One of the favorite jibes that the intellectual right has hurled at The Da Vinci Code is that it not only is bad religion and bad history, but it’s badly written as well. If so, the problem is far from unique to author Dan Brown: College professors report — increasingly so, it seems — a huge frustration with the quality of writing they encounter.
I’ve been particularly worried about the epidemic of bad writing among the young ever since, several years ago, I was asked to judge the opinion category of a journalism contest at one of the top universities in the nation. Remarkably, I found not a single entry was deserving of a first prize, so I awarded first place to just about the only entry at all — and a left-wing one at that — which even tried in a recognizable fashion to marshal facts and reason to support the writer’s case, to persuade a reader rather than merely proclaim an opinion or string of opinions as if the very act of proclaiming provided its own validity. And I refused to award a second-place prize at all.
Yes, the entries were just that bad.
In the past few weeks, though, I’ve begun to develop a theory about the identity of one of the biggest culprits in the bad-writing contagion. I offer no evidence to back up my theory, other than this paper I found on the Internet in a quick-but-desperate search to give the theory legitimacy. But the perp, dear reader, is nevertheless plain to see: the computer, and more particularly the Internet, and more particularly still the blogs on the Internet. The blogs lend themselves to precisely the flaws that ruined the entries in that top-college journalism contest a few years back: opinions expressed but not supported by reasoned argument; an utter lack of discernible transition from one topic or sub-argument to the next; and, more fundamentally, a shocking weakness in the basics such as punctuation, grammar, and sentence structure.
The blogs particularly lend themselves to a bizarre combination of attention deficit and what I’ll call the “Shouting-From-The-Rooftops Syndrome,” a malady in which every utterance is deemed worthy of broadcast because, well, it’s mine, dammit, and I now have a forum on which to broadcast it.
On blogs, anything and everything goes, including on the blog names themselves: What the heck, for instance, is “Echidne of the Snakes” or “Nyarlathotep’s Miscellany”? Then there is Fafblog, which quotes an apparent admirer to this effect: “This is a good blog. This is the best blog. It is about god and the universe and those horrible screaming monkeys and that time I made a pizza out of an old tire and a can of whip cream. It is the Fafblog.”
No, what it is, is Narcissism gone wild. (Not necessarily those sites, but the whole, too-cute-by-half and often too-scummy-by-more-than-a-half world of blog rantings.) Not, as Seinfeld would say, that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that. Better a Narcissist in cyberspace than a narc in a prison cell, or something like that….
Oh, where was I again? Oh, yes, the bad writing. I’ll get back to that in a second. This is all stream-of-consciousness anyway, which is, like, so cool, so cool, there are no rules….
YOU SEE THE PROBLEM, don’t you? Blogs can be fun, entertaining, and informative, but they don’t lend themselves to disciplined thought, much less disciplined writing. There’s nothing wrong with the blogs in and of themselves, but when they are a young person’s only or next-to-only exposure to the written word, they certainly don’t boost reasoning or writing skills.
Meanwhile, the very structure of the blogosphere, with its immediate permalinks from site to site to site, encourages a tendency to bounce wildly from one topic, indeed one entire realm of discourse, to another and another and to countless others still, all with the quick click of an electronic-mouse button. (Hence, perhaps, the inability of blog-happy young people to sustain a written argument or carefully build logical transitions.)
If the old rule of thumb was that everybody on earth is connected within “six degrees of separation,” the new rule is that any subject and anybody in the universe is reachable perhaps through just three quick clicks of connection. (And, it seems, all clicks lead quickly to sex and nudity. Here’s a test: Visit any blog site that has a list of permalinks to other blogs, and pick the most seemingly off-topic link you can find. Within three blog links, you’re likely to find somebody advertising “Nude Live Babes!” or “Celebrities In The Raw!” or somesuch.)
Go to a leading, highly respected legal blog and, within three links, you’ll find yourself in the rarified world of professional middle-eastern belly dancers or in a competitive sports fantasy league not for baseball or football players but for professional women surfers. Yes, seriously.
Go to an oft-quoted conservative political site and find yourself, three clicks later, at a B-movie center, a “videogame adventure comedy,” or an Internet journal of emergency medical technology.
From the leading left-wing political site you can quickly reach a highly traditionalist and Biblically literalist site for “Amazing Bible Stories.” A golf blog leads quickly to a blog on “how to cheat at online poker,” and another golf blog leads, lickety-split, to a site allowing orders for various forms of Turkish Delight as made popular by the Narnia books and movie and to another site on the worst U.S. volcano eruptions.
Sometimes the seeming randomness of personal-site links can be encouraging, even moving. For instance, by Googling “I’m Feeling Lucky” after typing in “macrame,” you can end up three links later at a wonderful site dedicated to creating “hometown memorials to our men and women who have lost their lives defending the United States of America in our war against terrorism.”
AGAIN, THERE IS A LOT TO LIKE about the blog world. It can ennoble and inform and provide great tools for discourse and for meeting like-minded people. But what it doesn’t encourage is reflection, patience or, to stress again, discipline. And its wild informality, including the use and misuse of the written world, does not lend itself to careful persuasiveness.
So, a memo to parents: Don’t let your children sit at their computers all day long. Even if they must be inside (outside exercise is often better), encourage them to read books and newspapers, to play board games, even to write notes to each other with pen and paper. That way they’ll learn to communicate rather than just to emote.
Meanwhile, if they or you must enter the Internet world, you can’t go wrong with The American Spectator‘s website (which itself has a blog). It’s the best website, with lots of stuff about horrible screaming monkeys, God and the universe, and even pizza, albeit without old tires or whipped cream. Fafblog, eat your heart out.
Quin Hillyer is executive editor of The American Spectator. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.