Instant Pithyness Corrupts Instantly
In college, I wrote a humor magazine that included top ten lists. They ran down the left margin of 8.5×11 sheets of paper, so the punchlines had to be pithy. The Top 10 Things That Would Change Without Index Fingers? Number 7: “Rock, paper, scissors becomes rock, paper, fuck you.”
In that kind of writing, one must abandon a lot of jokes that almost work, or else foolishly press on despite the fact that the punchline cannot be pithily expressed. Space being limited, these not yet ready for prime time one-liners end up inscrutable. They can be deciphered by the few people who already share all the assumptions that helped you to conceive the joke, but outside that cocoon, the words committed to the page are inadequate.Thus the writer is asked to explain the joke, a feat that takes a minute. Confident comics are happy to oblige; those too insecure to engage assert that anyone who didn’t understand must be stupid.
All this helps us understand the most aggravating characteristic of Instapundit, a blog that has many good attributes too. Professor Reynolds is an astute man, a pioneer in the medium, author of a pretty good book, a usually sensible columnist, someone who kept a relatively even keel in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, purveyor of several sensible if brief points per day, and an aggregator who links some good stuff one wouldn’t otherwise see. But he too often writes posts whose pithiness comes at the expense of substance, accuracy or integrity.
This flaw is easily forgiven when he is writing about frivolous subjects, but it rankles when he tries to have it both ways, publishing posts that are political commentary, ideological point scoring, or a critique of another writer, and reacting to the inevitable blow back by ignoring his interlocutors or else blaming them for misunderstanding him, even when they read his words in perfectly reasonable ways.
This alternating evasiveness and passive aggression is somewhat puzzling, because Professor Reynolds is perfectly capable of holding his own in reasoned argument. See his columns or a law review articles — these bad qualities are nowhere to be found, or so I gather from the several dozen short pieces and handful of long pieces I’ve perused over the years. I recommend them! And I find myself nostalgic for the Instapundit of old. I wonder whether I am remembering it accurately, or whether it’s me that’s changed. Unsure, I dip back into the unread posts on my Google Reader with cautious optimism, and quickly enough become frustrated by the Pajamas Media version of Instapundit, where the unpredictability is gone, the typical reader is never challenged, and instead of an intelligent voice having interesting arguments with ideological opponents there’s just Twitter length sniping at them.
Why has a tenured law professor who doesn’t need the money or even the page views settled on this particular approach to the medium? So many posts either panders to or coddle the movement conservative’s ideological preconceptions — so you have controversial plank X in the Tea Party platform, and Professor Reynolds signals his agreement with it, almost always without any argument about why it is correct. Other times he actually disagrees with plank X, something he’ll occasionally make known, but very seldom does he actually argue against plank X, or try to change anyone’s mind about it. Instead he’ll note that while he happens to be against plank X, other people who are against it are silly or annoying or hypocritical or ham-handed in their advocacy or approaching things in the wrong way or are the subject of a really funny Mark Steyn one-liner.
Instapundit punts on the substance of so many matters, choosing instead to make the pithiest point that jives with his readers’ sensibilities. There’s a climate change conference? Well is it cold there? Did anyone fly there on a private plane? Did any MSM reporter betray bias in their writeup? There’s your Instapundit climate change coverage for the day. Single instances of this behavior aren’t egregious, but the aggregate effect is to set daily Instapundit readers adrift in a constant stream of straw men and irrelevant points cheaply scored, losing site of the issue for the pith.
Then there are the occasional times that a Glenn Reynolds post is particularly egregious in its pandering, or wrongheaded in its substance (this latter happens to us all). Due to his stature, intelligence, and past demonstrations that he is a reasonable person capable of productive debates, he is called out on his post in the manner familiar to everyone who blogs. “How can you say that about Y?” his critic demands.
Usually he or she is ignored — there’s only so much due diligence a single man can do if he’s to teach law, produce Web video, record pod-casts and produce so much pithiness and useful links every day (seriously, how does he do it all?) — but sometimes there is a response, almost always evading or pithily dismissing the critic’s point without addressing it, or else feigning shock, shock that anyone could ever think that his post was saying that — I’ve never said or meant that — never mind the peculiar way I wrote my post, or that I link almost exclusively to people who think that, always mock opponents of that, and never mock or even argue with anyone who does think that.
Sometimes Professor Reynolds has half a point in the resulting exchange. I take him at his word that he really is against torture, for example, though I still find it absolutely bizarre that he is less against torture than he’d otherwise be because Andrew Sullivan annoys him. What I wonder is what would happen if Professor Reynolds faced a mock trial where for a prize of $10 million he had to persuade a randomly selected jury that he honestly holds the views he claims to hold as they read his blog everyday for a year. Would Professor Reynolds grasp why sometimes these jurors would be confused or feel misled about his actual views? Would his style change? I’d give up In N Out for a year to see this experiment play out.
Every time I’ve done an “Instapundit sanity test,” where I show one of these kerfuffles he’s occasionally engaged in to apolitical friends clueless about the blogosphere, they’re sympathetic to the person accused of having misunderstood him. “Wait, he’s against torture? Well don’t just show me this ‘heh’ post that set off the kerfuffle, show me the post where he makes the best case against torture. Oh, you can’t ever recall having read one like that?” These people tend to naively presume that political arguments are grounded in beliefs about specific issues, rather than the belief that one side is right overall, and therefore it is fun and loyal and savvy and righteous and pithy to zing the other side, ideally acting as though the zing is rooted in some greater symbolic import, or is another data point revealing the way things are, instead of being, say, a transient, irrelevant example of hypocrisy by the least defensible guy on the other side.
There is actually a service rendered here. People like reading Instapundit! He brightens the days of so many office workers. I am not being flip. That is truly significant. So are the digital camera recommendations, the links to great Radley Balko and Megan McArdle stories, the occasional law review articles, the way he’s helped to advance the careers of people like Michael Totten, the occasional examples of pith that are grounded in substance and genuinely held beliefs — so funny, so quotable, so wise.
Even at the height of my frustration with the man, I’ve tried to give him credit for all this. Instapundit remains in my Google Reader. I look at it multiple times every week. I have tremendous respect for the second career this entrepreneurial guy has built, and I hope that he, the Instawife, and the Instakids enjoy health, happiness and prosperity. Seriously. I’d probably enjoy having a beer with Glenn Reynolds. The fact that all these non-bloggy things seem most important to him too makes me like him even more.
These praiseworthy attributes are unfortunately accompanied by these lamentable aspects of Instapundit. They are trending in the wrong direction too, and that makes the blogosphere a worse place: one where pithiness is prized too highly, cheap demonstrations of pseudo-hypocrisy and insubstantial zings take the place of considered opinion (or substantial zings!), and too many bloggers on the right try for an Instalanche by producing more of this Glenn Reynolds bait than they otherwise might. (The imperative to link stuff from Pajamas Media hasn’t helped either — and it’s so often Alfonso Rachel too. Why not give us all Roger Simon and Andrew Klavan?)
Perhaps this background information will help Professor Reynolds understand why I reacted so unfavorably when I saw him uncritically link a Pajamas Media piece titled, “Dear Mr. President, Your Policies Are Hurting Women the Most.” That’s the most cliched kind of identity politics, I wrote, akin to that old New York Times joke: “World Ends, Women and Minorities Hit Hardest.” Then Professor Reynolds updated his post, claiming, “Conor Friedersdorf is immune to irony.” So I re-read the Pajamas Media letter. Hints of tongue-in-cheek? None. Ironic tone? Certainly not. What’s going on here? Querying a few friends, I didn’t find anyone who took it ironically either. And let’s be honest, do numerous Congressional Representatives ever co-sign ironic op-eds?
Querying Twitter, I got a response from John Tabin, who hazarded that “appropriating the language of identity politics to tweak the left is not the same as embracing identity politics in earnest.” In other words, it quacks like a duck, but isn’t one. But doesn’t the Pajamas Media piece, which begins “We recently called together a bipartisan forum of women to discuss how the debate over health care affects them,” embrace not just the language of identity politics, but also its substance? Mr. Tabin postponed his answer until the following morning. It is here. The thrust of his argument:
Conor’s problem seems to be that the letter is seriously suggesting that Obama’s policies are especially bad for women. And he’s right, it is. But the subtext is important here. As Conor points out, the Congresswomen are mostly talking about policies that Republicans believe are bad for everyone. The purpose of noting that some of them are disproportionately bad for women, though, is indeed to note the irony: Women are supposed to be one of the groups that liberals are especially interested in protecting.
Of course, the hypothetical New York Times headline writer genuinely thought the end of the world was bad for everyone! But I digress. Instapundit jumped back into the fray. “JOHN TABIN takes the time to explain,” he wrote. “I thought about doing that, but it spoils the pithiness when you have to help people who don’t catch on. This blog is for serious blog readers. The rest will have to keep up if they can. Hang on tight!”
Spoken like a tenured professor! Unfortunately, I’m not the only kid in the class who is having trouble keeping up. Check out the comments on the original piece at Pajamas Media, where it’s criticized on the same grounds I raised (and defended by folks who think it is entirely in earnest). The commenters at this site seem unaware of any irony in the piece too. And I remind Professor Reynolds that I’ve been reading his site for many years, interviewed him for publication, and linked by him more than a few times over the years. That I’m not a serious blog reader isn’t really even a plausible criticism. Or was that ironic too? You never know when you’re arguing against someone who could take it onto Twitter.
In comments at The American Spectator, self-described Instapundit fan Chirs BD sums up my feeling:
Wouldn’t irony need to be one of the letter’s themes — or at least its discernible motivation — to level such a charge at one of its readers? Reynolds was basically faulting Friedersdorf for not connecting a bunch of dots that weren’t laid out by the letter itself (or by Reynolds’ link to it).
Friedersdorf made a simple point that stands on its own: If identity politics is bad for thee, it’s bad for me. Reynolds then stepped in and essentially said, no no, you shouldn’t interpret the letter on its face like that, nor should you should interpret my un-elaborated link on its face… rather, you should have read all this other stuff into it and conclude with this other interpretation.
That strikes me as a bit unfair. And it’s *definitely* unfair to say, “Sorry, I didn’t feel like explaining my derision of you because I didn’t want to ruin my pithiness.”
It’s hard not to escape the feeling that Instapundit’s original link, just like the letter itself, was actually quite earnest — and that “irony” was merely a convenient way to rebuff embarrassing criticism after the fact.
Another AmSpec commenter writes:
To those of you who think this is not identity politics: Let’s say Barack Obama and the Dems explained that “Jesus would support health care reform” and “without this health overhaul, Christians will be hardest hit.” Would that be identity politics? Because if you don’t see the commonality here, I think there’s some very serious cognitive dissonance going on.
Identity politics encompasses a larger sphere than leftists manipulating their interest groups along the traditional rhetoric of “the oppressed” and their cadre of college-educated Oppression Studies majors. When you use a certain defining characteristic of a person as a reason to be for/against something, you are undermining both traditional concepts of humanistic liberalism and conservative rule of law–that law should only be legislated on the basis that it is applied equally across the citizenry.
I’d say that whatever the intent of the GOP writers and Professor Reynolds, the piece is being taken earnestly by the vast majority of the people who read it. I didn’t make this point in my first post decrying identity politics, but an obvious peril of adopting tactics and language you’ve long deplored, under the thin cover of doing so ironically, is that a lot of people won’t get the joke, and after your first hint of short term success — effectiveness is why the other side used the tactic, after all — you’ll find yourself behaving worse than they do.
This seems like something the right should worry about and worthy of discussion to me, and as I hope I’ve demonstrated, the Glenn Reynolds approach to argument, where pithiness rules them all, detracts from rather than facilitates that conversation. I’m not sure if traffic is up at Instapundit these days or down. Maybe people like the new Glenn Reynolds better than the old. Though I find even the knew Instapundit worth reading, and Professor Reynold’s non-bloggy writing reliably good, I sure miss what Instapundit used to be.