Other Responses to Tim Rutten

A number of other interesting, thoughtful responses to Tim Rutten’s Los Angeles Times piece comparing bloggers to nineteenth century pamphleteers, in a less than favorable light. Thanks to Ken Layne I found Rand Simberg’s pithy take—he too takes an interest in the pamphleteers. And you’ve got the noteworthy blogs of Mickey Kaus, Rutten’s primary target, Matt Welch, and the Instapundit, Professor Glen Reynolds, who points out how idiotic the Registration scheme at L. A. Times is.

Blogging and Nineteenth Century Pamphlets

Doc Searls points to this journalistic gem from Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times. You need to register to experience the full joy of Rutten’s “To Err Is Human, but to Think Out Loud,” but the meat of his assertion is this bit:

bloggers are basically a narcissistic throwback to an easily recognizable American type, the 19th century cranks who turned out mountains of self-published pamphlets.

The cranks had all sorts of idiosyncratic preoccupations—single tax schemes, silver-backed currency, vegetarianism and the metaphysical benefits of healthy bowels, for example.

I pontificated earlier about journalists not knowing their own history. Clearly, some of them don’t really know nineteenth century literature either. Let’s take a closer look at those nineteenth century pamphleteers, shall we?

There’s that crank Thoreau, with his nutty pamphlet “On Civil Disobedience,” or that goofy Twain guy writing about the abuses of King Leopold in the Congo (1905 is twentieth century, technically, but still . . .), or that goofy Victorian Thomas Carlyle. Aside from scholarly obsessions with nineteenth century pamphlets as primary source documents about the lives and thoughts of everyday cranks as well as the hundreds of household names who were engineers, theologians, artists, poets, essayists, abolitionists and feminists, it’s important to realize that pamphlets were published because they were popular. People, all kinds of people, read and wrote them. Sure, there were “cranks,” but the vast majority of authors were quite serious, and were perceived that way. The pamphlets were written often enough by “names” to have inspired one of the most successful and expensive literary forgery operations ever, largely executed by one Thomas J. Wise.

As a put-down, comparing bloggers to nineteenth century pamphleteers is less than effective, since so much of the intellectual life of the era was carried out via pamphlets, their publication in turn encouraged by the extensive correspondence between the authors, ultimately leading to several “schools” like the Transcendentalists in New England and the Tractarians in England. Both groups were strongly influenced by Milton, an avid pampleteer in the seventeenth century (writing, among other pamplets, Areopagitica on the freeedom of the press). Bloggers could do far worse in their search for a literary ancestor.

Warblogs, Tekkies, Journalists

The first attestation that I can find of “warblog,” or its suffixed forms “warblogger, warblogging” is in Matt Welch’s 9/18/2001 3:06 post, where he uses the form “war blog.” Welch essentially defines war blog in his introduction to the sub-site he titles War Blog: “discussion of the crisis triggered by the Sept. 11 massacre.” The term war blog and its related forms have evolved to mean a web blog inspired by the events of September 11, 2001, whether or not the blog is itself primarily about September 11, or war. In general such blogs do tend to be overtly political. Dave Winer has published his own definition here.

I’ve already posted about the derivation of “tekkie” or “techie” from the same Indo-European root that gives us both text and technology, and a host of other related words. I find the term “tekkie” somewhat offensive. I’ve certainly had it applied to me by academics who should know better; it is, I suppose, marginally better than the other term I often hear—”computer person.” It is in part those attitudes that inspired me to describe myself as a digital medievalist.

The nascent controversy between “war” bloggers and “tekkies,” is, as I’ve indicated previously, somewhat half-witted in concept, and would appear to have been constructed by journalists who do not understand the history of their own profession.

Theirs is a profession born from the union of technology, in the form of the printing press, and war. People needed a way to communicate news efficiently over great distance, more efficiently than a single town crier or herald, or Irish bard carrying scela or “tidings,” could do. Within 25 years of Gutenberg’s press one-sheets crudely printed with the latest scoop (based on a letter) about Columbus were circulating in Barcelona before Columbus arrived there. America’s first newspaper was largely a source of war news and gossip, much like those in Europe. At first news items were culled from private correspondence and day-books, or journals; later publishers contracted with travelers for detailed correspondence to be “repurposed” and printed in the newspaper. In a sense then, web blogs are a return to the roots of journalism.