There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says: ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing’. Scholars have differed about the correct interpretation of these dark words, which may mean no more than that the fox, for all his cunning, is defeated by the hedgehog’s one defense. But, taken figuratively, the words can be made to yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general.
For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel-a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance-and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related by no moral or aesthetic principle; these last lead lives, perform acts, and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal, their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision. The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes; and without insisting on a rigid classification, we may, without too much fear of contradiction, say that, in this sense, Dante belongs to the first category, Shakespeare to the second; Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, Proust are, in varying degrees, hedgehogs; Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Molière, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzak, Joyce are foxes.
– Isaiah Berlin “The Hedgehog and the Fox“
Harry Brighouse Henry Farrell [how in the world did I blow this one?], over at Crooked Timber weighs in critically on the blogs vs media arguments, which he characterizes as
The perennial issue of mainstream media bias and the superiority of blogs is undergoing a minor revival in the right wing blogosphere at the moment, much of it centered on a column by Nick Coleman of the Star-Tribune, which has the temerity to take on PowerLine. Coleman’s effort to “fact-check” the factcheckers is rather weak, but his main point is hard to refute – it’s a bit rich for slavering right wing hacks to accuse the mainstream media of ideological bias and expect to get taken seriously.
No, it’s not, actually.
Here’s the interesting point that Harry and others who criticize the blogosphere by criticizing individual blogs consistently seem to miss.
Yes, Glen and Powerline and Talking Points Memo and – gasp – even Winds of Change have biases, gaps, and flaws.
The question isn’t whether individually – mano a mano – we’re better than journalists are. We’re not. Mostly we’re not because we do this part-time while we have full-time jobs elsewhere, and because we don’t have the resources and social capital (“Please take my call, I’m a blogger…”) that the traditional media do. It’s not that journalists are smarter; I continue to be impressed by the intelligence and span of knowledge of people I meet in the blogging community.
And just go look below, or at my review of columns in the L.A. Times to ask whether there really is some slant in the mainstream media.
Skipping over Harry’s inflammatory “slavering right wing hacks” for the moment, let’s go looking for substance…
On which, see further Matt Welch’s entertaining takedown of Hugh Hewitt. There’s a curious sort of doublethink going on here, which culminates in a sort of dodge-the-responsibility two-step. On the one hand, bloggers like Glenn Reynolds respond to their critics by saying that they can’t cover everything, and that they’re not providing a news service, only opinions. On the other hand, they seem to believe that blogs should radically change or replace the mainstream media. Either of these statements is reasonable enough on its own,1 but taken in conjunction, they’re pretty jarring. If you think that blogs should replace the mainstream media, then you should be prepared yourself to live up to some minimal standards of scrupulosity, intellectual honesty, and willingness to deal fairly with facts that are uncomfortable for your own ideological position. You should be prepared to live up yourself to the standards that you demand of others. Exercising the “shucks, I’m just a little old blogger” get-out clause is rank hypocrisy when you want the blogosphere to devour the New York Times whole. Funny that Reynolds et al. don’t see it that way.
No, I think it’s that Harry misses the point, and it’s the same point missed in a party conversation a long time ago:
In the discussion, I had substantive issues with his points, which were essentially that journalism is superior to blogging because it has an editorial process which drives it toward ‘fairness’ (he felt that objectivity was impossible and not necessarily even desirable), but a fairness informed by the moral sensibilities of the institution (I’m pulling a short argument out of a long and somewhat rambling discussion). Bloggers obviously don’t.
I tried to make the suggestion to him that individual blogs weren’t necessarily good at driving toward fairness, but that the complex of blogs – the dialog and interaction between blogs – was, and might in fact be better than mainstream media, isolated as they are from feedback. (Note that Perry from Samizdata got this point before I finished the sentence).
That’s still the issue. It’s not whether Glenn Reynolds is more accurate at describing events than the New York Times, it’s about the notion that the complex of blogs – from Kos to LGF via Crooked Timber and Diplomad – is better at describing events.
If you’re just reading Winds of Change, you’re making a horrible mistake. One of the things that worries me about sites like Kos and LGF is the idea that the communities there are so big and active that many folks might just stay there – after all, it’s ideologically comfy for them (either because they agree with the framing beliefs of the site or because they reject them and get pleasure from looking at all the idiots who disagree with them).
The strength of the blogs is the strength of the fox; we know many things and among ourselves don’t try to tie them into one overarching narrative. The reader gets to do that.
Actually, think Seurat. The dots become colors and then images. It’s up to you – the reader – to look at enough of them to assemble those images.
UPDATE: The American philosopher William James also had a quote worth reading on the great vs. the small. Joe had a Dec. 31 recent post discussing Why 2004 Was The Year of the Blog, and Tim Oren follows up with a VC/strategist’s analysis of blog strengths, media weaknesses, and potential opportunities in Citizens’ Media in 2005: A Year to Dream Big.