Al, Trent, Andrew

Some folks have written in asking what I think of various events that have transpired in the last week, so I thought I’d briefly comment on three of them.

First: Al Gore. I’m not entirely surprised that Gore has decided not to seek re-election (heh heh) in 2004, since if he did run he’d lose. He’d not only lose because Bush is legitimately popular in his own right now — although he is, and Gore would lose on that datum alone — but because Democrats now approach Gore like a stinky old-fashioned herbal medicine that you take because it’s supposed to be good for you, even though you suspect it doesn’t do anything useful at all.

Make no mistake, Gore would win the 2004 Democratic nomination, on the backs of hardcore Democrats who would pull the lever for him for the same reason legions of Star Wars geeks trudge joylessly to George Lucas’ latest betrayal of their trust: Because that’s what expected of them, and because if they didn’t, they’d be admitting that former investment of time and energy was a complete waste. Meanwhile, the rest of pool of the potential Democratic voters, who are not glumly enthralled by Democratic Jedi mind tricks, will get a look at Gore’s reheated visage and say: Screw this, let’s go catch The Matrix. Gore’s a loser, baby.

Anyway, Gore’s better off where he is. Right now there’s still a sizable chunk of people who feel vaguely that the man got screwed out of a job; better to ride that wave of disassociated pity to a posh sinecure on the lecture circuit and a kingmaker perch in Democratic politics, than lose unambiguously and stink up the room like the second coming of Mike Dukakis. And God forbid that he should run again and it comes down to Florida once more.

Second: Trent Lott. The Washington Post yesterday offered the tantalizing suggestion that Lott might resign from the Senate if he were pushed out of the Majority Leader post, a sort of “mutually assured destruction” thing since the Mississippi governor is a Democrat and would almost certainly appoint a someone of his own party to the Senate. Then all it takes is one reasonably liberal Northern Republican Senator to defect and it’s another two years of the Democrats sticking a knife into the Republican agenda and yanking vigorously back and forth. Lott’s people deny he would do any such thing, of course, but God. Who wants to cross that line to find out for sure?

I feel vaguely sorry for Lott, the same way I feel sorry for someone who followed the “greed is good” mantra all the way to an 18-month insider trading stint at a minimum security prison: It’s not that the person isn’t getting what they deserve, but you pity them that in their heart they don’t understand what it is they done that’s so damn wrong. Lott has apologized his brains out, and he’s under the impression that sooner or later all that apologizing is going to take — Americans are famously forgiving, after all.

But the thing about that is people prefer to have the impression that when one’s apologizing, that one is actually sorry about the thing they’ve said or done. Lott distinctly gives the impression that he’s apologizing because he knows that’s what’s required of him so he can get back to more important things, like ramming conservative judges through confirmation hearings. And of course it doesn’t help that every time he apologizes, another news story surfaces of him opposing segregation in college, or palling around with white supremacists, or suggesting the coalitions of people who’d like to box black folks up like veal “have the right ideas” about state’s rights and what not, wink, wink, nod nod. That kind of cuts the legs out of his whole “Racism is a bad thing” line.

Do I think Lott is a racist? Well, at the very least, I do suspect that Lott thinks of black people the way that conservative Republicans my age and slightly older think of gays and lesbians — that whole “why, this person seems agreeable enough, and look, I’m not even thinking about the fact he’s gay at all” sort of thing. The folks in this situation deal with gays by concentrating on the trivial matters at hand in front of them and desperately not thinking of that gay person in any other context — say, at home with their partners, slicing tomatoes for a salad or watching HBO or talking on the phone or having red-hot oral sex on the stairwell. Replace “gay” with black” and you get an idea of where Lott is coming from. It’s sort of like being told not to think about a white elephant, and so of course that’s exactly what you do. “White Elephant,” of course, being oddly appropriate here.

Do I think Lott should step down? Well, of course I do, but I’d want him to step down no matter what; as a general rule I’m against antediluvian helmet-heads laying out a legislative agenda that is inimical to any number of my deeply-held beliefs. This is just icing on the cake. But on the other hand, if he steps down (and doesn’t resign the Senate in a huff), he’ll just be replaced with another GOPer who does not have as many political liabilities. So as with many people who are not GOPers, I’m perfectly happy for him to stay where he is. He’s going to be a fine poster boy to motivate people in 2004, both within the GOP to root out people like him, and outside the GOP to punt the GOP back into minority status.

The good news is that one way or another Lott’s gaffe is costing him and the GOP. The question is the ultimate cost and when it’s paid up. I’m just as happy to have it later as sooner.

Third: Andrew Sullivan. Sullivan held a pledge week for his blog last week, saying in essence that if a certain small percentage (1% or so) of his readership didn’t kick in $20 a year, he’d roll up his blog and go back to writing articles for people who actually paid him money. Apparently the threat worked, since Sullivan is going to announce later this week that he’s cleared enough in contributions to keep his blog going.

A number of anti-Sullivan types have gotten themselves into a tizzy about this, but I’m really hard-pressed to see why. Like Sullivan, I’m a professional writer; I get paid to write. Therefore I can’t see what possible reason one should have against a writer getting paid. Sullivan’s had the benefit of seeing how other various revenue models have worked online, and he’s trying one that allows maximum choice for the readers and doesn’t require every single reader to consider paying.

So if people want to voluntarily pay Sullivan money, why should anyone else care? His not-so-subtle threat that he’d pull the plug might have seemed unseemly to some, but if the man doesn’t get paid for his writing, he doesn’t eat. If he can get some portion his audience to support the blog he enjoys writing and they enjoy reading, more power to him.

Having said that, I don’t think the average Joe Blogger should start thinking that Andrew Sullivan’s success extracting cash from readers is going to translate to a blogoverse-wide rain of money. Very few bloggers have Sullivan’s audience, and even he is smart enough to realize that he’s lucky if he gets 1% of his audience to chip in. 1% of most bloggers’ audience comes to a few dozen people, and most people aren’t going to be able to suggest a recommended contribution of $20 like Sullivan has. There’s also the matter of content — i.e., whether people have content that’s worth supporting with cash. No offense, but most don’t.

Outside of Sullivan, I suspect no more than two or three bloggers could actually extract a serious amount of cash from their readers through a “pledge week,” and those bloggers are the usual suspects of Glenn Reynolds, James Lileks, and possibly Josh Marshall (all three of which have contribution buttons but have not tried pledge weeks). Everyone else would get diddly, and yes, I include myself in that assessment. Right now, as it happens, I’m getting a nice flow of cash in from people buying the downloadable version of my current novel, but given the asking price ($1.50) and the numbers of my daily audience, well, let’s just say I’m not giving up my day job. Which is fine, since I like my day job.

(Speaking of which, the final bit of the Rough Guide to the Universe text is in to the publishers — I’m done, I’m done, hallelujah, I’m done. Now all I have to do is wait for the publication and the book tour. In the meantime, I have another “Uncle John” book to contribute to, and at least one other book project brewing for the year. It’s not a bad life.)

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