Not An Ordinary Time
Once upon a time, this turn of events would have been unthinkable for the site. But in a decidedly odd development, we have had exactly zero submissions for the “Political Biography” symposium that was scheduled to begin today. So I’m cancelling it. As I see it, this is yet another manifestation of a deeper problem. Something is rotten in our online state of Denmark.
Please help us correct that.
This site ought to be the online equivalent of a dinner party amongst interesting friends. A college bull session, fueled by beer and fellowship and the thrill of sharing newly-learnt things. A re-creation of a symposium from classical times, where we fill each other’s wine glasses even while we debate. An environment where a multiplicity of different ideas are aired, heard, discussed, and shared. A place where people can engage in intellectual explorations, learn about new things, and try on new and different thoughts for size. For quite a while, and when the community is at its best, that’s a thrilling and exciting sort of place to be, a joyous bazaar of the mind where all manner of wares may be found on display.
Disappointingly, that’s not what it feels like around here right now. It’s been a long, long time since an author pulled a post and our recent experience has left me, frankly, embarrassed of the community here and the way that we treated a guest. Not to mention the loss of a remarkable and excellent piece of writing. It was a profound example of effort and time utterly wasted because our site’s culture is not in reality anything close to our aspirations.
This post isn’t written to point fingers, cast blame, or even call any particular person out. Which ought not to be taken as a pass by anyone when they reflect on their own conduct. It’s to address a broader issue of the gap between what we are, and what we want to be.
My colleague Will Truman wrote yesterday:
I expend a lot of effort trying to get outside voices to contribute to this site, and I don’t know how motivated I am to try to find good cooks if the general attitude is people with blowtorches talking about heat and kitchens.
This is a marvelous distillation of where we seem to be as a group right about now. In that sense, it’s no wonder that we’ve had zero submissions to the symposium. Looking back on it, the call for posts sounds a lot like, “Please lay down all of your vulnerabilities and mistakes and self-doubt from your personal past, so that we can lay down some soul-destroying epistolary beat downs on your too-healthy ego.” Who’s going to sign up for that?
This isn’t just about our recent experience with the guest post: that was a rather concentrated and attention-grabbing instance of the problem. There are other manifestations. Overall readership is declining. Substantial new writing is coming in less frequently than in the past even from our regular cadre of authors. Guest authors for the most part aren’t sticking around. Toxins brew in our comments threads — seemingly forgotten is the principle of charitable interpretation, commenters labor to frame others’ statements in the worst possible light, and then demonstrate smug self-satisfaction in having done so. The value of empathy for others — a mandatory element of cordial discourse — is openly and even pridefully questioned.
If we can’t get ourselves, as a community, back to a place where we are able to disagree without being disagreeable, then the community as a whole shall have failed.
A failure presents a limited range of options: scrap, salvage, or repair. Though it feels like we’ve done this before, let’s try “repair” one more time. Since we aren’t going to have a symposium after all, please use this forum to tell my colleagues on the editorial board and I what it is that isn’t going right and what you think we can do get back to being the kind of place we aspire to be.