Tuesday, May 22, 2007


So last week, just as Aspazia and I had finished a brief conversation about blog-ads, I see Media Czech, while subbing over at LGM, put up a lament about Elvis Costello selling out to Lexus. The synchronicity has had me thinking about the uneasy relationship between liberals and money.

Aspazia has signed up for a service that will put advertising on your blog and pay you for the use of the space if there is an advertiser who thinks it desirable. I've flirted with the idea, but never seriously because I have a strange reaction to the thought, a sense that there is just something not necessarily immoral, but still worrisome about it. Spaz, on the other hand, argues quite cogently that if someone wants to give her free money for doing something she was going to do anyway, she'd be a damn fool to say "no, thank you."

So what accounts for the distaste? Is it rational?

Money as a corrupting influence

The first argument is that when you introduce monetary gain into the formula, questions about authenticity arise. When it was discovered that conservative columnists like Armstrong Williams were receiving payments for writing editorials in favor of specific Bush policy initiatives, it was quite reasonable to stop taking those columns and others written by the columnists as seriously. There seems to be good reason to suspect that what they say may not be the result of their best critical faculties, but mere rhetoric produced to please their employer. The more porous boundary between news desks and commercial interests in corporations that control the mainstream media has had an undeniably deleterious effect on reporting.

Argument by authority is a fine means of argument as long as the cited authority (1) exists, (2) is someone with the required expertise, and (3) is not an interested party who would personally benefit from having you believe one way or the other. By adding money into the mix, the third criteria begins to become strained.

At the same time, however, one always has past performance. It has never crossed my mind that Aspazia or the other blogs I read regularly are the slightest bit influenced by a transitory ad on their site. I also know that I too would not be influenced and have little doubt that what I write here would be seen at all differently by those of you good folks who come here to play. So that couldn't be it.

Dancing with the devil

The second argument against making money in this way has to do with the source. The advertising money comes from corporations that are direct contributors to social ills and by taking their cash and helping promote them, you are being co opted by the machine instead of fighting against it. This is what Media Czech found so disturbing. It is one thing for a whore to act like a whore, for someone who is just in it for the cash to take it and not worry about where it comes from or what it is for, but this was Elvis Costello, someone who seemed to be on the right side of the fight, someone who built a career in part by asking what is so funny about peace, love and understanding.

Something similar happened when Atrios' blog-ads suddenly started to feature some of the right-wing cable programs. No one had any doubt that he was in any way personally advocating watching these programs, but there seemed to be something uncomfortable in having his liberal gathering place infiltrated by those folks. For those of us who witnessed it, there was a huge battle when a somewhat suggestive photo of two women having a pie fight appeared on the Daily Kos.

Again, it would not matter one whit to me what ads started popping up on Mad Melancholic Feminista, my perception of Spaz or her work would not change at all. So that is not it.

A safe haven

Maybe it has to do with the ubiquity of marketing in our culture. It seems that every last inch of the places we go have been appropriated by advertising. There is nothing you can do, nowhere you can go in order to escape being marketed to. Kids programming on PBS now is preceded by fast food commercials. Elevators have screens playing nothing but commercials. Doctors' office waiting rooms and children's homerooms in school have been taken over. In the grocery store different products are placed at different eye levels so that you cannot even protect your kids from it when getting food. Can I please be a human and not a consumer somewhere?

My blog is my blog. It is not theirs. Maybe the revulsion I feel at the thought of putting up ads is surrendering one place where I am not commercialized.

On the other hand

Part of it may be a very harmful example of false alternatives. Very often, those who care about peace, social justice, equality, the environment, and concern for the more vulnerable are fighting against moneyed interests. Extremely wealthy corporations and certain individuals have fought tooth and nail against inexpensive, common sense measures that would have immediate and positive impact on society and the world at large. This has created something of an us vs. them mentality in parts of the left that see wealth and comfort as indicative of a lack of commitment. When we give money to groups on our side, we want to make sure the overwhelming majority of money goes directly to the rain forest or helping the homeless. We don't want to be subsidizing large salaries or lunches for Congressmen. We want to be making a real difference. We look askance at anyone in the advocacy business who is receiving a large salary because if you were truly committed, you'd do it for nothing or next to nothing. It you really cared about what you claim to care about, you'd want the resources to go there and not to you.

But, of course, there are serious problems with this attitude. First of all, things cost money. If we want tings to happen, there is overhead that needs to be paid for. After Woodstock, Ken Walker and Thor Eaton thought it would be a great idea to take the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Buddy Guy, the Band, and a bunch of other bands, put them on a train and hold festivals at stops across Canada. The problem was that people were demanding that the festivals be free. The commodification of culture was exactly what the movement whose music it was fought against. Of course, the technicians, the musicians, the transportation, food for all these people, had to be paid for and if it didn't come from the gate, where would it come from?

It is the same sort of thing for folks like Lindsay at Majikthise, who do blog reporting. These folks need the income to be able to provide the space, time, and bandwidth to do what they do for us. I have no problem whatsoever with full time bloggers supporting themselves as far as possible from their blogs.

Moreover, if these folks are not paid well, both in the blog and advocacy worlds, who will you get to do the job? Young people just out of college with good hearts, Eventually the thrill of eating ramen noodles fades, they get married and have families, or want more than a half a studio apartment, and realizing that their skills can land them better paying gigs elsewhere, will cause most to be lured away. We do lose many good people with good experience that way. And the other side does not have the same sort of wealth guilt. They are more than happy to pay their folks well, meaning that they constantly have an experienced, well-trained army close to hand to fight their media and lobbying battles. they are the red coats, well trained well-equipped troops. We are convinced that our guerrilla tactics will work against them, but often they do not.

There is a knee-jerk instinct away from that which gives monetary reward on the left and in some contexts it is harmful. But is this context like that? I put in more hours than I care to admit on this blog. But I do it because it's a hobby, not for the cash. At the same time, if someone wanted to pay me for what I would be doing anyway, would it change it? Would it bother you to see ads here? Am I being hypersensitive and irrational?