TCS Daily

The Blogosphere and the Pajamaheddin

By Frederick Turner - September 21, 2004 12:00 AM

A week or two before the issue of the supposed National Guard memos on President Bush's military service came up, I speculated on this site about the emergence of a new cyber-public in response to the discrediting of many of the traditional news media. Luck made me a prophet: the exposure of the memos as forgeries was a textbook example of what I had been talking about.

Minutes after the hapless CBS had thrown its nicely aged "evidence" up on the screen, the bloggers were at work. Little Green Footballs and Power Line took the lead. The venerable Instapundit quarterbacked. Drudge provided communications with the mainstream; the incomparable Lileks played a witty and sardonic prose obbligato, and your own TCS gave in-depth analysis. In a few hours the web had flushed out dozens of first-rate information sources: witnesses to parts of the deception, legal and political experts, specialists on documents, handwriting, typewriters, computers, copiers, typefaces, military terminology, and Texas National Guard history -- and insiders of all kinds. The story grew, solidified, and started to rock the political geography of the country.

Traditional journalism (usually referred to by the bloggers as the MSM -- Mainstream Media) limped behind the story. Mary Mapes, the CBS journalist who produced the unlucky 60 Minutes segment, had been working on it for five years, four years too late to smear Bush in the Bush-Gore election -- but it took the bloggers around 36 hours to track down the whole affair and to reveal the hoax at the heart of it.

What we saw was an extraordinary example of what chaos and complexity theorists call spontaneous self-organization. Out of a highly communicative but apparently chaotic medium an ordered, sensitively responsive, but robust order emerges, acting as an organism of its own. Suddenly a perfectly-matched team of specialists had self-assembled out of the ether.

The process was powered by the mighty search engine of Google, with its instantaneous access to all kinds of information and the addresses of experts to dispense it. The persuasiveness of replicable graphic experiment helped catalyze the moment of conviction: for many the decisive moment was the Little Green Footballs display of the Microsoft Word text flashed alternately upon the forged memo text. The dazzling speed and monstrous bandwidth of the information flow had crossed some kind of threshold, in which thousands of minds could act as neurons in a sort of super-intelligence -- an intelligence with not merely cognitive, but moral characteristics.

For as the story developed, something remarkable began to happen. The new community became aware of itself as a community -- the group mind, so to speak, had awakened, yawned, and seen itself in the mirror. As the various blogs, comment threads, and link systems cohered and came together, they started to recognize, exult in, and reflect upon their own power and speed, and a new tone entered the discussion. The power that the blogosphere recognized in itself was a veridical power, the power to discover the truth. Although much of the discourse was still in the jeering partisan spirit of the last weeks of an American general election, where the scoring of rhetorical points easily trumps the boring presentation of fact and logic, a new spirit of responsibility had emerged.

This spirit surfaced first among the conservative blogs -- it was easier for them to be generous to the spirit of impartial and critical analysis, since it seemed to prove their point. But some of the better left-wing blogs had already begun to see and admit that lies were being perpetrated by CBS and its sources. For them the lie was trivial, since the left still believed that the substance of the forgeries was true. But what had happened was that truth itself had begun to acquire a new value -- or perhaps to reacquire a value that had long been lost.

For the last thirty years or so academic Humanities departments throughout the country had been teaching writing through the discipline of rhetoric, based on deconstructive theories of the indeterminacy and self-destructiveness of any text. Since words can only be defined by other words, and cannot refer outside the language world to self-sufficient present realities, the only valid speech or writing was that which persuades others, and enacts the power interests of the discourse-community with the highest political ideals. The concept of truth, of the "transcendental signified," had been parsed into absurdity: everything depended on what the meaning of is is, as our former President so ingeniously put it.

Journalists in the mainstream media had imbibed these ideas with their education, and had melded them with the enthusiasm and hero-worship they had lavished on the intrepid reporters of the Watergate and Iran-Contra scandals. But in the process, fact-checking, critical editing, and sound research had all begun to erode. CNN had been caught cozying up to Saddam Hussein; Howell Raines at the New York Times had resigned, as had Andrew Gilligan of the BBC, over sloppy fact-checking and slanted and dishonest reporting. Doctored photographs abounded. The MSM's credibility was cratering; polls taken on 9/20 confirm it (see here and here).

The population no longer trusts CNN, the New York Times, and the other traditional organs of official truth. The conservative voices, like talk radio and Fox News, which explicitly state their own bias or make a point of counterposing biases against each other -- the voices whose belief in the old concept of truth is proved by their admission of their own spin on it -- are still found relatively trustworthy.

The new tone that entered the blogosphere was a sense of responsibility to the truth. The bloggers looked around themselves and saw that nobody else had the powerful means, the democratic and distributed organization, the robust egalitarian truculence, and the absence of interest conflict to act as the truth's final guardian and court of appeal. The mainstream journalists had abdicated their responsibility, the political parties were obviously willing to bend the truth, the academy had philosophically repudiated the concept of truth, the courts were increasing based on adversarial rhetorical virtuosity, rather than the establishment of fact. So it was up to the bloggers.

Just at that moment one of the CBS apparatchiks, one Jonathan Klein, chose to coin a woefully contagious phrase. He attacked the blogosphere as guys sitting in their living rooms in their pajamas. The Web picked this up with unholy glee. Pajama cartoons spread across the airwaves. Somebody coined the term "the Pajamaheddin" for the bloggers, who had accepted the insult as joyfully as the rebel Impressionists had accepted their own (originally hostile) sobriquet. The blogosphere had identified itself, and named itself, and provided itself with a new Trickster identity; and its apostles would have to live up to their chosen character as the gadflies of the truth, the guerrillas of the ugly fact.

So two centuries of centralized knowledge-dissemination are now coming to an end. The Public, which was once the state's final arbiter of truth, has revived after its long subordination to the media elite, and seen itself, and started to flex its muscles. Instapundit was getting over 400,000 page views a day at the height of the controversy; if one multiplies that by the number of other major blogs, the days the storm raged, and the amplification of word of mouth and talk radio, one is talking about near-total penetration of the US population. But with power comes responsibility. The blogosphere needs to live up to it new duties. When this election is over, and the partisan furies temporarily placated, perhaps the bloggers of the left can join the bloggers of the right in the pursuit of fact and reason.


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