Follow Reasonably Moderate on Twitter!

We’re happy to announce that there’s now yet another way to keep up with the latest from Reasonably Moderate. We’ve just debuted our Twitter account, @reasonablymod, which will tweet out links to our posts as soon as they go up. For now there will be no 140-character updates on what we’ve just eaten, but you never know what the future might bring.

We’ve also launched a new Gmail account, reasonablymoderateblog@gmail.com, that you can use to get in touch with us. Reactions to pieces and suggestions for future content (or simple friendly hellos!) are more than welcome. And as always, you can follow us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/reasonablymoderate.

Thanks for reading – and please spread the word!

Thoughts on Moderation

At the end of my last post, I mentioned that part of RM’s objective is to “model a different way of talking about politics [and religion, culture, etc.]” I also talked a little bit about how including something in our blogroll is not tantamount to endorsing everything it does or says or to applauding its potentially slanted way of perceiving the world (I’m looking at you, Politico).

I think we’ve got enough of a paper trail by now that you should be able to get some sense of the range of topics that we most enjoy discussing and debating. That said, it’s maybe not quite enough of a paper trail for you to trust that we aren’t just shills for a particular ideological perspective that we’re trying to quietly foist on you under the benign guise of “reasonable moderation.” So I thought I’d take a minute to offer some reflections on what I think it means to be moderate, and more specifically on what it means to be a “reasonable moderate.”

Chris already discussed the concept of “rational humility” in one of his earlier posts. Although he was writing about literary criticism rather than politics, his points hold up in other contexts as well. He argued that the role of bloggers such as ourselves should be to

act as companions to their readers rather than enforcers of a set hierarchical order of quality, a gentler Virgil to the purveyor’s Dante in a midst of cultural purgatory. They need to explain why they believe what they do in relatively extensive detail, laying out a clear and vivid case to support their opinions… The most successful media organizations in the future will be the ones that make your life, his life, her life, or their lives better. This utilitarian view is admittedly not all-encompassing, but I adhere to Plato’s belief that the wise man knows he knows nothing.

The piece goes on to consider how criticism can and should be offered in a constructive way, and how tone is just as important as substance when it comes to critiquing the ideas or work of others.

I think we’ve done a decent job so far trying to follow these precepts. To the extent that we’ve touched on any subject that has the potential to be seriously controversial though, we’ve mostly sidestepped the heart of the matter and dealt with questions that might seem, in the grand scheme of things, to be peripheral or even irrelevant. My reactions to the Supreme Court decisions on same-sex marriage focused mainly on legal logic. Chris’ piece on Alain de Botton talked about “new ways that people might come to believe” in the modern era but said nothing about theism or doctrine, focusing instead on the social mechanics of religious institutions. One impression that you might take away from what we’ve published so far is that we have no clear opinions about any of these deeper questions, or at least that we’ve convinced ourselves that to have any opinions about these questions is to cease being “moderate.” This is absolutely not so.

I briefly wrote at a blog called “The Conscience of a Centrist,” but it never really panned out the way I envisioned (mostly because of homework). In some ways I’m happy it didn’t, because not working on it ultimately freed me up to work on RM instead, and RM is better in at least two respects.

Number one, it’s collaborative. What worries me most about blogging is not that people will see what I write or that they’ll disagree with me (that’s what makes it interesting!), but that blogs, if poorly executed, tend to give off a whiff of narcissism. Their mere existence often seems to faintly suggest that their authors have an exaggerated sense of how much their opinions matter and how much other people should care about them. (In the case of Twitter this suggestion is hardly faint, and remains one of the key reasons why I almost exclusively use my account to follow and retweet. I don’t want to be that guy.) At least when it comes to magazines or newspapers or books, the material is vetted and curated by editors who can help to determine which portions others will find most interesting, and which parts can be safely axed.

But RM is a little different, because there are two of us! The focus is on conversation and interaction rather than uninhibited monologues, so the result is (hopefully) that our posts come off less as lectures and more as invitations to join us in thinking about something you might not have considered before. This is not to say that nobody who writes a blog solo is capable of attending to nuance and subtlety, but only that there are stereotypes about bloggers that need to be overcome in creative ways.

Second, the name of the blog has better connotations. Although the words “centrism” and “moderation” are often used interchangeably in popular discourse, it seems to me that there’s an important distinction. “Centrism,” with its implicit reference to a “center,” can mean different things at different times and in different places. The individual health insurance mandate was a “centrist” or even center-right policy when it was devised, but no longer. The mandate is now firmly associated with the left, and demagogued as part of a “government takeover of health care” by its opponents. Does this mean that its defenders, erstwhile centrists, are now wild-eyed radicals? When their political views haven’t shifted one bit?

You see the problem. There is nothing intrinsically noble about asking liberals and conservatives what they believe or support and then declaring that you believe and support something that falls halfway between those positions. Sometimes liberals are right and conservatives are wrong, and sometimes it’s the other way around. As I’ve defined it, centrism constitutes an unwillingness to confront that fact. But doesn’t confronting that fact involve giving up one’s ability to think of one’s self as an even-handed, open-minded, fair-minded person?

I would argue that it doesn’t, and that that’s where moderation comes in. Moderation is an approach, not a particular worldview or slate of political positions. It describes a mode of interaction, a style of engagement. One can take sides on a particular issue, but still be willing to engage respectfully with those who disagree, work to incorporate their concerns in the formation of policy, etc. Although the words “extremist” and “moderate” are generally taken to refer to how closely one’s views hew to the ideological mainstream, they are just as often understood to describe ways of dealing with one’s fellow citizens, coreligionists, or the like. “Extremism” connotes zealotry and close-mindedness; “moderation” connotes thoughtful deliberation and an eagerness to cooperate with others.

Can moderation be unreasonable? I started off by saying that I wanted to explain what I mean by “reasonable moderation,” but you might be wondering by now whether the modifier is ultimately superfluous. When Chris talked about “rational humility,” he argued that bloggers hoping to influence the thinking of others “need to explain why they believe what they do in relatively extensive detail, laying out a clear and vivid case to support their opinions.” This is important: moderation should always be informed by facts and manifested in careful argument. It should not be allowed to devolve into a kind of obsequiousness or an excessive deference to the rhetoric of others and a reticence to criticize when necessary. There is a certain variety of pundit that likes to fantasize about how a golden age of political cooperation could be restored if only our leaders could all learn to be nice to one another. And while encouraging comity is not a bad thing to do, good manners alone are insufficient. The fact is that the divide in our politics is real and serious, and cannot be simply wished away. Even moderates can come to believe unreasonable things.

The question remains: are we intentionally avoiding getting to the heart of controversial issues? Perhaps, but if we are I don’t think it’s because we’re afraid of compromising our status as “reasonable moderates.” Any decision to keep clear of third rails, at least thus far, has been made out of an earnest desire to gain your trust. What would you think if we kicked off this project, this reasonably moderate project, with a post about how gun control is terrible, or how we should legalize all drugs, or how broccoli is objectively the best vegetable?

This is not to say that there’s been any sort of subterfuge involved. We haven’t actively censored ourselves or sanitized our beliefs to make them safe for primetime. We are not secret neo-Nazis. What we have done is try to find fresh angles from which to approach the subjects we write about, with a hope of drawing attention to interesting minutiae that tend to be ignored when those subjects usually come up. Hence the meditations on whether the definition of marriage should be settled in the courts or through referenda, or what sort of administrative shakeups the pope might be planning.

This should not be thought of as the last word on what we’re all about. The tension between the desire – or rather, the imperative – to be “moderate” in dealing with others and the need to stake out and defend clear positions that will ultimately alienate at least some people is one that can never be completely eliminated. But my hope is that RM will do its best to strike the right balance going forward, and that you’ll stick with us even when we don’t see eye-to-eye.

Speaking of last words: Chris offered me the opportunity to make some final remarks in our back-and-forth about Pope Francis and Chris Christie, but I think I’ll let his most recent contribution to the debate be its conclusion, since he seems to have tied up all the loose ends quite nicely. Maybe next time he’ll say something stupid and I’ll have to beat him to a rhetorical pulp, but I just did the whole moderate thing and… I should probably run with that for at least a little while.

Writing with Rational Humility

Matt and I agreed upon the name Reasonably Moderate for this site because it captured a tone of rational humility that we hope to exhibit in our posts and exchanges. I’d like to take a closer look into how this will affect what we’ll be writing, as well as how our work links to a larger debate over critical authority.

The blogging platform is an egalitarian model of culture that emphasizes mass commentary and peer-to-peer recommendations. Blogs represent the distillation of one man or woman’s opinion to a (comparatively) small group of readers, and the aggregation of these recommendation networks forms the basis for cultural prominence. Hugh Howey’s recent acclaim for his Wool books comes to mind as an example of this.

This broad-base method of recommendation has clashed with the other main model of critical analysis, that of the hierarchical and top-down institutional approach. This is the traditional model that we see in most major publications: a professional critic, widely knowledgeable in his given field, provides commentary on the quality of a given item. Many of these publications write with absolute authority, as if they are the last remaining protective bastions of their respective cultural milieu. The worst of these organizations are those that post one or two paragraphs of vague commentary along with a numerical rating, the weight of their review entirely dependent on the strength of their brand name. (Rolling Stone comes to mind as a frequent and particularly egregious offender.)

The increasing dichotomy between blogging and institutional criticism represents a powerful shift in how we consume and interpret information. The ways in which we experience art and content of all kinds are an offshoot of these how we learn about their existence and quality, and the debate over how people review content has implications for our organizational cultural structures in coming years. Sir Peter Stothard, editor of Britain’s Times Literary Supplement and judge for the Man Booker Prize, recently argued that blogs dilute the quality of literary commentary and that professional critics provided better judgment for artistic standards. “It is wonderful that there are so many blogs and websites devoted to books, but to be a critic is to be importantly different than those sharing their own taste… Not everyone’s opinion is worth the same,” he says. “Eventually (blogging) will be to the detriment of literature. People will be encouraged to buy and read books that are no good, the good will be overwhelmed, and we’ll be worse off.”

D.G. Meyers echoes this attitude in a critique of how the Los Angeles Review of Books has decided to forgo reviewing poorly written debut novels because, in the words of editor Evan Kindley, “most authors’ careers fade away on their own, and… it’s easy and not that interesting to eviscerate first-timers.” Mr. Meyers views the reviewing process as a means of protecting the core canon against inferior prospective entries: “If I am to be an assistant, however, I will be an assistant not to book-buyers, but to literature.”

In writing for Reasonably Moderate, I plan to write in accord with Mr. Stothard’s argument though not with his soft pomposity. I reject Mr. Meyers’ assertion entirely for the purposes of this site. Commentators and reviewers should act as companions to their readers rather than enforcers of a set hierarchical order of quality, a gentler Virgil to the purveyor’s Dante in a midst of cultural purgatory. They need to explain why they believe what they do in relatively extensive detail, laying out a clear and vivid case to support their opinions. In this sense, Mr. Stothard is correct in saying that a definite distinction exists between professional critics and bloggers, but I believe the two fill mutually exclusive needs. Neither is deleterious to how people consume media and ideas.

I’m not interested in trying to define or defend a given order of quality or status as Mr. Meyers asserts. The most successful media organizations in the future will be the ones that make the most effective and rational case for why their pieces can make your life, his life, her life, or their lives better. This utilitarian view of art is admittedly not all-encompassing, but I adhere to Plato’s belief that the wise man knows he knows nothing. The goal here is not to defend a hierarchical order of quality, which can be left to critics with a far broader base of knowledge that will yield more expansive insights and contrasts.

The opinions and critiques published on this site will be in the spirit of Plato’s insight. Thoughts and analysis will be a starting point for further debate and discussion rather than of brash assumptions of ultimate authority. Strong criticism will be incorporated when justified, but this criticism is delivered in the frustration of seeing the potential quality in the work go unrealized. It is not meant to be an indictment of a creator’s person but rather the specific choices he or she made that detracted from ideas they did not effectively convey.

In contrast, positive criticism will serve as enthusiastic advocacy of why a given creator or cultural actor has created something that will make the consumer better in some way. Emphasis will be given to how a creator has tapped into a channel of innovation and distilled it into a powerful theme, argument, paragraph, melody, or image.

This is pretty straightforward stuff that most writers and bloggers implicitly manifest in their work. But it’s important to emphasize the importance of this tone to what we’re doing. As the cultural models of recommendations and analysis continue to develop and clash, it’s beneficial to strike a middle ground and explicitly acknowledge the benefits and drawbacks of your analytic approach. We hope the aforementioned writing style will help yield strong and nuanced discussions down the line.

The Second of the First Posts

Welcome to Reasonably Moderate and thanks for reading.  We’ve been planning this for quite some time and we’re thrilled to get it off the ground.

Matt laid out the guiding principles for the site in his first post.  I echo his sentiment about how we hope to elicit constructive debates through the discussion of contemporary issues and events.  We hope you’ll add your voice to these conversations.  The benefit of the blog lies in testing our initial assumptions and arguments in a streamlined form, and I hope your feedback will be a part of this process.

A brief word about the general content that I’ll be posting.  While I plan on writing about the triad of politics, culture, and religion, my areas of interest skew towards the cultural side of things, primarily publishing, technology, literature, education, economics, and media.  My daily commute affords me a great deal of time to listen to music, so a number of posts (at least initially) will concern the stuff I’ve been sampling over the past year.

My next post will focus on the role of the “review” and how I plan to approach the concept of analyzing content of all kinds.  This will include a critical architecture of my approach to writing for this site.  I mention this because I think it’s important to understand the motivations and biases of who you read, and our goal is to be as open and transparent as possible.  So please be sure to check this out.

That’s about it.  Thanks again for reading- we’re excited to kick this thing off, and we hope you’ll enjoy the results.

The First of the First Posts

It’s happening at last! After a (very) lengthy gestation, Reasonably Moderate has arrived. Chris and I have been having nauseatingly respectful intellectual slugfests in real life for quite some time – at least half a decade by our latest reckoning – so we’re excited to finally be having them in a forum where we can let spectators in on the action.

As we note on the “About” page, RM is going to feature discussions about politics, religion, and culture, with an inevitable focus on America, Catholicism, and our own Millennial generation. While each of us has a certain set of pet topics that we like to write about, our goal is to engage each other regularly and do our best to find subjects about which we can have constructive debates. I mean slugfests.

My own hope is that the existence of RM will act as an incentive for me to finally record a greater percentage of my ideas in written form, and that the blog will serve as a nice repository of my interactions with Chris. What would otherwise be hidden from the eyes of the world in a secret Facebook thread is now available for the enjoyment of the masses.

So welcome! We look forward to hearing your thoughts and reading your comments as this gets underway. The more the merrier. Just remember, keep it reasonable.