Why I’m so long-winded

I was just reading my year-end report about my blog from WordPress, and according to them, during all of 2015, I had about 1,200 unique visitors to my blog. That might sound like a lot, but it’s actually pretty lousy, as blogs go. But that’s okay.

One of the few people who regularly reads my blog is my dad, and he’s always getting on my case for how long my posts are.

“Nobody,” he tells me, “has the attention span necessary to read through those posts you put up.”

I’m actually capable of being quite pithy, when the occasion arises. It’s a skill I developed when I worked as a newspaper reporter, and I’ve tried to develop it further through studying poetry and detective fiction — two genres where elegant concision is prized. When I write fiction, I try to be extremely economical with words. Hemingway, not Faulkner, is my lodestar.

I actually have good reasons for the prolixity of my discourse on this blog, and in the spirit of answering my Dad’s criticism, I thought I’d expand on it here.

At length. 🙂

I suppose my biggest reason for being long-winded here is that I’m not cutting and polishing tight little gemstones of artistic expression; I’m merely jotting down my thoughts.

Believe it or not, this amount of storage is paltry today.

Because we have long surpassed the period in computer development when memory was a serious concern for a simple text document, I see no real reason to worry about space when rambling on about whatever’s on my mind. The picture at right is about 22 or 23 years old, and it shows Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates sitting atop 330,000 single-spaced pages of text, which is roughly equivalent to the amount of data stored on the CD-ROM he’s holding in his hand. According to the Yellow Book standard, a CD-ROM should store roughly 682 MB of data. By modern standards, that’s pitiful. My home Wi-Fi downloads the equivalent of that stack of pages there in less than 30 seconds. Hell, according to my back-of-the envelope calculations, in less than 10 minutes my home Wi-Fi downloads the equivalent of 8 million single-spaced pages of text. That’s a stack of paper higher than the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

By my estimate, I’ve got room on this WordPress account for 1.4 million single-spaced typed pages. That’s a stack of paper roughly as tall as the Great Pyramid, and it’s all completely free. The per-unit cost for one single-spaced page of text in the digital realm in February of 2016 is so low that I am not sure you could figure it out with an average pocket calculator without forcing the display into scientific notation mode. Given that reality, and given the fact that I’m just sort of throwing this stuff out there as it comes into my head, it seems kind of silly to worry about length. 🙂

Another reason for my long-windedness is my imagined audience. Again, judging from my usage statistics, I don’t actually have much of an audience beyond my friends and family, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a specific sort of person I’m writing for. Briefly, I always try to picture the person reading my blog as someone who disagrees with me on nearly everything.

That makes concise communication a problem, because I’m convinced that a major driver of political alienation today is the fact that so much political discourse is conducted in a form of code, which can be off-putting to outsiders.

Let me give you an example: If I write, “Barack Obama is a communist who hates America,” it’s not necessary for me to explain to fellow right-wingers that I don’t really believe Obama is an actual communist who actually hates America. I doubt Obama would be capable of reading more than five pages of basic communist doctrine — whether Marxist, Leninist, Trotskyist, Stalinist, Maoist, or what have you — without falling asleep, and nobody who loves American pop culture as much as Obama does can really be said to “hate” America.

Folks on the right understand that my hyperbolic words in this instance are actually a stand-in for a complex network of arguments, observations, and philosophical assumptions that are widely shared within our digital community. Heck, even someone who DOES take that silly statement “Obama is a communist who hates America” at face value won’t immediately be laughed out of the room by a bunch of righties, because we’re all able to mentally interpolate the chain of reasoning that might cause an otherwise-rational person to come to such a crazy conclusion.

I assume there is a similar dynamic at work among left-wingers. Here’s the thing, though: Unless you are aware of these dynamics and are able to do the frankly laborious work of trying to place the various screeds and interjections in their proper context, a lot of political talk among people you disagree with will look to you like the ravings of a bunch of lunatics. But the people saying this stuff aren’t actually lunatics; they just seem that way because you just lack the ability to decipher their shared language.

It’s possible that things have always been this way, but it seems like it’s gotten worse as I’ve gotten older. I have a (long-winded) theory as to why that is, but I won’t get into it here. The upshot, though, is that there’s remarkably little actual communication between the left and right. I think this bodes ill for American society in the future. In the realm of spoken language, if two dialects diverge widely enough, they eventually split off into separate languages altogether; I think a similar transformation is starting to happen with the Western political tradition in general, and the American political tradition in particular.

In the spirit of resistance, though, I like to make an effort here to unpack my ideas as much as possible. I want a reader who disagrees with me to be able to look and see the machinery at work, to see the actual gears turning, so they’ll have some sense of where I’m coming from and will see that my views do not arise sui generis, but are a natural outgrowth of a pre-existing web of ideas, beliefs, and attitudes filtered through my own unique experiences.

It’s also my hope that this hypothetical reader who disagrees with me will come to some realization that they’re the same way. Those on the left like to see themselves as steel engines of pure reason — unlike us frothing, angry and bigoted right-wingers, they are perfectly objective and entirely unswayed by base emotion. They like to think that even educated, literate right-wingers are just a few steps up the ladder from Bible-thumping snake-handlers.

Well, maybe we are — but they shouldn’t fool themselves that they’re much different. As liberal writer Jonathan Haidt has observed, unreason is a seductive force which can ensnare liberal and conservative minds alike. By throwing open my own weird and flawed thought process, I hope to give some decent-hearted liberal out there greater insight into their own blind spots.

An aside: At the same time, we shouldn’t kid ourselves that greater mutual understanding will lead to more compromise and political comity. In a completely different context, John Derbyshire pointed out a few weeks back (scroll down to section 07 in the link) that mathematics has branched off into so many different disciplines that experts in some fields can barely communicate with experts in other fields. Now, mathematics is about as close as humans are ever likely to get to a language of pure reason. In theory, all of mathematics is merely a cold, logical procession of propositions, each new proposition building with bland inevitability upon previous propositions. In theory, every single person who meets some minimum threshold of mathematical understanding (say, a decent grasp of algebra, calculus and geometry) ought to be able to fully appreciate the total universe of human mathematical knowledge.

Hell, in theory, all of mathematics should be completely accessible to anybody capable of understanding “1 + 1 = 2.” If humans were nothing more than computers made of meat, capable of following a simple but unending iterative process of logical deduction, this would be the case.

But the human brain just isn’t built this way. Even with the most purely logical branch of knowledge we know of, people still wander off into their own secluded little tribes. Look: If we have people who have devoted their entire lives to a field of study where political, cultural, racial, sexual, or gender bias is impossible by definition, and these people still manage to split off into mutually-incomprehensible communities — well, I see little hope that human society will ever be capable of reaching some kind of Platonic age of perfect, unsullied reason, where all problems can be solved by some fanciful council of wise, Spock-like elders.

A third reason for my long-windedness: As I’ve noted before, I have a pretty strong sense of foreboding about the course of the American experiment in the near future. That being the case, I feel it’s probably worthwhile to create some kind of record of these times for posterity, so future historians might be able to understand all these upheavals from the point of view of a pretty average middle-age, lower-middle-class white guy. One of the irritating things about much of the historical record is that the perspectives and feelings of boring, average folks tend to get left on the cutting room floor. We have a pretty good sense of the perspectives of the very young, who can see the world unburdened by the baggage of the past, and the very old, who can place events within the broader context of their great wealth of experience.

But the boring mass of folks in the middle are largely silent. Think about, for example, movies set during World War II — the last really world-shattering, epochal event in Western history. You’ve seen countless movies from the point of view of people who were young during those years — like stories of raw young recruits going through boot camp and getting their first taste of battle. You’ve seen movies from the point of view of crusty old generals and hard-bitten, experienced political leaders. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie or read a book focusing on life as a middle-aged adult during those years — people too old to be serving in the military, but too young or too low on the totem pole to have a real bird’s-eye view of the situation. What was it like to be just an average Joe Six-Pack when it seemed the whole world was unraveling?

Well, perhaps it won’t turn out to be as interesting as all that. We shall see. In the meantime, I have a forum to dump my thoughts en masse instead of letting them bounce around irritatingly in my head. 🙂

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