Comment is Free

[A series of articles reviewing blogs and websites on my blog-roll.]

In the recent Webby awards the Guardian Comment is Free political blog got beaten by the Huffington Post. This I think shouldn’t surprise anyone with any knowledge of the relative traffic of the two sites, the awards being based on a poll of readers. I read both sites heavily and they are completely different, and offer an interesting contrast between two media cultures.

One of the things I love about the (good) American commentary is just how refined and intelligent it is. I chalk this down to a nation that was founded on idealism and still take ideas very seriously in certain circles, hence the number of Atlantic blogs on my blogroll. This is best seen in the wonderful bloggingheads.tv, where you can see liberals like Jacob Weisenberg can chewing the fat with neoconservatives like David Frum, and it is soo civilised and very civilising.

One of my favourite bloggers is Matt Yglesias at the Atlantic but he likes his politics partisan (while backing Obama) and looks across the Atlantic appreciatively at the ‘shrill’ political discourse in the UK. In one sense I am horrified—for years I have been horrified at how nihilistic UK politics is, the commentators seemingly not at all interested in the ideas but merely the game—see how Observer columnist Andrew Rawnsley, one of the most respected political pundits in the UK assesses the return of Labour to power in 2005 or anticipates Prime Minister Blair passing a decade in power. What struck me about both assessments was how much winning the political game seemed to be the end in itself. I despaired of this in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher and have done so no less in the 1980s under New Labour.

Of course people do discuss political ideas in the UK and playing the political game is a factor in the US—but there seems to be a larger space for talking about ideas in thoughtful American discourse than its British counterpart. To give you an example, most people in the UK associate retail/workers/housing cooperatives with the left, being associated with the Rochdale Pioneers, social justice and the Labour party. Various thinking Tories have become interested in cooperatives recently, and it is obvious to me because of my familiarity of the American political scene that they are at least as compatible with the Libertarian Right and would match Cameron’s ideas of empowering communities and small government very well, yet the standard reaction is to sneer at the Conservatives’ blatant opportunistic attempts to repackage themselves.

In the UK political prism, the Labour Party stands for social justice—taking power off the rich and giving it to the poor—and the Conservatives are all about preserving the status quo—keeping the rich rich, and the poor poor. Cooperatives are about empowering poor people, ergo David Cameron is trying to fool poor people that he cares about them so that they will vote for him. Silly them, as David Cameron really only wants their votes so he can get into power to safeguard the interests of his rich and powerful kin. This is the narrative that dominates the great majority of the pundit class (and seemingly everyone else). It is very cynical, very zero-sum, and, frankly, very British. (And for me anyhow, very depressing.)

But wait! Yglesias has a point. Apart from the fact that I have been exaggerating the differences for the sake of emphasis, there is an interesting flip side. If you look at the Huffington Post—the winner of the Webby awards, it has a galaxy of heavy-weight pundits churning out their silky stuff, but it overwhelmingly sticks to a rather narrow band of the political spectrum—never mind being liberal and Democratic, nearly all of it has been pulling for Obama. And every comment that you leave on the comment articles gets moderated and, it is safe to say, must remain polite and respectful (far more so than even the writers of the articles) to make its way onto the site. I think I can safely say that I have never been challenged by a single thought in any of the articles or comment threads I have read on the Huffington Post. Tons of intelligent, elegant and insightful commentary for sure, but never challenged. They just don’t publish articles that try to challenge or take readers out of their liberal comfort zones and I am not aware of any blog fights that have taken place on the Huffington Post (though they must have happened).

Comment is Free is not like this. I doubt if there is a line of thought that isn’t being pursued and vigorously contested whether it is from the leader of Hamas or Israel’s ambassador in London, whether it is arguments about religion, abortion, neoconservatism, liberal interventionism, science, evolution, a strict separation of church and state, the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, you will see hot-button issues being vigorously debated, with ongoing blog wars between different writers and between writers and their commentators, with many of the bloggers do come off their perches and engage in vigorous debate below the line. And some of the established columnists for the news paper have shown signs of taking account of what the bloggers have been saying on important issues (and we were dead right, as the US intelligence agencies later confirmed).

I can’t put my finger on it, but in some ways I suspect that this also reflects the mainstream political discourse in both countries to some degree. Certain jarring, challenging ideas, such as the Reverend Wrights’s ‘chickens coming home to roost’ (also vigorously pursued by Ron Paul in the Republican Primaries), seem to have a more prominent place in the UK discourse. So there you have it, the refined intelligent Americans versus the rather uncouth, more direct Europeans, with each leading to a debilitating narrowness.

Memo To Georgina

I hear that Georgina Henry is working on Comment is Free 2.0. I hope the improvements you are making don’t disrupt the relationship between the bloggers and the commentators. I have noticed that some blogsites have decided to present the threads in reverse order, with the most recent comment placed last, so that each commentator can see their comment appear for a few moments before getting buried under the new arrivals. While this may allow the commentator’s vanity a momentary flutter of gratification it is hardly going to encourage serious debate, which requires comments to be presented in order to allow a coherent the discussion to develop.

I have seen others suggest that those that write blogs should be expected to respond, and that it may be better to deny the ability to comment on threads where the commentator has no intention of responding in order to avoid the disappointment of dashed expectations. I think this is a big mistake. The principal expectation when I read an article on Cif is that I be allowed to respond to what I am reading. There should be no compulsion in blogging! it is a childish idea that someone should be under an obligation to respond to your comments (which doesn’t stop some bloggers believing that there is such an obligation). While it is pleasing to see someone taking the time to engage I don’t see why there should be an obligation. However to find that I have read an article on Cif that I can’t respond to feels all wrong (and, of course, the newspaper columnists should continue to appear on Cif).

Good luck with the revamp. Whatever you do will inevitably be accompanied by a chorus of winging–but you know that. (Which reminds me of an Aussie friend who wanted his British friends to know how they always knew that the British Airways flight has landed in Sydney—when the engines were turned off they could still here the whining.)

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