An Open Answer to @mcuban: You Can’t End Tribalism, You Can Only Hope to Contain – Or Harness – It

The first thing that needs to be said about this is that this would have been a lot easier to achieve a few years ago. Throughout Da Blog’s history I’ve made a number of different posts looking for common ground between left and right, and calling for neutral media outlets like CNN to be bipartisan, not nonpartisan, in order to force each side’s extremists to reckon with each other. But with the advent of Donald Trump, I’m no longer sure it’s possible to achieve the things I was hoping to achieve, or even that it would have necessarily been productive.

More on the “productive” point in a later post, but for now I’ll say that the second thing that needs to be said is that, in some sense, the very term used – tribalism – is itself an answer to the question. It’s a very deep, human drive, far deeper than any of the hallmarks of modern individualist democracy. Part of the reason you haven’t seen it play out too much within American politics until recent years is that until fairly recently it was turned against forces outside the United States, whether the Soviet Union or whatever else, and even when we might get along with other parts of the country or world in areas that matter we hate their guts in sports. We’re hardwired to form groups and distrust or actively hate those outside those groups; it’s what helped us get where we are as a species.

The third thing that needs to be said is that, even discounting that, only the left and center is concerned about ending tribalism. The right is addicted to Fox News, talk radio, and other right-wing sources of news that tells them there’s nothing wrong with their own politics and the problem is all those dastardly liberals out there, and distrusts anything outside that bubble as part of the vast liberal conspiracy to undermine America’s conservative norms. So long as the left wants to embrace bipartisanship but the right remains distrustful of their motives, the left merely becomes a tool to help the right ramrod their politics down the throats of the rest of America. Until the right is willing to become as introspective as the left, the left’s only recourse is to become as tribalistic as the right.

I bring that up last because it brings me to the fourth and perhaps most important thing that needs to be said: there is no motivation for the right to become more introspective, or for Republican politicians or right-wing media to encourage or engage in such introspection. Why would they? They control the White House and both houses of Congress and are one death or retirement away from setting the course of the Supreme Court for a generation – and not only that, despite the historic unpopularity of both Donald Trump and Congress, it would be nearly miraculous for Democrats to take control of either house in 2018, thanks to gerrymandering of House districts and a Democratic wave election five years ago leaving the Democrats with few opportunities to gain Senate seats and plenty of opportunities to lose them. The Republicans have, in theory, rigged the system to all but insulate them from any accountability, to the point of stretching our democracy to the breaking point. In their mind, the only constituents that matter are their extremists, and for many Republican politicians, the only election that matters is the Republican primary. There is no price for stoking tribalism, there are only huge rewards. The left is left to appeal to “norms” and “morals” and to the notion that what the Republicans have done is “wrong”, words that seem hollow in the wake of the Republicans’ success. When the Republican base doesn’t care about the left’s “norms”, and the Republican party sees little to no negative consequences for flouting them, do those “norms” really exist in any substantial, practical form?

Getting back to the second point, the only reason we’ve managed to escape the problem of tribalism for so long is the “norms” preventing any political movement from exploiting it. Now that those “norms” have been breached, there’s no way of simply closing Pandora’s box, of simply putting the cork back in the bottle. Strip away the “norms”, the unspoken covenant governing American politics for 200 years and (with the exception of four or five years in the 1860s) preventing the American experiment from cracking up along ideological lines, and you’re left with a rather thin patchwork of laws and a Constitution written for a federation of thirteen mini-nations much closer together in relative population than today’s states, and one written with a complete ignorance of my second point. Indeed, the Founders outright disdained political parties and other “factions” but did little to prevent or accommodate their existence, opening the door for forces to arrive that would give the Presidency, an office designed for a George Washington but always vulnerable to a Donald Trump, more and more power in order to push forward their agenda.

Part of what has been so insidious about the expansion of presidential power is that a substantial portion of the electorate seemingly only cares about the presidency, with little to no knowledge or appreciation of the role of Congress or the courts, depressing turnout for midterm elections and insulating Congress somewhat from the consequences of their actions. As Obama learned firsthand, the President gets a disproportionate amount of the credit or blame for things not entirely, or even at all, within their control; even when the problem is clearly Congressional gridlock, the President gets at least some of the blame for not “pushing through” it, even when the problem is clearly one side’s refusal to do a deal at all. Thus Republicans could spend the first two years of Obama’s presidency utterly refusing to do anything Obama supported and grinding the machinery of government to a standstill, and end up taking the House and enough state legislatures to effectively lock in control of the House for the next decade, then use that control to continue to stonewall for the remaining six years and ride a Republican president into control of both houses and more lesser offices.

In short, our Constitution, coupled with the expansion of presidential power, the move to democracy uber alles, and the corruption of our understanding of the system, far from curbing factionalism and tribalism, makes it nearly inevitable: only one party can control the Presidency, and either that party also controls both houses of Congress and can pursue their agenda as much as possible, or at least one house is controlled by the other party (or nearly enough so) and becomes unable to settle on anything as they use every trick in the book to keep the party in the White House from getting their way, resulting in the President using other (constitutional and extra-constitutional) powers to advance their agenda regardless. Couple that with the President’s nearly unchecked power to stock the Supreme Court and lesser judicial offices, and the power the Supremes in particular have to set the direction of the nation for decades to come, and every presidential election becomes an apocalyptic battle to set the direction of the nation for the next four years and beyond, with congressional races an afterthought and if anything even more prone to tribalism and partisanship. Only our “norms” have prevented the problem from getting this bad, but the Republican abandonment of those norms, coupled with increased popular participation at all levels of the system and the rise of cable news and the Internet allowing a greater ability to pick and choose one’s own reality to glorify one’s own tribe and bring down the other, have started us sliding inexorably into the abyss.

The short answer, then, to the problem of tribalism is that nothing less than a major overhaul of the Constitution, possibly to the point of calling a new convention, may bring us out of the abyss – not necessarily to reject the Founders’ values, but to reaffirm them and update the Constitution for our modern values and what we’ve learned about how it’s been used in practice in the intervening years, to reflect what we’ve come to expect out of the system and correct for how it’s actually come to work, to either correct for and try to limit the impact of tribalism or to accept it as an inevitable fact and harness it for good while limiting its negative impact. But not only is that a radical step, it’s not clear that we have the people that would be able to do the weightiness of the task justice, or any way to ensure that those are the people that would be involved as opposed to groups with axes to grind hoping to enshrine their values in the Constitution, nor can we be sure that the result would be entirely trusted by all sides of the debate. Indeed, the best solutions might be unacceptable without each side first recognizing the legitimacy, let alone potential rightness, of the other. If part of the problem is that each side doesn’t even agree with the other on what the basic problems with the country are, then part of the solution would seem to be to devolve more power to the states to solve what they perceive their problems to be. But neither side is willing to accept that; conservatives believe that blue states are offending God and need to have their support for abortion and gay marriage curbed at the federal level, while liberals believe that red states are impinging on the rights of women and gays and need the federal government to stop them from doing so. Indeed, it’s not even clear that state governments actually would solve their own problems as opposed to entrenching the prerogatives of the party in power and their benefactors, disenfranchising those that didn’t vote for them in the process, and maybe not even helping their own voters if they can find a way to misdirect blame for and the nature of the problems and the degree to which they even need to be solved.

If the task, then, is to find a way to work within the existing system to alleviate the problem of tribalism, what can be done? If having no factions, as the Founders hoped, is not an option, the next-best thing is to have a multitude of them. Certainly the way the two-party system encourages an us-vs-them mentality doesn’t help the problem of tribalism if you can define one side as always right and the other side as always wrong; with a multitude of parties, there’s always room to find common ground with at least one faction at least some of the time. This is another way in which the Constitution fails us as our current method of selecting Presidents and congressmen runs afoul of Duverger’s law making a two-party system inevitable, as much as supporters of third-party candidates often find it hard to grasp. Even within that system, though, much of the blame must fall on would-be third parties themselves, which by and large have fallen into the same trap as the rest of the electorate in focusing on the presidency uber alles, even as it’s become increasingly obvious that they can’t win or even pull enough of a showing to make any sort of progress even under the most ideal circumstances as the 2016 election was. A third party willing to make the Presidency of secondary or even no importance, instead focusing on races one of the major parties isn’t seriously contesting or at all, adopting a position moderate enough to actually capture a substantial portion of the electorate in those districts, taking advantage of gerrymandered districts by capturing the disenfranchised underclass along with enough of the majority to compete, stands to not only build up some real power and even correct some of the depredations of the current system by their very presence, but in the long term stands a chance to even capture or at least determine the fate of the Presidency.

In a way, I actually appreciate this question coming up, even though I’m addressing it a few days after the fact, because it gives me a chance to come back to these topics I started writing about in the period between the election and the inauguration without having to engage too much in all the depredations of the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress as I’d felt I’d have to do. In the coming days and weeks I hope to write more of these posts going into more detail about the crisis facing the country, about the best way to smooth the course for third parties and jumpstarting the conversation about how to reform the Constitution by presenting my own ideas. Much of what I hope to write has been sitting unpublished in drafts for a year or percolating in my head for even longer, and some other ideas have been coming to the fore as a result of the other events of the past year. Maybe you don’t agree that steps as drastic as what I propose are necessary to address the problem of tribalism, but at least telling the truth about the nature of the problem is a necessary first step to actually doing something productive to address it, without falling into the cult of personality of a charismatic billionaire.

What Bob Costas’ halftime commentary should have been

As seems to so often be the case, whenever a tragedy happens that shakes us to our very core we’re left unable to figure out how we should feel, knowing only that however we feel, someone is going to tell us we’re wrong. Such is the case with the shocking murder-suicide of Jovan Belcher on Saturday, which have left many of us unsure what to make of any of it.

We like to put people into black-and-white categories as a society – we like to have someone to blame and someone to be the victim. We like to fit everything into a nice and neat story. No one would put any blame on the girlfriend who was killed or the young girl who was orphaned; they are both clearly victims. But let’s face it, neither are they the story here. No one even knew who either of them were until they were reported in the aftermath of the tragedy. The reason this has become a national story is because the man who did it was an NFL player.

Certainly it’s hard to sympathize with Jovan Belcher, who took the life of his girlfriend and then himself, leaving his young daughter without any parents and rattling the Kansas City Chiefs organization to its core. It’s tempting to blame him, to turn him into a monster. But ultimately, it’s hard to blame him either; Belcher’s actions were in keeping with suffering from mental illness. Which brings us to the elephant in the room, the question of whether Belcher’s living, playing the particularly physical position of linebacker, had anything to do with his death.

Five and a half years ago, professional wrestler Chris Benoit took the life of his wife – and didn’t spare his son – before hanging himself. His brain was subsequently examined by neurosurgeons at West Virginia University, who compared it to that of “an 85-year-old Alzheimer’s patient”, and his father attributed his actions to the effects of repeated bumps to the head over the course of his wrestling career. For a league already haunted by the specter of concussions, as the Saints’ Bountygate appeals continue to drag on, to witness such a chillingly similar turn of events should serve as a reminder of the consequences of this sport’s brutality.

The case of Chris Benoit also, perhaps, suggests exactly what we should make of this tragedy. Before his death, Benoit was one of the more beloved figures in wrestling, but that adoration quickly turned to sadness and anger as most of Benoit’s career was all but forgotten and Benoit himself became a symbol of the effects of the culture of wrestling. Jovan Belcher was hardly a superstar, so perhaps it’s telling that we find ourselves conflicted in how to feel about him all the same. Regardless, while it’s too early to know exactly why Belcher did what he did, it’s entirely possible that in a few years, Jovan Belcher could be every bit as much a symbol of the NFL’s concussion problem as Dave Duerson, the former Chicago Bears safety who committed suicide nearly two years ago.

The Day of Reckoning Revisited

Due to space constraints, I barely scratched the surface of how far into the gutters the political discourse remains in my first Understanding the News post last week. Here are the titles of a few recent sample threads on the Democratic Underground site: “Teabaggers: Tools of Bin Laden?” “FUCK YOU CONDI RICE.” “An Open Letter to Delusional Rightwing Folks.” Not to be outdone, here are a few excerpts from posters on the right-wing forum Free Republic: “These presstitutes make me sick!” “‘I had no hesitation about taking a human life’… Neither did Stalin. You can’t have a moral dilemma when you have no sense of morality.” “We all know his pappy is a commie, his momnie [sic] is a comie [sic] and that he aint a po azz black boy down fo de struggle. He was raised a privileged white communist punk by his rich ass grandparents.”

I edited these out of my original post fairly early on (and in fact I’m missing even more such comments as a result of my quick hatcheting) because anyone like me can cherrypick the worst comments from public forums where anyone can post like DU and Free Republic, but as I hinted at in my original post when I talked about how partisan views can be self-reinforcing, extreme viewpoints have a tendency to go unchallenged, and hence increasingly legitimized, on partisan forums. For one thing, extreme viewpoints tend to be more vocal about it. This isn’t just a tendency inherent in the positions themselves (the status quo is more of an outrage the further your own position is from it). Consider a hypothetical Democratic message board, with posts from various parts of the spectrum represented. Some posts may be very moderate, others may be all-out Marxist, but they all share one thing in common: assuming there are no trolls, they are probably all in disagreement with the Republicans. Indeed, to feel strongly enough to sign up for an explicitly Democratic message board, one is probably not terribly moderate.

That means there are certain micro-level issues that all of the board’s members are in agreement on. Whenever there is a thread on one of these micro-level issues, the extreme Marxists and the relative moderates will have scarcely any difference between them, in theory. But on issues that might produce more controversy, the moderates are less likely to speak up, because they might be construed as agreeing with the enemy. (In my experience, individual posters tend to have less individual identity on the most popular political message boards.) On the other hand, those that hold relatively extreme positions just on the fringes of what is considered acceptable are allowed to speak freely. Their positions are legitimized, allowing new frontiers to be opened and eventually closing off more moderate positions as the social controls against dissent take effect.

Despite the seeming demise of any principles with which to define and control society – from the naked greed of large corporations to the demands for rights coming from any corner large and loud enough to be heard – the tendency to make such rules, and form societal associations organized around these rules, is endemic. We find it anywhere you look in society, wherever cliques or subcultures are found, and one ignores or underestimates this basic tendency of human nature at their peril. Right now such tendencies have put us on the brink of the abyss, and while I’m still not certain what needs to happen, something definitely needs to happen. Congress will only find the middle ground when America as a whole will, so let’s put together each side’s solutions and the problems with each, and find a way to solve those problems, reason out why one solution is ultimately better than the other, find a solution that incorporates the best of both sides, or at least come to an understanding of each position.

In addition to everything I suggested in my original post, this will require a voice for moderate voices that can recognize the merits of each side and point out their flaws, and hopefully suggest synthesized solutions. The aim is not so much to convince either side so much as to provide a voice for the silent majority in the middle. But for the same reasons mentioned before, moderates tend not to care as much about politics, at least if they’re prone to seek compromise, because they tend not to have very solid views (given their propensity to waver between them) and tend to be okay with whatever comes out, if they even pay attention to politics given how little they care about them. And once again, they’re not likely to escape charges of bias, and may even show some real bias if they become increasingly convinced one side is superior to the other. The entrenchment of our political positions works to keep them from leaving the trenches, and I don’t know how to break the cycle.

I will say that our present system of electing our government on a geographical basis, though it appears reasonable at first glance, does not encourage healing the divide or giving a voice to moderates. Political positions have always been partly geographically determined, whether it was the north being against slavery and the south being for it before the Civil War, or urban areas being more Democratic and rural areas more Republican now. The result is that, even without much gerrymandering, districts have a tendency to become “safe” for one party or the other, which does not encourage and, with our increasing partisan divide, may even discourage the election of moderates. This makes it easier for Congress to reflect the partisan divide in the rest of the country; moderates do get elected, but they do not tend to have much of a voice, especially since their districts may be more vulnerable, and they risk being demonized on the national level among their nominal peers, as Joe Lieberman and Arlen Specter know well; better to give the leadership positions to those more likely to stay in Congress longer. (I don’t believe changing this necessarily requires amending the Constitution, which to my knowledge only governs the division of representation among the states, not that those representatives need to be elected by geographic sub-divisions.)

The geographical system of electing our Congressmen is not the only aspect of our electoral system that furthers the divide. Our “first-past-the-post” plurality system of voting discourages the formation of more than two parties, as should be obvious to anyone who sat through the effect of Ralph Nader on the 2000 presidential election; any viable third party needs to be able to attract exactly as many people from each side. With only two parties, polarization is all too easy; with at least three, one party can synthesize the best ideas of the other two and come up with some ideas of their own that might be better than that suggested by either side. There are ways to address both problems, but I’ll save them for future posts because they’ll take quite a bit of explaining.

Understanding the News: Introduction

I have long considered myself a bit of a philosopher; in fact, for most if not all of Da Blog’s existence, philosophy was my main plan for my future, despite misgivings, hopes for Da Blog itself, and dabbling in other areas. However, I am not a philosophy major in college, because I find what is currently called “philosophy” to be too esoteric and ivory-tower, and overly focused on irrelevant and purely hypothetical questions.

Philosophy is not merely concerned with such esoteric speculations. I consider philosophy to be of the greatest importance for unpacking the critical questions of human nature. Philosophy has long been concerned with building a framework with which to understand human behavior. The conclusions reached have not always been entirely accurate – in particular often denigrating or denying the social aspect of human life – but it has been a common and constant theme in philosophy since at least the days of Plato’s Republic.

That philosophy has largely abandoned this ground, and made itself irrelevant and laughable to the extent that it has stayed, is quite unfortunate, because in my view, there is no question more important. For all that has been said about the wonder of the universe, the promise of technology, the hunt for the Higgs boson, and all the other myriad triumphs of the physical sciences, it is the simple question of human nature that has had and will have the biggest impact on the course of history, because it is, ultimately, humanity that sets that course.

Why are politicians so corrupt? Why are corporations so ruthlessly greedy? How come we can’t feed everyone? How come we aren’t doing anything about global warming? Why do wars happen? Where does religion come from? Where does evil come from? And most importantly, how can we fix all of the above?* The answers to these questions, and many more besides, are rooted in an understanding of how humans actually work and behave, and why. They are the most important questions for our modern world, not questions of the physical sciences or metaphysics.

(*Obviously, this question assumes that religion is something to be fixed, which you may disagree with.)

I’m currently taking a sociology class that has an assignment to write blog posts connecting current events to the numerous social theories developed over the years about the modern world. It’s a project that quite frankly, I should have started early last month, but I haven’t yet shaken my procrastination issues; I’ll be releasing two posts a week to compensate. (After my numerous attempts to compensate for the lack of an Internet connection at home were a minor theme of Da Blog for the first four years of its existence, someone from Comcast convinced my mom to finally get an Internet connection at the worst possible time, when my inability to complete even my modest class schedule is putting a severe damper on my finances.) However, I may not stop when I’ve completed the obligations of the assignment; I may continue the project indefinitely into the future, as a regular feature on Da Blog. In fact, this project may well be the start of something that becomes the most important part of in the future.

As a storage place for the new project as well as a way to organize all the posts related to it in one place, I’ll be introducing a new category to Da Blog, “Understanding the News”. The category will start out a subcategory to “My Comments on the News”, but I may move it to the “Philosophy” category if I feel the need to (the fact that this very post isn’t a good fit to “My Comments on the News” may be a sign I may need to move it). It’s not the best of names, but I hope it gets across the notion that this project is about finding a better understanding of why the world is the way it is, and the forces behind everything that happens in the world that might not be obvious.

An important announcement on the future of Da Blog

You may have noticed that posting on Da Blog has slowed to an absolute crawl this year, and I’m long overdue for an explanation. Simply put, I’ve failed at my intended plan for Da Blog.

Call me a wide-eyed idealist, but I believe everyone should be able to make a living doing what they enjoy doing. By which I don’t mean simply “having fun” but whatever their passion is, what they would do if there were no need to make money. If you enjoy making tables and chairs and get a release out of it then maybe you should consider taking up a career in carpentry. This is, in fact, the only reason the Internet has created so much content that’s not directly paid for: people doing what they enjoy doing, people doing what they want to do. There are probably a wide variety of fields that I would be good at, but they wouldn’t be me. I would be working solely to pick up a paycheck. I want to work on what I’m interested in.

I created Da Blog, and later the forerunner to, in large part to serve as a repository for my work on topics I was fascinated by, out of a hope that enough people would be interested in what I had to say about them to make Da Blog popular and possibly allow me to make some money off it without having to work in some grunt job or something out of a Dilbert cartoon. Once Da Blog was popular, I could use it to push some of my more controversial but profound thinking and build my true greatness. I’ve made several attempts over the years to build Da Blog’s popularity, from the various sports projects to Sandsday to the webcomic reviews to 2008’s October of Politics fiasco.

The webcomic reviews have been the most successful, or should I say least unsuccessful, of the lot… so naturally there may be no part of the site that has suffered more over the past year. One of the top two most popular posts in the history of Da Blog was the 2009 State of Webcomics Address, a post I was reconsidering my thinking on even as I was posting it, only to watch in horror as I was called on to defend views I was no longer sure I held, and given rebuttals I wasn’t sure I didn’t already agree with. One of my biggest regrets is never having posted a clarification to the Address giving a more refined version of my thoughts.

That I haven’t had the work ethic to work on all the posts I’d like to, that I haven’t been as fast or as committed as I’d like to be, has always been a problem of mine hindering Da Blog, but my time has also been restricted by the need to work on schoolwork. I’ve always attempted to juggle schoolwork and Da Blog, with a sensitivity towards the time-sensitivity of much of what I work on on Da Blog, and a desire to build upon what little I have. Honestly, my work on Da Blog has wound up having the impact of limiting the amount of schoolwork that gets done, and I wind up prioritizing the assignments that seem to me to be really important.

Everything started spiralling downhill last summer of 2009, when I took a summer class. Under normal circumstances, at my school most people take three classes at a time; as it happened, through a series of events early in my college career I was led to the conclusion that I was best off taking two classes at a time. But summer classes are very condensed and designed to be taken one class at a time, meaning for about a month, my schedule was equivalent to taking three classes at a time. The resulting time crunch was such that I decided to abandon following my RSS feeds (except for Order of the Stick).

A month may not seem like much to catch up on, but even before all this, my RSS feeds took so long to catch up on that I had to spend a significant portion of every single (week)day catching up on them. Combine this with the fact I wasn’t quite done with the work the course required, and while I made a fairly sizeable dent in catching up on my RSS feeds by the time regular classes started up again, it was far from complete.

Due to procrastination on my part, I was signed up for only one class when classes started up again instead of two, but fall is typically one of the busiest periods of the year for Da Blog because of all the football stuff, and my progress on my RSS feeds, slowed by the launch of the new site, had been derailed by my decision to commense an OOTS archive binge that, because of a related associated project, turned out to take far, far longer than I ever anticipated. Then, right as I finally finished the work for the summer class, the screen of my laptop broke, and it took at least a month before I finally got a new one, which hamstrung the work on the football projects and halted the archive binge, since I was having a hard enough time working on the work for my one class without a laptop. I still haven’t caught up on more than one feed since then.

The Christmas break was utterly unproductive, so I was still behind on the OOTS archive binge. That project wound up dominating my time for a good chunk of February, and in the meantime an old enemy flared up again. Despite writing some occasionally angry posts over the course of 2009, I had, in fact, figured that I had mostly shaken my old tendency to flare up in angry outbursts that got me into trouble and kicked out of classes. But one result of that was that I stopped seeing my therapist, and didn’t start up again even as the stress of not being able to keep up on my RSS feeds and the OOTS archive binge started getting to me.

So the end result was, I wound up kicked out of a class. Then, right as the quarter was ending, I had another outburst that would have gotten me kicked out of the other class if the quarter wasn’t ending. And at that point I was given an ultimatum: If you want to stay at Seattle University, you better make damn sure this crap never happens again. Otherwise you can go off to some online school for all we care.

For over a week I thought about it. On the one hand, leaving Seattle University would mean going all-in on Da Blog and hoping it works out, when it hasn’t worked out yet. But on the other hand, the requirements for staying at school – the steps needed to take to reduce the chances for another incident to as close to zero as possible – would involve strictly keeping up with the assignments and not falling behind on them at all, lest the stress of having to catch up cause problems, and to maintain that pace would require me to virtually abandon Da Blog for the two-plus years it would take to complete my degree.

I did eventually decide not to take the quitter’s way out, and I’m still going to Seattle University for the foreseeable future. But that means I can’t really juggle Da Blog and my schoolwork the way I used to while trying to get ahead with Da Blog anymore. I intended to use the summer as a way to wrap up a few projects of mine (as well as more schoolwork I didn’t get done during the actual school year) while making a last-ditch effort to make Da Blog popular enough to support itself, but thanks to TV Tropes and some other distractions, I wound up doing virtually none of that. Honestly, I don’t think that, at least in my case, colleges do a good enough job of reflecting and supporting their students’ true passions, instead boxing them in to a certain mode of living and learning.

Over the next couple of weeks I do intend to get one of my projects out of the way, an attempted reprise of the October of Politics with lessons learned from the past, but after that – unless it catches on – expect posting frequency to drop precipitously, and for the paucity of posts seen over the past year to become the norm. I’ll still get out a new State of Webcomics Address containing the aforementioned clarification of my views, and even finally catch up on my RSS feeds. But I’m probably not going to test the Line of Sight rankings this year, and once my desktop gets fixed I’m probably going to adopt the 2007 solution of posting only the RTFs of the regular College Football Rankings, at least for this year. Beyond that webcomics posts are probably going to be restricted to the summer only if at all, and summer in general should see the greater portion of the posts for the year over the next two years.

I’m not shutting down posting on Da Blog entirely, but if this new project doesn’t work out I think it’s very possible I may be back to square one in terms of finding something to do with my future. I need to find something that won’t grind down my soul, something that will properly use my abilities and that I’ll be able to enjoy at least a little (I need to find a word between “enjoy” and “tolerate”). Da Blog seemed like the best approach for my affinities, and I may now be back to Plan B, and the road ahead seems downright murky.

Idle notes about myself.

One of these days, I may just bite the bullet and get a subscription to the Atlantic.

This article does not mention Asperger’s syndrome directly, but it does make me a lot more confident than I used to be about the “Darwinist” theory on the rise of Asperger’s… as well as other neurological “disorders”. It examines findings in science that may suggest that the same things that make people with ADD such a handful may, properly nurtured, make them more successful later in life, and may make them more useful for a variety of tasks – serving an evolutionary purpose that may help explain how we got this far in the development of civilization, not just their own existence. “Savant syndrome” may be the entire evolutionary point of Asperger’s and other such things.

As much as I’ve benefited and believed in it, the philosophical, logical side of me has long wondered why only (well, primarily) autistics promote the “neurodiversity” movement, claiming that their method of thinking is not necessarily bad, just different. People with ADD and dyslexics also think “differently”, so why aren’t they claiming they shouldn’t be “cured”, at least to the same extent? Is it because autistics still have several “beneficial” aspects to them, so autistics are still making a “good/bad” judgment and saying their way of thinking is worthy of being preserved because it’s beneficial and others aren’t? This article suggests other neurological disorders may indeed have their own claims to legitimacy.

Random Internet Discovery of the Week

I swear moving the RID to Mondays isn’t going to be a permanent thing. I still need a little more time to put up the forums, just to finalize the rules I’m going to propose at the start. That and a webcomic review will both be coming Tuesday.

I didn’t bother to read all the flirting tips, but… everything that separates us from the animals and built our civilization, for better and worse, is a side effect of our courtship rituals?!? That’s an out-there theory…

The 2009 State of Webcomics Address

It’s been said that kids say the darndest things. It’s been said in many different ways by many different people. In fact, that’s essentially the lesson of the fable “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. All the adults who praise the emperor’s threads without actually seeing them fear the consequences of calling him out on them – but the kid who points out that the emperor is, in fact, buck naked doesn’t know any better, can’t grasp the consequences that the adults fear might befall him for saying such a thing.

What often isn’t said is that this tendency doesn’t go away all at once, but in fact, tends to slowly dissipate over time, with the accompanying cynicism increasing separately. At no time in history has this been made more clear than in the past 50 years. Time and again, it has been people in their 20s that have changed the world – people with enough learned cynicism to know the world as it is but enough residual idealism to feel that isn’t the way it has to be.

It is this group – the generation of people in their 20s – my generation, the Digital Generation – that has sought to explore every aspect of what the Internet could be, often without regard to the potential concerns and problems raised by the older, more cynical generation. Whether it’s blogs, YouTube, or really any number of things, my generation has colonized the Internet and made it our own, revolutionizing the way we live in the twenty-first century, without worrying too much about that little “money” thing, or the effect their experiments will have on the institutions they’re replacing.

Such is the case with webcomics. The unprecedented creative freedom of webcomics have led them to attract many would-be comic strip creators away from the newspaper, right when comic strips were most needed to fill the role they filled so capably back in the days of true competition within a market, and as I explained in the “Webcomics’ Identity Crisis” series they are on the cusp of doing the same for comic book creators. But it has still been difficult for webcomic creators to find a revenue stream. I don’t think webcomickers should be glorified T-shirt salesmen, but that and the sale of compilation books (seemingly unnecessary when all the strips are available online anyway) have so far been the main sources of income for webcomic creators. That helps explain why so many popular webcomics are gag-a-day comics: ongoing, dramatic storylines don’t lend themselves well to pithy T-shirts. (Order of the Stick is the exception that proves the rule, because while it has a dramatic storyline, it’s still ultimately a humor comic, and its books mix “deleted scenes” and behind-the-scenes info with the old strips and have all-new storylines in two cases.)

The Floating Lightbulb, in my opinion, was always a must-read for aspiring webcomickers, regardless of whether you agreed with Bengo’s advice or his seeming obsession with Scott Kurtz and his ilk. But if there’s one thing about TFL that disillusioned me more than any other except maybe said obsession, it was the fact that a lot of Bengo’s advice, especially of late, basically concerned increasing ROI on T-shirt sales. The message I got from such posts was that even the best webcomic in the world wouldn’t be financially successful if it wasn’t a vehicle for presenting T-shirt ideas. Bengo has said he wants quality, but the way he’s willing to compromise quality for money suggests that, if anything, webcomics may actually have less room for creative freedom than their print counterparts, at least as far as making money off them is concerned. At least in print, you’re paying for the story itself.

The story of webcomics is the story of Web 2.0 in general, only arguably further along. Webcomics and the webcomics community, at the core, have always been less about the works produced in the medium than the promise and potential of an idea. That simple idea was the idea of putting images side by side to tell a story, and putting the resulting story on a Web page. Dreamers like Scott McCloud evangelized about the tremendous potential of this idea, speaking of infinite canvases and micropayments and all sorts of cool stuff. Once the finances were worked out, people said, webcomics would be a revolution.

The reality has so far fallen far short of the promise. Some strips, like Girl Genius, The Order of the Stick, and Gunnerkrigg Court have been critically acclaimed and produced works worthy of the best (or at least critically acclaimed) of any medium, but even they have been bound by the comic book format; the infinite canvas, in the lack of a reliable payment scheme (as I chronicled in “Webcomics’ Identity Crisis”) has proven to be a gimmick at best. With people everywhere shunning paywalls of any kind and preventing the creation of real demand for compilations as anything other than a charitable excersize without “DVD extras”, and the ad market slumping while webcomics aren’t popular enough to make a lot of money out of a slumping ad market even for the most popular of webcomics, the most successful comics, as Bengo has pointed out, have been those gag-a-day strips that serve as meme factories so they can get people to buy more T-shirts.

I decided to institute a star rating system for my new webcomic review index, and it reveals that with the exception of OOTS, Sluggy Freelance, and (depending on your definition) the David Morgan-Mar comics, the most popular and successful comics (that I’ve reviewed so far, but I’ve reviewed most of the really big ones) are decidedly mediocre. There are a lot of two-star and two-and-a-half-star comics on there, including Penny Arcade, xkcd, PVP, Dinosaur Comics, and even Ctrl+Alt+Del, which I actually like and read. (That’s before we get into the 8-Bit Theaters and Dresden Codaks of the world.)

The idea of a new Golden Age of artistic experimentation and accomplishment has driven many webcomic promoters. But a disturbing number of webcomic creators, especially those first exposed to webcomics by PA or CAD, have been driven by a different dream: slapping together comics and earning fame and fortune with minimal work instead of getting a real job with real skills. Webcomics are the geek’s version of the black community’s dream of basketball or rap superstardom: many will enter, few will win. Thus far too many webcomics are crappy video game comics that basically copy-and-paste the CAD formula (already heavily hated) onto personages from the creator’s own life.

It may actually be worse when those people actually achieve webcomics stardom, because the reason they got into webcomics into the first place was that they desired the attention that comes from fame and not necessarily because they had genuine artistic concerns, so the fame often goes to their head. If you don’t believe that I have two names for you: Scott Kurtz and Tim Buckley. Say what you will about Bengo’s obsession with Kurtz or the Internet’s hatred of CAD, but the fact is that neither creator has really endeared himself to very many people. (Well, Kurtz endears himself to people who praise or agree with him or who he’s trying to impress, but still.)

Buckley’s control-freak tendencies and desire to live in his own little fantasy world where he’s the greatest webcomicker evar and everyone loves him is well known. Kurtz’s problem is different: he’s not living in a fantasy world necessarily (and he’s even self-depreciating about his own foibles), he just talks out of his ass a lot. Kurtz has been known to pick fights with various other webcomickers and webcomic bloggers for seemingly no reason, sees himself as the new Voice of All Webcomics even if others would rather he wasn’t, and has occasionally revealed a protectiveness against pretty much any other new webcomic that might conceivably steal one penny – or even one hit – from his own comic. (That didn’t stop him from co-writing a how-to book for aspiring webcomickers, so perhaps it’s no surprise that part of Bengo’s beef has been accusing the Halfpixel foursome of cooking unrealistic and unsupported numbers to inflate expectations in Aspiring Webcomickers Everywhere so they won’t challenge the established webcomickers like themselves.)

The proliferation of crappy video game comics is probably to be expected as a result of Sturgeon’s Law, but for some reason some of them have actually attracted a decent-sized following, and that, combined with the face people like Kurtz tend to present, has led the creation of a sizable group that seemingly hates webcomics in general, most prominent among them probably being John Solomon during his 15 minutes of fame. That the webcomic community rushed to the defense of many of the comics Solomon reviewed only allowed him to paint the community as an insular group that praises everything all the time uncritically, and when Solomon revealed an appreciation for such strips as the Court, OOTS, and to a limited extent PA (by contrast to other, inferior tag-team comics) it led some people to hate on them for the sole reason Solomon liked them. Thanks in part to Solomon, some even within the community have joined in the hating of bad video-game comics, and some have turned on the Kurtzes and Buckleys of the world, but they still exist, new Voices of All Webcomics have yet to appear, and sweep out the crap and the egos and you don’t have much left. You’re left with just the idea. And that idea has become shrouded by all the excess baggage.

Bengo doesn’t share my enthusiasm, expressed during “Webcomics’ Identity Crisis”, that an increasingly hostile comic book market to small publishers has put comic books on the cusp of a new flowering of greatness. In his eyes, the people that would flock to webcomics are instead turned off by all the crap and egos. Personally, I wouldn’t normally expect comic creators to hold the crap and egos produced by the medium now against the medium as a whole… but consider the following potential obstacles for an aspiring webcomicker:

  • Having Scott Kurtz or some other prima donna creator pick a fight with you for no reason.
  • Webcomic blogs can’t find your comic and won’t review it in the morass of other crap, so it doesn’t get discovered by the webcomic community. This is especially a problem for comics that release all in one installment, because of certain webcomic blogs’ policies not to review comics that have “ended”.
  • The general public (outside the webcomic community) sees webcomics (if they’ve heard of them) as a bunch of crappy video game comics made by arrogant college students and doesn’t find your comic, even if they wouldn’t otherwise need the help of webcomic blogs. This makes it especially difficult if your comic doesn’t appeal to nerds.

This last point seems especially salient considering the potential Scott McCloud saw in webcomics in Reinventing Comics. McCloud thought webcomics could appeal to more audiences than comic books heretofore had, appealing to women, minorities, and lovers of genres outside superheroes. He also thought webcomics could become much more mainstream than comic books were at the time. And the viral nature of the Internet meant that someway, somehow, even if the old gatekeepers didn’t like your work, if it was quality, it could find an audience.

But once again, here – as elsewhere – webcomics have fallen far short of the potential evangelized by their supporters. The Web is a marketplace of ideas, but it doesn’t change human nature, and that means stereotyping. If comic books have suffered from the notion that “comics are for kids” and “comics = superheroes”, webcomics may be starting to suffer from their own stereotypes, at least in some corners – stereotypes that have already irredeemably sickened web prose fiction, which became almost wholly identified with fanfic, which itself became almost wholly identified with bad fanfic. Because there are no barriers to entry, someone looking at a random webcomic is not likely to be impressed, and even the faces of webcomics, comics that have managed to shake the stench of Sturgeon’s Law to some extent, are Penny Arcade and xkcd, not Girl Genius or The Order of the Stick.

There is a silver lining for webcomics: slowly but surely, all media are starting to migrate to the Web in some form. That means they will all be subject to Sturgeon’s Law to some extent. (I’ll discuss some of the implications of that fact later in the week, but it won’t be a webcomic post.) Every medium will run a risk of becoming identified with crap. The barriers to entry are greater for art forms that require more and more expensive stuff, so more good stuff and less bad stuff will make it through in those media that combine moving images with sound – the descendants of movies and TV – and webcomics could remain very low on the totem pole as a medium, ahead of only prose, podcasts, and music. (And as it gets easier to create a simple webcomic like I did with Sandsday, webcomics could even fall behind podcasts and music!) Still, eventually we’ll get used to the fact, as the ever-popular blogosphere already is, that there’s a bunch of junk out there, and we’ll just have to follow what we’re familiar with and hope word of mouth will lead us to the other good stuff. When that happens, maybe – maybe – webcomics will be able to play on a level playing field. But to do so, it may need to completely jettison any memory of its video game legacy.

Sturgeon’s Law may explain all the crap in webcomics, but how to explain all the egos that (at least to Bengo) are seemingly attracted to webcomics like moths to a flame? It turns out that, at least in our dog-eat-dog society, most people are predisposed to jerkdom. I myself may admit that I might come across as a jerk in real life. Under the old ways, the jerks were weeded out or reformed by the need to network and negotiate to get anywhere in their desired careers. But that’s no longer necessary to put your wares on the web with no barriers to entry, where you can talk to anyone you still need to network with in a purely utilitarian mode and hide behind the abstraction of text with no face-to-face contact, with ready-made audiences on many sites where you don’t have to talk to anyone, and with some people willing to promote your work without even knowing what you’re like as a person.

But none of that really gets to the heart of the matter as far as Bengo is concerned: To him, the webcomics community itself is the problem.

Jonathan Rosenberg started Fleen to have a webcomic blog unencumbered by a creator who runs his own webcomic on the side. In Bengo’s eyes, he didn’t succeed, since Dumbrella was almost as much a dirty word at TFL as Halfpixel. As far as Bengo is concerned, a lot of the webcomics community is either consisting of people who ultimately want to promote their own wares, or driven by those people and blinded to those people trying something new, instead led around in circles to keep propping up the same old Penny Arcade and PVP and Ctrl+Alt+Del. Moreover, because of the small size of the medium it can throw the moniker of success onto people who really don’t deserve the term, people who in actuality are wallowing in mediocrity whether aesthetically or financially.

But in Bengo’s eyes, the root of this isn’t far from that of webcomics’ density of prima donnas. Any new idea is going to come with a good dose of idealism, since idealism is the only way new ideas are born, but also some of the lower aspects of human nature, simply because rules for professionalism haven’t been established. What’s more, an idealism about the potential of a new idea and a blindness to the faults go hand in hand. Idealism is a double-edged sword; it allows you to try something that’s never been done before, but that can be because it blinds you to the problems that are the reasons why the skeptics are skeptical in the first place, both potential and practical. What’s more, the latter problem is often compounded with youth, who owe their idealism to not having experience with the problems. Especially since youth often comes with a seeming immaturity, or at least inexperience, that compounds the problems of human nature. Sometimes this is itself defended as idealism, sometimes it’s just subconscious, but always it can hold the idea back from acceptance by the old gatekeepers.

When Bengo rather condescendingly claims that what sets webcomics further back than other fields with some of the same problems is that “many people are young and lack the critical skills to recognize these realities”, it’s tempting to dismiss it as an old fogie yelling at the kids to get off his lawn. After all, he’s effectively claiming that he is the only one capable of properly sizing up the webcomic landscape – an outsider who’s barely spent a year immersed in the webcomic community. Anyone else is just too blinded by their youthful idealism. (After all, it’s not like Scott McCloud has a career in comics dating back to the 80s.) They’re too wrapped up in an insider mentality, can’t see the forest for the trees, they’re blind to what everyone else thinks of them. They think everything’s coming up roses for webcomics but only because they’re shielded – whether subconsciously or by demagogues – from the Truth(tm).

I think Bengo may be misreading the motives of some observers – many webcomic promoters don’t care that the fact of webcomics is in rough shape, because they only care about the idea. They’re not blind to webcomics’ problems because they “lack the critical skills” to ferret them out, they’re blind to them because that’s not where they’re looking. And that’s a good thing – better to look at the webcomics doing good things for the medium than the demagogues. But Bengo’s concern is for an aspiring webcomicker who’s either young and set to ruin their lives following an avalanche of bad advice, bad role models, and their own inexperience, or more experienced and trying to avoid getting wrapped up in a scene that produces a bunch of jerks – and where the financials might not have been figured out to the extent people think.

Bengo thinks webcomics are even smaller than those within the community give it credit for – and shrinking, with even the top webcomics enjoying less success and less self-sufficiency than they sometimes get credit for. Many webcomics creators, in his experience, are not just egotistical but private and unwilling to give hard data. The number of truly artistic, great webcomics – especially those noticed by the successors of Websnark, the mainstream webcomic blogs – can probably be counted on one hand. The number of webcomics that have had even fleeting breakout success outside the webcomic niche are even fewer. The webcomic community is still more committed to the potential of an idea than the actual realization of that idea. Much of the webcomic blogosphere consists of not so much coverage of actual webcomics but coverage of technological developments that might, one day, if we’re lucky, have an influence on the future of comics. (Comixtalk seems to prefer to see itself as a site for coverage of “comics in the digital age” than a webcomics blog.) Even webcomic reviews have, since Websnark near-fell off the face of the earth, concentrated less on the comics themselves and more on how lessons from them might apply to Aspiring Webcomickers Everywhere.

Say what you will about his conclusions, or even dismiss them entirely as someone too jaded to realize how times are changing and bitter about not succeeding the way “better” cartoonists did, you should still be sobered by Bengo’s announcement that he would be leaving “webcomics” entirely, feeling the term too poisoned, and urging others to isolate their sites as much as possible from the “scene”. And cheerleaders for the idea may want to listen to what Bengo had to say before that, directly to them:

I’d be alarmed that an open-minded, truth-seeking sort like myself would enter webcomics, study it round the clock for several years, and find it mostly over-blown, in love with itself and falling out of fashion. I’d be even more alarmed that there are quality comics with quality accounting who far out-perform the alleged self-supporting titles, providing a valuable reality check to the people peddling your bright webcomic career along with your lottery ticket and Brooklyn Bridge. The ignorance deficit — the difference between what most webcomic people know and what they need to know — is so gaping, the typical aspirant’s chances of success are rotten.

During Bengo’s farewell series, Scott Kurtz left a series of comments so mean-spirited and trolly it may have been hard to believe he was actually responsible for them. But that can’t be said for his tweeted response to Bengo’s announcement he would be leaving the “webcomics scene”, which regardless of what you may think of Bengo and his conclusions, has to be a wake-up call to anyone:

I think @krisstraub and I forced a man to quit webcomics. I’m proud. Proud of what we’ve acomplished [sic].

Really, Scott? You’re proud that a man who wanted to enter webcomics, who saw the potential of the core idea of webcomics and wanted webcomics to be the best that they could be, someone who could have – for all we know – been one of the great forces and driving figures to help webcomics achieve their potential, instead saw a cesspool of jerks and crap and decided it wasn’t worth the trouble? You’re proud that you forced a man to quit “webcomics”?!? How could you, self-proclaimed Voice of All Webcomics, possibly be proud of driving someone from it? Is it just because he didn’t bother kowtowing to you and dared to challenge you and your infallible statements? Is it because you think he’s bitter about not being good enough and you see him picking a fight with you for no good reason, oblivious to the fact you’re making yourself as bad if not worse, and taking webcomics down with it? Or perhaps we should take your nonspecific phrasing at face value, and decide this is one instance of you letting slip your real goal, that you don’t really want webcomics reaching their potential, that you don’t want anyone escaping the cave to discover the true mediocrity of your work, that you’re willing to bring down an entire art form so you can remain self-proclaimed king of it?

This one statement, more than any other – even any from Bengo – is telling about the state of webcomics today, held back by those who would wish that Sturgeon’s Law continued to hold as much as possible, that it would remain a niche small enough for their own delusions of grandeur to seem realistic, that its reputation could be sullied enough that it could remain their own little club. It’s possible that one day, when the history of comics on the web are told, we will say that once upon a time, there was a community of people, led by those who created the early successes and tried to ensure there would be no others, who produced a body of work and built their own insular community around it known as “webcomics”, and their actions nearly set the cause of comics on the web back years, and their community initially attracted those who would defend the idea, but decided that to avert the fate of the idea being slaughtered in the crib, they would have to distance themselves from it and start over, ditching the roots that “webcomics”, an outgrowth of the dumb Internet culture of the Web’s childhood and adolescence, laid down.

I would love to come back in a year, at next year’s State of Webcomics Address, and say that this period of webcomics history is not quite as bleak as I just described, that we have found a new Voice of All Webcomics that can rescue it from the damage Kurtz and his ilk are doing, that Bengo’s description of the potential missed opportunity facing us did not turn out to be as tragic as he feared. I’d even like to be able to say the state of webcomics wasn’t as bad as I made it seem even now, that Bengo was wrong all along, that webcomics’ own quirks – even its propensity for egos – were good enough to grow and thrive in the context of the Internet. But not only am I not holding my breath, I’m not sure if I’ll even know the answer from the webcomic blogosphere.