Blogito, ergo sum . I blog, therefore I am.

This epistemological premise would seem to describe more than a few who inhabit the blogosphere these days. One wonders what would happen to the likes of an Andrew Sullivan or a Jonah Goldberg if they awoke one morning to discover that they were unable to post. Would they cease altogether to exist?

I posed these questions as I was preparing this, my inaugural, essay for the revived Postmodern Conservative website on First Things. Being a cautious soul by nature, I wished to avoid exposing myself to any unnecessary risks by entering dangerous territory. “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

Add to these fears the daunting obstacle posed by the “postmodern” dimension of this website. No one yet has satisfactorily plumbed the depths of what it really means to be a postmodern conservative. It is a bit, I suppose, like being a log cabin postmodernist. As an existential matter, I have never been happy with Francois Lyotard’s description of postmodernism as the end of all meta-narratives. To me, it has always signaled first and foremost the conceit of self-referentialism. The postmodern always begins by situating him/herself doing what he/she is doing. It is the writer asking why he is engaged in the activity of writing, rather than just writing what he is going to write (like I am doing now). And of course this leads to an infinite regress, for if you can ask why you are engaged in the activity of writing rather than just writing, then you can ask why you are engaged in the activity of observing that you are engaged in the activity of writing and not writing. And it goes on and on, just like so much postmodern art. I referred to this as a conceit rather than an insight because I know that many intelligent people were aware of the same kind of issue long before 1970 but had the good sense and decency not to bore their readers with the literary equivalent of Zeno’s paradox.

Still, I like self-reflection to this extent. What is this activity of blogging, at least in the political arena? A long time ago, when Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States, he defined the role of the press in these terms: “It makes political life circulate in all sections of this vast territory. Its eye, always open, constantly lays bare the secret springs of politics, and forces public men to come in turn to appear before the court of opinion.” Tocqueville went on generally to praise the media at the time (with due allowance for its vulgarity) for its role in facilitating communication. “When men are no longer bound among themselves in a solid and permanent manner, one cannot get many to act in common except by persuading each of them whose cooperation is necessary that his particular interest obliges him voluntarily to unite his efforts with the efforts of all the others.” Here was the role to be played by the newspaper. “That can be done habitually and conveniently only with the aid of a newspaper; only a newspaper can come to deposit the same thought in a thousand minds at the same moment.”

Some who write on the subject of the media today, taking off from Tocqueville, lament the closing of so many newspapers and the hollowing out of the newsrooms of the major networks. They count it a disaster for democracy. But in this case, I believe these analysts mistake form for function. Journalists in America sometime in the middle of the last century began to assume for themselves a role that never was part of the media’s function when Tocqueville wrote. They conceived of themselves as an elite, dispensing putatively objective news and analysis while secretly shaping and molding public opinion toward progressive ends. In the observation of Robert Lichter, they thought of themselves as “the public’s tribunes; they looked at themselves as the social and intellectual equals of the politicians and other leaders they were covering, and they were less predisposed to defer to them.” The grandiose name that they assigned to themselves, a monument to pomposity, was “the fourth estate.”

Journalism has clearly been brought down a notch or two since those days. And given that much of the media was performing a function altogether different and even antithetical to the role Tocqueville described, the demise of many papers and the precipitous loss of prestige for the networks could be considered a reason for celebration. I confess my heart leapt with joy at the recent rumor, since denied, that the Boston Globe might cease to publish, thereby freeing the people of New England from the oppressive intellectual tyranny under which they suffer and groan.

But if one takes the word “blogs” and substitutes it for newspapers, one has something very close to what Tocqueville was talking about when he described the media of his day. Easily begun, often vulgar, frequently ill-informed, they serve to give voice to a current of opinion felt by “those wandering spirits who had long sought each other in the shadows.” Postmodern conservatives of the world unite!

Articles by James Ceaser

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