"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 27 February 2001. Updated every WEEKDAY.

First Drones of History


Six Degrees of Recrimination
If your boss were to find a link to pornography on your page, would he fire you? What about a link to someone else's page with a link to pornography? What about a link to Yahoo, and the universe it opens up? Is porn the only taboo? What about anarchism? Satanism? Simple, "non-company" business?
Five years ago today in Suck.

Of all the literature distributed each year through the American high school system, the only genre that gets read with anything approaching fondness is the time-wasting personal note. Not the anti-authoritarian bon mot scrawled onto an inclined notebook for some fellow student's amusement, not the furtive billet doux a slightly older or younger person might pass along to a sweetheart, but the casual regurgitation of a casual thinker. Often featuring such typographical effects as letter i's dotted with hearts or smiley faces, frequently signed an insidery "Love, Me," these notes tend to get written in a sort of intensified first-person, in which not only the voice but the content is swaddled in one's personal concerns and circumstances. "I'm sitting in this boring trig class," such a note might begin, or "It's study hall and I have nothing to do, so I thought I'd write to you." Sometimes, even "I think I have a cold" can be considered a suitably gripping lede. Depending on the writer's perceptiveness or verbal skills, or your own fascination with the writer, these notes can be dull or charming, but they rarely move beyond the writer's immediate circumstances.

In the cycle-and-a-half of high school years since the cell-phoning kids of Clueless made their debut, new and ever more compelling electronic means of communication have come up to replace the old-fashioned note, and with the obsolescence of penmanship generally, it's unlikely this literary form will survive many more years. In any event, the passage into adulthood, and with it the realization that there is a wide world of people who don't take much interest in your school schedule or fleeting impressions, makes this form of self-expression as short-lived as Chatterton, the Marvelous Boy. The first few years of the web inspired some brief hope of a one-to-many medium in which all and sundry might take an interest in you and your sputa, but like so much about the web, this optimism proved chimerical.

Lately, however, the random note has received new life born of a web trend and a class of people who never really left high school behind, most likely because they never had to work for a living. This new form is, for lack of a better term, the celebrity web log. We speak not of such early projects as KelseyLive, the apparently defunct forum for TV's Frasier's random thoughts (and a site for which Suck alone had a kind word), but of the vanity blogging of professional journalists. And in particular, journalists of some note — Andrew Sullivan, Mickey Kaus and many more — who, apparently not satisfied with the ability to publish at will on a paying basis, have judged their every passing fancy and thought belch worthy of immediate dissemination.

The journalistic celeblog has its roots in fertile soil — the hallowed tradition of "Nobody asked me, but..." columns that newspaper hacks have for decades used to fill space with short-paragraph rambles on the folly of Liberals, the folly of Conservatives, or the folly of the guy who invented the shrink wrap on compact disks. The beauty of this short form (the most debased example of which can be seen every Thursday at Suck) is that it allows the writer to avoid the work of staying on topic for any length of time. Thus a columnist can switch from "Kudos to new Attorney General John Ashcroft" to "Let's hear it for the Chunky bar!" in the space of only three dots.

But what makes the celeblog truly new is the way its practitioners lard it with heapin' helpin's of personal detail. Observations — nearly always a reaction to something the blogger read — come with modifiers about the writer's travel plans and taxicab eurekas or casual mentions that this or that article was written by a "good friend." The methods of old-fashioned self promotion are flavored with new forms of coyly selective self-revelation. " I don't really buy Pirie's dichotomy," asserts former San Jose Mercury News columnist Joanne Jacobs, because "I was a studious student. I also was a very good test taker. I learned details. I used my knowledge to see the big picture. Both skills are essential." And of course, if it's good enough for the writer, then: "Test-hating Americans should remember that asking students to perform under pressure is an 'authentic assessment' of what they'll face in life."

The most effective of the celebloggers is Andrew Sullivan, the former New Republic editor, steadily employed freelancer and ubiquitous talking head whose celebrity persona — gay, Catholic, English, Thatcherite, conservative, contrarian — we secretly suspect is the result of countless hours of focus grouping. Not surprisingly, his blog is the most professionally assembled (and navigationally horrific) of the bunch: The site features sophisticated Shockwave effects and a musical soundtrack (not, sadly, the clip from Sadeness the author's résumé might suggest, but a little riff that sounds like it might have been cooked up by Sullivan himself while he was noodling on his Casio).

But where Sullivan really takes top honors is in combining intriguing personal details ("Just back from a dinner party at Christopher Hitchens's — a refreshingly eclectic crowd, from David Frum to Lewis Lapham."), self-involved log rolling ("Michael — an old friend — is simply the most evocative reporter-writer of his — my — generation."), grand pronouncements of iconoclastic opinions ("Please don't expect me to excoriate Eminem."), unsavory insinuations that wouldn't pass muster in any legitimate medium ("In the United States, most opposition to Israeli defense actions, or diplomatic initiatives, or military strikes, is veiled through an anti-anti-Arabism that never quite gets to the point."), travel details — with additional log-rolling ("I also mention it since I've just read — in this endless trans-Atlantic flight — one of the best little pieces about the magazine since Michael Kinsley's so many years back."), even attempts by the Popish pundit to establish his philo-semitism so strenuously that we are reminded of Freud's warning about goys who are too eager to seem friendly ("I also hope George W. realizes the political risks Tony Blair takes in supporting strong military action against Iraq. On this one, I tip my borrowed yarmulke to the guy."). And all these examples are culled from a mere seven-day period of Sullivan's blog. Clearly, we're in the presence of a champion.

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