What for a Blog?
By: Warner Todd Huston
Everyone is talking about the “importance” of blogging and wondering where it will all lead at least where it concerns the influence blogging might have on politics. There was even a warning that bloggers are facing oppression and arrest at an increasing rate in some despotic countries proving that blogging is already causing at least some ripples in the political waters about the world. There is no reason at all to assume this is a fluke or that these ripples will cease to radiate from bloggers any time soon. All in all, to many it seems blogging is a newfangled concern we all face.
But is it new? And what the heck is it all for, really?
To answer the first question, let’s be clear about the relative newness of blogging. The only things that make it new is that it is done via a computer and has opened up the world of social comment for more people to indulge in then ever before. But we have seen something the like of blogging before. In fact, without a past relative of the blog we would not have became the United States of America in the first place.
Certainly what came before was not called “blogging.” The etymology of the word “blog” is derived from the two words web (as in World Wide Web or the Internet) and log (a record), and was initially fashioned as “weblog” until it was shortened to just “blog.” Initially a blog was imagined merely as an electronic diary where a user might put his musings on the day for all to read and enjoy. But, soon blogs became places of social and political commentary and it is this form that comes to mind when most think of what a blog is today.
But we have seen something like a blog before. It used to go by the name “pamphlet.” Pamphlets became an important method to disseminate ideas, arguments, polemics, political discourse, literature and religious discussion in Enlightenment England. This concept easily and quickly made its way to the new world and became an important form of political and religious communication in the American Colonies. In fact, without the pamphlet, many of the ideas and philosophies that formed the American Revolution and, consequently, the underlying theory of the United States of America would never have so captivated and invigorated the revolutionary generation.
Pamphlets were printed in what would become the United States for well over 100 years before the revolution began and formed an important avenue for disseminating ideas throughout the colonies. Wherever there was a printing press, pamphlets soon followed. George Orwell succinctly described the nature of a pamphlet in his introduction to a book of collected English and French pamphlets that he edited, “British Pamphleteers” (1948). (1)
A pamphlet is a short piece of polemical writing, printed in the form of a booklet and aimed at a large public. One cannot lay down rigid rules about length, but evidently a leaflet containing nothing but the words DOWN WITH MUSSOLINI would not be a pamphlet, and neither would a book of the length of Candide or The Tale of a Tub. Probably a true pamphlet will always be somewhere between five hundred and ten thousand words, and it will always be unbound and obtainable for a few pence. A pamphlet is never written primarily to give entertainment or to make money. It is written because there is something that one wants to say now, and because one believes there is no other way of getting a hearing. Pamphlets may turn on points of ethics or theology, but they always have a clear political implication. A pamphlet may be written either ‘for’ or ‘against’ somebody or something, but in essence it is always a protest.
This description, purchase prices aside, could easily serve as a description of some of the most widely read and meaningful blogs today. And, just as pamphlets did in the 1770s, blogs are serving to influence political discourse and shape the media and public thought. Bloggers are fast becoming the new pamphleteers driving our modern political discourse as did American pamphleteers of the founding era. And, there is little reason to assume blogs won’t become as far-reaching and important as their pamphleteer progenitors.
Pamphlets were so important to the founding era that some historians feel that America would not have become what it is without them. In his book “Origins of the American Revolution,” Bernard Bailyn said that “much of the most important characteristic writing of the American Revolution appeared” in the form of the pamphlet and as todayâ€™s news cycles become more and more influenced by blogs, we are seeing this concept repeat itself. (2)
And now to the second question: what is it all for?
To answer that we first must know what makes a good one and for that we return to the aforementioned Orwell introduction, to whit:
Good pamphlets are likely to be written by men who passionately want to say something and who feel that the truth is being obscured but that the public would support them if only it knew the facts. If one had not a certain faith in democracy, one would not write pamphlets, one would try to gain one’s ends by intriguing among influential people. This is another way of saying that pamphleteering will flourish when there is some great struggle in which honest and gifted men are to be found on both sides.
And that is just the thing. This is what a blogger is striving for; that his fellows see the truth of his polemics and that they are brought into enlightenment with him. The blogger is nothing if not a direct descendent of the stalwart pamphleteer who wrought the Great Revolutions of England and the United States.
Further we are in an era when the very fabric of our national polity is under assault from forces alien to American traditionalism. Early American pamphleteers were keenly aware that a certain national character was about to be destroyed by an out of control English Crown seemingly bent on their destruction and the polemics that flew from the pens of our Founders warned of the coming catastrophe and augured for a last gasp effort to save us all. That saving grace came in the form of the Revolution and subsequent Constitution that our Founders considered less an overturning of the past than a reassertion of its best parts. We were, it was thought, being more true to Englishness than were the English. Even more to the point, early Americans thought they were fulfilling the highest order of civilization and societal achievement. Godâ€™s work, if you will.
So today we hover at the abyss of the destruction of our national character. But now, instead of pressure from abroad, it is an assault from within we face. PCism, socialist encroachment, and the elimination of American exceptionalism threaten us at every turn. We have lost that feeling that we are special among nations, that we are representative of the best man can achieve and are told by too many that we are no more special than communist China, or Islamist Iran. We are told we are “just another nation” and that we should not be so “arrogant” as to imagine we are better than other nations.
Now is the time for bloggers to take up the cudgel wielded so well by our Founding generation to reverse that self-denigration. Take up your keyboards and reach for those heights once again, America. Don’t let sullen detractors tell you that you are less than or not as good as any commoner. The US grew to heights never before seen in human history because we knew we were right, if not in every deed, at least in essence. Let us not doubt that essence, that Americanness that has sustained us for so long.
Now, to be sure, many blogs do not aspire to this role and even more could not achieve such heights even if they wanted to do so. But, that does not detract from the role that blogging has and can and will — must, really — increasingly strive towards.
But, as you turn on that computer to begin to type up your latest political polemic, take a second to pause and consider those who have preceded you. Remember Jonathan Swift, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine and their contemporaries who formed the arguments and informed minds of the most amazing generation that invented and nurtured these great United States and set the tone for the following hundreds of years of freedom and liberty. You, Mr. Blogger are leading public discourse as you sit at your keyboard.
And now, with that awesome thought comes the awesome responsibility inherent in the fact. America’s founders considered fame to be of preeminent importance. But fame rightly defined is not simply being well known. True fame brings a certain connotation of respect and renown, for being known for good works and excellence. Mother Theresa was rightfully famous. Pop singer Britney Spears, on the other hand, can only claim notoriety or infamy for she has done little of importance, little of true excellence. The Founders did not want to be infamous but wanted their names to be associated with important and enduring works and ideas. They would have been horrified to be thought of as infamous, having left nothing of worth to mankind.
Let us hope that bloggers keep this admonition in mind when they sit down to pound out that latest posting. Let us be famous, not infamous. And let us remember that we aren’t just tapping away at our keyboards to no effect for what we do drives the arena of ideas and informs our national character.
For those bloggers not American, there is reason to feel neither excluded nor discriminated against with my tone here. Take from the history of America the authority to emulate their righteousness and make it your own. Pull from us a reliance on liberty and freedom that you might lead your fellows to a better future. There is no reason merely out of nationalist prejudice to turn away and ignore the urgency to heed these principles in every country on this Earth.
Blog away, America and the world, for you are following a grand and momentous tradition. You are the pamphleteers of today and the future.
So, what for a blog? For no less than revolution.
1. British Pamphleteers, edited by George Orwell and Reginald Reynolds. Publisher: A. Wingate, London, 1948
2. The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, written by Bernard Bailyn. Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass, 1967