One of the minor reasons I decided to stop blogging is that, it seems to me, there is an arc to the story of the Dish and the world this past decade and a half; and there is something about this moment that seems as close to closure as history will ever get.
I began blogging in the elysian, if increasingly polarized, days of the late 1990s. When Robert Cameron and I brain-stormed what the Dish could be – on a train ride from London to Oxford in the summer of 2000 – the question was merely what America would do next in an era of prosperity, peace, and smug. Gore looked pretty much invincible; Bush seemed a milquetoast moderate; and my most intense blogging was defending Gary Condit’s right to be considered innocent before being proven guilty.
9/11 changed the world and also the blogosphere. The Dish was instantly transformed. There was an urgency and immediacy and passion to those days that gave blogs a sudden new-found relevance because we needed solidarity, we needed each other, and the intimacy of the thing really deepened. And, of course, it led to my own traumatized loss of judgment (and some shameful outbursts) in the aftermath, born of shock and grief and sorrow. My readership back then was all over the map, but it included a large number of Bush administration officials and Republican voters, as well as hawkish Democrats. The Dish became a war-blog for a while as the events swirled and as the US found itself hurtling toward a new war in Iraq, one I pounded the drums for. And then, quite quickly, as the reality of the actual war came into greater focus, I began to realize my colossal failure of judgment. The incompetence was one thing; the war crimes quite another. I recanted.
I lost about half my readership, and the pledge drives I used to finance the thing dried up. I could have doubled down on the war, I guess. Many others did. I could have quit (and maybe should have). But I hung in and blogged through the remorse and shame. In some ways, I think the Dish after that moment was one long attempt by me to make up for the first phase. It made me much more open to dissent, to alternative views, to opposing arguments. In time, the collective mind of the readership was an indispensable corrective to my own flaws; and as I got my first interns at The Atlantic, I asked them to counter me in their research and interests, rather than be mere echoes.
And so began the journey toward endorsing John Kerry, and then to search for a candidate for 2008 who might be able to bind up the wounds I had helped open up. That led to the second big transformation here – my 2007 Atlantic cover-story “Why Obama Matters“, and the constant follow-up on the blog. I’d been following Obama for some time before that, and doing some due diligence on his potential. In May 2007, I wrote this post:
I went to see Obama last night. He had a fundraiser at H20, a yuppie disco/restaurant in Southwest DC. I was curious about how he is in person. I’m still absorbing the many impressions I got. But one thing stays in my head.
This guy is a liberal. Make no mistake about that. He may, in fact, be the most effective liberal advocate I’ve heard in my lifetime. As a conservative, I think he could be absolutely lethal to what’s left of the tradition of individualism, self-reliance, and small government that I find myself quixotically attached to. And as a simple observer, I really don’t see what’s stopping him from becoming the next president…
I fear he could do to conservatism what Reagan did to liberalism. And just as liberals deserved a shellacking in 1980, so do “conservatives” today.
As soon as Iowa happened, the Dish more than doubled its traffic and kept at it. We became part of the Obama revolution – and that 2008 campaign against first Clinton and then McCain was one of the more exhilarating rides any blogger could dream of. The drama of the fall – the crazy stories of Palin that the press wouldn’t touch, the financial collapse, the mobilization of an entire generation to repair the damage of Bush-Cheney – gave the Dish an energy and vibrancy that it never lost.
And then the Obama presidency – its ups and downs, its emotional highs and deep lows – interrupted by the Green Revolution in Iran, when we innovated the kind of immediate, bloggy, provisional, breaking-news coverage that is now commonplace across the media, and when the Dish trio of Patrick, Chris and me fused into one collective mind.
You know the rest, but it’s worth recalling the causes and ideas the Dish championed from the outset and how, over these fifteen years, so many have surprisingly been resolved.
First, of course, marriage equality. I began the Dish as a veteran of the movement. People refer to my one first cover-essay on it, but don’t see that the TNR cover-story in 1993, “The Politics of Homosexuality“, was much more important in sketching the case, and that Virtually Normal was the most comprehensive argument for marriage equality yet written. I followed it with an anthology and hundreds of speaking gigs and radio and television appearances. In 2000, gay marriage remained a pipe-dream or an oxymoron for many. No one was legally married in America. In 2015, 70 percent of Americans live in states where marriage equality is the law of the land. If this blog had as one of its main campaigns the fight for marriage, then it can end with a note of real amazement.
Then the battle for openly gay servicemembers, another cause of mine from the early 1990s. By 2010, done. The HIV travel ban that threatened my very staying in this country? Finished. On this blog you can read the moment when Bush’s endorsement of a Federal Marriage Amendment threatened to up-end the entire movement, and when Massachusetts made it legal in 2004, and when the Windsor case came to its climax. I’m now legally married and aiming for full citizenship by next year. The arc is almost full.
Then the Church. The Dish coincided with the worst scandal in memory: the rape of countless children, the cover-up of the crimes, and the scapegoating of gay people. My faith has long been such a deep part of me I couldn’t ignore its own narrative in these years. After all, I first quit blogging in 2005, and only relapsed when Joseph Ratzinger became Pope, because I knew very well what his vision of Catholicism was – and it sure wasn’t mine. These were dark, dark days. But by 2015, a miracle had happened. Pope Francis emerged – my Deep Dish essay on him is now available for anyone to read – and a new window opened. Who could have hoped for such a thing five years ago? And yet the Church seems to have turned a corner, and Francis appears as a potentially world-historical figure.
On America’s embrace of torture, this blog’s enduring, obsessive passion, we failed to get any real accountability from the powerful in American government who authorized it. But we did get that final Torture Report, and it is a real beginning in the search for truth. If I were to name one thing I’m proudest of at the Dish, it would be our absolute insistence that this not be ignored, and that it be ended. It was ended in 2009. And we have made the first step away from denial.
On prohibition, we now have legal weed in two states, with two more states and DC voting against it last election, and the collapse of the arguments against it. The Dish campaigned tirelessly on this – and The Cannabis Closet helped expose a new reality in America. Support has now gone above 50 percent nationally. On Israel, the battle to end the settlements and to expose a dangerously lopsided alliance, in which core American interests were continually disrupted by interest group lobbying, remains unresolved. The showdown will come soon over Iran, as Netanyahu, in open league with the Republican party, attempts to displace the US president in charting America’s foreign policy. I don’t know how it will end – I fervently hope for a reliable deal that prevents Iran from developing nuclear weapons – but I do know Obama has a chance. I also know that this blog helped end the lock-step policing of thought and writing on Israel, once enforced by the gate-keepers of the old media. And on Iran, this blog’s complete immersion in the revolution of 2009 made me see much more clearly the greatness of the Persian people in their fight against a murderous theocracy. The election of Rouhani suggests the hopes of 2009 may at some point soon come to fruition.
I could cite many more examples. My point is simply that in many of the formerly hopeless causes this blog championed, it’s remarkable how much progress has been made. There were obvious exceptions. My case for a different kind of conservatism was met with derision and disgust on the right, and has failed to have any impact on Republicans. My campaign against sponsored content and the fusion of journalism with advertising has also met a wall of resistance that shows no sign of cracking. But on both these subjects, I am happy to have put down a marker, to have made a protest for the record. My book, The Conservative Soul, remains my core case on the former. And the simple example of the Dish as a blog that refused to give in is my case on the latter.
Of course, we were just part of enormous social change. We were one voice among many in all these shifts and currents and tides. But I can put down my blogging laptop with the comfort of knowing that the world really changed on our watch, and that many of the causes we championed prevailed, and that the narrative from 9/11 to Obama’s last two years is about as complete a circle as anyone in journalism or public life can hope for.
I fought the fight; we won so many battles. I walk away from this amazing little experiment not just knowing that it worked as an online entity, and as a business, but much more importantly, that we did something here that helped change the world and the minds that populate it. It was a joint effort, and I owe you and so many others so much in crafting my arguments and addressing new facts and confronting various contradictions. But I feel good about this country in a way I haven’t since 9/11, proud to have supported a president who helped make all of it happen, and humbled by how history does not always shock and surprise or humiliate us. History can also occasionally vindicate us.