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Saturday, January 5, 2013


Readers of this blog, I am sure, will be familiar with the great eighteenth century satire of English politics and culture by Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels.  Lemuel Gulliver, the hero of Swift's novel, takes four voyages:  to Lilliput, to Brobdignag, to Laputa, and to the land of the houyhnhnms and yahoos.  Let us imagine, if we may, that an account has just been discovered of a fifth voyage, to a curious land called Blog.  Blog, Gulliver tells us, is a land composed entirely of mirrors, which endlessly reflect the doings of the inhabitants.   [Needless to say, I do not in my most self-referential fantasies compare myself to the incomparable Swift, although I did for a brief moment ascend to the heights of satire in my review of Allen Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, but bear with me.  I shall connect up, as the trial lawyers say.]

In Blog, the sole product of the endless labors of the inhabitants is opinions, on matters political, economic, religious, cultural, and even athletic.  For a long time, the Bloggians, or Bloggers as they are sometimes called, offer their products to one another in a pre-capitalist frenzy of gift exchange, rather in the manner of the South Sea Islanders described by Margaret Mead.  But then, an enterprising Blogger conceives the idea of charging for her opinions.  The other bloggers are taken by this innovation, and soon each blogger goes forth into the town square carrying a little change maker, rather like those that bus conductors once wore.  When someone wishes to hear an opinion on some matter, he must place a coin in the appropriate slot, whereupon the opinion is divulged.  Each opinionator keeps careful track of how many coins are deposited, and wears a sign on which the number is displayed.  The most popular opinion-producers receive thousands of coins, and enter into agreements with other leading opinion-makers to share their opinions on a reciprocal basis with inquiring minds.  Some of the most successful inhabitants of Blog do not even themselves formulate opinions, content to recycle the products of other opinionators.  At the outskirts of the town square are a few would-be opinionators who cannot find anyone to offer even one coin for their opinions.  These pathetic aspirants continue to offer their opinions freely, hoping against hope that their opinions will some day be sufficiently in demand to allow them to charge a few coins for them.  Because Blog is composed entirely of mirrors, it is difficult to tell which opinions are original and which are merely reflections of other opinions.  Eventually, the distinction itself evaporates, and originality gives way to repetition.

What has inspired in me this Swiftian fantasy?  The answer , in a name, is Andrew Sullivan.  As some of you may know, Andrew Sullivan is a Gay Catholic conservative English opinionator who used to be on the staff of The Atlantic Monthly.  His blog, The Daily Dish, was featured on the Atlantic website for a while, until Sullivan left that site and signed up with The Daily Beast, an entirely web-based e-zine.   I have been reading The Daily Dish regularly for several years, principally because it is a convenient way of keeping track of conservative opinion on matters political.  Sullivan's religious anxieties and cultural predilections [he is, among other things, obsessed with beards] are, I find, rather a bore, but at certain important moments he has performed a genuinely valuable service, for example by reproducing verbatim the texting from the streets during the Iranian protests a year and more ago.  He is also deeply concerned with the campaign for the legitimation of same-sex marriage, which of course concerns me greatly, and has himself recently entered into marriage with his long-time partner.  The Daily Dish, like many of the major blogs, devotes most of its space to the recycling of things written elsewhere, which gives to it somewhat the air of a hall of mirrors [hence my fantasy].  It is extremely successful, claiming more than a million readers, and again like other major blogs, employs a staff, which in Sullivan's case numbers five or six.

Now Sullivan has decided to cut loose from The Daily Beast, not for yet another host site but rather to strike out on his own as an independent operation.  There are essentially three ways for such efforts to generate income:  ads, donations, and subscriptions.  Sullivan has opted for subscriptions.  Shortly, he will require those who wish to continue to read his blog to pay a subscription fee of $19.99 a year.  [The precise details are somewhat obscure to me, and involve keeping RSS feeds free, whatever they are, but satire has long played fast and loose with the complexities of reality, and I plead poetic license.]

I shall not pay, even if it means that I am denied access to The Daily Dish. 

Why on earth not?  In my comfortable upper middle class life, twenty dollars is a negligible fee.  It is, to choose just one example, the amount I tipped an airport employee on Christmas Eve who met Susie and me at the airplane door as we returned from Europe, pushed Susie in a wheel chair on the long walk to immigration, waited with us for our luggage, saw us through customs, and finally delivered Susie to a taxi rank where we caught a cab home to Chapel Hill.  Twenty dollars is a good deal less than I spend in one week for the lemon poppy seed muffin and coffee that I eat while doing the NY TIMES crossword puzzle each morning.  It is not the money. 

My decision not to pay was immediate and unreflective, and it has taken me a bit of thought to figure out why I was offended by the demand that I pay to read Sullivan's blog.  I have been reading books for seventy years, and it has never seemed inappropriate that I be asked to pay for the books I read.  I regularly pay to attend concerts [although Susie and I make full use of the countless free concerts offered in out of the way churches in the higher numbered arrondissements of Paris.]  I have even paid to hear lectures, and of course I have on countless occasions been paid to give them, even though they are, when all is said and done, nothing but compendia of my opinions.  After all, Sullivan must live.  So why this instinctive revulsion at the demand that I pay him for the right to read his opinions?

The answer, I think, is this:  The blogosphere is, or purports to be, a global village.  Through its intermediation, each of us encounters and forms some sort of relationship with countless others passing through the village square.  Were I in a real village, could I imagine, save in a Swiftian satire, an encounter like this?  "Good morning, Bob, what do you think of the UNC football game last evening?"  "Well, Emily, put a quarter in my change purse and I will tell you."  "Fine, here is my quarter.  For fifty cents, I will tell you my reaction to the Fiscal Cliff negotiations."

Perhaps those of us not living on the pensions earned in a lifetime of work need to find a real job before we decide to blog.


Keith said...

Prof. Wolff

I'm one of those who immediately subscribed to Sullivan's new venture. Your reaction spurred a few thoughts.

First, I think that Sullivan tried hard to explain how much of his blog would still be accessible. And all of it, as currently configured through RSS. You should be aware of RSS - it is offered on your blog and, indeed, is how I get your blog. I think the effect of pay restrictions will be felt more when they explore longer articles.

The, the reason I plunked down my $20 - I think it is worth it. I think it's far more than one man's soapbox: I think they do a wonderful job of aggregating multiple opinions and sources that I would have otherwise been unaware. As you may have guessed it is through Sullivan's that I became aware of your blog.

Media - the authoring and delivery of news, analysis, thought and commentary is, as we are all aware, changing massively. So far there seem to be three business models: free (thank you very much), advert funded and subscription / donation. I'm thinking of blogs and of a wider range of "content" (think Fox News vs. PBS).

Free can only go so far and is entirely dependent on the whim and resources of the author.

Ads can be a scourge. Yes, one has to live with them but both their influence and pervasiveness have driven me to turn off the TV pretty much permanently.

This brings us to donations and subscriptions. How I dearly wish that I could just give our PBS station my credit card and be free of Dreaded Pledge Week.

It is with the last thought that I am interested in furthering the subscription model. If there were some way, say, that I could spend pennies at a time for what I read (which is less cost than the local newspaper that I cancelled) and that authors who need the income can be paid.

Keith said...

p.s. - a note about the Comments mechanism (over which you may have no control).

1. On this rather large screen there is a little 1 3/4" x 3" box to write comments in. Rather silly and difficult to view what one has written.

2. As will always happen on first draft, there's a typo. And no correct / edit capability! ("The, the" should start with "Then").

Some blogs do not have these issues; so if it is in your power to change these settings, that would be good for your readers.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Keith, thank you for this thoughtful response to my little fantasy. A propos the comment issue, I am really a babe in the woods. I have not a clue how to change that, but maybe someone who is clued in can help me out.

As I tried to indicate, I have no doubt that the $20 will be worth it, certainly as compared with all the other ways that we pay $20 for this or that. I confess that I am not clear why Sullican decided to break with The Daily Beast, save that perhaps he figures he can make much more in this new mode. Surely he was not in any way being censored.

Howie said...

Two points. First, he's maybe the only sane Republican out there and moreover he's an immigrant. Two, this is a natural development of commodification. If stadium bathrooms can have advertisements, why can't he charge a fee?
With any luck, he can compete with Fox

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Stadium bathrooms have advertisements? Who knew?

Jacob T. Levy said...

"I have been reading The Daily Dish regularly for several years, principally because it is a convenient way of keeping track of conservative opinion on matters political"

Sullivan's a complicated writer, with complicated merits and demerits. But I wouldn't count "reliable barometer of conservative opinion" as being either a merit or a demerit of his. He's always been far too idiosyncratic for that (which is mainly a merit)-- and post-2006 or so, he's been a conservative only in the faintest possible sense.

As Keith suggests above, Sullivan has moved around a fair bit. He was one of the original four (with Kaus, Postrel, and Marshall) whose sites dubbes "me-zines" before "blog" was a recognized word, back in early '01 or so. For all of that time I've thought of him as having his own freelance brand name which he'd rent out to bigger media ventures trying to establish an online presence-- for all that The Atlantic credentialed Sullivan for a certain kind of magazine reader, Sullivan very much credentialed The Atlantic online. (The Atlantic has made a terrifically successful push into blogging, but was relatively late to start.)

To be honest, I wouldn't really mind the electronic equivalent of what you clearly imagine as dystopian. If I could configure paypal or google wallet to automatically leave a nickel for every blog post I read or $20 per year for every subscription in my RSS feed, I'd be happy to do so. I'm kind of reluctant to subscribe to AS now because it would feel like a kind of voting for his site in particular, when in fact these days I read him much less often than many other blogs. But there've been times in my life when I paid for annual subscriptions to half a dozen (primarily-)opinion magazines, and I get a lot more benefit from my RSS feed every day than I ever got from the sum total of the magazines.

Jerry Fresia said...

I think everyone has missed it. Professor Wolff’s reaction to the developing entrepreneurialism of Andrew Sullivan is not about Andrew Sullivan, it’s about the erosion of community, authenticity, and the enchantment of individuals freely, passionately and sincerely exchanging thoughts, ideas, and feelings – with mutual respect and concern - within a shared way of life. Notice that Professor Wolff tells us that he is trying to figure out his own feelings. He’s not clear, at the outset, why he feels offended by the self-interested calculations of Sullivan and then, upon reflection, describes a blogosphere – whether an invention or not – that is much like a village, a “pre-capitalist gift exchange” type village, a “real village” where the “opinonators” themselves come to know and understand better, not just the world around them, but their own human capacities as well.

In a post not long ago, Professor Wolff made mention of “the experience of the divine” when he was in the presence of great music.” These divine moments, as it were, happen incidentally because they are precipitates of an expressive activity; in such free activity, one cannot know before the act (the word, the note, the mark) the feeling that will be aroused. To attempt to calculate out and manage such processes, which is the task of Sullivan in this new enterprise, is to pretend that the relationship between him and his readers is parallel to that of a teacher and a student. It is not. It is an effort to exploit such a relationships. His enterprise robs from us – to the degree that the relationship embodied a modicum of freedom to begin with - the opportunity for both us and himself to know what we have in us to be. In my mind, this activity is no small matter. It is precisely why people have inveighed against the atomistic, individual, utilitarian calculus of entrepreneurialism forever. It ought to be ground zero of our politics.

Sullivan’s enterprise is “Like the dead stroke of the pendulum” that “slavishly obeys the law of gravity” and who effects a “Nature shorn of the divine.” (Schiller) Sullivan’s calculus may be one man’s effort to boost his career, grab greater market share, and become more famous and wealthy, but it is also the drip-drip-drip-mutilation of real villages and of ordinary people trying to become more who they already by means of expressive and free conversation. It ought to be resisted with moral passion. Bravo for your feeling offended.