On December 28, 2004 I started this blog, which I rather portentously announced was to be “an inquiry into the relationship between freedom and morality.” Four years and 217 posts later, Vulgar Morality has become a strange, difficult-to-explain part of my existence — firmly connected to my mental life but, so far as I can tell, devoid of any evolutionary value, like a vestigial organ, the intellectual equivalent of the appendix.
When I started Vulgar Morality, blogging was new and full of mysterious promise. Some conceptualized the blog as a kind of individualist newspaper, able to merge mass communications with the power — and charm — of personality. Many bloggers wanted to broadcast their opinions, which they considered unrepresented in MSM. Porn and political rage flooded the market from the first, but the best early bloggers considered themselves participants in a peasant rebellion, and demonstrated an appropriate jauntiness, profanity, and enthusiasm.
Most of my favorite blogs of 2004, which served as models, have suffered untoward fates. Andrew Sullivan, the first blogger I read regularly, has pretty much returned to MSM in his associations no less than his opinions. English-language Arab bloggers like Big Pharaoh have been scared back into silence. Hoder, the Iranian blogfather, declined into an apologist of the theocratic regime, and in a horrific irony has now been imprisoned by its enforcers. Bjorn Staerk, the free-market Scandinavian, went quietly dark. Other bloggers I found interesting followed the same path.
This is evolution at work. The blogosphere is merely a corner of the Web, which remains in a state of nature, happily free of legal or regulatory restrictions. Competition to get attention, and keep it, is red in tooth and claw. Sex and rage enjoy a natural advantage. A single blogger, no matter how original, must labor mightily to avoid staleness and repetition. And, while the top blogs now apparently turn a profit thanks to Google ads, nobody starts blogging for the money.
The power curve has always ruled the blogosphere: 80 percent of the traffic goes to 20 percent of the blogs. Those that now command the head of the chart tend to be the cool connectors — like Glenn Reynolds’ Instapundit, an enduring favorite from 2004 which has only improved with time — and hot multi-author sites, like Pajamas Media, Huffington Post, and Daily Kos. Exceptions can easily be found, however: Sullivan and Michelle Malkin uphold the lone gunman tradition, and remain among the top 100 blogs in most listings. I find it interesting that both are journalists by trade.
Internationally, Arabic-language bloggers, largely absent in 2004, now thrive in Egypt, making trouble for a regime that has struck back with typical ferocity. The Iranian and Chinese blogospheres also continue to annoy their respective despotisms. In Cuba, a handful of brave bloggers led by Yoani of Generacion Y now offer the first fresh voice to emerge from that sclerotic tyranny. By no means has every change been a retreat.
My expectations for Vulgar Morality were rather offbeat, as befits the subject of the blog. I enjoy writing. It’s how I think. Instead of writing on a lot of tree pulp, I could put it all out in the open, where someone might stumble across it.
The theme of morality and freedom I considered then, and consider now, to be of supreme importance to the future of liberal democracy, American-style. Yet, for the purposes of public discussion, it seemed more indecent than pornography: one never talked about it in polite company.
Americans are a freedom-seeking people. We have shattered more chains, and pushed back more frontiers, than any nation in the history of our species. But we are also a tradition-loving people. Anyone who has ever lived abroad will discern a peculiarly American set of manners and morals: one that tolerates, to a remarkable degree, our neighbor’s strange uses of his freedom, but also sets limits to acceptable behavior in order to make community life pleasant, indeed possible.
The war on terror has turned a spotlight on the tension between American freedom and American morality. To lead truly worthwhile lives, we must be free to choose our personal path to salvation; yet too much freedom will embolden criminals and allow monstrous individuals to assault our way of life.
This moral dilemma is just one of many. Some academics, for example, maintain that marriage as an institution is doomed because it too severely restricts personal freedom in an age of self-expression. The Europeans seem to think the same of parenthood. Yet it doesn’t take a genius to realize that without marriage or children, there’s no future — and that other groups, far less interested in freedom of any kind, will move into the empty spaces left by an expressive but barren generation.
In the end, we are left with the paradox that stands at the center of this blog: to retain our freedom, and enlarge it, we must be in command of ourselves, because the alternative is either disintegration or to be commanded by government power.
Given the esoteric topic, I have never expected Vulgar Morality to climb high on the power curve. Mine is a niche enterprise, part of the long tail of information that today stretches nearly to infinity. On my high days, I get a couple hundred readers. My low days are low indeed.
I conceive of my efforts this way: I stand watch in a lighthouse on a far region of the intellect, where storm-tossed travellers, by accident or design, may come across its beacon, and even on occasion be guided by it. Vulgar Morality regularly gets readers from Britain, Australia, Italy, France, and Asian countries whose scripts get crudded up in my browser. That is a strange and wonderful thing.
But I don’t want to over-dramatize. I write a blog because I enjoy it. That was true in December 2004, and is still true today. The moment the fun ends, I’ll quit. After four years of ruminations and pontifications, it hasn’t happened yet — and I think I’m good for more.