Letter to a Young Blowhardby Josh Franklin
My dear young blowhard,
As I’ve said to you before, there’s never been a more propitious time to be a huffing, puffing, middle-of-the-road blowhard. This is the hour of the pundit, my friend. And as always, the key question for any neophyte puffer is how to position oneself, that is how to "brand" your own version of the same tepid, muddled crap that everyone else is selling.
The first thing to do is choose a hero to whom you can be the heir. This gives your views instant importance, regardless of whether or not your hero would agree. Trotsky, of course, has been taken many times over, and Orwell’s self-appointed bastard son won’t stop spouting off. Izzy Stone has been claimed as well, although most readers today would be hard-pressed to remember anything he had to say. My best suggestion for you is Camus. Think about it—his existentialism may be out but French theory is due for a comeback, so he’s a nice retro-French find. Even more important, his anti-Communist credentials are beyond reproach. And that’s key, because red-baiting will never die.
The next thing to do is pick a huge subject about which you will become the leading authority. I urge you to think big here—consider subjects like war, the media or democracy. This choice is fundamentally about gaining market share in the public discourse. For example, immediately calling yourself a specialist on Iraq may have had its benefits, but you’re better served by saying you’re an expert on war, which makes you instantly ready to weigh in on pretty much anything anywhere anytime. Similarly, rather than speak for the zeitgeist, become the voice of a decade—or better yet, a generation that defines an era. The goal is to make all public (and ideally, private) discussion of your epoch flow through you.
It’s also absolutely essential that you drive a wedge into any left political movement that sprouts up, because ultimately it’s a threat to your turf as opinion maker. The easiest way to do this is to study the transcripts from speakers at a rally, and then turn phrases like "we should leave Afghanistan/Iraq/wherever alone" into clear proof that the non-you left is enthralled with both fundamentalist and secular Islamic dictatorships. Another sure way of finding targets is to perform background checks on anyone who takes the microphone, and figure out their most unseemly associations.
You should also charge censorship of your ideas any time the activist left disagrees with you and doesn’t invite you to its podium. Though the right never purges the fanatics from its ranks, it’s the left’s job—or rather your job— to be ideologically pure. I know this sounds divisive, young blowhard, but presenting yourself as the lone voice of reason in a storm of insanity is both a time-tested marketing ploy as well as a shrewd battle strategy.
Speaking of ideology, in order to attain the coveted status of "liberal intellectual," freeing yourself of dogmatic positions must serve as your new dogma. Embrace contradictions and uncertainties, they’re your meal ticket. Whatever you do, don’t call yourself a pacifist—they are most uncool. If you oppose a current war, be sure to stress your potential support for a future war somewhere else. It’s best to keep a carefully managed balance sheet. For every criticism of the system, you should also concur with it on a different point: oppose a war/attack a different dictator, or criticize police brutality/support some other war. It’s all about balance. But if you oppose the present war, then definitely support the next war no matter the reasons for it.
On slow news days, or just when you’re in the mood, be sure to take a few pot shots at the Russian Revolution. Make a passionate case for why it never should’ve happened—strategically avoiding Trotsky’s role in it, of course. And be sure to call capitalism flawed but still the best system man has yet devised. Argue that its temporary inequalities can be solved if people who follow your ideas run the show.
My last suggestion is that you make sure your distinct persona includes idiosyncratic personal traits. In general, being an abrasive, relentless whiner is de rigueur. But really hone these qualities; do them well and uniquely. Keep in mind that the "enfant terrible of the Beltway cocktail circuit" has been done. The "loud-mouthed liberal at the Hamptons dinner party" thing is also no longer an option. And the "scruffy professor on camera surrounded by books" is really tired. Here I will leave it to you to forge an identity not yet cliché.
That’s all for now, young blowhard. My best advice is to write like hell, and blog away. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, the left is not about building a movement—it’s about making careers.
Josh Franklin is a writer living in Williamsburg.