Knowing How to Know Things Gets Harder

Perhaps the rest of life really is just an extension of high school – the cool kids know what’s really going on, which amazes everyone, and makes everyone else envious, but maybe the rebels and the punks really know what’s going on, or it’s the Goths in black with the purple hair, or maybe it’s actually the jocks. It’s never the guys in the Chess Club or the marching band, and it’s certainly not the perky bubbly cheerleaders – but of course no one actually knows what’s going on. The trick is to act like you alone, or you and just a few of your friends, know how the world works. Fake it. No one is going to challenge you. Their own insecurity will assure that. No one wants to be the last one to know, and unlikely others may actually know things you don’t. That’s always an uncomfortable feeling, so everyone makes guesses about who knows what. That’s a leap of faith.

That only gets worse for adults, and it’s more than knowing what the hot new movie or trend is, or having the right smartphone with the right apps, or knowing who will win the Super Bowl or whatever, or even knowing what sport is now too stupid for words that no one cares about anymore. Football is getting there, and sure, it’s nice to be able to talk intelligently about those sorts of things, but if you don’t know anything at all about Miley Cyrus or Richard Sherman or gluten-free cupcakes you’ll be fine – the world won’t end if you don’t. That’s high school stuff, like being sure you’re wearing the right sneakers, if they’re still called that.

There are other things that are more important for adults, like what the hell is going on in the world. What, are we going to war again? What, did the economy just collapse? What, gay marriage is legal now, as is smoking marijuana in a few states? What, we’ve pumped so much crap into the atmosphere that the icecaps are melting and the oceans are rising and storms are far worse than ever before and species after species are dying and food and water will be in short supply from here on out, or that’s all a hoax perpetrated by all the world’s scientists, because all of them hate capitalism, and they hate Republicans too? Who knew? The same high school insecurity is there, but the stakes are higher.

This used to be easier. For most of the twentieth century we had a newspaper of record, the New York Times, and the Washington Post as a backup, and news magazines like Time, or its sister, Life, for those who preferred pictures to words. Then, in the fifties, we had the beginning of network television news – the three networks ended up telling America just what was happening in the nation and in the world, each evening, all wrapped up a single half-hour show. That was when Walter Cronkite became “the most trusted man in America” – the reporter of record. If Uncle Walter said it was so, it was so. In 1968, after he went to Vietnam to do a bit of on-the-scene reporting about the Tet Offensive, he came home and looked America in the eye – or looked at the CBS camera in the studio in New York – and declared we couldn’t win this one. This particular war was unwinnable now – it was time to negotiate a withdrawal as honorably as we could. Lyndon Johnson was reported to have said “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Johnson may not have said that – there’s some dispute – but Johnson should have said that, because it was true. The cool kids knew that that war was much more than stupid. Johnson couldn’t fool them any longer. Nixon didn’t even try – he’d end the war by bombing the crap out of those folks over there until they agreed to end that thing, on our terms more or less. But we had lost. Cronkite had been right – except that there’s a twist to this. In 1967, Roger Ailes, who was producing the Mike Douglas Show, had a long discussion about television in politics with one of the guests, Richard Nixon, who thought television was a gimmick. Nixon, however, listened carefully and called on Ailes to serve as his Executive Producer for Television. Nixon’s 1968 election victory might have been Ailes’ doing – he worked hard to make the very odd Nixon more likeable and “accessible” as they say.

That story is told in The Selling of the President 1968 – Joe McGinniss tells how Ailes made Nixon one of the cool kids again. And then, years later, in February 1996, Roger Ailes left America’s Talking (now MSNBC) to start the Fox News Channel for Rupert Murdoch. The job was the same – make the angry conservative stiffs the cool kids again. Ailes could do that and Fox News launched on October 7, 1996, and they’ve been working on that ever since.

They have that plan. They say they alone are “Fair and Balanced” – a counterweight to CNN and certainly MSNBC, and to the three broadcast networks, and to the New York Times and Washington Post and all the rest of the liberal mainstream media that persists in questioning the wisdom of angry rich conservatives. That is, however, no more than their saying that they’re the cool kids, who know what’s what, not those other guys. It’s a high-school thing. That may be why Roger Ailes hires all those pretty and leggy and young blond women to sit around with the angry old white men – for every Bill O’Reilly a Megyn Kelly. The angry old white men get the hot chicks. That makes them cool, doesn’t it? It really is like being back in high school. The taunt is there… Check her out! She’s with me! I’m cool and you’re not!

That may not be the best way to decide what is or is not a trusted news service, but that’s where we stand now, and that means we have no real news source of record any longer. Some think the Fox News folks are the cool kids, and like Sarah Palin mock the lamestream media. Others think the folks on MSNBC are pretty cool. Those who can’t decide watch CNN – the Most Trusted Name in News as they say. They say that because they gave up on trying to be cool long ago or maybe never saw the point – and few watch the broadcast news these days. That seems bland and empty and superficial, and fewer read newspapers – and Jon Stewart is a star now because he mocks all of them. Who has the news, the real news? Stewart shows it’s not any of these guys.

Fine, but how do we find out what the hell is going on in the world? It would be nice if someone continually looked at what those who claim to be the ones who know things have said and sorted it all out, removing the claims of being the only ones in the know, leaving the actual news exposed and available for inspection. That’s tedious work, and it’s even harder work to come up with lively prose to make such an analysis more than dry-as-dirt boring stuff, but that would be a valuable service. It would be a move beyond all the adolescent high school posturing, and a move beyond Jon Stewart pointing out that most of the news these days is adolescent high school posturing. Someone should do that.

Someone did. Actually, many did. They were the political bloggers of the last fifteen or more years. They set up shop to sort it all out, daily, and sometimes hourly. Many of those are gone now, and many of those blogs were no more than a constant barrage of short snarky comments – another high school kind of thing, because there’s always the guy in the back of the room who always sneers at everything – but a few were quite helpful. They did their sorting and analysis because they were frustrated and someone had to do this sort of thing. Some were aligned with newspaper or magazine sites, but some were just out there, standing alone – folks just sorting things out, perhaps just for themselves, but anyone could tag along for the ride and get a sense of what was actually going on in the world.

The best of them all was Andrew Sullivan, who just quit:

Andrew Sullivan, blogger and editor of The Dish, announced on Wednesday that he will be giving up blogging after a nearly 15-year run.

“There comes a time when you have to move on to new things, shake your world up, or recognize before you crash that burn-out does happen,” Sullivan wrote in a post entitled, “A Note To My Readers.”

He wrote that he wanted to embrace longer forms of writing and spend more time with his parents and husband, also mentioning his increasing health problems. He thanked his colleagues and readers for their years of support, adding that his publishing company was in a state of “animated suspension.”

The site went static, frozen on his note to his readers – but he had a good run:

Sullivan founded the Dish, originally “The Daily Dish,” as a personal blog in 2000. TIME Magazine later adopted the blog, until Sullivan moved to the Atlantic in 2007 and then The Daily Beast in 2009.

In 2013, The Dish left the Beast to form an independent site under a subscription model. Along the way, the Dish’s masthead grew from a couple of interns to a staff of eight.

That’s over now, and Chris Taylor offers an assessment:

The Dish was like many a good Twitter feed or Facebook Timeline: by turns silly and serious; text-heavy in one post, nothing but a photo or video in the next. One minute Sullivan was expounding like a Roman orator; the next he was cutting and pasting giant chunks of someone else’s blog.

In short, the Dish refused to be pigeon-holed – much like Sullivan himself, a British-American gay conservative pro-pot Catholic libertarian who supported Bush and the Iraq War, recanted, and tilted towards Obama. Nothing about his transition from one side to the other felt forced, and this was part of what was compelling about reading him every day, even if you didn’t agree with him – you knew he was basically intellectually honest, and willing to change his mind if and when new evidence came to light.

Sullivan wasn’t stuck in high school posturing:

In an age where we’re taught to refine our personal brand, where marketers herd us into simplistic categories, here was a man whose views were as resolutely messy and changeable as those of any true free thinker. Never was Walt Whitman’s line “I am large, I contain multitudes” more persistently on display.

And the same goes, of course, for the George Orwell quote that served as the site’s slogan: “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” A writer of fierce intelligence and determination who lives by that line, who lets us see the struggle, is a writer we can trust. But the constant struggle is wearing, especially when done a dozen times a day.

Still, it’s a matter of who you can trust. Walter Cronkite struggled with the Vietnam War, so we could trust him when he sorted it all out. Sullivan did the same, and it was pretty much a one-man show:

For all its talented team of writers, for all its showcased responses from readers, the Daily Dish never got beyond the stage where it worked best as a single voice. The draw was watching Sullivan’s spotlight hop and skip from topic to topic, always returning to the same basic themes: tolerance, compassion, integrity, intelligence.

Those aren’t bad themes. Fox News should consider them. They fit in a new motto nicely, but Sullivan’s site was something else:

Just when it all got too weighty, we’d get another “mental health break” video – a feature that predated the Internet’s obsession with cute animals. …

It’s perhaps hardest to describe the joy of the recurring feature The View from Your Window, which is exactly what it sounds like. It worked because the readership was global. Something about seeing slightly grainy photos of back gardens and neighbor’s houses and cityscapes made our planet substantially more intimate in a way words never could – years before Instagram did essentially the same thing.

So in one sense, the world the Dish made will always be with us: We’re all doing what Sullivan did for years, just in different feeds and formats. For one man to do it all may not be sustainable; heck, it’s pretty amazing he lasted as long as he did. But the loss of that single voice curating it all, that moral compass at the center of things, will be keenly felt.

In his blog at the New York Times, Ross Douthat goes further than that:

The day the gay marriage rulings were handed down I raised the possibility, on Twitter, that Andrew Sullivan might deserve to be remembered as the most influential political writer of his generation, and I was happy to see Tyler Cowen flesh that argument out:

“Doesn’t Sullivan have a reasonably strong claim to that title, especially after the recent Supreme Court decisions on gay marriage? Sullivan was the dominant intellectual influence on this issue, from the late 1980s on, and that is from a time where other major civil liberties figures didn’t give gay marriage much of a second thought, one way or the other, or they wished to run away from the issue. Here is his classic 1989 New Republic essay. Here is a current map of where gay marriage is legal and very likely there is more to come. “Sullivan was also a very early blogger, and an inspiration for many in that regard (myself included), and the blogging innovation seems like it is going to stick. That’s two big wins right there, and how many other people can even come up with one?

“Many of you will complain about his “war blogging,” his connection to Obama, and perhaps other matters, but no matter what you think on these issues it still seems to me he holds the lead.”

Douthat agrees:

I think if anything both the “war blogging” and the Obama connection strengthen Sullivan’s case. My tweet on his claim to “most influential” status prompted several people to suggest one or more of the key intellectual influences behind the Iraq War instead – Kenneth Pollack, Paul Wolfowitz, and then so on down the predictable list of neoconservatives. But Sullivan was a significant figure in those debates as well, occupying (along with Pollack, Peter Beinart, Christopher Hitchens, my colleague Bill Keller and others) the crucial centrist territory that legitimized the invasion as something more than just a cause for right-wing hawks. His post-9/11 essay This Is a Religious War in particular was one of the more compelling framings of what became the liberal-interventionist case for the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq. I don’t think he was the key figure in these debates, but there wasn’t a single key figure, and his role was as significant as many other writers.

Of course Sullivan was wrong about that liberal-interventionist case for the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq and admitted it, and tried to see why he’d blown it. None of those other guys have, which is why he supported Obama six years later:

The idea of Obama as a transformational figure carrying use beyond the stale debates of the Baby Boom era was not unique to Sullivan (indeed, it originated with Obama himself), but as a former Bush supporter and self-described conservative, his enthusiasm helped legitimate the post-partisan, post-culture war goodbye to all that interpretation of Obama’s candidacy, during the primary campaign and general election alike.

Ah, but there are quibbles:

The question here, as ever with ideas and their consequences, is whether any of this actually mattered to events, or whether Sullivan just happened to be on the winning side of a number of debates that would have played out similarly without his contributions. A skeptic might argue, plausibly, that Sullivan has been a representative intellectual rather than an influential one – that he looks significant only because he happened to be writing in an era when Americans, and particularly the American intelligentsia, already inclined toward his distinctive combination of views (cultural libertarianism, economic neoliberalism, with a strong spiritual impulse joined to a fervent, somewhat hysterical anti-“fundamentalism” on matters of religion), and that his strong swings on specific issues (particularly on foreign policy, post-9/11 and then post-Iraq) have mostly followed fashions rather than shaping them.

Douthat dismisses that because of Sullivan’s work on gay marriage:

No doubt there would have been a major push for same-sex wedlock without Sullivan: Deep trends favored its adoption, other eloquent writers made the case, and other countries and cultures have taken different routes to a similar destination. But no writer of comparable gifts was on the issue earlier, pushed harder against what seemed at the time like an unassailable consensus, engaged as many critics (left and right, gay and straight) and addressed himself to as many audiences as Sullivan. No intellectual did as much to weave together the mix of arguments and intuitions that defines today’s emerging consensus on the issue – in which gay marriage is simultaneously an expression of bourgeois conservatism and the fulfillment of the 1960s’ promise, the civil rights revolution of our time and a natural, Burkean outgrowth of the way that straights already live. And no intellectual that I can think of, writing on a fraught and controversial topic, has seen their once-crankish, outlandish-seeming idea becomes the conventional wisdom so quickly…

And then it became both law and, as Douthat notes, custom, and that’s pretty impressive:

Again, it’s awfully hard to separate ideas from tectonic shifts in culture and economics, and I have enough of a determinist streak to doubt John Maynard Keynes’s famous maxim that “the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.” But just as Keynes heard clear echoes of “academic scribblers” and “defunct economists” in the rhetoric of his era’s politicians, so I hear echoes of arguments that Andrew Sullivan, and often Andrew Sullivan alone, was making thirty years ago in almost every conversation and argument I’ve had about gay marriage in the last ten years. There’s no other issue and no other writer where the connection between things I read as a teenager and lines I hear today is as clear and direct and obvious. And if that isn’t evidence of distinctive, far-reaching influence then I don’t know what is.

It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you move beyond high school posturing and smirking, and there’s also the matter of tolerance and compassion and integrity and intelligence. Does anyone remember any of that from high school?

Oh well. The rest of us will just have to carry on. But the bar has been set very high.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to Knowing How to Know Things Gets Harder

  1. Rick says:

    I don’t want to rain on Douthat’s parade, but I have a problem with all this.

    I agree, Andrew Sullivan has been a powerful force in the world of political thought — not only in America but probably also in England — but pretty much an “inside baseball” type influence, in that, while I’m sure hardly anybody in my neighborhood has ever heard of him, the people they have heard of, people like Bill O’Reilly and Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, are all very familiar with Andrew Sullivan.

    But as big a fan of Sullivan’s as I am, I find the idea that he had any measurable effect on the success of same-sex marriage next to preposterous. (And also, as much as I am in favor of same-sex marriage, I can still foresee a day in the future of America when people will look back and ask what the hell people were thinking back then, and it will all go away again.)

    On the other hand, I will say that Andrew Sullivan has been — and I have a hard time saying “was”, since he’s not dead yet, and I find it hard to believe we have seen the last of his writing — about the most eloquent political writer of our generation. Was it that he, as Douthat wonders, “mostly followed fashions rather than shaping them”? I prefer to think he independently reasoned his way to a place where others, often without having put in the effort, eventually found themselves.

    Although I almost always agreed with him, I didn’t always. For one thing, the longer he blogged, the more I expected him to one day admit that he wasn’t just wrong about Bush and the war in Iraq, but also about he himself being a conservative. I even imagined the form that would take — that he now realizes he isn’t in England anymore, where ideology has a slightly different cast, and that here in his adopted new home in the New World, he now knows that the writings of Edmund Burke don’t quite translate into the local vernacular.

    But instead, Sullivan hands in his letter of resignation, and it all feels slightly premature.

    Among his fellow big-name bloggers, nobody else is quite as good, and this column, for sure, will especially miss him, given the number of times Alan relied on Sullivan’s special talent as a “closer” — after our hearing from everyone else, Sullivan’s was so often the voice of reason turned to at the very end, acting as the bow that ties the whole issue up into a package that made it somehow feel complete.

    His leaving is bad news, like the really good friend who comes to tell you his family is moving out of town.


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