Political Blogs as Comfort Food, with Some Notes on RBC

A slow day off of work combined with a fast new lap top (Xmas gift) and no hangover (I followed Mark’s suggestion) makes this a good day to blog. I better understand this medium than I did when I started, and though I remain ambivalent about whether I should keep blogging, there is no denying that I learn from the blogosphere, including RBC.

One of the things I have observed is that many political/public policy blogs are comfort food for a pool of regular readers. If you create a site called “immigrantsaredestroyingourcountry.com” or “legalizecocainenow.com” or “Allrepublicansareevilmonsters.com” you will over time accrue a readership, potentially a large one. Your role as a blogger is to repeat, in a thousand different ways, the message captured in your blog title. Your amen corner will then comment enthusiastically, over and over, in post after post that you are oh so right about what you think.

If such a blog strays from its message, the tell will be readers commenting “Hey, this blog is supposed to be advocating X and this post of yours seems to indicate that Y may be true”. And then, the ultimate insult from a comfort food seeker “This is the kind of post I would expect to see on blog Y”. The accusation isn’t that the blogger is wrong, but that the blogger is a traitor to the cause.

Whether providing political comfort food is right or wrong, it’s human nature to seek it out at least some of the time and that’s not going to change. But I thought it was worth saying that it is a feature and not a bug of RBC that if you read us for long you will encounter viewpoints and analyses with which you disagree (perhaps quite strongly).

When Mark Kleiman asked me to start blogging here, he knew there were things we didn’t agree about. And he didn’t say “You must support position Y, political party A, candidate Q” or anything else of that sort. He just asked me, as he asked a diverse range of people over the years, if I wanted to blog here and I said yes. Quincy Adams (ahem), Jonathan Zasloff, Amy Zegart, Robert Frank, Kelly Kleiman, Matthew Kahn, Steve Teles, James Wimberley, Lesley Rosenthal, Michael O’Hare, Bob Jesse, Andy Sabl and Harold Pollack have different knowledge bases and different points of view, which I consider all to the good.

I can tell from our comments that most RBC readers understand that there is no loyalty oath required to be a blogger here, nor an understanding that the posters must agree with each other. There is a shared commitment to evidence over opinion, as well as to civil debate, but that’s different than being monolithic on substance.

Very occasionally I get a comment along the lines of “This blog is supposed to advocate Y and you aren’t doing your part”. This makes it worth repeating that this isn’t a comfort food blog; that’s not our comparative advantage. Does this cost us readers? I am sure it does, but that doesn’t bother me and I assume it doesn’t trouble Mark either. The readers we keep are smart and intellectually curious, and those are the kind of people I want to spend my time around.

Do I wish that more people were interested in data, dialogue and potentially having their opinions proved wrong than are interested in comfort food? Broadly speaking, yes. But I hope this blog comforts those who have a taste for something other than comfort food.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

18 thoughts on “Political Blogs as Comfort Food, with Some Notes on RBC”

  1. The attraction of RBC, at least for this reader, is that 1) yes, the writers have the same general liberal orientation that I do, and so are comforting in that way, but 2) they write smartly about subjects which are not overexposed in the blogosphere, and so can still feel fresh and thoughtful.

    I feel like one more blog post about tax policy or Iraq or Paul Krugman on top of the millions that have gone before becomes wasted space at some point — we’ve all read so many that one more is no longer enlightening.

    On the other hand, a smart post by a real expert on drug policy, or the vagaries of research methodology, or any of the other things RBC has touched on in the past year can leave me feeling I learned something.

    Thanks for that.

  2. I think your “comfort-food blog” model is pretty accurate. But it’s worth considering two things.

    1) There is a mirror-image blog to the comfort-food blog, and that’s the always-contrarian blog. These are also quite popular, perhaps counterintuitively so. Reliably saying X when your audience wants Y doesn’t make the contrarian any more of a hard-nosed Truth Teller than the comfort-food blogger; it’s just a different means to the same end of playing to the crowd. Comfort-bloggers are popular with their audiences because they flatter the audiences’ preconceived notions. Contrarian bloggers usually have an even more loyal audience because they flatter their audiences’ belief that they are open-minded, educable, and independent–not like those sheep over at Comfort Food Blog X (who occasionally post unpopular comments on Contrarian Blog Y).

    2) It’s possible to be one, or the other, and many blogs are both one and then the other. But saying you’re neither doesn’t say much: every blog in the world would claim they were merely telling it like it is, rather than flattering their audience’s expectations (and/or cleverly manipulating them). And, of course, when they do so, the audience is flattered, because they like the blog and they like themselves for liking the blog which so boldly tells the truth, damn the consequences, the hell with the lost ad revenues, full speed ahead. On the island of truth-tellers and liars, everyone always claims to be a truth-teller, so the claim itself is pretty much meaningless. And every blog keeps for itself only the smart and intellectually curious readers–the rest read those other blogs.

    Flattering myself that I’m in the real reality-based community (population 1! beware of imitations!), I find it a little hard to believe that every single one of the fine writers or managers of this blog are completely immune to commercial considerations, internal group dynamics, emotional investment, and all of the other little social pressures that transform what a writer might originally feel like saying into the things he or she actually does end up saying for public consumption. I’m not even sure how anyone else could know for sure that this blog was unusually resistant to those pressures, but one way that seems promising would be to highlight the places where the expected conflict between or conversion between points of view actually happened.

    For example, no argument that this is a polite space. But it’s quite possible to have civil debate between people who believe that the other person is not merely mistaken, but fundamentally and irrationally wrong, or at least embracing a world-view that is deeply suspect. If there are any deep, serious, consequential differences between RBC bloggers (or between RBC bloggers and what they think the audience wants to hear), what are they? I’m not saying they don’t exist, but they might be easy for the casual reader to miss. What’s the single most glaring discrepancy between RBC bloggers? Heck, it’s the end of the year–what are the top ten biggest ones? What was the most recent thing an RBC blogger changed his or her mind about, and what was the biggest single transformation/evolution/flip-flop each has undergone since they joined the Reality-Based Community and renounced unreality and all its empty promises?

    1. Matt: I almost raised the inverse of comfort food issue. You have done so, so let me expand on this. I think there are people who love to troll as much as others love to have their views validated, and they are as addicted to comfort blogs as are the true believers.

      We have a few (very few) of this type here and you can tell because they only comment when they disagree. When they read something that surprises them by supporting something they think, they lapse into disappointed silence. It’s an interesting phenomenon.

      As to what RBC bloggers disagree the most about, I am delighted to say I don’t know. I have only personally met Mark and Harold and Bob Jesse, I have learned about the rest the same way as do RBC readers: by reading what they post, sometimes agreeing, sometimes not, but even after years of doing so only knowing a small part of the range of their ideas….which will keep me reading them.

  3. As long as I can reply when I think that someone is flat wrong about something, I can live with it.

  4. “Quincy Adams (ahem), Jonathan Zasloff, Kelly Kleiman, James Wimberley, Lesley Rosenthal, Bob Jesse, Andy Sabl and Harold Pollack have different knowledge bases and different points of view, which I consider all to the good.”

    Is it a Freudian slip that you did not mention Matthew Kahn in this list? Perhaps you are suggesting that you don’t consider your differences with him “all to the good”?

      1. You are reading too much in, I was trying be illustrative and not exhaustive. But I have added them both as well as Steve Teles and Robert Frank. There are probably others who have blogged here that Mark would know but I don’t.

        1. Actually, (as an economist), I think that M. Kahn lowers the tone of this site with his too frequent credulity for conventional economic reasoning. I just thought it would be fun to tweak you.

          1. And that, of course, is Keith’s point: Kahn is a first-rate thinker whose ideas aren’t the same as yours or mine. To those of us at the RBC, that’s part of his charm. Your mileage, clearly, varies.

  5. About a quarter of the RBC posts annoy my sociopolitical sensibilities, but are almost never poorly reasoned. In some cases, my assumptions are rightly challenged. In much the same way that I could enjoy Safire and Buckley, even when I (almost always) disagreed with them. Oh but for those days!

    And yes, as a frequent reader of various FTB wags, I am absolutely appalled at the lockstep orthodoxy of their regulars, and the ad hominem vitriol with which they attack dissent — not from TeaParty tone trolls or MRAs or god-botherers, but from seemingly well-intentioned commenters who simply note “I fail to see the logical connection”.

    After the Charlie Hebdo bombing, I noted the unaninimity with which liberal blogs had condemned French Muslims, as a class, and had roundly supported the right of a free press over the right to live without being killed by a foreign country you hadn’t attacked. I noted that the score for that month was:

    French Bombing of Libyans: 200 (to as many as 1200) dead Muslim civilians;
    Muslim Attacks On France: 2 printing presses.

    Which culture was the more violent toward the other?

    I must have been called a terrorist-loving religious-fanatic-apologist anti-free-press monster in 200 comments, when all I was doing was challenging classist war-mongering ethnocentric assumptions, that the right of educated upper middle class Parisians to make fun of Mohammed trumped the right of children to maintain their limbs and lives.

    A few days later I saw similar sentiments to mine expressed here. That boiled down to no cheerleading for religious fundamentalism or anti-free-speech violence, but rather: be careful with your privileged assumptions while your country is bombing the shit out of poor brown people. I’ve been an admirer ever since.

    Keep up the good (and non-dogmatic) work, and all the best in 2012.

    1. I don’t see the connection between French participation in the military action in Libya (which was intended to protect Libyan civilians – presumably all Muslims – against their own government – but even if you think it was outright imperialism) and the right of a satirical journal not to take a religious figure seriously. Is there any evidence that the bombing of Charlie Hebdo was carried out by Libyans or supporters of Libya – of Ghaddafi? – or had anything to do with the Libyan bombing or civil war/uprising/rebellion?

      In short, I don’t think there was any ‘trumping’ of rights going on here, in either direction. Do you know if Charlie Hebdo supported French actions in Libya? (I doubt they paid any attention to it, from what I know of the journal, but maybe they did.)

      One can argue that one should ‘respect’ Mohammed more than other religious figures (and Charlie Hebdo has been far more frequently savage against various Christian leaders) and still support intervention in Libya, or oppose intervention in Libya and oppose bombing journals who make fun of someone’s religion.

      I would hope that contributors to the reality-based community support linkages before they make policy arguments based on them.

  6. I object to this post, it is not cheery enough for the new year! Where are the pictures of people playing in the snow (or the 70 degree weather if you are in LA)?

  7. You should buy the domain name “legalizecocainenow.com” and have it redirect to this site.

  8. Mark Kleiman says:

    “And that, of course, is Keith’s point: Kahn is a first-rate thinker whose ideas aren’t the same as yours or mine. To those of us at the RBC, that’s part of his charm. Your mileage, clearly, varies.”

    This is clearly not true, Mark. If you are in doubt, please read his posts on adaptation to climate change.

    Emphasizing here – you weren’t saying that he’s competent in general, or had the odd good idea, but ‘first-rate thinker’. Frankly, I haven’t seen a single *competent* thought from him, let alone something which would rise above simply competent.

  9. I’ve been watching the disaster that is Balloon-Juice becoming increasingly deranged for months now. It sadly illustrates how certain parts of the blogosphere crave comfort food – and just how bad such a diet is for them. I am very glad that samefacts isn’t going down the same disastrous path, complete with front page trolls, ongoing flame wars and a general impression of heat accompanied by smoke, not light. Please keep debating real issues – and please keep bringing in people who don’t share the comfortable consensus.

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