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Michael Kinsley

Blogged Down

By Michael Kinsley
Sunday, December 19, 2004; Page B07

If you're going to peddle opinions for a living, self-assurance is essential. If you don't have it, you need to bluff. People don't want to read a lot of "Oh dear, this is so terribly complicated, I just can't make up my poor little mind . . . ." Many's the pundit who has retired on full disability after developing a tragic tendency to see both sides of the issue.

Rarely, though, does even the most self-assured commentator on public affairs (i.e., George Will) inflate certainty to the level of a mathematical proof. It's happened to me only once, on the subject (unfortunately) of Social Security privatization. Not, perhaps, the most glamorous topic on which to waste the gift of certitude. But, to borrow philosophically from our secretary of defense, you make do with the epiphany you have, not with the epiphany you might wish or want to have.

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I won't bore you with my mathematical proof that Social Security privatization can't work. Not quite true: I will bore you with it, but not until next week. Right now I have something more exciting to bore you with.

Like you, I'm sure, I try to be a good sport about the inexplicable fact that other people sometimes disagree with me. What other choice is there? The nonsense that other people think is often amazing and always disappointing -- but at this late date it's not really surprising, is it? And other people are disappointing in so many ways. What's one more? For all I know, you yourself may even disagree with me about this or that, and I may disagree with you about the other. It's everywhere.

And other people are so stubborn! Possibly unlike you, I actually get paid to try to convince people that I am right and they are wrong, and thank goodness I'm not paid on the basis of results. It's almost enough to make you consider the possibility that other people are right and you are wrong. Merely considering this possibility is therapeutic, if you don't make a habit of it.

But when you're sure of something to a mathematical certainty, everything changes. It becomes supremely irritating that other people continue to debate the issue as if there were some doubt. It is enraging that some people even act as if certainty belonged to the other side. This general failure to acknowledge that the issue is settled and the argument over is even more irritating when you have explained it all in columns and editorials over the years. Nor does it help when the president himself passes up every opportunity to accept your airtight logic, as Bush did in pushing partial privatization yet again at his White House economic conference this past week. The gentle explanation that the president may be unfamiliar with you and your logic is, oddly, not comforting.

That conference was the last straw. Last week, to vent my frustration, I sent an e-mail to some economists and privatizing buffs saying, look, either show me my mistake or drop this issue. Refute me or salute me. Disprove it or move it. Or words to that effect.

As an afterthought, I sent copies to a couple of blogs (kausfiles.comand andrewsulllivan.com). What hap- pened next was unnerving.

A few days later, most of the big shots hadn't replied. But overnight I had dozens of responses from the blogosphere. They're still pouring in. And that's just direct e-mail to me. Within hours, there were discussions going on in a dozen blogs, all hyperlinking to one another like rabbits.

Just so I don't sound too naive: I am familiar with the blog phenomenon, and I worked at a Web site for eight years. Some of my best friends are bloggers. Still, it's different when you purposely drop an idea into this bubbling cauldron and watch the reaction. What floored me was not just the volume and speed of the feedback but its seriousness and sophistication. Sure, there were some simpletons and some name-calling nasties echoing rote-learned propa- ganda. But we get those in letters to the editor. What we don't get, nearly as much, is smart and sincere intellectual engagement -- mostly from people who are not intellectuals by profes- sion -- with obscure and tedious, but important, issues.

Why the difference? Length, for one. I'll be hard-put, next week, even to summarize my own argument, let alone discuss those of others, in the space available to a columnist. Letters get even less space, if they are published at all. Certainty that what you write will get posted is surely another factor. It's nice to know you're not wasting your time. Ease is important, too. You can send your views electronically to a blog in less time than it takes to find a stamp, let alone type a letter.

Most interesting, though, is how the Web enables people who are scattered physically around the globe, who share an interest in a topic as naturally uninteresting as the economic theory behind Social Security privatization, to find one another and enjoy a gabfest. Webheads like to call this phenomenon "community." I used to think that was a little grand and a little misleading. Populist electronic conversation mech- anisms like blogs and Web bulletin boards are more about the opportunity to talk than about the opportunity to listen. But that may be true of physical communities as well.

The writer is editorial and opinion editor of the Los Angeles Times.


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