[Before we move on, I wanted to revisit something you said in the introduction, something about the present political climate being inundated by people who speak, but who really ought to listen. If this is true, then aren’t you contributing to this infestation of opinion by establishing this blog among countless others?]
First, we have to furnish a better definition of “the problem”, as we understand it. Are we talking about commentary, or are we talking about opinion?
[The difference being?]
The difference is the same as that between observation and argument. In a commentary piece, the author may be, but is not necessarily, making any kind of declarative statement; he may simply be observing, or writing without any intention to advocate for something. An opinion piece, needless to say, is a very different matter: in an opinion piece, the author is trying to argue for something, or against something. In an opinion piece, there is always some kind of practical application to be made, whereas this feature is not a constant in a commentary piece.
[Perhaps not, but the terms have become synonymous, more or less, in the present day. If we read a commentary piece, and the author does not make any kind of definitive conclusion by the page’s end, then we are likely to inquire, “What was the point of what I just read?”]
Is this to say that a piece of writing is inherently inadequate if it doesn’t make an argument, if it doesn’t take some kind of position, if it doesn’t take a side?
[Well, an opinion piece without an opinion—]
So, have we determined that a commentary piece is, in fact, an opinion piece, as well?
[The dictionary defines a comment as the expression of an opinion or a view. I’m uncertain as to whether a commentary piece must, by definition, endorse a specific position on some issue, but if you describe yourself as a commentator, then you will probably be held to those standards.]
Do you believe it’s fair to hold a commentator to such a set of standards?
[Yes. Otherwise, you’re blurring the lines of journalism, and probably compromising its integrity, as well.]
How do you figure?
[In recent history, journalism has been defined by its objectivity, by its immunity to the corrupting influence of prejudice, of bias. If it were to indulge in such partisanship, in the promotion of some subjective perspective, then it would become commentary. These two mediums share a border, but they cannot overlap. The partitioning is both a limit and a license, the latter because it compels the author of one to travel further, in a certain direction, than the writer of the other.]
Okay. Keep going.
[The journalist is prohibited from encroaching on the realm of commentary. The demarcation of opinion, of prejudice, is closed to the journalist; instead, the journalist must retrieve and present as much factual information as can be obtained and coherently conveyed. That is the license that the journalist enjoys: the liberality of facts without the obligation to affix a conclusion to it all. To
“make something of it”, for lack of better term, is a separate undertaking, a whole other effort.]
And the journalist is spared this effort, one which is reserved for the commentator. The time has come for the commentator to work, after he was spared the effort of collecting and collating all of those facts. By the way, I can’t even tell you how much I love that phrase, “the liberality of facts”. You’ve been a little sloppy, Editor-in-Chief: it seems to me as though you’re trying too hard, as if you’re trying to justify the intensity of your description, the melodrama of your statement, through this awkward purple prose.
[Would you prefer I simplify it?]
I just think it’s unfortunate, seeing you blow this opportunity to describe something important. It is fascinating, the distinction between journalists and commentators, but we don’t have to pretend there’s some kind of metaphysical statement to be made. The commentator has more lenience with the facts, and the journalist has less of an obligation to be creative and artistic.
[Is it as simple as that? Do you think your statement really explains everything a novice needs to know about this?]
No, and I’m usually the last one to complain about excess, stylistic indulgence, circumlocution, or whatever we should call it. Look: I’m not saying you did a bad job, but I think my summary, or a similar summary, ought to have come before, just so the reader isn’t growing restless, sitting there and wondering, “What’s the point of this thing I’m reading?
[ . . . let’s bring this sub-debate to a close. We’ll call it a draw, the sooner to return to my previous question: can you call yourself a commentator if you decline to take some kind of position?]
Much more guiltlessly than I call myself a journalist, I’ll tell you that. Seriously, though: I concede your point. The commentator must bear some responsibility, and if I’m shirking that, then I’m not necessarily writing poorly, but I am inadvertently raising all kinds of questions about what it is I am writing, exactly. In other words, I have to answer all of these questions myself before I embark on this little journey. Otherwise, I’m just kind-of wandering blind.
[Fortunately, I don’t believe that you will get to that point. I believe you have a fair amount to say, and an even fairer bit of opinion to share. You can’t be this modest. No one makes a blog unless a very strong belief, or set of strong beliefs, inspires one to put the website together. Even if you feel that the political culture is defined by too much commentary, that opinion of yours was, evidently, solid enough to serve as the basis for . . . whatever Overwritten happens to become. There’s really no way for you to plausibly claim that this site is dedicated to the antithesis of opinion . . . to the antithesis of belief, if such an idea is even comprehensible.]
I can’t really recall everything I said in our last conversation, but I can’t imagine saying I wouldn’t express any opinions in any of my posts. More likely, I said that this political climate is suffering from a glut of baseless conviction, of unwarranted conviction masquerading as an indefeasible expertise.
[Implying, of course, that your conviction is warranted, is rooted, is justifiable, is reliable?]
Now I understand your confusion. I never meant to suggest that I’m some god of knowledge, some sage to be trusted unconditionally.
[But you did point out the lack of integrity in the work of other writers, of other commentators. To a reader, this suggests that your writing is more trustworthy than somebody else’s, that I ought to purchase fruit from your cart, and not from George Will’s, or something. If you’re not making this claim, then what are you saying? What does distinguish your writing from everybody else’s?]
Well, all of the other writers do present themselves as sages—
[Oh, dear lord—]
No, seriously: when you read the commentary of John Smith, he presents himself as the authority on whatever subject he is handling at the time. If the president strikes up a new trade deal with the Chinese, well, then John Smith knows everything you could ever know—or at least everything you could ever need to know—about international trade. If a filmmaker inspires controversy, well, then John Smith knows everything there is to know about artistic expression. He never claims to be omniscient, of course, but he quite conveniently possesses all of the answers to every question you or anybody else will ever ask him. Whatever kind of ball you pitch his way, he’s guaranteed to knock it out of the park. He may not be all-knowing, but he’s certainly incapable of ever being wrong.
[You’re suggesting that commentary—as we, the consumers of American media, understand it—is a fiction, or a scam. You’re suggesting that the commentator, whosoever that happens to be, is a false idol.]
Eh, that would be pretty presumptuous of me. Already, I’m uncomfortable with you mentioning George Will by name. I’m not saying that this commentator or that commentator is a false idol; it just seems very suspicious to me, this idea of somebody being recognized as an expert of all things, usually without ever having been vetted by . . . other experts, I guess. I take issue with this practice of marketing genius, or so-called genius: the publisher is selling us a commodity, that commodity being an omniscient writer. We ought to be distrustful about this sort of thing. Who are the writers we place faith in, and why?
[Yet, you won’t condemn commentary in and of itself. You’re not advocating for a specific stance on the question of commentary; rather, you are asking questions and recording observations.]
Suddenly, my ambition doesn’t seem so modest, does it?
[It does, but not in the sense that you mean . . . or in the sense that I meant. You amuse me, I admit. All right: if we must hold our public intellectuals to an exacting set of standards, might I ask what the specific standards ought to be?]
The answer is simply: higher than they are today. We will never reach as high as we should, since there is no such thing as true omniscience. There is always something more to learn about a topic, another book to read, another thought to entertain. We need to overcome this mistaken notion that we can become experts in the absolute sense, that we need complete only a finite set of tasks before we can declare that we know all.
[I concur, but is it possible, or realistic, for us to know enough? Enough to become expert enough?]
Only relatively. If I read every book of Stephen King’s and you read none, then no one should take your opinion on his work more seriously than mine. No one should take your opinion on his work seriously at all, but nor should anybody take mine as gospel. Even if I’ve read all of his books, that doesn’t mean I know everything there is to know about his work. However, even if we were to say that one becomes an expert on King upon reading all of books, such a standard would be far more rigorous that to which we hold our commentators today.
[As you mentioned, we seldom ask ourselves what their qualifications are, what they know about the topics whereon they’re commentating, and a whole bunch of other factors besides.]
It hardly requires much in the way of an imagination to point out that our biggest interest is whether the writer writes what we want to read. What is that called? Confirmation bias, bias reinforcement?
[Confirmation bias. I’m assuming, then, that you have no ideological loyalty, that you will, in the words of a man recently appointed to the Supreme Court, call the balls and strikes as they are, and not as you would like them to be?]
So says everyone, but you want to know what makes me different. What makes me more reliable, more trustworthy, more committed to integrity, than every other writer in human history?
Right now, in the beginning, nothing. We’ll have to see if I encounter any enticement to corruption.
[And, more importantly, if you succumb to it.]
[I’m still uncertain as to what I should call you. You describe yourself not as a commentator, but I believe you referred to this website as a blog. Are you the anti-blogger, the writer who will bring some measure of respectability to blogging?]
It should be quite a feat, bringing respectability to blogging by humbling myself intellectually. It’s a bold strategy, but I’ve witnessed far more striking suicidal missions.
[Well, in any case, I’m convinced that we should probably hold off on any more discussion about what you will do, and, instead, commence to what you intend to do. That will give us something a bit more, shall we say . . . definitive to discuss.]
At your leisure. Let’s begin.