It has been a rather remarkable 2 1/2 weeks for the new Left2Right blog featuring leading moral and political philosophers. With links from a number of well-trafficked blog sites (including the right-wing National Review blog!), the site appears to be averaging close to 4,000 hits per day (a bit more than this blog, for example, which has been around much longer), with many threads yielding 100 or more comments (though there are a handful of, shall we say, especially vocal repeat players in the comments sections). The Technorati search engine shows more than 150 other sites linking to Left2Right already!
There is much that is interesting, politically and sociologically, about this phenomenon. Here are a few observations, in no particular order:
(1) As with the Becker-Posner blog, the sudden popularity of the Left2Right blog shows that having real knowledge, skills, and achievements counts, even in the blogosphere. (Having open comments no doubt helps too!) In two weeks, the Left2Right blog has a level of visibility that 99% of all blogs never achieve, and that the remaining 1% take months, sometimes years, to achieve. The explanation is simple: readers are interested in what those who have documented skills and accomplishments have to say. Contrast this, say, with a typical right-wing blogopath who--despite years of posting, a large pre-existing audience for conservative tripe, and even periodic boosts from InstaIgnorance--averages maybe 1,000 hits per day, often much less. The moral: there is a limited market, even in the blogosphere, for the opining of those who lack real skills and achievements.
(2) Another factor in the blog's popularity--as noted, parenthetically, above--is the existence of a comments function. Predictably, the quality of the commentary has not been high (though it is not uniformly hopeless), and at times one feels that the opportunity to anonymously attack distinguished academics is the raison d'etre for many of the commentators being there. For obvious reasons, the blogosphere is awash with the ressentiment of those who otherwise do not have fora for their prejudices and parochial fantasies, hence the opportunity to foist them upon individuals of real accomplishment is probably irresistible. As one trusted reader remarked long ago, regarding the talk radio phenomenon (but it applies equally to blogs, comments on blog, Internet discussion groups and so on): "It has empowered the previously mute pent-up malcontents suffocating in America to vent with impunity. If you spit on the sidewalk, you can be fined. If you spit verbally on decent people, you are applauded by other sputum-laden verbal wheezers." Alas, there is more than a little spitting going on in the comments at the Left2Right site.
(3) The initial rationale for Left2Right--to find a way to initiate dialogue with those on "the right" and to listen and learn from conservative values--met with a somewhat mixed response. At one extreme are commenters like the one on this site:
Isn't the term "useful idiots" reserved for people like these? Listen and learn? Why not just bend over? And my answer is no, there are no conservative "values" I care to share.
But a more tempered version of the same sentiment comes from Jessica Wilson (Philosophy, Michigan):
The unfortunate truth is that all this endless handwringing (not so much in Left2Right, but throughout the progressive sphere, as in this week's Nation) about how we can get through to the right may well be a waste of time.
Perhaps it's time to start thinking in different terms about the relation between left and right. Rather than trying to fruitlessly bridge the divide, we need to start protecting ourselves from the right and its agenda.
Perhaps because of this response, the blog has since changed its rationale.
(4) Reading the comments at Left2Right, it is hard not to feel that many on the Right believe that the only way to "listen" to them is to accept, uncritically, what they believe, and that if you dispute the accuracy or rationality of these beliefs, you are being "condescending" or "arrogant." One of the odd ways in which egalitarian sensibilities have permeated the culture (even on the far right) is the sensitivity people feel towards having to answer to facts, evidence, and arguments: It is, as though, equality of regard says, "How dare you disabuse me of my myths and falsehoods (how dare you call them what they are!). They are mine!"
(5) Of course, one way to "reach out to the Right" is to adopt their positions, as, I am alarmed to see, various posters at Left2Right are sometimes doing: so, e.g., we have gushing about the virtues of markets, an endorsement of repudiating those on the left of the Democratic party, an affirmation of patriotism (but liberal patriotism, mind you!), coupled with a breathtaking dismissal as "absurd" of what is in fact one of the few plausible explanations for the invasion of Iraq, namely, that the U.S. sought strategic control over oil reserves (as another poster on the same site even observed in passing).
This, I'm afraid, isn't dialogue, but capitulation--which isn't in short supply in the Democratic Party these days, making it all the more depressing to see serious academics taking part. Good philosophers need to have the courage of their convictions, and not pander to the forces of darkness. Of course, they may not be pandering, and they may really believe these things, but in that case perhaps the word "left" is misplaced in the blog's name.
(6) Most of the postings to date don't, it seems to me, have this unfortunate capitulation aspect to them, and many are quite interesting, which is why I've added Left2Right to my links, the first blog I've added in a very long time. It will be interesting to see whether the high level of interest in the first two weeks is sustained over time. Hopefully, too, we shall see an improvement in the quality of the comments as time goes on, and many of the "spitters" move on.
UPDATE: Some of the preceding points are amply confirmed by the right-wing Weekly Standard "review" [sic] of the Left2Right blog. (Most memorable line: "As anyone who reads or writes a blog soon learns, a mix of outrage and arrogance is preferable to what's replaced them on Left2Right--a wearying combination of earnest bewilderment and political naiveté.") Professor Velleman replies here.