a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Five years

Posted by Thomas Nephew on September 26th, 2006

I started blogging on this site five years ago yesterday. It took me several tries fiddling with the FTP target address, if I recall correctly; at any rate, I still remember the pleased “hey! it worked!” feeling I got when I saw my first post.

It’s a memory tempered these days by what I feel when I re-read that post and others like it early on. There’s nothing all that wrong with that first one, but still if I were to go back in time and take over the keyboard again, I wouldn’t write it or many of the ones that follow that way now, and I might not have written some of them at all.

Still, there they all are. My blog, to me, is half an argument with myself, half a message in a bottle to the rest of the world. In its daily guise, like any journal, it seems declaratory and fairly certain in its statements. Over time, it becomes something else, a journey — and one I sometimes read between my fingers.

It’s actually been a fair amount of work and trouble: late nights reading things, writing things, re-writing them, re-writing them again and yet again; sometimes feeling (and sometimes being told) I’m spending too much time on it.

Has it been worth it? Has it been worth anything?

With regrets
Given my opinions these days, that’s questionable, if influence is the measure of value. For one thing, I’m not all that widely read; for another, that’s not surprising, given my tacks back and forth on Iraq in particular. Starting out leaning against an Iraq war for many of the right reasons, I changed my mind after a long hiatus; one of my most widely read posts was the February 2003 “With regrets — for war on Saddam.” Seemingly independent reports about Iraqi WMD from Germany and arguments like those in “The Threatening Storm” had helped convince me there was a real threat, and that the war was the best way to solve it. Regardless of my sincerity, I was wrong. A lot of people linked to that post, and a lot of people read it and commented* on it, both here and elsewhere.

I’ve since distanced myself from it and rebutted it, at least in part. But that’s been to the tune of perhaps dozens of readers, not hundreds upon hundreds. And I was more than just wrong; in particular, I hadn’t stuck by my own demands for convincing proof of WMD, and my “come what may” line was particularly callow in view of what indeed has come for that country and our soldiers fighting there.

Looking back, I see how furious and on edge I was after 9/11. In part, my trust in the institutions of this country betrayed me — I believed, even of Bush and Cheney, that they would recommend war only when it was truly the least worst option. Wrong. But I’m also afraid that although I would have denied it then, events like 9/11, the anthrax attacks, and the sniper attacks around DC the following year made me more and more jumpy, and more and more open to poorly conceived “solutions” like Iraq. I don’t think I was alone in that. A lot of people who started blogging after 9/11 — the so-called “warblogger” cohort — never really got over it; a better description for many of them may be “post traumatic stress bloggers.”

Writing like this can be, then, a bit of a dangerous hobby. A problem I’ve mentioned before is that it’s easy to become committed not just to the position, but to your public arguments and stand for it. It’s harder for me, at least, to consider unwinding from something I’ve argued for in writing than from something I say in a conversation. I wonder how many bloggers find themselves trapped in their own arguments, unwilling to alienate particular readers or an imagined readership, and therefore unwilling to reverse course.

At the time, I also aspired to bridge a European-American perceptions and risk assessment gap I saw; I would frequently write about German reactions in particular, since I speak the language. While some of that was to the good — I think that on the whole, my German bloggers series posts have been worthwhile — I also spent time and effort arguing with German bloggers and their readers at their sites about U.S. Iraq policy in particular. Given that I was basically wrong about it, that’s fairly painful to recall — public diplomacy in the service of a poor cause.

A reminder
So I’m reminded that humility on my part is in order, certainly more than I like to display. I was against torture, but at first ignored what news there was as “bad apples” at worst — including news e-mailed to me about “American Taliban” John Walker’s treatment, which was a pretty clear sign of trouble ahead. I was less of a stickler than I am now, taking issue with this or that, but reckoning that little things like hoods, or a little sleep interruption, or the ad hoc Guantanamo system were not so bad — details got slightly wrong in hot pursuit perhaps, but not the tip of some iceberg of malfeasance and coolly chosen wrongdoing. Of course, I could not have been more wrong in that, either.

It took Abu Ghraib to viscerally remind me of what I can and can not stand for; I intuited and then confirmed to my (dis)satisfaction that there was much more and worse than what I’d seen. That’s when I pretty much pulled out my red card, once and for all, on an administration I admittedly never had all that much use for. Beware of people who call for changes in the rule books when the game is going badly. Beware of yourself and be aware of yourself if you decide to consider those rule changes.

For all the regrets, shouldas, wouldas, and couldas, I think this blog has been a decent effort. Realizing that I can’t be and don’t want to be a “full service” comment-on-everything blog, I’ve tended to settle on issues and themes that I care about, (e.g., Abu Ghraib etc., Wal-Mart, the “TexasGate” redistricting saga, verified voting, Srebrenica, Katrina, global warming) and come back to them repeatedly. I’ve tried not to let other stories I’ve followed drop either, via the clunkily-named “Department of followups” posts. I’ve also tried to not be too much of a scold — how could I be, given my own inconsistencies — and to lighten things up with a little humor now and then.

In conclusion, thanks for reading, for bearing with my long-winded posts, and for commenting when the spirit moves you. Thanks in particular to Paul, eRobin, Gary, Nell, anonymousgf, Karen, and Brett, who are frequent visitors and valued commenters these days, and who I think of as friends whether I’ve met them or not; likewise for Jens, Sven, Scott, and Peter, who drop by occasionally from overseas; and likewise for those like Tom T. who dropped out over the years, possibly as I became too shrill for their taste.

Others drop by regularly as well, I think, but choose not to comment — although they’re welcome to regardless of whether they disagree with me. Other than my own mental grades for posts, comments are how I tell whether I’m writing anything worth the trouble of reading; although I’ve sometimes failed badly, I do welcome opposing views.

But mainly, thanks for dropping in and reading. While this blog has been mainly for my own benefit — I think the practice has improved my writing a little — I hope it’s also occasionally been worth it to you.

* Although the comments are missing because of a glitch in the prior system, I still have them, and hope to get them reconnected with Haloscan’s help.

Selected Iraq posts:


Selected detainee treatment posts:


11 Responses to “Five years”

  1. Nell Says:

    Your blog has been immensely valuable to me, at least partly because I haven’t always agreed with your posts.
    But I’ve almost always been impressed at your humility, fairness, and civility.
    In fact, I believe the first time I ever commented or e-mailed was when you criticized the warbloggers’ then-favorite epithet ‘idiotarian.’ I could tell right then you were going to get over the post-traumatic stress eventually, and that a good many other post-Sept 11 bloggers weren’t.
    I’m as unsettled this week as I was after the 2001 attacks, because what I predicted then appears to be about to happen in earnest: legalizing torture and recourse-less, indefinite, unaccountable detention. That Democrats have learned so little since 2002 is deeply, deeply depressing.
    Seems as if only a miracle can prevent our very own enabling laws. Nothing that I can imagine will prevent an attack on Iran in the period between the elections and the new Congress being seated.
    It’s the civil, humble voices of sanity out here that keep me going, and you’re one of the sanest. Hope you’ll keep going for at least another five years!

  2. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Thanks very much, Nell. I remember that comment (or e-mail, I can’t remember which either); here’s the post. I really ought to see if I can get those old archived comments restored.
    Yes, it’s a pretty depressing week so far — and that’s without even thinking about Iran until you mentioned it, thanks a lot (kidding). Carpetbagger has flagged a report saying Democrats don’t intend to leave any daylight between them and Republicans on the torture or domestic surveillance bills. I’d thought Reid was going to fight the domestic surveillance bill, at least, and actually thought Frist combining the torture and surveillance bills would make passage of both less likely. It looks like I was wrong on that (too).
    If(/when) these bills go through, I’ll be glumly wondering which alternative is worse:
    …1) the US isn’t a representative democracy, or
    …2) the US is a representative democracy.
    Opinion polls about these things don’t prove much, I guess. It’s what people are willing to phone and write and work and if need be demonstrate about that matters. Not many leading Democrats are flat out for torture, but they also may not be too far from their constituents in being pretty passive about it: “basically, who cares, I need to fill up my gas tank.”
    Another 5 years? Here’s hoping they turn out better than the last 5.

  3. Cricket Says:

    How about some thanks to your family for putting up with your blogging for the past five years?!?!?!

  4. Thomas Nephew Says:


  5. anonymousgf Says:

    I read because what you write is worthwhile. I comment because I enjoy the conversation you provide.
    All thanks to you!

  6. WorldWideWeber Says:

    Geez, for a minute there, I thought you were launching into your swan song. (I had just come from Billmon’s Whiskey Bar–looks like he’s taking a indeterminate break.)
    To answer your questions (in reverse order): Has it been worth anything? Of course it has. Has it been worth it? Ah, that’s a tough one, isn’t it? You mention the time you spend on this. You obviously deserve a bigger dividend (i.e., more readers). But ultimately, it truly is a dialogue with yourself. I’m sure your thinking is a lot clearer and more factually informed because of the work you’ve done.
    Keep at it if you still enjoy it and you aren’t destroying the rest of your life doing it. Cut back if you need to. At any rate, five years is quite a run. Congratulations, and thanks!

  7. Paul Says:

    Thomas, you’re too hard on yourself and you worry too much. But you give a shit, and you act on your beliefs, which is a lot more than most people in this country can say.
    I have a lot of respect for someone who has the courage of their convictions, which is also a lot more than you can say for many internetty people.
    Keep up the good work and stop beating yourself up over positions you took in the past. As long as they were based on reason and the facts as you knew them at the time, then you have nothing to be ashamed about. You got new data and reassessed the situation. That’s called intelligence, but I would caution you to not fall into the trap of being an ideologist. They’re as bad as creationists/evangelicals and just as obnoxious.
    Remember: challenge your pre-conceived notions and be skeptical not only of everyone else’s position, but yours as well from time to time.
    Congrats on the five year point. You’re a good guy and I’m glad you’ve stuck aroumd.

  8. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Thanks, all. To explain a little more, I’ve sometimes worried that I appear to be putting on moralizing, “perfect me” airs about issues like Iraq or torture when I’ve entertained different ideas or have been less concerned myself in the past. Also, there have been new readers dropping by — not hundreds or anything, but some, esp. locally, and I didn’t want to be misleading them. One of my motivations for the post was to address those concerns, and it might have helped to explain that.

  9. eRobin Says:

    You’re a good guy and I’m glad you’ve stuck aroumd.
    Hear, hear! And may I ad that I’m glad you’ve managed to stay out of federal prison, my brother.
    You and your blog are an inspiration to me. Keep up the great work.

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