Sunday, October 19, 2008

Sully, blogs, and the Young Turks

Politically, Andrew Sullivan is erratic, and his attacks on Sarah Palin have been wildly irresponsible, but in two sentences of his latest article for The Atlantic Monthly, Sullivan makes a huge point:
If you added up the time a writer once had to spend finding an outlet, impressing editors, sucking up to proprietors, and proofreading edits, you’d find another lifetime buried in the interstices. But with one click of the Publish Now button, all these troubles evaporated.
Younger people -- i.e., those under 35, who have started their careers since the online explosion of the mid-1990s -- have no appreciation for how instantaneous Internet communication has transformed the world of the professional writer, of which blogging is the ultimate example.

I'm 49 and Sullivan's 44, so we both began our careers when there were no Web sites, when the Internet was something known only to academics and technogeeks, when editorial "gatekeepers" stood squarely between the writer and the reader, and when the only way to gain access to mass readership was to present yourself and your work to these gatekeepers, in person or via mail (I would say "snail mail," but that term did not exist).

Of course, Sullivan started his career at a much higher level -- I used to read his articles in the New Republic when I was a staffer at the Rome (Ga.) News-Tribune -- but in recalling the limitations of journalism in the pre-Internet age, he echoes my own memory.

Applying for a staff position, you would "send clips and resume" or, if you were a freelancer, mail out manuscripts in hope of finding a publisher. It required the commitment of an enormous amount of time and energy, with a lot of time spent waiting for replies, if any. Mail out a clips-and-resume package on Monday, which might be delivered to the editor on Thursday or Friday, and if you were lucky you might get a phone call the next week.

On my desk is a book, The Proud Highway, a collection of Hunter S. Thompson's letters from 1955-67. Reading it, you get some sense of the difficulties a writer faced seeking assignments in the Bad Old Days. The young Thompson was a genius (and arrogantly aware of it), but had to spend an enormous amount of time pitching articles to editors, at a time when that meant typing letters on a manual typewriter, and most of the time getting rejected.

All this tended to limit a writer's career mobility. If you got a staff position, you tended to stay wherever you were and work your way up (rather than hop from job to job, as many young journalists do now) since the process of applying for jobs was so laborious. And once a freelancer found an editor who'd publish one of his articles, he would keep pitching that editor, trying to establish a regular outlet for his work. For example, Thompson regularly freelanced for the National Observer, and when he sold a feature to the national men's magazine Rogue in 1961, he kept pitching them for future assignments (without luck).

¡Viva La Revolucion!
The advent of the Web as a mass medium in the mid-'90s changed all that. Suddenly, it was possible for any writer to communicate directly and instantaneously, in writing, with editors anywhere in the world. And anything you published online was available to a worldwide readership.

The revolution of blogging -- free, user-friendly software for online self-publishing -- followed in the early years of this century, and in just the span of a few years, has transformed the writer's world beyond anything I could have imagined in 1995.

In September, nearly 300,000 readers visited this blog, an average daily readership equal to the Georgia newspapers where I used to work. This blog has been linked by the New York Times, Michelle Malkin and, indeed, by Andrew Sullivan. And there is no editor, no staff, no office, no budget -- nothing. Just me sitting here in my house, with my wife and kids in the next room, the dogs wandering in and out, the smell of spaghetti sauce wafting in from the kitchen.

Young Turks and Old T-Shirts
Yesterday, I did some curmudgeonly grumbling at the insufferable arrogance of young conservative writers: I've got T-shirts older than you, kid. This is half-joking, of course. I enjoy playing the curmudgeon, fondly recalling the grumpy old-school editors who showed me the ropes when I was starting out in journalism.

Behind the humor, however, is a serious perception about the transformative effects of the information revolution. Part of the arrogance of today's young writers, I think, comes from how easy it is for them to reach a national readership via the Internet.

Sullivan was one of the brash boy-genius prodigies (succeeding Michael Kinsley) whom Marty Peretz hired as editor of the New Republic. That kind of thing was astonishingly rare at the time. True, William F. Buckley Jr. was not quite 30 when he launched National Review, but Buckley . . . well, there was only ever one Bill Buckley.

In The Prince of Darkness, Robert Novak recalls that when he joined the Washington bureau of the Associated Press in 1957 at age 26, he was the only reporter in the bureau under age 30, "and there were precious few under 40." In other words, it used to take years of hard work for even a very talented writer to get anywhere near the heights of political journalism. And it took another six years as a reporter in Washington before Novak teamed up with Rowland Evans to become a nationally-syndicated columnist.

Of Horses and Carts
Today, Washington seems to be crawling with 22-year-olds fresh out of college who are doing political commentary on a daily basis without ever having spent a single day working as a straight-news reporter.

To say that this is putting the cart before the horse would be wrong -- it never even occurred to them that they needed a horse. The Blog Age has, in some ways, elevated opinion over fact. It has also fostered a belief that pure intelligence is more important than knowledge or experience.

The same medium that allows me, a graduate of lowly Jacksonville (Ala.) State University, to hurl online blasts at alumni of Harvard and Yale also allows callow youth to offer the world opinions about political affairs ungrounded in any direct experience of politics, or any observational memory of politics prior to the Clinton administration.

Today's 22-year-old was in second grade when Clinton became president. When I was in second grade, LBJ was president, and I think it's worth sharing with the ambitious Young Turks of conservatism a story about old Lyndon.

After he became vice president in 1961, LBJ attended a meeting of John Kennedy's advisers, the Ivy Leaguers famously dubbed "The Best and Brightest." Johnson was so impressed that when he met later that day with House Speaker Sam Rayburn, he couldn't help raving about the brilliant minds of JFK's brain trust. The wily Rayburn famously replied, "Well, Lyndon, you may be right and they may be every bit as intelligent as you say. But I'd feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once."

In the same way, I'd feel a whole lot better about the punditry of the Young Turks if any of them had ever covered a sheriff's race as a reporter. One of the brightest of the Young Turks, J.P. Freire of the American Spectator, likes to say that the conservative movement today needs more Robert Novaks and fewer Bill Buckleys. Which is to say, everybody wants to be a pundit, and nobody wants to do any research or reporting.

The Next Ann Coulter?
Freire is exactly right, and I cannot tell you how many times in recent years I've encountered bright young College Republican types whose ambition is to be "the next Ann Coulter," and who seem to expect to fulfill that ambition by the time they're 25. Yet Coulter herself would be the first to tell them that they've got it all wrong.

Last fall, Coulter spoke to the National Journalism Center's 30th anniversary gala, and in the Q&A afterwards, she was asked by one of her young admirers how to follow in her footsteps. Coulter explained that, after her stint at NJC, she told her mentor -- the famed conservative journalist M. Stanton Evans -- that she had decided against a career in journalism. Evans was heartbroken, because Coulter had been a most promising protege.

Instead, Coulter attended law school at the University of Michigan, did a clerkship with a federal appeals court judge in Kansas City, and worked as a corporate lawyer in New York before returning to Washington at age 32 to become a top Senate staffer. Two years later, at age 34, she made her debut as a regular commentator on MSNBC, and she was 36 -- I repeat, ANN COULTER WAS THIRTY-SIX-YEARS OLD -- when she published her first book, High Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Now, I am well aware that many of the Young Turks loathe Ann Coulter with every fiber of their traditionalist/paleo/libertarian/Paulista souls. This is irrelevant to the point of the story, which is that Ann Coulter did not become Ann Coulter by setting out in her youth to become Ann Coulter. She didn't move to DC right out of college. She didn't go to work at a think tank or join the staff of a major political journal or try to write"big picture" essays about the cosmological meaning of conservatism.

As Coulter explained to her Q&A interrogator at the NJC event (and I think I remember the quote very nearly verbatim), "Nobody cares about your opinions when you're 24. You don't know anything when you're 24."

The Virtue of Experience
Of course, smart 24-year-olds always think they know everything, and it's a reasonably safe guess that 24-year-old Ann Coulter was no exception. Yet she was smart enough to realize that she needed real skills and real experience -- something outside the unreality of Washington, D.C. -- and so when she returned to D.C. a decade after her NJC internship, she brought with her knowledge and perspective that she could never have gained had she gone directly into journalism at age 24.

The impatience of the Young Turks is in many ways understandable, and I can't blame them for succumbing to the temptation that the Blog Age offers them to fulminate (with a potential worldwide readship) on the woes of the GOP amid this evident gotterdammerung of conservatism. I fully sympathize with these whip-smart 20-somethings in Washington who regret the transformational opportunities being lost because the major conservative institutions are in the hands of 60ish men who don't even know basic HTML and who have certainly never Twittered or Facebooked. And I know that the Young Turks have a unique understanding that their elders in the conservative movement seem sadly incapable of bridging the culture gap that separates the vinyl LP/8-track analog generation from the Limewire-and-iPod generation.

Patience, Young Turks. You have more friends than you know, but you are still Jedi apprentices and your eagerness to supplant the Yodas of conservatism is creating a disturbance in the Force. Instead of filling the Internet with harangues about the failures of neocons and pseudocons and cryptoliberals, you would do more good for yourself and for conservatism by devoting yourself to tasks more befitting your youth -- research, reporting, development, organizing -- even if you think those menial duties are beneath the dignity of such philospher princes as yourself.

And if you will suffer to hear one more bit of curmudgeonly wisdom, consider this: When I was your age, I was a Democrat.

At 25, I voted for Walter Mondale. I was such an enthusiastic yellow-dog Democrat that the poll worker had to stop me at the door and ask me to remove my Mondale-Ferraro pin so as not to violate the prohibition on campaigning inside a polling place. And I continued to follow the ways of the Dark Side until the mid-'90s, when I came within the orbit of a Jedi Master who had himself been mentored by another Georgia Democrat, the late Larry McDonald. Ahem:

(Carroll Quigley! Edward Mandell House! Ah, those were names to conjure with!) By 1996, my worldview had been so radically transformed that I eschewed voting for the mushy moderate Bob Dole -- "Tax Collector for the Welfare State" -- and instead voted for Libertarian Harry Browne.

Having undergone such a reorientation myself (and struggled to regain equilibrium), I am here to tell you that the next 10 or 20 years may revolutionize both American politics and your own worldview. Just 25 years ago, an arch-conservative like Larry McDonald was a Democrat. And just 15 years ago, so was I.

Work hard, study and grow wise, Young Turks. Be sure that the world will still be in need of your wisdom, once you obtain it.

UPDATE: Linked at Instapundit. Thanks.


  1. What do you think of this ? On of CNN's top business reporter, Ali Velshi, has a degree in religion per Wikipedia. I could not find other substantive econ or business training in his background.

    Is he an example in your opinion of a talking head who has little relevant experience? I am sure there are others and am not picking on him.

  2. AJ, I couldn't care less what anyone's college major was. What counts in undergraduate education is (a) getting a balanced liberal arts background, and (b) developing some specific abilities that will be useful in earning a living. The hothouse environment that breeds these young meritocrats -- the AP/honors track in high school, the National Merit Scholar competition, the desperation to get into the "right" college, the emphasis on resume-building internships instead of character-building, menial, low-wage summer jobs -- is a big part of what's wrong with the elite. I'd rather my own kids join the Marines and matriculate at the "University of Paris Island" than to begin plotting at age 14 how they'll get into Harvard.

  3. Obviously, that should be Parris Island.

    Eye hate tipoz.

  4. Ultimate curmudgeon line, never delivered because sufficient experience to give it informs that it won't help.

    "How much more do you know now than five years ago? Are you going to learn just as much in the next five years? You'll probably learn even more than that because you'll have that wisdom to build on. I've been through five year learning cycle six times since I was your age. Relax kid, there's more to know than you know."

  5. I generally agree with what you are saying here, but I have a minor quibble of a correction. I'm pretty sure that the term "snail-mail" existed when you were getting your start, even if it was unknown to anyone outside the sphere of "academics and technogeeks" like me.

  6. I think I get what you are saying, and I can understand why it is a nuance that is often not even seen, let alone understood, by the young guns. It takes time to see things in a more detailed manner. But we live in different world, one that is too busy running and chasing to just stop and look.

    Still, what has been lost must be weighed against what has been gained. No more are writers vetted, for good though often ill in censorship, by editors, publishers, and such to such an extent that some things are just not discussed (Kennedy's (pick one) problems).

    I will not say that what is gained is more important, if I lean that way. I will add that, some of what was lost was cultural and significant. It is a continuation of a disposable society. In some ways, it is a sad thing. But too, it allowed unquestioned socialist and communist takes, quietly and off the radar, yet large as life in print. That too, was sad. A right seems to need to be abused to prove it is real...

    Still, I think people do tend to roil around that which is worthwhile and good, at least those who choose that path. With your numbers, though it is not guaranteed it is fairly indicative of your skills. Those who wish for porn, in any of it's forms, however, will go to where they can find that.

    Didn't some guy say something about us being what we read? Oh well. Quality matters, even now.

  7. The more I learn, the more I realise what I don't know.

    Are these young'uns guilty of epistemic arrogance?

    "Epistemic arrogance: take a measure of the difference between what someone actually knows and how much he thinks he knows. An excess will imply arrogance, a deficit humility. An epistemocrat is someone of epistemic humility, one who holds his own knowledge in greatest suspicion." -- Nassim Nicholas Taleb