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January 12, 2005


Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Some blogsurfers may have run across the brilliant and prolific commenter who signed himself as "Zizka." Zizka never showed up at 2Blowhards, darn it. But he was a frequent and welcome presence at GNXP and a few other blogs.

Zizka turns out to be John Emerson, from Portland, Oregon. And John, who no longer uses the Zizka moniker, turns out to run his own provocative and idea-rich website, Idiocentrism. At the moment, he seems to be in the process of converting some of it into a blog-like thing, always a welcome development. But Idiocentrism is full of essays, reviews, reflections, and ventings. It's a very rewarding site that I feel I'm just beginning to know. Ancient-world demographics, Freud, hemoglobin, W.C. Fields -- no one can accuse John of not fearlessly going his own intellectual way.

John's a -- deep breath here -- radical leftie. Well, I wonder if that's really fair. If he is, he's a radical-leftie of a sort I've always found simpatico: more-or-less anarchistic; wide-ranging; self-powered; quirky to the max; and as averse the the top-down, overbureaucratized, self-adoring, mainstream-rationalist-"liberal" thang as I am.

I put in a number of years as a fringe person myself, and regret the time not a bit. Gestalt therapists, porno comicbook writers, extremist eco-freaks, self-publishing punk-rock leftovers -- for a long time, that was my scene. I even published some writing in anarchist rags; despite the lack of pay and the low readership numbers, I had far better experiences publishing in 'zines than I ever did publishing in the popular press. Was it because my views corresponded more closely to the fringe's than they did to the mainstream's? Or was it because I found many of the fringe people to be more decent on a personal level than the high-powered people were?

Although the fringe-world certainly abounds in loonies and crazies, it also houses many well-rumpled, wry-spirited, entertainingly-whacky, beyond-open-minded, and humane souls. And, y'know, it seems to me that Kropotkin, Bakunin, and Colin Ward (my favorite writer-thinkers from my anarchist years) blend harmoniously with the likes of Denis Dutton, Jane Jacobs, Christopher Alexander, and Stephen Toulmin, a few of my current fave brainiacs. I see many connections. But that's material for another posting.

I notice that John is, if anything, even more of a Toulmin (and Montaigne) freak than I am. I notice a few other things as well: that John's got the kind of wide-ranging, searching, and open mind that I love learning from and comparing notes with; and that he has made his online site his life's work. Idiocentrism is a serious publishing venture and experiment, in much the same way that the traditionalist conservative Jim Kalb's site Turnabout is. These are sites that are as rich and as deep as a good book. Given that both guys continue to add to their sites, and given that they blog and respond to comments, their sites strike me as more alive in many ways than even the best books are. What's the big whoop about whether or not writing has been packaged into a book anyway? Classy writing is classy writing. Let's read it where we find it.

FWIW, I've long been convinced that the Extreme Lefties I've liked and the Extreme Righties I've liked actually share a lot of common ground. But John and Jim might well throw tomatoes at me if I were ever to say such a thing out loud.

Here's hoping some visitors will join me in making Idiocentrism a regular stop on their blogsurfing rounds.



posted by Michael at January 12, 2005


Wow. That was...unexpected. Shiv-in-the-back unexpected.

I just read self-advice on a friendly blog of "do not post in anger", so I will just limit myself to saying that Mr. Emerson is one of the two most unpleasant blogger-commenters I've encountered in 2 years of blog-reading. Interestingly, my impression is 180 deg opposite of yours, Michael - I find him indoctrinated, narrow-minded, impolite, a radical-agenda-pusher and self-admiring snob. I most certainly not going to honor his blog with my attention.

I am glad I didn't let the scope of my feeling to manifest itself. I think I'm getting better in self-control.

Posted by: Tatyana on January 12, 2005 3:18 PM

I'm sorry to hear that. I hadn't run across that side of him.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 12, 2005 4:21 PM

Part of my ditching the Zizka name and starting a new site was to put my past behind me, to a degree anyway. I have always tried somewhat to separate my political polemics from everything else, but apparently not successfully in Tatyana's opinion.

It is accurate to say that when I have my political hat on I'm pretty harsh to opponents who also have their political hats on. My reading of American history since Gingrich is that this country is reasonably close to civil war, and that my side will almost certainly lose if that happens, so I'm ill-tempered at times.

My politics have come at quite a cost. I have family and school connections with very prominent libertarians, Christian conservatives, and neo-conservatives, none of which will ever do me any good. I don't really try to match the Anti-Idiotarian Rottweiler, Little Green Footballs, Ann Coulter, et. al., from the left, but I am of the opinion that you have to play the game the way it's being played.

I call Idiocentrism "less-political", and to date only two of my 10-20 posts there have been overtly political. These were a snarky comment at the end of something nonpolitical, and a harsh but deserved comment on Biblical literalists.

I welcome readers from here, anyway, and find this site worth visiting too,

Posted by: John Emerson on January 12, 2005 4:58 PM

Goodness...I had to read Mr. Emerson to see what generated such a passionate diversity of opinion. I read some of his political posts, and I'm afraid I didn't see anything so horribly vain or subversive. It's not red-state fare (sorry for the cliche), and it is, candidly, less entertainingly presented than Bill Maher. I can also see taking the opposite side of some of his arguments in a debate-team kind of way. He says that "social security" has become a code word among conservatives for "Democrats" and therefore saying that is broken is a repudiation of the whole party. But of course one could also argue that Democrats are also treating it as a code word for themselves, and therefore are unwilling to fix its deficiencies because that would be like admitting their philosophy needs fixing, no? Maybe all sides of the political spectrum are now talking in code. But anyway...maybe I didn't read enough, but I'm not sure I saw the Next Great Thinker or the Next Great Satan, either. Interesting.

Posted by: annette on January 12, 2005 8:41 PM

The piece Annette read problably was by my partner Dave Johnson. I mostly agree with him, but he's not me. It's mostly on comments lines that the evil Zizka expressed himself.

Posted by: John Emerson on January 12, 2005 9:12 PM

re: extreme left/right common ground

there's always been a natural affinity between anarchists and libertarians (danny yee has noted that "if you search the web for information on medieval Iceland, you'll find a running fight between the libertarians and anarchists over who can best claim it as an exemplum.")

however, the sticking point, funnily enough, happens to be in that notion of "common ground." arch-libertarians simply don't believe in it (against altruism anyone? :) whereas the left-anarchist ideal is of a communal sharing, gift-exchange economy, which is pretty much antithetical to having strict circumscription of property and ownership rights for *everything* and the system of control that that would entail.

as far as online née public intellectuals and the attention economy goes, whilst most i believe have moved to a weblog format, i still hold a fond regard for those who're still kickin' it old school :D

with that, idiocentrism looks interesting, thanks for sharing and bringing it to my attention! oh and i grew up in portland, well beaverton (well cedar mill - the suburbs, far from the radical eclecticism of reed or anarchist eugene at any rate :) good to hear from that neck of the woods, PDX reprezent!


Posted by: glory on January 12, 2005 9:39 PM

You mean not all lefties conform to the caricature their rightist opponents persist in drawing of them? I'm shocked, shocked...

Posted by: James Russell on January 13, 2005 1:30 AM

Mr. Russell,
Lefties (note, I didn't say Democrats) surpass any caricatures "their opponents" could ever concieve.
Who do you think sent those charming e-mails to Ms.Malkin, right red-state racists?

Posted by: Tatyana on January 13, 2005 10:49 AM

Glory -- I remember quarrels between Kropotkin/Goldman-style anarchists and anarcho-capitalists that were pretty amazing. Who was the real anarchist? (Seemed to me they each had a bit to learn from each other. But that wasn't about to happen.) And even some lefties who like activist govt and some righties who are into a stronger state seem to me to have a lot in common. Both are concerned with virtue; both often worried about the societally-ravaging effects (as they see 'em) of the free market; both have an ideal vision of a semi-cohesively-knit-together society. The criticisms of the free-market universe that are made by people like Jim Kalb or Roger Scruton (or even Pat Buchanan), if you hid the names of the speakers, might well be mistaken for criticisms by Marxists. They share a lot of analysis and criticism. They differ (a lot) when it comes to offering solutions.

James -- I tend to think there's a bit of truth to most caricatures, don't you? I may be more prone to gripe about the injustice of the lefty portrayal of mid-America because I life among arty-media lefties. But I wonder ... The lefty image of a terrifying wasteland populated by retards, religious nuts, homophobes and racists corresponds not at all (well, maybe about 10%) with what I know of that part of the country, where I grew up, which I visit regularly, etc. In my experience, while horizons can get mighty narrow, people from that part of the world are about as nice, friendly, well-wishing, and sweet as you can imagine. Generally speaking, they're hard-working people trying to get on with life, and they wish other people well. They may not know a gay person, but they wish him/her well. They're moderately curious about lefties, though bewildered by them. Why wish anyone ill, unless they've flatout attacked you? But I've never met as many people who outright wish some people ill as I have since I started moving in flashier, leftier, more urban circles. They really, really hate. (If the God-fearing have their devil figures, so do urban lefties.) I have to protect myself fairly constantly against urban lefties; my guard's almost always up, because if it's not they'll do me personal damage. It's quite a price to pay (I find) for living where there's a lot of art available. And the vicious way many urban lefties carry on about the heartland -- insulting, abusive, snotty, and in open settings ... I've seldom heard anything like it (heartlanders being openly vicious about the lefty urban centers) in the heartland, except from the occasional fanatic. I genuinely think that most heartlanders simply don't hate urban-lefties anything like the way it's common for urban lefties to outright hate and have contempt for heartlanders. But who knows? I might well have a different take on all this if I lived in the heartland instead ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 13, 2005 11:47 AM

Well, if there is truth in cariacatures, then the lefties who wrote to M Malkin (as linked by Tatyana) are grotesque race-baiting stupid horrible pigs. Yipes! So much for the, uh, politics of virtue!! Are these lefties? Or just stupid convicted rapists who got access to the internet in a Massachusetts prison?

Posted by: annette on January 13, 2005 12:20 PM

re: prescriptive differences/similarities

i'm not sure they differ so much more than generic and branded products differ, once you strip out the ideology. in practise, i think it comes down to how best externalities (positive and negative) are captured, which also happens to be when these discussions start to get boring :D

so, i'll pass the mic to amartya sen, riffing on hayek!

Consider Hayek’s insistence that any institution, including the market, be judged by the extent to which it promotes human liberty and freedom. This is different from the more common praise of the market as a promoter of economic prosperity. A huge part of economic theory is concerned with the prosperity argument, going back to Adam Smith and David Ricardo. That connection is indeed important, and it is not surprising that so much attention has been devoted to seeing the market mechanism from this perspective - defending its achievements as well as disputing particular claims and proposing qualified endorsements. Yet Hayek was surely right to insist on clarity regarding the purpose of seeking prosperity. Markets have to be judged, he argued, by their role in advancing freedoms, not just in generating more income (as Hayek once said: making money can be of interest only to the miser). This integrative perspective demands that we be concerned both with the outcome of market processes (including the economic prosperity it may generate and the extent to which that would advance human freedom) and with the processes through which these results are brought about (including the liberty of action that people have in an institutional system).

to the extent that liberty and welfare are interchangeable (as well as freedom w/ utility or 'capability' :) the scope of action (and institutional process) along the left-right axis shrinks.

once that's acknowledged, the center gets crowded (and internecine!) to the chagrin of some, left at the fringe who don't want to play :D


Posted by: glory on January 13, 2005 3:59 PM

My attempt to make my site less-political seems to have come to naught. Thank you, Tatyana!

Michael, you might find people in your hometown less warm and accepting if you were actually different from them, the way you are different from the artsy liberals. I'm presuming that you aren't a non-white queer.

I've had similiar experiences with very conservative evangelicals I know. They're the kindest people in the world face-to-face, but when issues are raised about the far distant world, they can become frightening in what they presume, accept, and think is justified -- but without ceasing to be polite. (There's that tendency to be nice to persons but not to the groups they belong to, often ending up with "We didn't mean you personally".)

Posted by: John Emerson on January 13, 2005 7:05 PM

But you yourself just said that that is just like liberals. So what's the difference?

Posted by: annette on January 13, 2005 10:43 PM

Annette -- Michael was saying that there is a difference.

Posted by: John Emerson on January 14, 2005 12:45 AM

I've debated with zizka several times (mostly on the defunct Invisible Adjunct site -- hey, they rhyme!) and always found him to be quite civil. I'd like him to be more skeptical about the question of whether the US is becoming a more economically stratified society. I think he accepts common left-wing arguments -- which I think are based on a faulty understanding of widely-available statistics -- too readily, both because of what he and I see in our normal everyday life and because he is accepting a leap from that statistic to a belief that society is also more stratified. Hope that was clear but I'll rephrase on request.

Posted by: JT on January 14, 2005 8:04 PM

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