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Gulliver's travails

John Steinberg - Raw Story Columnist
Published: Friday May 19, 2006

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Recently an obscure comedian named Stephen Colbert made an appearance at the White House Correspondent's Dinner did you by any chance hear about it?

Duh. Of course you did replays and discussion have lit up the Internet like white phosphorous.

Perhaps you have also seen the way the ostriches of the mainstream have reacted. Like, for instance, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, who was not amused, and wrote a column expressing his displeasure.

If you are a consumer of political web offerings, you have probably seen a rebuttal or five. Poor Man. Glenn Greenwald. Robert Parry. Me. In fact, Technorati lists more than 200 blogs that link to Cohen's column. A substantial majority make the same point that Cohen didn't get the joke because, as a member of the incompetent Washington glitterati, he was the butt of it.

Ten years ago, that point might never have been made in a way that the great unwashed could access it. I might have said to myself, "This drivel shows no insight, questionable logic, and not much in the way of rhetorical skill. Why do they print this crap?" But that would have been the end of it. Gulliver would have remained largely unaware of the rumblings in Lilliput.

Most of us have, at one time or another, looked at movie or pop music stars and said, "Hell, I could do that." But such musings were abstract and academic: unless we found a very rich sponsor to pony up the long green required to make and promote an action flick, or a record and a music video, our daydreams would stay just that. And so the Steven Seagals and Back Street Boys of the world had nothing to fear from us. Everyone's illusions remained safe ours that we could do it, theirs that they deserve their lofty perches by virtue of their talent and accomplishments.

Similar dynamics once ruled the chasm between those who read newspapers and those who wrote them especially the columnists. Once in a while I fancied myself a Bernstein or a Woodward (1970s version, natch), but the regular columnists the folks who got paid to package up a weekly polemic of their own choosing in a half-page or so now that was a cool gig. But the Krauthammers and Brookses and Cohens of the world existed on a plane I could barely imagine. I assumed that these pundits were selected on merit, even if the basis was not always obvious to me.

Knowing what I think I do about human nature, I have to believe that the perception of a large, merit-based gap between the columnar haves and have-nots was mutual. I doubt I would have to scratch very hard to uncover a sense of entitlement and belief that the punditocracy deserved their lofty stature, and that it was part of the Natural Order that they Spoke, and we listened.

And then there were blogs.

Imagine Cohen's reaction as his work is savaged by thousands of nameless, faceless, Lilliputians, most of whom have never smelled a hot Linotype. Try to picture his pique as the uncredentialed rabble presume to challenge the opinions, the assumptions and the logic of their betters. (Actually, you no longer have to imagine the next installment of Cohen's advanced case of the vapours is now on public display, and has already been ridiculed by many of the usual suspects.)

Like the Hollywood elite, the punditocracy believes it has earned its lofty position. But unlike their LaLaLand counterparts, they are now under siege: technology has provided the means to prove them wrong in a highly public media that they do not control. Until the Big Telcos get their way, my words, and the words of thousands of other critics, are as accessible as poor Richard's. And the online version of Washington Post his own newspaper! goes so far as to show the Technorati link to vile blogs by the score, right there on the same page as his own time-honed prose.

The Internet's long memory of Gulliver's travails doesn't help either. As Greg Mitchell recently reminded us, Cohen was the guy who wrote, in February 2003:"Iraq not only hasn't accounted for its weapons of mass destruction but without a doubt still retains them. Only a fool -- or possibly a Frenchman -- could conclude otherwise." He is the man who wrote that "the Iraq war is not the product of oil avarice, or CIA evil, but of a surfeit of altruism." And that "so many liberals, myself included, originally supported the war (because it) engaged us emotionally." He is the man who gave us such bon mots as "Corruption of any kind corrupts" and who advised a high school student, "You will never need to know algebra." He is the oracle who informed us last October that "The best thing Patrick Fitzgerald could do for his country is get out of Washington, return to Chicago and prosecute some real criminals."

Once upon a time such bilgewater sank quickly out of sight, retrievable only through hours staring at a microfiche reader. But now it is instantly accessible to the many the simple folk who simply cannot fathom the complex pressures faced by big-time columnists who must schmooze the powerful over hors d'oeuvres and martinis.

The blogosphere has produced writers of exceptional merit. The best work from Digby and Bilmon and Glenn Greenwald and many others proves that the difference between the self-anointed and at least some of us in the swarm of Africanized bees chasing them is not talent, as others have pointed out. The difference is their access to power, which corrupts as inevitably as having it. I don't know if Richard Cohen once deserved his pulpit. Once upon a time he may have been William Randolph Hearst. But he is now Patty, holding his own (unloaded) Tommy gun, trying (and failing) to look like one of the real shooters.

The Internet has exposed the glaring inadequacies of privileged hacks like Cohen. It has revealed for all, in the immortal word of Maureen Dowd, his own tropism. It has shown, beyond question, that there is only a small man of meager talent behind the editorial curtain. Denied his lofty perch at the Post, Cohen would make nary a ripple, joining the Kaye Grogans of the world in search of an audience dumb enough not question their faulty logic.

The blogosphere has shown that there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of us, Lilliputians all, who are better columnists than Richard Cohen is. We did not pay the same dues, but those dues are now irrelevant. Decades of whisky swilling and weenie stabbing may have clogged Cohen's arteries and corroded his liver, but they do not help him construct a cogent argument, or protect him from the slings and arrows of our outrageous deconstruction.

We will continue to out-think and out-hustle fossils like Cohen as long as they cling to their proximity to power as their talisman. And in the end we will beat them not in spite their access to power, but because of it.


John Steinberg is a Senior Recidivist with the Poor Man Institute for Freedom and Democracy and a Pony. He bloviates regularly @