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.