Keeping each other honest

When I was a young lawyer, I worked for an attorney who liked me to sit in the room and just listen to him dictate his briefs into his little hand-held Dictaphone.  When I expressed concern that I was wasting client time, he assured me I was not.  I was, he said, keeping him honest.

Merely by being in the room, I acted as a buffer against his tendency to exaggerate favorable facts, or to apply law to facts in illogical or even unethical ways.  I also kept him from wandering off topic, since he was playing to me, the audience.  (It helped that I knew the law, the facts, and the issues and could actually speak up when necessary, but it was my presence he desired most.)

I often think of this when I look at the difference between bloggers, on the one hand, and a whole host of idea makers, on the other hand, whether they reside in politics, journalism, academia or entertainment.  Bloggers — and their readers — are a highly communicative and often combative lot.  We leave comments (thousands of them) at blogs offering kudos, criticisms, information, data and corrections; we write whole posts riffing off of or criticizing someone’s thoughts; and we sometimes engage in blog wars, which periodically see vast numbers of others in the blogging community rushing to support one party or another to the combat.

Most importantly, all of this swirling intellectual energy and knowledge collaboration takes place on the same political side of the aisle.  That is, I’m not describing a head-to-head combat between conservative and Progressive bloggers.  Nope.  I’m describing the elucidations, skirmishes, tiffs and battles that take place solely in the conservative salon.

I’m not complaining when I describe this vigorous atmosphere.  I think it’s one of the best things about blogging, because it keeps us, the bloggers, honest.  If I say something foolish, ill-informed, or offensive, someone will call me on it.  (And because this is the conservative side of the blogosphere, I’ll usually be called on it very politely.)

This makes us bloggers very different from that other world of ideas that I referenced at the top of this post; namely, the world of journalism, politics, academia and entertainment.  In those worlds, almost without exception, echo chambers and sycophancy are the name of the game.  Supportive though this approach seems, it is a form of ideological suicide.  People need constructive criticism, not from enemies, who can be discounted, but from those who fight on the same side that they do.  Absent that kind of criticism, bad ideas, instead of being politely criticized out of existence, take on an illogical and dangerous life of their own.  While genuine support is a lovely thing, yes-men are not our friends.

Blogging is also a beautiful thing because it is a perfect format for people to take ideas that cross their screens and to run with those ideas, often to great effect.  A perfect example of this is the way in which Patrick O’Hannigan, who blogs at Paragraph Farmer, took my idea about “the great man theory of history,” and turned it into a nuanced post about the importance of all individuals, not just those with name recognition or visible power.  The throne matters, but so does the person behind the throne, as well as the person behind that person.

Patrick shows the kind of collaborative, imaginative thinking that makes the blogosphere a lively place, and not merely a place in which stagnant political ideas get recirculated endlessly.  We feed on each other’s energy, insights, imagination, wisdom and knowledge.

By the way, the Progressives fully understand the intellectual dynamism behind the internet.  That’s probably why they want to give President Obama a kill switch.