On Blogs, Hitchens the Heretic, and Obama Fatigue

Here’s the first entry of my first blog.

Well not exactly: I once started a blog several summers ago when I interned at The New Republic, since the other intern, now a Yale Law School grad, had one too. It seemed, I guess, like the smart thing to do. But it also seemed to keep him busy during the post-lunch haze and, to be sure, the boredom. I didn’t put much into it though. Nothing in fact — really, I don’t think I typed a single word.

But I’m a journalist now, working for a paper in New York, and it’s obvious that — even though I don’t read blogs or think much of them, let me be clear — it’s a tool any writer should have at their disposal. Even the ink dinosaurs (if you consider journalists over 30 dinosaurs) seem to have gotten in on the game. The New York Times’ food critic, Frank Bruni, now blogs thrice weekly (but don’t quote me on that; remember, I don’t read blogs.) That, of course, isn’t to mention the full-time bloggers at the Times, like the guy who writes “The Lede” or the the myriad of TimeSelect writers — Stanley Fish is my favorite — who publish online-only op-eds (a first cousin to the blog).

Before I get into what my blog will do, let me just run over a few reasons I don’t think blogs should be taken too seriously. (I’m sure these points have been made before, but I can’t say I’ve seen or heard them because, well, you know why…) For one thing, they rid the profession of the necessary intermediary — editors. An editor’s job is to keep their writers from telling lies, and to keep their writers’ reporting minimally subjective. Now, of course, no honest journalist wiil tell you their writing is wholly objective. The first thing you learn in the trade is how to write a ” story” and how to find “an angle” — both of which implicitly suggest taking a particular point of view.

And yet, no honest journalist tell you that when he, or she, (that’ll be the last time I use both genders when speaking in the third person; it’s annoying to read, and cloying) writes a story — particularly a politically charged one — that they will not hold both sides of an argument up to the same scrutiny. At least the good journalists won’t.

So what then of the blog? Well, it’s a useful source only once it is read as a purely subjective work. And one that, while hopefully not simply making stuff up, treats whole facts, ideas, debates — issues — as the touchstone from which they are built. They are op-eds adopted for the cyber age. And with that, a few nifty tricks — plug-ins, tags, replies, and so on.

My point then is that blogs have relevance only when its readers see them for what they are: opinions.

I am sure that for any serious blogger who reads this (if they ever do), this is stating the obvious. But, for me, I think stating the obvious necessary. Even God had to give Moses the Ten Commandments, lest the Hebrews forget killing people was wrong. (And still, we need reminding.)

Perhaps that’s a good segue into the first real aim of my blog, which — mostly — will take the form of a compiliation of noteworthy articles recently published online or in print (with online links). Oh, it’s a segue because the first article — articles, really, since it’s a few on the same theme — concern Christopher Hitchens new book, “God is Not Great: Religion Poisons Everything.”

Since I write mostly on arts and culture for a Jewish newspaper — but I am not, you should no, observant in any sense — this book caught my eye several months ago. I often receive press releases of forthcoming books, and since I view Hitchens with at least a small sense of curiosity, I looked forward to what he had to say about God. Not surprisingly, many others did too. Hitchens’ obvious appeal is that he’s a liberal convert to conservatism. But even that’s not quite right, or at least a little misleading. For one thing, you’ll note in this article coming out in Sunday’s NYTimes Book Review Hitchens doesn’t fit the mold of American liberals-cum-neocons.

As I see it, though I confess I’m not a die-hard Hitchens follower, he loves playing the paradox. One of his books, you might know, is titled “Notes to a Young Contrarian.” His “conservatism” isn’t so much in the politically ideological sense, but in the romantic one. He’s British, he likes many of its traditions, and he likes playing their debonair sophisticate. He’s conservative ideas — like arguing that women aren’t funny (though “conservative” may be a misnomer here, since that’s just sexist) — manifests only when little is at stake. So what. Feminists will get mad. Most won’t care (in fact, a few women might even find it sexy). But no intifadas will be started here.

And yet, judging by this exerpt on Slate — a liberal online-only magazine — from his new book he seems to invite one. In this exerpt, about the false beginnings of Islam, Hitchens shows no mercy for Muhammad or his minions. He reviews the well-established scholarly thesis on Islam, which concedes that its founding prophet was no more than a politician and commander — that was after, of course, a less successful career as an iliterate merchant — who fused together parts of Christianity and Judaism to create a religion all his own. The purpose, Hitchens’ and many scholars deduce, was to unite warring nomadic Arab tribes who felt the Christian empire — Byzantine, I believe, at this point in the 7th century A.D. — wholly alien and solipsistic, which it was. The Arabs needed a unifying and ethno-centric ideology, and they found it in Muhammad’s divine revelations.

And so, Hitchens writes, this gets at one of the fundamental probelms with all religion: it is man-made. For more on this, and a general overview of the other reasons (three others, specifically) that make religion not only silly, but “poisoness,” read the first exerpt on Slate’s website by Hitchens.

Before I go to bed, let me mention a few others articles I think noteworthy. One comes from last week’s New Yorker, a profile of Barack Obama.

It paints a good picture of the media’s favorite man — the main thing I took away was that while Obama’s incredibly erudite, he speaks plainly to the common folk, making him a true novelty in his ability to compress big ideas for those less meaty of mind. Better still, he listens. Or at least pretends too.

But, still, I think the best profile written of him so far is from a month or so ago in The New Republic, by Ryan Lizza (David Brooks, writing in the NYTimes, also gave the article a nod when it first appeared). I’m too lazy to dig it up now, but its central point was that though Obama is often criticized for his political inexperience, he may in fact be the most politically seasoned candidate out there. He made his chops as a political organizer in the South Side of Chicago, many already know, and much of that work depended on the sociological study of grassroots movements by Saul Ansky, a pre-eminent Univ. of Chicago sociologist. Obama’s job, Lizza writes, was getting things done through grassroots politics. Few presidential aspirants — Hillary Clinton comes first to mind — can say that they’ve got much in the name of that kind of experience.

Both that article, and this New Yorker one, employ the same underlying tactic: take the common Obama narrative — he’s inexperienced, he’s too smart — and turn it on it’s head. Both succeed, but I think all the media focus on Obama may come back to hurt him right when he needs it most. The Obama campaign, from what I’ve seen, loves courting reporters to the point where he makes the Bush administration look like a bunch of cloistered Rapunzels. It isn’t so much that Obama’s story is such an intriguing one (I needn’t go over the details) but that he loves displaying them so. From what I gather, he’s the only presidential candidate — Republican or Democratic — who gives reporters the amount of face-time they’d be more than happy to get with their own families. The question is how long the media can sustain this love-affair.

That’s all for now. It’s late, I’m tired, and I haven’t even touched the other articles I was hoping on reading tonight.



4 responses to “On Blogs, Hitchens the Heretic, and Obama Fatigue

  1. Maty Herschthal

    dear e,
    LOVE your blog…..i will read it RELIGIOUSLY!
    proud ma

  2. solipistic? perhaps i’ll need a dictionary when reading your blog, but rest assured you now have atleast 1 blogger friend! awesome. i feel smarter already.

  3. It’s like my brother whispered to me in Arabic in Steamboat…”He’s a smart mother….”

    Gimme some mo’,

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