Where have you gone, Steven Den Beste? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you
I miss Steven Den Beste.
No, I never met him; and yes, I know he's not returning to political blogging (he still blogs on anime here).
He's very ill; and, what's more, even if he weren't, I don't get the sense that he's the type who would respond to pleadings from his audience. He's no Andrew Sullivan, playing the "Hello I must be going" game. He's the type who makes up his mind and that's it. No looking back. At least that's what I imagine.
But I still miss him, and hope he's doing well. I think, when I reflect on it, that he was my favorite blogger. There was nothing easy about him; no cheap shots, no funny stuff. He didn't pander, and he was the hardest worker imaginable, churning out reams of lucid prose on a daily basis. I never understood how there were enough hours in a day for him to write as much as he did, even if he was working round the clock. And of course I didn't know at the time that it was done at enormous physical cost to him because he was suffering from a progressive degenerative illness. When he quit blogging about a year ago in July, 2004, he cited both the illness and a massive psychological burnout that seems to have come from the fact that almost all the mail he got--and he got a lot of it--was negative.
I felt guilty, having never written him an e-mail myself that let him know how much I admired and appreciated his work. I wrote one afterwards, but he never replied, nor did I expect him to. I like to think it was because he was inundated with similar missives.
Den Beste had never impressed me as being the type to care whether people appreciated him or not, though. In fact, Bill Whittle famously called him the "Krell Mind Machine"--and those of you who read the book The Forbidden Planet in your youth and loved it (as I did), or saw the movie, will understand what Whittle was getting at. But I suppose even the most cerebral of us--and Steven Den Beste was nothing if not cerebral--have feelings, too (something that should be glaringly obvious, but is sometimes clear only in retrospect).
To those of you who got into reading blogs after Den Beste had retired and who don't know what I'm talking about --I urge you to visit his archived writings. Here's a guide. Of course, it's not the same as reading his analyses at the time he wrote them. For example, during the buildup to the Iraq war, when the US was presenting its case (interminably, it seemed) to the balky UN, I recall that it was Den Beste who had the best (yes, puns are irresistible) writings on the situation. He was the one I relied on.
You had to be patient to stick with Den Beste--he wasn't what you'd call a quick read. Step by laborious step, he'd take the reader through a beautifully and logically reasoned argument or explanation, and he didn't really care how long it took. He respected his readers and figured they were up to the task--and for him, they were. He sometimes dealt with minutiae and technical things (after all, he'd been an engineer), and some of his posts were arcane. If on a certain day he wanted to write about something obscure and tech-y, or anime--well then, that's what he wrote about that day (and that's the day I might take a break from his blog). But most of the time he worked large, weaving together examples from disparate sources in new and unexpected--and, above all, deep--ways, bringing the sharp order of his mind to the chaos of politics and world events.
As Den Beste himself put it (and he put it best) in this essay about the process by which he wrote his articles, he used an "internal mechanism" which was especially "good at...finding non-obvious relationships." That was indeed his specialty. In the same essay, he says: I write about something because I'm compelled to, because it's often the case that if I don't, then I can't get it out of my head. Putting my thoughts into print relieves an internal pressure which also isn't easily described.
That came across in his essays. He seemed to be a pressure cooker of some sort--throw in a bunch of data, seal the top, add heat, and the pressure would build until--voila!--out came a tasty feast, in his case an intellectual one, cooked in far less time than conventional pots and normal pressure could ever accomplish. It's not surprising he burnt out. Even if he hadn't had an illness, I can't imagine anyone keeping up that sort of pace.
Den Beste was a master of the long essay form and a blog pioneer, beginning in early 2001, when most of us had never even heard the word "blog." I'm a practitioner of the medium-to- longish essay myself, and I tip my proverbial hat to Den Beste for setting the bar very very high.