Once upon a time, writers and pols gathered in physical places nominally devoted to consumption of ethanol and chemicals with names ending in -ine, including but not limited to caff- and nicot- , and engaged in social capital formation, sharpening of wits, and exchange of information that made them all smarter and happier. Some of the things people said in these environments were so pithy and entertaining that they got picked up and circulated widely; some were so unkind that they put friendships at risk.
The participants observed, imperfectly, rules about what could be properly repeated outside the coffee shop or bar and what not. Since most of this discourse was face-to-face, and the numbers small, people breaking the rules would almost always be known to do so, and participants could give their right brains more leeway than they would at a podium or before their editors, readers, the king, etc.
A direct descendant of these institutions, that just closed up shop owing to the despicable behavior of one of its members or, importantly, someone else who hacked into the list or just spent some low quality time with a member’s computer while the member had gone to get some coffee, was the very lamented journolist email group whose den mother was Ezra Klein. I considered it a significant compliment to have been invited, along with several other RBCers, and enjoyed meeting (virtually, and occasionally physically) people I would not have otherwise encountered if only because they are in Chicago, NY, DC, LA, Austin, etc. The age range of the group was quite wide, and as I consider it both the main advantage of my day job that I am constantly around very smart young people, and a drawback that they are mostly pre- rather than early-career, this was a big plus for me and, I think, my coevals. It was also full of women and LGBT voices (of and for), another good thing.
What happened on jlist was a lot of serious exploration of half-baked ideas (the most interesting kind to be able to put an oar into), a lot of huffing about big and not-so-big world steps toward doom, some personal meises, and the usual stuff like sports and music that people use to build and maintain little sub-societies. What happened off jlist was some amount of personal jealousy that always surrounds a group with constrained membership, and the inevitable result of (properly) allowing people with weak morals, modest abilities, and an enormous ambition/abilities ratio, on the internet, perhaps muddled with the present-day right-wingers’ confusion of victory, fear, greed, and narrow-mindedness with principle and social value.
Everyone says things orally that don’t represent his values, or his considered views, or what will motivate him when he’s thoughtfully doing his job, and things in metaphoric or hyperbolic form that can be interpreted literally by the stupid or mean-spirited to be disreputable. We easily use new informal media like a listserv assuming the rules of conversation apply, but of course when everything is cached by Google forever, as sexting kids discover, the facts are different and it doesn’t matter that almost everyone has a conscience and good judgment if one or two don’t.
More generally, gotcha politics and discourse, that attempt to convict someone of being a bad person (racist, reactionary, communist, whatever) at heart by finding a remark made when someone thought a mike was off or a camera not running, has had a very costly collision with the new technical facts of life (this is so much bigger than the Weigel episode). No good comes of this revision of balanced evaluation into an all-or-nothing evaluation: it is simply not the case that a politician who shtupps women he or she is not married to, or utters a racial slur, is incapable of creating value in public service no matter what else he or she has actually done, or does upon reflection. In fact, it does not even follow that merely because a pol (i) expresses conservative values and publicly deplores things a lot of voters deplore and (ii) violates those rules in personal life, he or she should be landfilled, any more than a politician advocating morning-after contraceptive accessibility for teenagers is obligated to sleep around.
The irony of the journolist episode is almost cosmic. On the one hand, the viability of the listserve depends on every single member obeying the rules and being a mensch all the time, rather than the long-term average good behavior of all. This is obviously a suboptimal arrangement, but it’s not clear what could be done about it, because the viability of a career now depends on doing and saying the right thing every moment since forever, which is equally suboptimal and unrealistic. Bad discourse driving out good à la Gresham, with information technology playing the role of the counterfeiter’s backyard foundry.
Weigel traded quips and insults about public figures among friends, just as I do and as you, dear reader, do. Weigel is not a tape recorder but a reporter with personal political views, just like any human reporter. Neither of these ever affected his reporting and no-one has even tried to show that it has. Now Weigel is going to find another channel through which to deliver value, perhaps to fewer people; he’s been personally injured by the treachery of someone he trusted directly or at second hand; and a useful forum of exchange and idea-sharpening, that also enriched the lives of its members with mostly harmless fun and the occasional barb friends and grownups take as the price of a life worth living will be lost or have to be reconstituted (inshallah) with an aroma of mistrust and fear in the air.
Time to revisit the immortal fable of the most amazing thing, but every time one of these episodes comes along, I’m less and less amazed at a pointless act of destruction, or the willingness of some to win a cheap point to no long-term purpose except maybe a few bucks, at the cost of social capital that takes a long time to build.
And now for an intra-RBC dispute (wherein I also disagree with Weigel’s counsel): No, Jonathan, Drudge should do no such thing. In doing so he would dissemble having the moral strength, and will to sacrifice self for a larger good, of a Buddhist monk desperate to end the rape of his country. This would be one more profoundly dishonest act for Drudge, though only modestly increasing his index thereof, and it would mislead the world about his real nature. In any case, I do not counsel sinners and liars to have another go, but instead to reform and repent.