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Botched Blog-Bashing

Elon Professor Micheal Skube skewered bloggers Sunday in an op-ed column published in the Los Angeles Times entitled "Blogs: All The Noise That Fits." And in doing so, he invoked the name and words of the eminent cultural critic Christopher Lasch to support his thesis. Wrote Skube:
"What democracy requires," Lasch wrote in "The Lost Art of Argument," "is vigorous public debate, not information. Of course, it needs information too, but the kind of information it needs can only be generated by debate. We do not know what we need until we ask the right questions, and we can identify the right questions only by subjecting our own ideas about the world to the test of public controversy."

There was something appealing about this argument -- one that no blogger would reject -- when Lasch advanced it almost two decades ago. But now we have the opportunity to witness it in practice, thanks to the blogosphere, and the results are less than satisfying. One gets the uneasy sense that the blogosphere is a potpourri of opinion and little more. The opinions are occasionally informed, often tiresomely cranky and never in doubt. Skepticism, restraint, a willingness to suspect judgment and to put oneself in the background -- these would not seem to be a blogger's trademarks.

But they are, more often than not, trademarks of the kind of journalism that makes a difference.

So what Skube is trying to say is that bloggers are cheapening public debate – in the Laschian sense – because they are too opinionated, unrestrained and self-righteous. Now, it's not as if I'm Will Hunting and Lasch is Vickers' "Work in Essex County," but Skube is guilty of a little bit of selective quoting when it comes to Mr. Lasch.

While Professor Skube uses Lasch's quote to frame his argument – the one about 'what democracy requires' – he fails to quote the very next paragraph in Lasch's excellent essay "The Lost Art of Argument." (Pardon me as I take the book off my shelf)

Political debate began to decline around the turn of the century, curiously enough at a time when the press was becoming more "responsible," more professional, more conscious of its civic obligations. In the early nineteenth-century the press was fiercely partisan….[P]apers were journals of opinion in which the reader expected to find a definite point of view, together with unrelenting criticism of opposing points of view.

It is no accident that journalism of this kind flourished during the period from 1830 to 1900, when popular participation in politics was at its height.

The opinion-laden blogs that Skube derides, then, are just 21st century version of the journalism and debate that Lasch actually praised. Huh. Now, I know I'm new to the blogging game here at CBS and don't pretend to know the breadth and expanse of the blogosphere. But I know enough about blogs (and even more about Christopher Lasch) to know that the public debate being informed and fueled by bloggers is attaining that "popular participation in politics" that Lasch was pining for in his work.

As Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, "Everyone is titled to his own opinion, but not his own facts." Nor are some entitled to their own narrow and selective reading of public intellectuals when it suits them.

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