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On the folly of writing columns

Anne Applebaum on how Columbia U. should have organized the event with the Iranian president:

Nevertheless, it would have been wrong, once he’d been invited, to ban Ahmadinejad from speaking: To do so would have granted him far more significance than he deserves and played right into his I’m-the-real-democrat-here rhetoric. Instead, the university should have demanded genuine reciprocity. If the president and dean of Columbia truly believed in an open exchange of ideas, they should have presented a debate between Ahmadinejad and an Iranian dissident or human rights activist — someone from his own culture who could argue with him in his own language — instead of allowing him to be filmed on a podium with important-looking Americans. Perhaps Columbia could even have insisted on an appropriate exchange: Ahmadinejad speaks in New York; Columbia sends a leading Western atheist — Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens or, better still, Ayaan Hirsi Ali — to Qom, the Shiite holy city, to debate the mullahs on their own ground.

Applebaum is one of my favorite columnists. She’s well-versed in foreign policy (although not in a realpolitick Jim Hoagland kind of way) and has lots of original viewpoints. I seem to remember her columns on Russia and Europe most specifically; she had written two books about the region (the last one on gulags had won the Nobel prize. Here’s her take on letters vs. email:

The sight of these ancient missives instantly filled me with nostalgia, not least for those dull, entry-level jobs. One of the people who wrote letters to me 20 years ago is now so busy that he can’t be expected to take a phone call, let alone write a letter. When I communicate with the rest of my old pen pals, I do so by e-mail, usually a few sentences at a time.

Of course, the letters also filled me with nostalgia for letter writing itself. Though I won’t pretend that this activity is morally preferable to e-mail or instant messaging, letter writing certainly was stylistically preferable. Letters had a beginning, a middle and a carefully crafted conclusion. Effort was exerted to make them discursive, amusing and readable.

E-mail, by contrast, is intended to convey instant thought and to evoke fast responses. Theoretically, there is no reason not to write long, elegant e-mails, but the medium works against it. Personally, I’m inhibited by the mental image of the recipient scrolling impatiently to the bottom, trying to get to the point so that he can get to the rest of his mail. And then there’s the need to write several dozen messages a day, as opposed to a single, occasional letter.

At times I have been tempted to write like a columnist. I’m moderately interested in politics and occasionally informed enough to have an opinion. The problem with newspaper columns is that they force you to take a position and address the current political situation. After a while though, politics grows old. Bush is an idiot? We heard that. The U.S. tortures people and eavesdrops. So what else is new? (That’s the administration we voted for after all). Iraq is an expensive quagmire? Bloggers were saying that in summer 2002.

If you write politically-oriented columns, you have to recognize that your columns will be forgotten about 10 years from now (and read today only if you are lucky). I worry about big picture things. Preserving culture and history, undermining mass media control, developing a peaceful society, electing reasonable leadership and overcoming superstition and groupthink. (That said, this blog hasn’t been a particularly noteworthy repository of these things, I have to admit).

If you are a blogger, go back to your archives from a few years ago and browse a little. Ask yourself, “does this really matter?” Was my attention really necessary?  Remember, the first reader for a blog or column is yourself. Links die, controversies resolve themselves, anger self-destructs. But memories need to be retained and reconstructed. Individuals need to evolve. When you look back, can you see how your perspective has evolved (hopfully for the better).

Although I read a lot of bloggers, I rarely read newspaper columnists anymore. Applebaum is one; Frank Rich is another (he’s hyperpartisan– I read him mainly for the barbs). I used to read Thomas Friedman, but his opinions seems derived from having coffee with CEO’s and information ministers. As time goes by, the columns of Mike Royko are becoming more enjoyable. (If you haven’t picked up an essay collection of his, you must; they are a delight).

In the Houston area we have the irrepressible Ken Hoffman and Leon Hale as well as Lisa Falkenberg (I think this column on ticket scalpers was great).


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