Pundits and Pamphleteers?

Hoping to demonstrate he knows as little about eighteenth-century writers as he does about politics, Mr. George Will, Rent-A-Pundit, makes a few boo-boos. Mr. Will feels that he must defend “geniuses” like Tom Paine or Ben Franklin against a Time magazine editor’s over-hasty comparison of their work to contemporary bloggers. Here is Will’s description of his rabble-rousing heroes:

Franklin’s extraordinary persona informed what he wrote but was not the subject of what he wrote. Paine was perhaps history’s most consequential pamphleteer. There are expected to be 100 million bloggers worldwide by the middle of 2007, which is why none will be like Franklin or Paine. Both were geniuses; genius is scarce. Both had a revolutionary civic purpose, which they accomplished by amazing exertions. . . . There are expected to be 100 million bloggers worldwide by the middle of 2007… none will be like Franklin or Paine. Both were geniuses; genius is scarce…. Most bloggers have the private purpose of expressing themselves for their own satisfaction. There is nothing wrong with that, but there is nothing demanding or especially admirable about it, either…. George III would have preferred dealing with 100 million bloggers rather than one Paine [emphasis mine]

And as one bemused blogger responded:

There are a great number of things wrong with this analysis, not the least of which is Will apparently having no real familiarity with the political blogs having the kind of impact that bothers him so much. (Honestly, can anyone name an influential political blogger who uses his or her site to share their life and personal experiences? And if not, why is Will troubled by the phenomenon?)

For that matter, why on earth would the number of bloggers have any relevance to the quality of individual writers? There will be 100 million bloggers, “which is why none will be like Franklin or Paine”? To be sure, Franklin and Paine had less “competition,” as it were, but the light of blogging geniuses is no less bright because of their colleagues.

And as for Franklin’s persona not having been “the subject of what he wrote,” Will is aware that Franklin wrote one of the most celebrated autobiographies in American history, is he not?

http://www.thecarpetbaggerreport.com/archives/9413.html

Even setting aside the dismissal of political bloggers (who bug him with what, pictures of their kids at the playground? their cats? their ads for Bush Sucks! teeshirts?), Will seems completely ignorant of the nature of the eighteenth-century pamphleteering he “defends.” As one respondent to the flap noted on yet another blog:

George III didn’t have to deal with millions of bloggers but the British government of the time did have to deal with dozens to hundreds of antagonistic Colonial and British pamphleteers, most of whom were hardly geniuses. The individual impact of any one of these pamphlets was small but the cumulative impact was considerable and played a major role in setting the stage for the American Revolution. This story, among other things, is told well in Bailyn’s seminal The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Bailyn relied mainly on the extensive pamphlet literature as the primary sources for this first rate book. The comparison between pamphleteering and blogging is not ridiculous and Will is revealing his ignorance of a basic feature of the American Revolution.

http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2006/12/why_oh_why_cant_6.html#comments

As representatives of both the blogging and the eighteenth-century community, I think we should all chip in to send George Will a used copy of the Autobiography, to see if he can find some mention of Benjamin Franklin in his Autobiography.

Best wishes, and happy atheistical/deistical holidays! (h/t to Tom & Ben, wherever you are!)

Dave

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3 responses to “Pundits and Pamphleteers?

  1. Thanks for calling our attention to this, Dave. I would even go a step further and say that another thing political bloggers and C18 political pamphleteers have in common is the effect they have on changing the conceptual relationship between the governed populace and the state. While the state still relies on oratory and documents that speak declaratively in the name of the people, the political documents created by the governed are acts of constant re-narration. That is, while George III and his representatives say, “We are those who govern and you, as the governed, must submit,” Paine’s Common Sense narrates the downfall of the relationship between the state and the governed in a way that makes that relationship intolerable. They speak in two different rhetorical modes.

    The best political bloggers of any party have done much the same thing. They describe and narrate the failures and successes of the state in ways that most of the reading populace is powerless to do for themselves, creating a public that is forced to recognize the irrelevance of the call to subservience to the state apparatus. What matters is not whether we submit, but the narratives we find resonant with our experience of the state.

    Additionally, I’d add that the effectiveness of pro-revolutionary pamphlets was their success in enlisting actual bodies willing to war against the state (at least among those who had access to pamphlets, who could read or be read to, mostly in urban centers). Americans are not likely to answer a call to arms against the state now, especially as our state apparatus is nearer by than England and obsessed with wiping out violent dissent. (The state pretends, when it wants to, that it IS the people, and so any attack against the government is terrorism.) But one success of the political bloggers is their ability to mobilize the critical faculties of readers in the face of the repetitive, declarative utterances of the state. The state can’t hide its movements as well from a populace who constantly demands a narrative that meets its experience.

  2. Carrie sez:

    The best political bloggers of any party have done much the same thing. They describe and narrate the failures and successes of the state in ways that most of the reading populace is powerless to do for themselves, creating a public that is forced to recognize the irrelevance of the call to subservience to the state apparatus. What matters is not whether we submit, but the narratives we find resonant with our experience of the state.

    The book that got me thinking about this issue was Michael Warner’s Publics and Counterpublics, and I think that the whole issue of public-formation is crucial for the historical parallels we’re drawing here. Warner’s point is that the public cannot simply coincide with the state or its interests, because it draws its legitimacy from its connection with the virtual community it helps to call into being.

    George Will, in his own lame way, seems to recognize that it is the collectivity of the bloggers that threatens elites like his own the most, because the bloggers override the privileged access to the public that he’s had for many years.

    Will’s recourse to a language of individualistic genius, bizarre in the case of both Franklin and Paine, is a bit of bluffing that simply asserts the irrelevance of the massed responses to his really crappy writing. I wonder how many have corrected his “oversight” on the Washington Post, already?

    No one thought much of Wilkes, either, at the beginning, but the point was that the creation of these publics through massed Opposition pamphleteering legitimized discussions that led to new thinking about the state and the empire. That’s how events as momentous as the American revolution are prepared for, even without the full understanding of the participants.

    Best,

    DM

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