June 27, 2004

Intellectual Virtu

Matthew Yglesias is worried and upset that in his business shrillness and sloppiness are key elements of virtu--that is, that they are key means to prominence, influence, and authority:

The Dialectic of Inaccuracy: ...we have a systemic bias in our media culture that rewards people who make over-the-top and/or inaccurate attacks on their political opponents. To take myself as an example, early on during my Prospect career I came across a Rich Lowry article on NRO unfairly castigating Bill Clinton's anti-terror policies. I responded with a Tapped post that, among other things, noted that if anyone was ignoring terrorism in the 1990s, it was The National Review. Normally, things would have just ended there. Fortunately for me, however, the post contained a factual error that, while not crucial to the argument, was a really clear case of error.

As a result, Lowry had a good hook to write a column in response to my post, noting the error and suggesting that the argument as a whole was every bit as slipshod as the one assertion. I then wrote a counter-response column, apologizing for the error, noting some problems with Lowry's argument, and making the (entirely correct) case that my point stood on the merits despite my mistake. The result was many readers for things I'd done and, in general, a raising of my profile.

Similarly, my "stab in the back" column employed some deliberately provocative rhetoric that was not, strictly speaking, essential to the point I was trying to make. As a result, at least one of the targets of my column, along with several fellow-travelers of the targets, took umbrage and wrote outraged blog posts in reply. Not only did I then get to reply, but several of my fellow travelers wrote posts (with links) backing me up. Traffic and notoriety, again, went up in a way that was to my benefit.

By contrast, I've written many, many, measured and (in my humble opinion) totally unimpeachable attacks on various folks out there that have simply died on the vine. The trouble is that when you write something really good, in the sense of being sober, on-point, factual, and tightly argued, your targets would do well to simply ignore you. And so they do. Maybe a person or two will recommend the story to their friends, but basically it vanished into the HTML ether. Something sloppy, offensive, over-the-top, or in some minor way inaccurate, by contrast, will provoke a flood of responses. If you're lucky, those responses will, themselves, be someone sloppy, and folks start defending you. Then you find yourself in the midst of a minor contretemps, and everyone gets more readers...

Correctness, in a whole variety of ways, doesn't pay.

In some ways, he is two years' late in his recognition. Virginia Postrel wrote something very similar fully fifteen dog-years ago:

Dynamist.com: The Scene (vpostrel.com) for week of 5/20/02: ...FACTS OF LIFE: Eric Olsen at Tres Producers has raised a minor ruckus by noticing that Andrew Sullivan almost never links to other bloggers and generally fails to give credit where it's due. Eric might have also noted that Andrew is the rare blogger who never identifies readers who send him letters, regardless of what those readers might wish. (Obviously, some would prefer to be anonymous. But they're almost certainly a minority.) A single byline keeps the focus on the Main Man. It's a savvy media strategy.

This is the way the professional media world is. You become prominent, first and foremost, by knowing the right people and then, secondarily, by attacking or crediting people more prominent than yourself. (They stay prominent by not responding to you by name, a tactic well-honed by neocon intellectuals who almost never identify, much less quote, the objects of their criticism. Exhibit A: Francis Fukuyama.) If you must mention someone less prominent than you are, make sure it is someone much less well known, so you can be recognized for your wide reading or noblesse oblige.

In short: Promote your friends. Mention your (more famous) mentors. But don't be a fool. There is no career-enhancing reason ever to cite someone who might prove a competitor, make a cogent argument against you, or get credit for an idea you could have claimed. Andrew Sullivan is so good at this strategy that he probably doesn't even realize he's following it. (Maybe it's in the water at Harvard or TNR. Then how do you explain Mickey Kaus? He doesn't do this stuff.--ed. Mickey's a mutant whose nice-guy genes will eventually ruin his career.) I can't fault a talented writer who plays by the rules, and that's what Andrew does, brilliantly. [Posted 5/21.]

Matthew has, however, added an important new wrinkle to what I call the Devil's Handbook of Webpersonship: bait those higher on the food chain than you into counterattacking by committing a clear (but minor) solecism in your original up-the-food-chain attack. That way those higher up can be lured into thinking that a quick counterattack will be easy and reputation-preserving--but they will, of course, be wrong!

And Matt does leave out a great deal. Most of the time people like him really are engaged in a common search for truth in company with people of goodwill who recognize the value of a diversified intellectual portfolio. It is only some of the time--a relatively small part of the time--that they is engaged in reputation-building ideological police actions against those higher in the link-and-prominence food chain. Even when they are engaged in webpersonship (or its dead-tree or TV equivalent), they will spend much of their time giving a hand up the food chain to potential allies who are currently lower-ranked. Finding smart people with good points who deserve better notice--and making sure they get that notice--is one of the joys of life.

Nevertheless, the lessons that Matt and Virginia have identified are important and disturbing lessons: let nobody imagine that the world of commentary is in any better shape than the world of news reporting.

Posted by DeLong at June 27, 2004 10:02 PM | TrackBack | | Other weblogs commenting on this post
Comments

The funeral speeches in *Julius Caesar* show that Shakespeare was aware of the problem. Brutus' speech is a well-constructed, dignified justification of tyrrannicide. Mark Antony's response is cheap rabble-rousing - but it's the one we can't forget.

Posted by: JamesW on June 28, 2004 12:10 AM

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I guess I know why no one responds to me now ~

Posted by: Rob Sperry on June 28, 2004 12:57 AM

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The obvious course is to bate your opponent, and while at it make an obvious mistake (the dumber the opponent, the more obvious the mistake must be) that doesn't undermine your argument. This may lead your opponent to carry on in a loud way about you. Rush Limbaugh seems to have gotten this idea down pat some time ago, and has the added advantage that, to his faithful listeners, there is no error he could make that they would find damaging to his argument.

Posted by: kharris on June 28, 2004 04:35 AM

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"The obvious course is to bate your opponent, and while at it make an obvious mistake (the dumber the opponent, the more obvious the mistake must be) that doesn't undermine your argument."

There's an old Usenet term to describe this - it's called "trolling" ...
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Posted by: Abiola Lapite on June 28, 2004 04:45 AM

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Might have known that Abiola Lapite could offer the textbook definition and etiology of that term.

The web, like the Red River used to be, is a mile wide, and about six inches deep.

Posted by: serial catowner on June 28, 2004 05:59 AM

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The principle also holds for academic promotion at lesser institutions.

Posted by: Knut Wicksell on June 28, 2004 06:19 AM

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...an I offered a perfect, though minor, example by choosing the wrong spelling of "bait" wouldn't ya know.

Posted by: kharris on June 28, 2004 06:28 AM

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On "committing a clear (but minor) solecism in your original"

note that Brad later writes:

"that they is engaged in reputation-building"

This kind of sloppy English is of course what we have come to expect from Brad DeLong; it indicates a lazy mind and reflects the impoverished thinking behind his misguided web-essays; clearly with Ben Jonson we can say of Brad:

"Neither can his Mind be thought to be in Tune, whose words do jarre; nor his Reason in Frame, whose Sentence is preposterous."

Posted by: Brian on June 28, 2004 06:28 AM

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I expressed this idea somewhat differently many months ago: "Everyone hates me because I'm right all the time".

No one disagreed, so it must have been true.

Posted by: zizka / John Emerson on June 28, 2004 07:07 AM

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Keynes of course played this gambit in the General Theory.

When he circulated copies of it among his confidants he got complaints from them about how he was unfairly misrepresenting Pigou personally and also rather exaggerating the whole business about Say's law.

To which JMK replied, yes, yes, that may be true but:

"I expect a great deal of what I write to be water off a duck's back unless I am sufficiently strong in my criticisms to force the classicists to make rejoinders.

"I *want*, so to speak, to raise a dust, because it is only out of the controversy that will arise that what I am saying will be heard."
[Keynes's emphasis.]

Posted by: Jim Glass on June 28, 2004 08:01 AM

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"Fortunately for me, however, the post contained a factual error that, while not crucial to the argument, was a really clear case of error.

"As a result, Lowry had a good hook to write a column in response to my post, noting the error and suggesting that the argument as a whole was every bit as slipshod as the one assertion."

Maybe commentators should add errors intentionally and pre-register corrections. You'd need a cryptographically secure timestamp (is there any such animal? I guess with a centralized key-broker) to show that the error was intentional. Then you get your viewpoint unwittingly disseminated by those attacking the error (which is inconsequential to the the thrust of the argument). One the issue is famous, you produce the correct, impeccably argued commentary that you intended all along. Gotcha!

Supposedly, cartographers add intentionally spurious labels on maps to track plagiarism. So the idea of intentional errors is not totally unprecedented.

Of course, if the practice of adding erroneous assertions became widespread, it might discourage nitpick attacks (or might make attacks unreadably qualified if they have to take into account the idea that the error was intentional).

Posted by: Paul Callahan on June 28, 2004 09:25 AM

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I feel obliged to note that Andrew Sullivan is far, far more likely to link to, and even to promote, other, less-well-known bloggers today than he was when I wrote that post. Criticism does sometimes work.

Posted by: Virginia Postrel on June 28, 2004 10:13 AM

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This is nothing shocking-- anybody who spent time on Usenet should recall that the fastest way to find information on the Internet is to post something wrong, and within minutes a hundred geeks will respond with corrections.

Posted by: Chad Orzel on June 28, 2004 10:22 AM

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"This kind of sloppy English is of course what we have come to expect from Brad DeLong; it indicates a lazy mind and reflects the impoverished thinking behind his misguided web-essays"

Brian, you are getting the order of the "food-chain" wrong.

Posted by: konrad on June 28, 2004 11:13 AM

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Analytic philosophy, Matt's formal specialization, plays this game in a big way. "Let's suppose that our bodies don't exist, but that we're just brains in bottles".

That certainly is provocative enough. There's no reason at all to believe that it is true, and there are good physiological reasons to believe that it's not possible (see Damasio or Varela), but the burden of proof is on whomever doesn't believe it.

Posted by: zizka / John Emerson on June 28, 2004 01:28 PM

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Yeah, the phenomenon is pretty obvious. My wife is always telling me I don't leave enough of an opening in any of my blog posts, but I refuse to listen (although I know it's only one of several things holding me back, the main thing being that I'm a dabbler in too many things and an expert in none). Maybe this is a rationalization, but I have little interest in playing games. Besides, I already have a pretty good career unrelated to writing, and plus I largely treat my blog as a way of organizing and recording my thoughts moreso than as a means to an end or an avenue to proselytize.

But if we want to raise the level of the debate in the blogosphere and make it a better vehicle for exploring issues, this tendency of rewarding errors and punishing correctness is an important issue that has to be addressed. I'm not sure how, but it might be a start to somehow make sure every A-List blogger has inline comments and trackback pings (perhaps standardizing a sytem such that the best ones float to the top, maybe something like what Slashdot has).

And we have to create a strong disincentive for ignoring strong opponents and counter-arguments, a tactic I've also commonly seen on many message boards, nevermind the real-world political arena.

Posted by: fling93 on June 28, 2004 04:21 PM

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Virginia Postrel:

> Eric might have also noted that Andrew is
> the rare blogger who never identifies readers
> who send him letters, regardless of what
> those readers might wish.

Eric might have noted that, but then he would be lying:

(From sullywatch.blogspot.com/2003_12_21_sullywatch_archive.html)

> Tomorrow we will greet Sullivan's awards
> with one of our own ... The Andrew Sullivan
> Victim of the Year 2003, given to that
> person most injured or done unfairly by
> The Blog Queen's hit-and-run character
> assassinations masquerading as journalism.
> We also hereby greatly retroactively announce
> the winner of the Andrew Sullivan Victim of
> the Year for 2002, by way of illustrating
> the point ... Yale University history
> professor Glenda Gillmor, who, in response
> to an award nomination of some type for
> something she wrote about Bush in the Yale
> Daily News, wrote our boy a snotty email.
> In direct contradiction to the policy posted
> at the time on his letters page, which stated
> that all emails were anonymous unless
> specifically indicated as being for
> publication, and several previous condemnations
> of journalists who had done similar things,
> he posted it. Gillmor told us the fallout,
> in terms of abuse and vituperation directed
> at her as a result, was so bad that even
> though she was advised she had a legal
> case against him, she just wanted to put
> it behind her and not sue. The only
> noticeable result on andrewsullivan.com
> was that the letters page now advised that
> letters be clearly indicated as such, as
> a result of all the nosing around we did
> about this for a long post we never quite
> got to the form we were comfortable with
> publishing.

This may have happened after Postrel's blog post, but it still makes it clear that she's not a very good judge of character: "I can't fault a talented writer who plays by the rules, and that's what Andrew does, brilliantly."

Posted by: anonymous on June 28, 2004 06:52 PM

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Daer Dan Savage,

How do you tell Hitchens and Sullivan apart? Which one is gay, and which one is alcoholic? They both have something to do with Orwell, right? What is it exactly? Can either one of them be deported, and how? Have they ever been seen together in the same room? Do they wear similiar cute outfits? What does Hitchens do with his hot throbbing gristle?

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