Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Five Years (A Blog Biography, of Sorts)

Five years ago today, I started blogging. Herewith, some thoughts.

Back in 2003, I was a visiting assistant professor of political science at Arkansas State University, and I hadn't lost hope that what lay ahead of me was a world of research, publishing, and intellectual accomplishment. I looked to the blogosphere primarily as a way to extend and refine my academic and intellectual persona; hence the ridiculously pretentious title for my original blog. Community-building wasn't really on my mind, or else I would have chosen something pronounceable in English.

I'd been reading certain blogs--particularly Andrew Sullivan--pretty obsessively ever since the terrorist attacks of 9/11; they--the "liberal hawks" crowd--had the news and the arguments, and they shaped much of my thinking during those years (as you can tell by just looking at my earliest posts: Tony Blair, liberal interventionism, the Anglosphere, Islamic fundamentalism, blah, blah, blah, etc.). But they weren't my main inspiration; that was Jacob T. Levy, a political theorist that at that time I'd never met, but I'd run across his name often enough online to have some familiarity with him, his interests, and his career. He started blogging in earnest in September of 2002, and I thought to myself, "hmm--I can do that." It took me six months to get around to it, but still, if anyone is my blogfather, it's him. (I wonder how many other political and philosophical bloggers could say the same?) We've since become occasional correspondents and political-conference-friends, which I consider to be great honor, especially since I think if there's any academic out there of my generation capable of someday writing themselves into the history of political philosophy, it's Jacob.

I made some friends and enemies in those early days. Well, not really enemies, but damn, I was jealous of Micah Schwartzman--another young political theorist, not so much different than me (just smarter, no doubt), and certainly no further ahead of me in the blogging game (he started the same week I did, in fact)...but, he had the intelligence to design a blog with a readily pronounceable name, plus the energy to link to and comment frequently upon the writings of other political theorists. Before I could even blink, he'd been snapped up by one of the first (and, I think at least, still the greatest) big-league academic/intellectual blogs, Crooked Timber. Hey, man, what about me?!?, was my unspoken whine. I mean, by that time, both Matthew Ygelsias and CT co-founder Chris Bertram (at his old blog) had acknowledged my presence; didn't that count for anything? Oh, well--that's show business for you. As you can guess, the idea of being recognized as part of an online intellectual community very quickly became important to me.

Oh, yes--friends. When I first discovered Laura McKenna, she was still pseudo-anonymously blogging as "Laura" at the original version of 11D. I loved her writing, the way her personality came through and enriched her sharp political and personal confessions and commentary. She was the first blogger I read regularly who really mixed up the public and the private in a way I liked, and she influenced my own blogging a great deal. She was also the first reader I had in those early years who I had a sense of actually being interested in me, as a blogging personality; that was a huge ego boost. Neither of us read each other today as regularly as we once did, I think, but I'll always be grateful to her. To a slightly lesser extent (but with no decrease in appreciation), the same debt holds for Timothy Burke, John Holbo and Belle Waring, and the late, great Invisible Adjunct. (Holy crap, Mary, your archives are gone! I had to link to some Boston Globe article about you instead. Sorry.)

For a very brief moment during my first year, I thought I'd made the big time: A Fistful of Euros asked me to guest-blog. I have no idea why: I'm not European, don't live in Europe, and am certainly no expert on European affairs. I think it must have been my numerous exchanges with one of their then-regular participants, Scott Martens, a fine interlocutor who has since departed the blogosphere (you stick around for five years, you unfortunately see a lot of that; rarely do you see someone who has departed blogging come back, Jacob Levy being a blessed exception). I managed a couple of posts on the Cyprus issue (remember that, everyone?) and then could no longer deny my lack of qualifications for the blog and bowed out. I still read it and think on it fondly, though, if only because I suspect my time there was what sent regular reader Doug Muir my way.

Other blog associates came later: Hugo Schwyzer, Harry Brighouse and Henry Farrell of CT, David Watkins of Lawyers, Guns and Money, and Peter Levine all stand out as writers whom I discovered as the months turned into years, and along the way became thoughtful, inspiring, and challenging intellectual correspondents and friends. (Hugo and Peter, in particular, offered kind support and assistance to me when, about three years after I began blogging, I confronted the possibility that I'd completely blown my chance to grab the academic career ring, and needed to go back to the drawing board and begin again. Which, thankfully, I did, sort of.) In time--especially as I began to focus over the past couple of years on the issue of just what kind of weird Christian populist/socialist/counter-cultural conservative I might be--others came into the conversation: Ross Douthat, Rod Dreher, Lee McCracken, Daniel Larison, Patrick Deneen, and more. All, in different ways, have helped me become better at thinking through where I'm at and where I'm going, which is really what blogging--I eventually came to realize--at its best is all about.

I should mention a couple of others: there were those readers (Alan Jacobs foremost among them) who got to know me, and whom I got to know, primarily through sharing our Harry Potter nerdery; and then there are those Wichita and Kansas area bloggers (especially John Buass) that I've gotten to know just by putting my roots down more deeply here in our new home. Muchas gracias to them as well.

Alongside all of this, there are a couple of other abiding factors that have shaped my blogging. First are the wonderful associations I've made through Times and Seasons, the Mormon blog I've been part of since late 2003. From the beginning, I wondered exactly how to handle my religious side on this blog; once I joined T&S, that problem was resolved. And plus the whole gang over there, as regular and guest bloggers have come and gone, has been just wonderful to get to know. Second were my very first and still enduring set of captive victims readers: old college and graduate school friends that have no doubt long since tired of all the crap I'm always sending and forwarding to them. A few of them blog themselves (Scott, Mary Ellen, Matt, Rob), but whether they're active or not, whether they're critical or just confused, I'm grateful to them for their friendship--the Mormons and the agnostics, the libertarians and the Marxists and restaurateurs, the quiet types and the troublemakers...all of them.

Where am I now? A tenure-track assistant professor of political science at Friends University, one who cares a lot more about teaching and writing in general than I did five years ago; one who also is a lot more conscious of and mature about the larger way political ideas can and should play out in everyday life and conversations than I was back then. Plus, I also have a lot more friends and acquaintances, of a much greater ideological and philosophical breadth than before. To the extent I can thank blogging for any or all of this, I'm grateful to the geeks at Blogger, and everyone else whose made this possible.

I was originally thinking when I started this post that I'd do some sort of "Greatest Hits" list, but I don't think I care to do the work to identify all my bests and worsts, low points and high. I've written some stuff I'm pretty proud of, and a lot of ephemeral junk too. I write lengthy posts, I know; mostly, these days, I'm fine with that--that's just the sort of blogger I am--though even I have to admit that occasionally bite of more than I can chew. Sometimes I get a lot of readers (the 2004 elections were a busy time, and the build-up to and release of The Deathly Hallows got me my largest number of comments ever); most of the time I just muddle through. Either way, after five years of this, I figure I'll probably keep at it, barring some major personal or technological revolution. If you're reader, then I thank you--and hope you'll keep coming back too.

In five years, I think I've only recruited one person into blogging: my wife Melissa. But she makes the whole thing worth it, of course.


Hugo said...

Russell, you're one of the most challenging and rewarding bloggers I know, and one of the very few whose writing I consistently admire even in disagreement. Friends is lucky to have you, and that you are on the road to tenure (and freer blogging!) makes me very happy.

Rob said...

Dein erster Blogtitel ist doch aussprechbar!

We called you Rabbi Arben all those years ago, and now, sir, I can call you "blogfather". Like Hugo, I'm very pleased that you've got a tenure track.

For what it's worth, Russell, you've sparked more ideas for my own blogging since I started paying attention to you six months ago than anyone before or since. Even if I am proud of the missive I wrote about jury service before them. Dang essays take me four or five hours to get right...

Keep it up. One day, the Times will call and put one of your 800-worders in an op-ed!

Doug said...

You had us at the umlauts, Russell.

Timothy Burke said...

You're definitely one of the anchors of the blogosphere for me: you pretty much embody what I was hoping to connect to through writing in this medium.

Peter Levine said...

Happy birthday! The sheer number of blogs has exploded during the lifetime of yours, but "In Medias" remains one of the most distinctive, challenging (and well-written).

As a fellow member of the blog class of '03, I say: keep on posting.

John B. said...

Russell, let me add my congratulations to those already here. It was through Crooked Timber that I first heard of you; imagine my surprise to learn that this well-regarded blogger was practically a neighbor of mine.

I feel especially honored that we happened to be meeting for the first time yesterday on this august occasion. We'll do lunch again--and not wait for the next blog anniversary, either.

Matt said...

Congratulations, Russell. I hope you'll keep at it.

Stephen said...


Thanks for this post -- it was a great retrospective. I've long enjoyed your blogging, and look forward to many times five more years.

Holy crap, Mary, your archives are gone!

Not complete, but try here.

From the beginning, I wondered exactly how to handle my religious side on this blog; once I joined T&S, that problem was resolved.

Personally, I wish we saw more of this -- maybe just T&S cross-posting? -- here. Yeah, I do go over to T&S from time to time, to see what you're saying there. But I'd like to see it here too.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Hugo, Rob, Doug, Tim, Peter, John, Matt, Stephen: my thanks. (And Stephen, you're probably right--I ought to cross-post between T&S and here sometime...)

Doug said...

Also, would the parenthetical be better as a blogography? Or perhaps autoblogography?

Chris Bertram said...

Congratulations Russell - you are one of the most interesting voices in the blogosphere. Keep it coming!