bloggers meet this requirement better than the editors of magazines like Dissent can – who must cleave to a format, which is a straitjacket, which presumes on the limitations of its audience not its strengths, if you think about it.

Anyway, a coterie of several thousand a day, no unforgivable arrogance indulged: a tidy profit to take to the bank of spirit. Not to mention the thought of the alternative. What if everyone could blog, but no one chose to? “We must take into account what would be our moral and political condition if the impulse which such a magazine represents did not exist, the impulse to make sure the daemon and the subject are served, the impulse to insist that the activity of politics be united with the imagination under the aspect of mind.” That’s pretty lofty stuff, but I like it. (A couple weeks ago I was exchanging emails with someone and I said I was sort of a follower of Trilling. And he said: ‘You’re a red baiter, eh?’ And I said: ‘Well, sometimes. But that’s not the point.’)

So I don’t think that, by blogging, we are just yammering for the sheer joy of hearing our voices in the echo chamber. Or at least some of us aren’t, on our good days.

Moving right alone, the next point concerns this ideal union of politics and imagination under the aspect of mind. The fact that blogging is so personal, so focused on present ephemera, so often motivated by desire to vent emotion that will evaporate by tomorrow anyway, if left to itself – all this seems like signs of sure weakness, obviously. Me, I like Montaigne’s excuse, in a nice essay, “Of Repentance” – which basically states the blogger’s code, as I understand it (why you shouldn’t go back and rewrite your archives, for example):

Others form man; I tell of him, and portray a particular one, very ill-formed, whom I should really make very different from what he is if I had to fashion him over again. But now it is done.

Now the lines of my painting do not go astray, though they change and vary. The world is but a perennial movement. All things in it are in constant motion – the earth, the rocks of the Caucasus, the pyramids of Egypt – both with the common motion and with their own. Stability itself is nothing but a more languid motion.

I cannot keep my subject still. It goes along befuddled and staggering, with a natural drunkenness. I take it in this condition, just as it is at the moment I give my attention to it. I do not portray being: I portray passing. Not the passing from one age to another, or, as the people say, from seven years to seven years, but from day to day, from minute to minute. My history needs to be adapted to the moment. I may presently change, not only by chance, but also by intention. This is a record of various and changeable occurrences, and of irresolute and, when it so befalls, contradictory ideas: whether I am different myself, or whether I take hold of my subjects in different circumstances and aspects. So, all in all, I may indeed contradict myself now and then; but truth, as Demades said, I do not contradict. If my mind could gain a firm footing, I would not make essays, I would make decisions; but it is always in apprenticeship and on trial.

I set forth a humble and inglorious life; that does not matter. You can tie up all moral philosophy with a common and private life just as well as with a life of richer stuff. Each man bears the entire form of man’s estate.

The best snarks and attack-pieces and sheer displays of personality (I love the fact that Tim Burke compared himself to Black Bolt today) make their point while keeping this in sight, and clearly displaying it. This is what I like about Lileks, by the by. He’s better than a lot of other writers you might think are indistinguishable, because of the peculiar mix of rambling autobiography and criticism. Clubbing someone to death with a burlap sack of Simpson collectible figurines on the way to Target, as it were, is more interesting than just arguing them down. In the former case, you provoke the victim to prove he is not an idiot, that he can be defeated in this way – as Nietzsche said of Socrates. But Lileks is such a pill – a bolus of Bush support, these days – ah, well. ‘Bring it on!’ as the smart kids are all rightly saying. At any rate, if you can pull off the Montaignean mix of personality and philosophy, your bloggy narcissism – hanging your silly ass out in front of everyone, day in and out – has perhaps redeemed itself to some degree. The other way is to have a really, really big brain that fires on all cylinders every day. Lots of folks do.

I don’t think the blogosphere has thrown up nearly enough stylists of true distinction, incidentally. Do you? (I’m not angling for a nomination. I don’t think I deserve one.) I remember seeing someone a couple months back praising a pack of warbloggers as superlative stylists. The name Steven den Beste was dropped. I do not say the man has no brain, but he surely writes like an IBM manual. (Which is fine, for certain purposes – perhaps den Beste’s.) What do you eat for dinner, for preference: Amazon shipping packages? Surely not. That is not the purpose of these things. They convey things. Blogging would be even better if it were more artful. But it’s OK the way it is.

We are honored to blog for Crooked Timber for a week.



Belle Waring 02.24.04 at 6:32 am

I still say we’re called “Timberteers.”


Chris Bertram 02.24.04 at 7:57 am

Good to have you both on board. What you say about a sharp right turn after 9/11 is so close to my own experience. In the aftermath of that I started reading Instapundit, started blogging at Junius and was in a state where the idiocies spouted by those I’d hitherto admired made me re-examine all the other beliefs I held in common with them. I’ve been rowing back leftwards ever since, slowly.


John Quiggin 02.24.04 at 9:38 am

Welcome. I wonder if guestblogging will turn out for you, as it did for me. As I think Walt Pohl observed, if an academic blog is any good, it will be swallowed by CT.

I don’t think I changed much on 9/11, as I was then pretty much in line with Hitchens, having been impatient for intervention in the Balkans and shocked at the failure to prevent the Rwanda catastrophe. It was the stuffup of the peace in Afghanistan and the obvious lies in the leadup to war with Iraq that shifted my position. In relation to Hitchens and Iraq, I’d quote Chris ” the idiocies spouted by those I’d hitherto admired made me re-examine all the other beliefs I held in common with them”.


Russell Arben Fox 02.24.04 at 12:44 pm

John, if I may say: posts like this one are why you get invited to gigs like this one. Superb. I like your point about how in reading academic blogs one may suddenly find oneself lured into a wonderful mini-seminar on a subject heretofore unexplored. That certainly explains my addiction to certain blogs. I suppose I used to write more of those before Alison came along and we entered colic hell. (Get them out of your system before the baby arrives, John.)

Did 9/11 make me turn right? Well, I’ve always had at least one foot in that camp, for social and religious reasons. And like John Q., I’d always been an interventionist of sorts. What 9/11 actually did was make me specifically sympathetic to Bush; as you did, I ended up cutting him a lot of slack. It’s taken me a year or more to properly understand and, thankfully, work that sympathy out of my system.


harry 02.24.04 at 2:08 pm

I, too, was struck by your comment about turning right after 9/11. I supported the Afghan intervention (not a little influenced by Chris, whom I met for the first time on 9/12, wierdly enough), but didn’t experience that at all as a turn to the right. I was insulated by being a) in England where there was much more support on the left for that war than in the US, and b) by being buried in work and dealing with a new baby. It just seemed to me, though, that while there could be reasonable disagreement on the left about what to do in Afghanistan, support for the US action was one completely natural and left response.

But, like them, I supported some previous interventions. Not only in the Balkans, but also in Haiti: I was instrumental in blocking my own small (and uninfluential) socialist group from taking a position on the Haiti intervention in fact, as far back as 1992.

Anyway, my point is that, because I didn’t experience it as a turn to the right, I cut the Bush/Blair axis no slack at all, which I’m glad about in the light of the way things have gone since. But I wonder whether this is a general problem on the left — when someone takes an unfamiliar position on one thing they feel driven from the fold, and this affects their judgment about other things?

Great to have you both on board.


PZ Myers 02.24.04 at 2:21 pm

I seem to have gotten into the blogging business a year or so after you guys did (I admit it, I’m way behind the curve). I find your take on Lileks and Instapundit interesting — when I first stumbled onto them, because EVERYONE was linking to them, I was completely baffled. There was nothing of interest there. Lileks is completely batshit and I had the feeling Instapundit was squeezing leaden drops of prose out of his sphincter. Maybe you need to be in a certain state of mind to appreciate them, or maybe they’ve changed.

I also like your take on academic blogs. I think they are an opportunity to break away from the careful sterility of the mythical ivory tower and have a little fun. Picture Charlie stalking through the flaming hallway shouting, “I’ll show you the life of the mind!” — that’s a weblog. Only it’s not usually flaming chaos, but cat pictures and recipes and little slices of life and the odd angry rant about politics or television, interspersed with peculiar comments about our professional infatuations.


John Isbell 02.24.04 at 2:45 pm

I bore easily, and I read pretty much that entire post. It’s the longest blog post I’ve read in months, so there’s a feather for your cap. Welcome noch einmal.


Joseph Yaroch 02.24.04 at 3:02 pm

My first day at the University of Michigan, I walked into the grad library and was struck by an almost mystical reverence for the mass of information, right there, at my figertips. It was a wonderful experience. The blogsphere now gives us all a chance to have a little bit of that wonder every day of our lives.

I remember getting a book through interlibrary loan, a book published in 1926 that had one of those little library cards in the back. It had never been checked out before, and that was in 1979. Yet, it came with a notice stamped in big red letters “MUST BE RETURNED IN THREE DAYS.”

Blogs never have to be returned.


Walt Pohl 02.24.04 at 8:47 pm

It’s not just that academic blogs that are good get assimilated by CT. It’s that the academic blogs I read that get assimilated. For example, I check John & Belle Have A Blog every day.

I predict your next target for assimilation will be Mark Kleiman.


harry 02.24.04 at 10:29 pm

bq. do the very opposite of pandering to our audience: we suddenly start teaching a seminar on some arcane subject, concerning which there is no legitimate presumption that another soul in the universe is interested

What you’re saying, really, is that academic bloggers are the last remaining heirs of Lord Reith. I wouldn’t dare assume that mantle myself, but for the best I think that’s right, and I can think of no finer compliment.


Jacob T. Levy 02.24.04 at 11:01 pm

I’m not angling for a nomination. I don’t think I deserve one.

Well, I think you do.

Eventually, I suppose, so many new people will stream into blogging, and old people will stream out, that there won’t be this funny linkage between blogging and 9/11– but there certainly is for me, too. I read Kaus before that; I read Usenet groups, which have something in common with (though a lot of differences from) blogging; and I’d been a fan of Jonah Goldberg’s chatty, comics-and-Star-Trek-and-Simpsons-heavy, online political columns since ‘way back when, before it turned into pure schtick. Jonah sounded, if not like I talk by myself, then like some of my conversations with my college buddies sound– struck me kind of the way Lileks struck you.

But post-9/11, Postrel, Sullivan, and Reynolds became really major parts of my day, and I started reading the other blogs that Postrel and Reynolds linked to regularly. And– not independently, but the causation runs both ways– I had my own political shift crystalize. For the first time I supported a war; and libertarians with whom I’d always thought I had everything in common now started to strike me the way much of the vocal left struck Michael Walzer in “Can There Be a Decent Left?” Once my natural group-blog home would’ve been with Liberty & Power, not with the Conspiracy. That was changing before 9/11, a little, but it changed a lot, and more consciously and coherently, at that point.


W. Kiernan 02.24.04 at 11:15 pm

Just wondering, why in Heaven’s name did you take a “sharp right turn” after the 9-11 attack? Surely you were aware of the decade’s effort the ultra-right-wing had put into arming those kill-crazy Wahhabi fundamentalists in Afghanistan.

I remember seeing that second plane smash into the WTC on the TV in my office, and the very first thing that ran through my mind was, Those fucking right-wingers! This is all their fault! And now, by God, they’ll pay! As a matter of record, I was blathering online about it the very next day. Seriously. I thought all those mad old cold-warriors were about to get lynched, and I was eager to buy the rope.

Of course, not only did those bastards manage not to pay for the disaster they caused, but they even turned the mass-murder by their fellow fundamentalists and old business partners to their poltical advantage. There’s no justice in this awful world, not a bit.


Jimmy Doyle 02.25.04 at 9:24 pm

Reynolds and Lileks are now officially beyond the pale. Reynolds: “The Palestinians don’t deserve a state.” Hey Glenn: the God of the Old Testament called. He wants his sense of collective responsibility back. Just goes to show: Law professorship no barrier to moral imbecility. And Lileks’ denunciation of Salam Pax was a disgrace.

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