Thursday, March 4, 2010

When the Impersonal Gets Very Personal

Some, like Pia Zadora and Milli Vanilli, achieve recognition in their lifetimes, while others, like President Bush and, apparently, this modest blogger, will only be judged by history when "we'll all be dead." - Jon Swift, January 12, 2009

Moreso than the sudden death of Steve Gilliard, who posted under his own name and whose face was well-known in the blogosphere, the death of Al Weisel, aka Jon Swift, leaves us with some perplexing questions even down to the legitimacy of our grief.

Ever since his mother Mimi posted on her son's blog on March 2nd the circumstances surrounding his death, and since I found out last night, I've discovered quite a few things about the personal life of Jon Swift, starting with his birth name Al Weisel. He was 46, he was an accomplished and well-known journalist whose work goes back to the early 90's. While never hinting at his many brushes with celebrity, he interviewed celebrities. And, of course, we all now know what he looked like.

Al had sandy hair, a genial, round face with a wry grin the only hint of the internet alter ego that had entertained, fooled and outraged so many. He fell ill on his way to his father's funeral (the poor woman lost her son and husband in a matter of days).

I never knew any of these things about the occasional presence in my inbox whenever Blogroll Amnesty time and the year-end retrospective came around.

So why are we so aggrieved at his passing since we never really knew him? Why do I still feel so guilty for having written two snarky top ten lists yesterday when his mother had already informed us of her son's death the day before?

The answer, of course, is that Al/Jon won over hearts and minds throughout the blogosphere with the sheer, penetrating power of his wit. He'd chosen to handicap himself by creating a pre-Colbert character, a faux conservative who, as with the real ones, sounded reasonable until you actually started listening to him.

He was so good he was inspiring. After having read his post Top Ten Conservative Movies, one of his best and last, almost exactly a year ago I was inspired to write a sister post, "Top Ten Conservative Books of All Time", written in the same tongue-in-cheek manner that Jon had long ago perfected. My heart was breaking while I wrote it because I knew I was getting kicked out of my house later that month but the impetus was too good to ignore, a testament to his powers of inspiration. To this day, it's still one of my most widely-read posts, many of them coming from actual conservatives who assume they're going to get a treat. Somewhere up in the holy ethers, Jon is wryly grinning over that.

And, as with real life, Jon's sudden, untimely passing tickles the backs of our addled and preoccupied minds that setting our house in order "just in case" wouldn't be such a bad idea. In the real world, when one dies, a death certificate is called for. Obituaries are written, relatives call other relatives and friends. There's often a wake, a funeral, memorial service, something publicly tangible.

On the internet, where one's presence is largely virtual and accounts are password-protected, it's more challenging getting the word out. I'm sure many of us bloggers are silently asking ourselves now, "Who will get the word out about me if my time comes?" I've given Barbara my password so she could post here at Pottersville in case anything happens to me.

But the odds of dying in virtual obscurity are greater than in real life. Andrew Olmstead had Hilzoy to break the news of his death in Iraq and Steve Gilliard had Jenn.

But what about the rest of us? Jon's mother Mimi took a huge risk leaving her son's death go unremarked by breaking the news in the comment section of a year-old post yet we still found out, proving that, even after a year-long silence, Jon still commanded loyalty.

So we have to think about setting our own houses in order so we don't rudely disappear without explanation as so many of us have in the past and as many more will do in the months and years to come. In the relatively brief time he was in the blogosphere (Blog years can be likened to dog years; Considering the usual rate of activity of a typical blog like this one, one year to a journalist is like seven years to us.), Jon won over hearts and minds on both sides of the Great Ideological Divide. Unlike me and so many others, he was a class act to his own detractors (although it can be argued that the blogroll-purging Atrios got it much worse than conservative blogger and law professor Ann Althouse, who was a grudging admirer).

I would advise each of us to appoint a Blogging Second, someone to step in at least temporarily and to fill the breach, to not let us slip away in the ethers. Because in the virtual world as well as in the physical one, we all need closure. Share your passwords or better yet, make them a partner so they can post any bad news under their own name instead of under your own.

Because human hearts and minds, the ones forever changed by Jon's spare time work, is still what guides the internet.

Update: In honor of Jon's legacy of linking to smaller blogs, this is, admittedly, a partial list of all the eulogies made by other bloggers in the first 48 hours after his death:

Drinking Liberally.
Tom Watson
Blue Gal
and Blue Gal again over @ Crooks & Liars.
John Cole @ Balloon Juice
Mad Kane
Maryscott O'Connor @My Left Wing
Oliver Willis
Jill @ Brilliant @ Breakfast
Sadly, No!
Michael J.W. Stickings
Carl @ Simply Left Behind
Mock Paper Scissors
Blue Girl @ Blue Girl in a Red State
James Wolcott
Libby Spencer @ The Impolitic
Kevin K. @ Rumproast
Kathy Kattenburg @ The Moderate Voice
Kathleen Maher @ Diary of a Heretic
Mike the Mad Biologist
Mustang Bobby @ Bark Bark Woof Woof
Jill @ Feministe
Vast Left @ Corrente
Steve Hynd @ Newshoggers
Chuck for..., who, sadly, was the subject of Jon Swift's last post when tragedy visited upon Chuck's family
Attaturk @ Rising Hegemon
The Mahablog
Lance Mannion
Pamela @ The Democratic Daily
Batocchio @ Vagabond Scholar
Shawn Russell @ The Tardisgrade
Busted Knuckles @ Ornery Bastard
DJ @ Buzztwang
Jeff Fecke @ Alas! a Blog
D r i f t g l a s s
Liberal Values
Pam @ Pam's House Blend
Thers @ Whiskeyfire
Fearguth @ Bildungblog

And, from the right of center:

Glenn Reynolds @ Instapundit
Ed Morrisey @ Hot Air

Finally, the never at all hypocritical Ann Althouse who once said to Jon, "I'm not going to write a post about you. I don't like you, and screw you. The idea that I'm doing anything to you that is comparable to what Packer and you did to me is flat-out bullshit. But you are not interested in honesty. So pimp your posts to Sullivan and Packer and get your traffic. Good for you, you little prick."


At March 4, 2010 at 11:04 AM, Blogger Fearguth said...

Amen, JP.

At March 4, 2010 at 10:50 PM, Blogger Liberality said...

Zen Comix also wrote a post about him.

Death is never as far away as we like to think.

At March 5, 2010 at 3:14 AM, Blogger Beau said...

Untimely and sad passing of a great writer.

Noticed that Althouse chose not to include these comments on her blog yesterday but chose instead a series of comments that she and Swift traded back and forth, one where she was the focus. (She's consistent at least)

I hope you live to a ripe old age JP, happy, rich, and content. I never fail to laugh at that one line from the movie 'The Big Chill' when the Michael Gold character tells a friend who worries that no-one would go to her funeral, 'don't worry, I'll come, and I'll bring a date'.

At March 6, 2010 at 12:29 AM, Blogger Bukko Canukko said...

Wow, what a shame. FWIW, I heard it first from you.

Swifty was one of the main people I clicked from your blogroll. I still hit his site about once a month, to see if he awoke from his unannounced retirement. I remember that March 19, 2009 was the date of his last post, and I was going to leave some attempted-humourous comment there on the one-year anniversary. Too bad there will be no more.

The good die young. So you've got a lotta years ahead of you, JP ;)

At March 6, 2010 at 12:41 AM, Blogger jurassicpork said...

From your new handle, I take it you and the Missus finally made the exodus to Canada?

At March 6, 2010 at 1:23 PM, Blogger Bukko Canukko said...

Yeah. I'm not happy with it, though. I liked the Australians, for all their slipshoddiness. I'm just an Aussiephile. Even their accent sounds nice to me, like they're all matey. Kinda like people used to think about the American South. Canadians are smart and efficient and polite, but they just leave me cold. Boring-ass people, if you ask me. But Mrs. Bukko is happy to be back in North America. I still reckon the U.S. is headed for a violent collapse when the monetary system goes down, which is why we relocated NORTH of the border. It would be good if my forecast is full of shit, though.

At March 10, 2010 at 6:41 PM, Blogger Connecticut Man1 said...

Man... I still keep thinking about it. Al/Jon was only a little bit older than me. Could happen to any of us at anytime.

And not all Canadians are boring... And I am not always that polite - just ask the local teabagrrr wingnuts down here in Connecticut. :)

Sorry that you had to move. I want to move back to Canada but my wife and kids like it here. Not that I don't like where I live or Americans in general, but all of the politicians are batshit loopy insane here and I agree with you that the economic shit may hit the fan very soon.


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