Information-Age Philosopher-Kings

The award for Whiner of the Week goes to Salon’s Joan Walsh, who penned a water-carrying piece denying the disastrous launch of ObamaCare. She then hyperventilates about the response.

I wrote a piece asking liberal critics of the ACA’s Web problems to take a larger perspective, and not rush to join the [semi-expurgated obscene word] of conservatives declaring the entire program a failure….

And then all hell broke loose. This is the story of what happens when you gently criticize an icon of liberal Web journalism and suggest maybe the media ought to take a broader view of the ACA rollout. You’re derided as a purveyor of “agitprop” (thanks, Andrew Sullivan) and you’re an “Obamabot” (that’s pretty funny given my many wrangles with the president’s most ardent defenders).

Oh, and if you’re a woman? You’re also a [unexpurgated obscenity], a bitch, a hag; you’re old, fat and ugly, with bad teeth, chicken arms, 12 cats and a big unrequited crush on Ezra Klein.

So she wrote something controversial about politics and she’s shocked that she got a hostile response? Sorry, that’s life. For a political writer, there’s nothing wussier than complaining that somebody said something mean about you on the Internet.

What makes this all the more ridiculous is that Walsh herself makes a habit of using obscenities throughout her writing, as does Salon (where she was editor-in-chief for five years). And now she complains that other people are calling her obscene names. I was also struck by the fact that the specific obscenity she complains about is one that seems to be appear at least six times an hour in “Game of Thrones,” a television show highly touted in mainstream publications like—well, like Salon. As ye reap, so shall ye sow.

But mere thin-skinned personal whining is a sideshow to the more common complaint I’ve been hearing among established professional intellectuals, particularly in the era of Internet media: the complaint that the business of promoting your work, finding an audience, and figuring out how to make a living is a tedious nuisance.

Novelist Lionel Shriver complains:

Advances are down. Typically for fiction these days, my latest novel has sold roughly two (for the author, less lucrative) e-books for every hardback. Publishers are more impatient than ever—and they were never patient—with a first novel that doesn’t make a splash….

Besides, your talents are equally endangered when a book does make a splash. If you really want to write, the last thing you want to be is a success. Now that every village in the United Kingdom has its own literary festival, I could credibly spend my entire year, every year, flitting from Swindon to Peterborough to Aberdeen, jawing interminably about what I’ve already written….

I not only worry about publishing’s entire economic infrastructure imploding, as single talented voices are drowned by a populist clamor of amateurs eager to be read on the Internet for the price of a double-click. I also worry about writers of the near future who make it—only to blog, tweet, e-mail, text, and Facebook their precious time away; only to be swept up in the confoundingly elaborate architecture of appearances, celebrity profiles, website questionnaires, and photo spreads built atop the fragile foundation of a lone imagination at a desk. For scrawls in an author’s diary readily become either excuses to procrastinate or objects of justifiable resentment as competition for the solitary, reflective life that rightly constitutes the real thing.

In this article there is more than a little taste of what they call the “humblebrag“—a form of false modesty that consists of a catalog of one’s successes disguised as self-deprecating complaints.

But again, there’s more to this than just personal whining. There is a deeper premise at work, which is hinted at in the title of a New York Times piece by writer and illustrator Tim Kreider: “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!

People who would consider it a bizarre breach of conduct to expect anyone to give them a haircut or a can of soda at no cost will ask you, with a straight face and a clear conscience, whether you wouldn’t be willing to write an essay or draw an illustration for them for nothing. They often start by telling you how much they admire your work, although not enough, evidently, to pay one cent for it. “Unfortunately we don’t have the budget to offer compensation to our contributors…” is how the pertinent line usually starts. But just as often, they simply omit any mention of payment….

Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge. I now contribute to some of the most prestigious online publications in the English-speaking world, for which I am paid the same amount as, if not less than, I was paid by my local alternative weekly when I sold my first piece of writing for print in 1989….

I know there’s no point in demanding that businesspeople pay artists for their work, any more than there is in politely asking stink bugs or rhinoviruses to quit it already. It’s their job to be rapacious and shameless. But they can get away with paying nothing only for the same reason so many sleazy guys keep trying to pick up women by insulting them: because it keeps working on someone. There is a bottomless supply of ambitious young artists in all media who believe the line about exposure, or who are simply so thrilled at the prospect of publication that they’re happy to do it free of charge.

So his article is basically a call for younger competitors to stop undercutting the prices of established players and instead sit around waiting for the New York Times to give them a call.

The premise here is deeper than warmed-over middle-class Marxism or Kreider’s casual, superficial anti-capitalism. It’s a premise that goes back 2500 years, to the very birth of the “intellectual” as a profession. These complaints are just a new variation of Plato’s concept of the philosopher-king, or at least the intellectual-aristocrat. It is the old temptation of the intellectual to assert—by virtue of believing himself to be so much smarter, deeper, and more sensitive than everyone else—the privilege of being endowed with a comfortable upper-middle-class living without having to grub for it in the marketplace like some kind of peasant.

Thus, Shriver complains about “the wholesale colonization of my diary by auxiliary activities that haven’t a whit to do with the ostensibly contemplative, hermetical job of a novelist” and concludes, “I have grown perversely nostalgic for my previous commercial failure—when my focus was pure, and the books were still fun to write, even if nobody read them.”

I understand the difficulties of making a living as a writer, the many fascinating opportunities you have to work for free, and the way you sometimes have to scramble just to keep on doing the work you love. Boy, do I understand that. But this is a story that would be familiar to any other small entrepreneur. (Note to Mr. Kreider: small retailers get hit up for donations and do free promotions all the time.) This is what many intellectuals have never accepted: that they are entrepreneurs, small business owners hawking their wares in a crowded marketplace. Instead, they chase after the illusion of safety that used to come from having an aristocratic patron. In our modern age, this takes the form of a big publisher, or a rich guy who’s willing to throw part of his fortune into a money-losing website, or government grants. Since one of these modern patrons is disappearing—the old-fashioned big publisher, flush with cash—our modern intellectual-aristocrats are starting to panic.

For those of us outside of the mainstream center-left, by the way, this picture looks a little more promising, because innovations that break down barriers to entry in the media business help us bypass the self-appointed gatekeepers of the old media. Nevertheless, the age of the Internet media poses some real dilemmas that have to be solved. Those on the technology end of the Internet like to say that information wants to be free, but those of us on the content end would remind them that information wants to get paid. Pining after a supposed golden age where the deserving intellectual could live on a royal pension won’t solve those dilemmas. Instead, we should focus on taking advantage of the opportunities offered by the new technology and accept and embrace our role as scrappy entrepreneurs in the business of ideas.

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One Response to Information-Age Philosopher-Kings

  1. Ryan November 5, 2013 at 5:56 PM #

    This reminds me of what Ayn Rand wrote about PBS. It’s the endless crusade from the left to create a class of elite propagandists that live on taxpayer largesse. I see a pattern here: when a leftist dictatorship is born, the intellectuals are rounded up and silenced (i.e. murdered). When a leftist autocrat is elected (Barack Obama), the intellectual class (meaning like-minded leftists) is enshrined, given a seat at the head of the table. Entire new bureaucracies are created just so these enlightened comrades have a steady paycheck.