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?
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.
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!)