Looking at the FM website: are we helping to reform America?

Summary:  It’s the sixth anniversary of the FM website, and so time to review the point of the operation — goals, progress, and lessons learned. Pitch into the comments to say what we’re doing right and wrong — or if we’re accomplishing anything.
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Contents

  1. Who are we?
  2. Purpose of the project
  3. What makes us different?
  4. How long can we continue?
  5. For More Information

(1)  Who are we?

Six years ago the FM website opened for business. We moved to here 4 years of articles from Defense and the National Interest. Since then the FM website has seen …
Action Clock

  • 2,513 posts,
  • 30,131 comments,
  • almost 4.5 million pageviews,
  • with a record of 26,179 hits on 10 July 2013.

These 2500 articles were written by this company of authors. Plus 334 posts by guest authors, and dozens of articles reposted here with the generous permission of major periodicals — most especially the Marine Corps Gazette, the London Review of Books, and New York Review of Books.

(2)  Purpose of the project

We tottered along for two years doing cold analysis about geopolitics, broadly defined, from an American perspective. Until December 2009, when it became clear that America’s trendlines had taken an alarming downward turn. The result: Re-envisioning the FM website, becoming soldiers in the war for American’s future. Since then we — authors and commenters — have attempted to diagnose the problems with the Republic’s political machinery and devise solutions (see these posts).

How far have we come? Not far. But the longest journey begins with …

(3)  What makes the FM website special?

“I now wish to make the personal acknowledgment that you were right, and I was wrong.”
— Letter by Abraham Lincoln to Grant, 13 July 1863

“my friend bill quick {Daily Pundit} has little regard for you other than your ability to apologize”
comment by “major scarlet”

No error
A goal, not a promise

These are our distinguishing characteristics:

  • tracking and publicly posting mistakes and failed predictions (see the list here),
  • mostly critical comments, with a high fraction of hostile comments,
  • rarest of all — a policy of apologizing for errors, and
  • a remarkable record of forecasting (see the list of successes here),

I believe the last (the good record results from the first three factors, working together.

People posting critical comments make a valuable contribution to the FM website. They have pointed out many errors of fact and reasoning. They’ve sharpened my views, and forced me to upgrade my analytical skills and level of supporting evidence I give. I do not enjoy reading them, or writing responses. But swords do not enjoy getting heating, hammered, and quenched — repeatedly.

The comments are littered with complaints about harsh treatment. Often deserved. There are very very few admissions of mistakes (except by me), and almost no apologies for attacks proven to be  false. It seems most people agrees with “Major Scarlet” that apologies — even admissions of error — show weakness.  The results of the FM website suggest that they are wrong; it’s a source of strength.

(4)  How long can we continue?

Our mad foreign wars, and the doomed-to-fail grand strategy of which they were the expression — drove me and many others to start writing. These wars’s exhaustion and eventual end in defeat burned off that energy. The slow relentless decay of the Republic provides ample new material to write about, but the apparent hopelessness of the Reform America project discourages effort.

Posts on the FM website usually run 1,000 to 2,000 words, and take several hours to write. Responding to comments takes more time (the comments on the FM website are of extraordinary length and quality, compared with the usual internet standard). The Fabiusmaximus01 Twitter feed provides updates.

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Your support is appreciated.  By reading. By posting comments. By recommending us to your friends. And, of course, by making donations.

(5)  For More Information about the FM website

  1. About the FM website
  2. Predictions revisited – how do they look now?
  3. Smackdowns – corrections & rebuttals to FM posts
  4. Politics of the FM site: radical leftist reformer or right-wing iconoclast?
  5. Lessons learned during 2012 from comments on the FM website, 30 December 2012
  6. What can we learn from visits to the FM website from interesting Internet communities, 31 December 2012
  7. Why comments have been turned off on the FM website. It’s the same reason others have done so., 13 January 2013
  8. A look at the record hits, and what they tell us about ourselves, 28 September 2013

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19 thoughts on “Looking at the FM website: are we helping to reform America?

  1. I’m a teacher by profession and have spent most of that overseas; during that time, I’ve learned the value of communication skills in coming to agreements which everyone can live by. Your choice of rational argument with high burdens of proof are impressive and notable in an Internet where screaming in all caps is still an acceptable norm (and where a large number of Internet users are themselves often too young to have a full grasp on the subjects they’re commenting on). What you offer is a model of discussion; that in and of itself has value.

    I do not share your view that the future is going to get worse; I think it might get rough in the short and medium term, but this phase of irrationality will force American society to do what it always does and adapt, survive, and improve. In that sense, your widespread audience and discussions help pave the way for a future in which reason and facts come back into vogue, even if such a future is ten or twenty of thirty years off. You should remember that young people not yet able to vote will stumble upon this site; they will read it and learn from and will likely contrast it with the hysterics and emotional arguments of their parents’ generations, and from that may yet form a basis of thinking which will best serve the United States.

    Your primary purpose should be education and modeling; you should continue to offer your viewpoint as part of an ever-improving project to provide a model of discussion and debate which will be useful in the future, if not particularly popular right now. You should remember this site will remain so long as you don’t delete it and may have a use unknown to you or anyone else in the future.

    As per tips, I’d not fault your style of writing, but organizational layout of your site itself. (There’s a lot of initial text, which can be overwhelming, and it’s set up in a style that feels dated, at least to me). Is there a more effective way to let people stumble on this site, understand what you’re doing, agree with it (and delve into it further) or disagree with it (and click off) in the few seconds you first have with them?

    1. Mr. B.

      Thank you for sharing your observations!

      “As per tips, I’d not fault your style of writing, but organizational layout of your site itself. (There’s a lot of initial text, which can be overwhelming, and it’s set up in a style that feels dated, at least to me).”

      I agree. But changing it is far beyond my technical competence, even assuming I had the time to do so (I don’t). With more revenue we could pay someone to improve it, but that does not appear likely at this time.

      “Is there a more effective way to let people stumble on this site, understand what you’re doing, agree with it (and delve into it further) or disagree with it (and click off) in the few seconds you first have with them?”

      Certainly. But I don’t know how. That would require assistance from someone with skills I lack. I welcome suggestions.

    2. Do you use WordPress’s web engine? Not sure of your budget, but there are packages you can purchase from them that are both simple and give you a wide range of formats to choose from.

    3. Yes. We have a theme Vigilance and custom CSS. But switching Themes for a large website is complex and time-consuming, and requires skills I lack. CSS is a mystery to me.

      We did it once, before my tech support retired. Took a lot of work, mostly hers. The result — the current setup — is a big improvement.

      Beyond my resources to do by myself.

    4. MrB.

      “I do not share your view that the future is going to get worse; I think it might get rough in the short and medium term, but this phase of irrationality will force American society to do what it always does and adapt, survive, and improve.”

      I am uncomfortable with that phrasing.

      (1) We are only responsible for the short- and medium-term. Statements about the long-term are like saying we’re going to Heaven. More precisely:

      “In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if, in tempestous seasons, they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again.”
      — John Maynard Keynes in A Tract on Monetary Reform (1923)

      (2) It is good to be confident that the past will be like the future, but at some point this confidence saps our useful fear and diminishes our drive to fix things. I prefer:

      “Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive.”
      — Andy Grove, CEO of Intel 1987 – 1998

      (3) Here is a complete statement of my view of the future: section 7 of Forecast: Death of the American Constitution, 4 July 2006. I recommend reading it. It is IMO one of the most powerful and prescient posts on the FM website.

  2. The most important quality of your Fabius Maximus site is that your presentations work to avoid ideological prejudice. I appreciate the balance and the intellectual honesty.

    1. Glenn,

      Thanks for the feedback!

      I find the comment stream on the whole difficult to understand. The posts are quite vanilla, and usually moderately balanced, with my own opinions usually stated as conjectures (the exception are the posts exhorting people to political action). For example, those about global warming support the IPCC, with some mention of its critics. Yet most comments are critical, many intensely so. I read many websites, and have seen nothing like this, anywhere. Why is this?

      My guess (emphasis on guess) is this results from the diversity of the political positions taken, spread randomly across the ideological spectrum. Therefore the audience is similarly diverse, and so a large fraction is outraged (and they’re the ones who comment).

      Hence the rare praise like yours is appreciated.

  3. This site’s contribution to the sociology is astounding, it stays out of the mainstream divisions and prejudice against “other”. It sends profound messages on society, but on the economics it is the pure mainstream that led us to and did not see coming GFC.

  4. “These are our distinguishing characteristics…mostly critical comments, with a high fraction of hostile comments…”

    Perhaps this is due to the fact that I’ve been coming here comparatively late in the game — slightly over two years of frequent if not daily visits, as far as I can tell — but personally, I wouldn’t define most of the comments that I’ve seen here as being hostile or even particularly critical (unless you’re using the word “critical” in the sense of “analytical” rather than “judgmental” or “presenting an opposing view”) and certainly not by comparison with the kind of adolescent jeering and schoolyard
    invective which is overwhelmingly substitutes for debate these days both on the internet and elsewhere.

    One of the reasons why I keep coming back to this site is because of the rational, intelligent, respectful, and well-supported arguments presented in the daily installments from FM et al. as well as (at least on average) the people who comment on these posts. This is what real debate is supposed to look like but unfortunately hardly ever (or almost never) does anymore. I once watched a discussion panel on science fiction which featured Harlan Ellison, and he compared the internet to the back fence where housewives exchange gossip…and I found it an uncomfortably apt analogy. (I’m more inclined to see it as a playground where cliques of schoolchildren thumb their noses and stick their tongues out at each other, but it’s pretty much the same idea.)

    On a side note (even though I realize that this is somewhat ironic given the previous paragraph), one question which I’d be interested in knowing the answer to is…why does this website apparently not have a stronger presence on Facebook? I notice that there is the usual icon inviting people to share the day’s post on Facebok and that people are free to comment using their Facebook login, but neither of those are at all unusual these days. I tried to search for the website on Facebook earlier today, but it doesn’t seem to have a presence there in the sense that many other websites do. As hackneyed as the thought is, It occured to me that this potentially might be a way of drawing more people’s attention to the site and the issues discussed herein (at least those with an attention span is longer than that of a gnat, a group which seems to be growing smaller by the day in the era of the “sound-bite”). At the same time, however, I realize that what might be just as likely to result from this is a flow of people who do nothing but muddy the waters — either because they’re incapable of doing anything else due to the dearth (or death?) of critical thinking skills in this country, or else out of sheer spite simply because they can.

    1. Bluestocking,

      Thank you, as always, for the useful feedback.

      (1). Fraction of comment positive-negative

      I tracked this until end of last year. Aprox 80% were negative comments. The active threads were the most negative, and those were the posts with the most hits. These generated the most hate e-mail (I have had 2 authors bail from the hostile comments; my emails are worse then their comments).

      Look at the posts on our wars, about torture, about the McCain-Palin candidacy, about global warming, the odds of recession in early 2008, about the low odds of peak oil in the next decade (2005-2015), about Iran’s nuke program. Be sure to have your display set on “asbestos”.

      2013 has been relatively quiet. Perhaps turning off comments for a few months lost some of these folk?

      (2). “why does this website apparently not have a stronger presence on Facebook?”

      First, I am unclear what to do with it.

      Second, I use Twitter to send outlines to material about subjects covered here: fabiusmaximus01 !

      Third,there is not enough time for me to support three services.

      Your suggestions?

  5. Extrapolating from Sun Tzu, if people are not well informed they are defenseless. However, one cannot force people to learn and try to find out about what is going on. In my experience, many people already know what is what so if someone suggests otherwise then they must be a damn fool. So the people that visit and comment on the FM site tend to have an interest in the issues and recognize the need for the information it disseminates. Hard to imagine many people stumbling across it by accident.

    A little while ago the FM site was referencing and linking to a lot of articles by Glenn Greenwald before the NSA story broke and he achieved national notoriety. Way ahead of the game on that one in comparison to most other informational outlets. The info on warfare, climate change and, as far as I can tell (since I’m utterly horrible at it), economics, on the FM site are just excellent. The attempts to analyze cultural phenomenon, although I sometimes disagree with some assumptions and conclusions, are unique and thought provoking.

    Whether that translates into reforming America is another story and difficult to impossible to assess. Of course it helps. “First, do no harm.”

    1. I’m not sure I follow you. It seems to me that if most people *really* knew “what is what” instead of merely believing/thinking that they do, there would be little or no need for this site…but I think most of us here would agree that there is in fact a desperate need for this site because of what appears to be an increasingly insistent (however illusory) conviction in the minds of many Americans that anything they don’t already know about or don’t want to believe in either couldn’t possibly be true or doesn’t matter very much.

  6. One of the major elements to the decline of america (and capitalism in the postmodern era in general) is the destruction of communities and authentic culture. (Habermas “colonization of lifeworld by systems”) In other words, the lack of collective meaning and purpose. The style of this blog is rationalist and pragmatic, which is great, but it does little or nothing to build real community and it avoids the issue of meaning and purpose most of the time, except by repeatedly complaining about the abandonment of traditional notions (a legitimate and necessary point, but not sufficient).

    We love you anyway, so buck up and march onward into the good fight. As if you need us to tell you that.

  7. Bluestocking,

    No, I wasn’t meaning for “really” to be meant as a way to qualify the views of people who *think* that they know…everything; but as a descriptor of the way they frame things to themselves. I’m much more interested in people with world views that are elastic enough to allow for change. One of the reasons I come back to FM is that he has demonstrated this, as have some of the commentators. I agree with you.

    I think I need to learn to write more clearly.

  8. Mr Maximus, I really enjoy your regular posts and your website. Ever since I first started reading them, I feel they’ve given me a greater understanding and appreciation of our world and the systems that either hold it together or break it apart.

    I especially value your dedication in deliberately and considerately responding to almost every reader comment, as well as the consistently impartial and fact-driven analysis you present, as compared to other political commentary which I find is largely emotion-driven sensationalism.

    The best way I think you could improve the site, both in terms of readership, participation, and advancement of stated goals, would be to attempt more than just diagnosis of our societal problems, but potential solutions as well, especially solutions that can be manifested in concrete plans of action.

    It’s very easy to complain about a general lack of civic participation in the population, but complaining without acting *is itself* an example of that same lack of participation. Maybe Fabius Maximus does not want to be a reform leader himself, but instead he hopes that his website would inspire others to take up that task. Maybe he has a very good personal reason for that. I wouldn’t know. Still, I find that complaining usually only leads to bitterness and then even more complaining. It is the potential for results that inspire people to action. That’s why I would suggest not looking at things in terms of problems, but in terms of problems to be solved.

    1. “The best way I think you could improve the site, both in terms of readership, participation, and advancement of stated goals, would be to attempt more than just diagnosis of our societal problems, but potential solutions as well, especially solutions that can be manifested in concrete plans of action.”

      I’m not 100% sure about this, but maybe there might be good reason to separate the in-depth analysis from the “action”, whatever that may be. From my limited vantage point, political / advocacy organizations are not the best environment for critical thinking. And vice versa too.

    2. Todd,

      “The best way I think you could improve the site, both in terms of readership, participation, and advancement of stated goals, would be to attempt more than just diagnosis of our societal problems, but potential solutions as well, especially solutions that can be manifested in concrete plans of action.”

      There have been a great many posts discussing possible solutions. See these posts under the tag “reform”.

      Posts proposing steps to fixing America:

      1. Fixing American: taking responsibility is the first step
      2. Five steps to fixing America
      3. A third try: The First Step to reforming America
      4. The second step to reforming America
      5. The third step to reforming America, with music
      6. How to recruit people to the cause of reforming America
    3. Todd,

      Another note about posts discussing how to reform America: they get less hits. People like posts slamming their foes, talking about policies. Exciting. Esp fantasies of easy paths to victory!

      Nuts and bolts, discussion of hard work, risk — not so much interest of the audience.

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