On September 23, 2004, I opened an account on the blog creating site Blogger and wrote my first post for a site I named “Right Wing Nuthouse.” I called it that not because I was a right wing nut but as a tongue in cheek riposte to left wing critics I had done battle with online. I used to be a prolific commenter on blogs both right and left and thought that a little wry humor at the expense of liberals was perfectly in keeping with the tone I wanted to set for the blog.
It was a silly little post, that first one. It was about the big story at the time — the blogs vs. Dan Rather. Now, more than 3,700 posts later, I celebrate the 8th anniversary of RWNH with mixed feelings.
Originally, I thought that the blog would help me get noticed and promote my writing which would, in turn, allow me to make a living as a writer. In this, the blog has helped exceed my wildest expectations. While not strictly a writer, today I am writing for two websites as well as editing content for both. It’s been a strange journey from nameless blogger to (a still relatively nameless) successful writer. I harbor no illusions about my notoriety and whatever fame I’ve achieved has been as a conservative heretic rather than the wise old conservative sage I was hoping to be.
No matter. The right wing (I refuse to refer to most of them as “conservative”) is oblivious to their own heresy and have embraced an ideology that is rigid, anti-intellectual, anti-science, and self-destructive. It is an incoherent riot of conceits that is proudly bigoted, illogical, and bereft of new ideas. In fact, it is an unthinking, emotive ideology terrified of change, locked in a worldview that displays far more of the past than any vision for the future.
But I am the apostate, so go figure.
But while this blog has not given me exactly what I wanted as a public outlet for my writing, the returns on using my blog as a means to explore the inner workings of my mind have been extraordinary. I’m sure that sounds grandiose and a little inflated, but it’s true. One of my father’s favorite quotes was from Francis Bacon: “Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.” Starting a blog (or as it used to be referred to, a “journal”) radically sharpened my thinking. I was forced to confront the shallowness of much of my ideology and justify the basic intellectual premises I had relied on for many years. I found that what I had believed to have been rock solid assumptions undergirding my ideology dissipated in the fire of real inquiry — which included the unheard of notion that reading intelligent writing from both sides opened entirely new vistas and challenged my thinking on a wide variety of issues.
You can’t do this by reading right wing blogs. Julian Sanchez’s writing on this subject influenced me greatly:
One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!)
This epistemic closure can be a source of solidarity and energy, but it also renders the conservative media ecosystem fragile. Think of the complete panic China’s rulers feel about any breaks in their Internet firewall: The more successfully external sources of information have been excluded to date, the more unpredictable the effects of a breach become. Internal criticism is then especially problematic, because it threatens the hermetic seal. It’s not just that any particular criticism might have to be taken seriously coming from a fellow conservative. Rather, it’s that anything that breaks down the tacit equivalence between “critic of conservatives and “wicked liberal smear artist” undermines the effectiveness of the entire information filter. If disagreement is not in itself evidence of malign intent or moral degeneracy, people start feeling an obligation to engage it sincerely—maybe even when it comes from the New York Times. And there is nothing more potentially fatal to the momentum of an insurgency fueled by anger than a conversation.
The level of vitriol leveled against Sanchez for this penetrating observation was remarkable. And while I had already broken with most right wingers by criticizing what I call “cotton candy conservatives” like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and especially Glenn Beck, I suddenly realized, after reading the series of essays Sanchez published on epistemic closure, that I no longer marched in lock step. I was a different kind of conservative — or I was a real conservative and the rest were just right wing nuts. I haven’t quite decided which is true yet. Perhaps a little of both.
This site has allowed me to explore what some philosophers refer to as “the examined life” — a look inward at one’s most closely held and cherished assumptions, taking them out to hold up to the light of day, and then justifying their place as morally and philosophically true.
As I’ve said many times, I am no intellectual. And I have not been as rigorous as I should have been in my explorations. But I was struck again and again how I was forced to alter some of my beliefs — sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically — because I had opened my mind to alternative viewpoints. Those who view the world through a black and white prism are missing a lot. It may be advantageous politically to maintain a rigid ideological worldview that doesn’t stray far from the thinking of the tribe. But it was never enough for me, which I suppose has been my undoing.
If “Reading maketh a full man” in the sense that it helps one round out their thinking and give one a complete picture, then I have been well served by my curiosity. And if “writing maketh an exact man,” my curiosity has been mostly satisfied by trying to live an examined life.
I see now I would be a much different man if I hadn’t started this blog. Whatever muse was sitting on my shoulder urging me onward, I will always be grateful.