A few days ago, for no intended reason, I came across this remarkable off-the-cuff essay from back in 2011 by my then-and-now colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates. In those days—before “The Case for Reparations,” before Between the World and Me, before the new, wonderful Apollo Theater rendition of Between—Ta-Nehisi was a closely followed writer but not yet the internationally influential figure he has deservedly become. And, like many of us writing online for The Atlantic in those days (I was doing so from Beijing), he used the then-flourishing model of the blog to carry out an extended thinking-out-loud relationship with his readers. That’s what you’ll see in the post mentioned above, which is about Ta-Nehisi’s encounter with some works of Herman Melville’s.
The world has moved on from that era of online discourse, principally because of a shift in the dynamics of readership and traffic. Then, you could assume that readers of today’s post would have some background awareness of what you wrote yesterday, or maybe last month as well. They’d know the kind of sensibility a comment came from, and of the parts of the argument you weren’t spelling out.
Now, any given post bears a greater expectation of being a stand-alone, completed thought—one that can “travel” via social-media sharing (through Facebook or Twitter) and will be comprehensible to people who have no idea of the preceding flow. With no assumption that posts will be read in context, there’s a correspondingly greater risk that any comment or sentence can be taken on its own, taken the wrong way, and instantly circulated to damaging effect. There’s less leeway for the “error” part of the trial-and-error aspect of thinking in public. The writing naturally becomes more formal and less playful.
To exist in journalism is to be comfortable with accelerating change—back in 2011, I quaintly resisted the term “blog” for my part of the site, little imagining that a few years later that word would have the lost-era resonance of “first quarto edition” or “hand-written letter.” And this shift in discourse, by which something is lost, is also part of a process by which a lot is gained: namely, a much broader potential audience for material on a site like ours. But it is a shift.
This is a build-up for saying that I’m going to try once more, within the confines of this space, to revive a little of the retro blogging spirit. As an example for today, here is a message that came in from a reader in an elite-university college town. (OK: It’s New Haven.) He says that an under-appreciated aspect of Donald Trump’s war on expertise deserves further attention. The reader writes:
I believe that you, like me, are the product of some of the most elite schools in the US.* I've been involved in the Ivy League, indirectly or directly, almost every year since [the 1980s] when we all drove my oldest brother to Harvard. It's striking to see how Trump has turned his anti-elitist fire onto Harvard and its peers. First their endowments were targeted in the tax reform. And now we are learning that the Justice Department is going after their admissions practices.