Antecedents to the Blog

True confession time: expat.wordpress.com was registered some 2 years ago just for the sake of acquiring a WordPress API key. I had meant to eventually make use of the domain as a group-based travel and life guide for people in China with a special focus on Tianjin and Beijing. Unfortunately, this plan was nipped in the bud by the Chinese powers-that-be, who deemed the new free blogs on wordpress.com yet another threat to harmonization. After wordpress.com was blocked by the Great Firewall, I decided to shelve the blog. After all, what’s the use of a website for people who live in China that cannot be read by people living in China?

In the meantime, I had other blogs hosted on LiveJournal, MSN Spaces, and my own (now defunct) domain, matthewstinson.net, so I was still pretty busy blogging on my own. Like others, I had first got into the blogging scene via Blogspot in 2001, and I did more than my fair share of poliblogging, though over time my political commentaries slowed to a trickle. I attribute this partly towards a busier lifestyle, partly towards the enervating effect George W. Bush has had on the conservative movement, and partly towards the decline in civility among bloggers.

About my life I can only say that China, as wonderful and interesting as it is, is just not very blogger-friendly. Setting aside the obvious elephant in the living room, the aforementioned Great Firewall, most of China lacks the kind of communication infrastructure to make blogging quick and easy. For instance, when out of the house, I would like to blog from WiFi hotspots or by using my phone as a modem, but in a second-tier city such as Tianjin, WiFi hotspots are few and phone data services are too slow. (Beijing is slightly better thanks to the liberal proliferation of Western businesses in the city.) At home, connectivity is also an issue, with Chinese ADSL choking like an old-school 56K modem during peak hours. Still, the Great Firewall has to be factored in, since it made managing matthewstinson.net a bit of a headache after my Blog Service Provider was blocked. Because I can’t always use a proxy, it also more or less killed my LiveJournal writing and stopped me from making a Blogspot blog after I ended matthewstinson.net.

As to the political situation stateside, I’ll start by noting that I’ve never really been a fan of George W. Bush. I was, for a time, a fan of the people he chose to surround himself with, and had I been voting for president based merely on advisors, there’s no question that I would’ve voted for Bush over Gore in 2000. Yet when it came to Bush himself, there has always been a hollow blandness to the man, an unserious folksy demeanor that suggested Joe Average instead of Leader of the Free World. He was never meant to be an innovator or activist the way Gore has always been cast, and Bush’s bipartisan triumphs in conservative Texas were always shaky ground upon which to build a new national politics. As a serious conservative, I gained the sense in the first election that the choice between Bush and Gore was a choice between the right ideas implemented poorly and the wrong ideas implemented well. In the end, I chose to abstain from voting, and I don’t regret that decision.

Little did I know that Bush would prove me wrong. Not only have Bush’s ideas been implemented poorly, many of them — the Medicare drug benefit, No Child Left Behind, new protectionism, veto-free budgeting, the Katrina response, and state-building in Iraq, to name a few — have been the wrong ideas to begin with. At the same time, if I could not cheerlead for the president, I could hardly cheerlead for the Congress. Gone was the vision and vigor that Republicans brought to the Hill in 1994. Instead, the potential for real change was sapped by the lobbyists, by the activists, and by the inherently corrupting nature of incumbency, all of which saw reformers stepped on by senior members and the grassroots disillusioned by an orgy of big government as disgusting as any scene in a Hogarth painting.

My friends on the left attribute these failures to inherent flaws in the ideology of conservatives and libertarians. I would counter that what we’ve witnessed is not ideological decay but the structural weakness and rudderless leadership of the Republican party, which mirrors the situation Democrats found themselves in during the late 1970s. In short, my fellow Republicans: these are our Jimmy Carter years.

That is not to say that Democrats have suddenly become the party of ideas, though they are, without a doubt, the party of anger. Indeed, in Democratic displays of outrage and Republican flag-waving, both parties have eschewed intellectualism post-9/11 for the sake of political theater, and online in particular the parties play to the reptilian instincts of their base. While those new to the blogging game might not believe it, things weren’t always so smashmouth in the blogosphere.

In 2001, there was still considerable room for serious thinking and debate among political blogs, and I enjoyed it. Why, back then, even Atrios and Instapundit said nice things about each other! But by 2007, whatever nuance that used to exist in blog commentaries has been largely abandoned in favor of echo chambers within each ideological community and the clash of binary opposites between them. (To illustrate the latter point, consider how intelligent political commentary gets automatically pigeonholed these days.) Some happy exceptions exist, but even the most sober-headed bloggers will have a legion of ugly commenters to deal with.

The developments noted above forced me to make a few adjustments. I maximized my online enjoyment over the past three years by focusing on photoblogging (moblogging, really) and blogging on personal blogs for my friends and family to read. As for the rest, well, I didn’t have the stomach to engage as a partisan, yet I would not abandon ideas that I felt right because I refused to stand by party leaders when they were wrong. And so I went on hiatus for the sake of living a little and thinking a lot.

After my long break I’ve decided to start this blog up again (Like Cooking a Small Fish is essentially the fifth iteration of my political blog) because 2008 will be an important year in the US and China. America will choose another president — and potentially a radically different direction — while China, thanks not only to the Olympics but also to American electoral politics, will be thrust into the spotlight. There’s a wonderful opportunity here to explore issues of governance, the economy, and society, and the road ahead is not so narrow that the bombthrowers will be the only travelers.

Given my time constraints I want to make this an essay-style blog with a few posts each week rather than dozens of posts daily. I blog to relax, to get ideas out of my head and onto paper (symbolically, of course), and also because living in China means I need to write regularly lest the local color sneak into my English. If you read my blog, I hope you enjoy it, even if you disagree with me — and odds are you will.

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