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January 24, 2006

We're Supposed To Be Better Than This

I must be insane. Just one week after returning to blogging and I'm about to step into the midst of a firestorm.

Kevin Drum's oft-repeated observation aside, I've never been particularly daunted by what he aptly terms the food-fight nature of blogging. If I have something to say, I speak up. But trading thoughts in the marketplace of ideas is one thing. In any contest of logic, persuasive rhetoric, or ideology I've never hesitated to pit myself against other bloggers, commenters, pundits, or authors. After all, this is what the blogosphere is all about: a vigorous and free-wheeling exchange of ideas that enriches all who participate. Hopefully it forces us to examine our own positions and broadens our perspective, and even if no opinions are changed, at the least we may hope to take away from the discussion a deeper understanding of opposing points of view.

newkate.jpg But discussion - especially reasoned discourse between the Left and Right sides of the blogosphere - presupposes some rudimentary amount of civilized behavior from the parties involved. It is impossible to exchange ideas during a shouting match. And nowhere is civility more important than when great ideas collide, for that is when emotions run high and the damage done by insults, malicious rumor-mongering, and orchestrated attacks can spread far beyond their intended recipients and blacken the reputation of the entire blogging community.

Via Charlotte Allen, I read of the trashing of Kate O'Beirne's Amazon site promoting her new book, Women Who Make The World Worse. Charlotte writes:

The left’s foul-mouthed barrages over the Internet have only stepped up of late. The Amazon flame-fests continue, not only against Kate O’Beirne’s "Women Who Make the World Worse" but also against Fred Barnes’s admiring Bush-bio, "Rebel in Chief." And I’ve also reported on the brouhaha at the Washington Post over a factual error in ombudsman Deborah Howell’s (true) remark that convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff encouraged his clients to contribute to Dems as well as Republicans. The sewage pipeful of obscene and nasty e-mails and comments over that fluff got so thick that the Post had to shut down its comments section on the article.

But here’s (hat tip to Michelle Malkin) what’s incredible: The Post is so mealy-mouthed that it actually invited the instigator of the flameout, one Jane Hamsher (whose blog, Fire Dog Lake, is quite the piece of work) to a free flight to D.C. to "discuss" the limits of civil discourse over the Internet! Gee, let’s all gin up the four-letter words and e-mail them to the Post! With rewards like these, who needs punishments. The Post later rescinded its invitations, but Hamsher will be participating in an online discussion group at the Post at 1 p.m. today--and she’s invited all her potty-mouthed buddies to join in.

I generally avoid flame wars and those who participate in them, but I checked out Jane's site, and surely enough, the advertised gloating was still there:

First of all I want to thank everyone who aided in the sacking of Kate O'Beirne's book Women Who Make the World Worse over at Amazon. The overall book review is at 1.5 stars, and for reasons I have no clue about Amazon has now promoted the General's review -- which has close to 4,000 votes -- to the Spotlight review. In addition to all the fabulous 1 star reviews everyone contributed (and if you want to feel good about the existence of an active, engaged left go have a read-through, it's really quite inspirational)...

Well Jane, perhaps Amazon read your site and realized their review page was sabotaged by malicious commenters who had never read her book. Just a thought. Interestingly enough, Ms. Hamsher inadvertently revealed her own opinion of the "reviews" she, Atrios, and the Daily Kos urged their readers to post on Kate O'Beirne's review page:

Her page, which reviewers all over the country look to for their cues, is now a flaming shit heap.

I couldn't have said it better myself. Charlotte Hays helpfully supplies a sample of the kind of the devastating intellectual refutation this kind of flame war results in:

“Kate Kate Kate You sad pathetic author Please go back to your bathroom and flush your misogynist fantasies down the toilet where you belong.”

Pardon me if I'm not impressed. Or if, as a woman, I'm profoundly embarrassed by the cattiness shown by so-called "feminists" when a woman publishes a book full of non-approved ideas that stray off the narrow confines of the feminist ideological reservation. How dare she? Apparently the Tolerant and Diverse Left... isn't.

Is this how Americans, or bloggers, or even mature adults want to win the war of ideas? With childish defacement of book covers and the incitement of thousands of readers to post fictitious negative "reviews" of a book they haven't purchased and never bothered to read? No wonder the mainstream media are calling bloggers a bunch of undisciplined hoodlums. Firedoglake, Atrios, and the DailyKos have done everything within their power to prove them right.

But it's not only reich-wingers who are subject to this kind of attack. Anyone who commits Thought Crime can find themselves at the center of a BlogStorm. Just ask the Washington Post's Deborah Howell:

Nothing in my 50-year career prepared me for the thousands of flaming e-mails I got last week over my last column, e-mails so abusive and many so obscene that part of The Post's Web site was shut down.

That column praised The Post for breaking the story on lobbyist Jack Abramoff's dealings, for which he has pleaded guilty to several felony counts. The column clearly pointed out that Abramoff is a Republican and dealt mainly with Republicans, most prominently former House majority leader Tom DeLay of Texas.

I wrote that he gave campaign money to both parties and their members of Congress. He didn't. I should have said he directed his client Indian tribes to make campaign contributions to members of Congress from both parties.

My mistake set off a firestorm. I heard that I was lying, that Democrats never got a penny of Abramoff-tainted money, that I was trying to say it was a bipartisan scandal, as some Republicans claim. I didn't say that. It's not a bipartisan scandal; it's a Republican scandal, and that's why the Republicans are scurrying around trying to enact lobbying reforms.

But there is no doubt about the campaign contributions that were directed to lawmakers of both parties. Records from the Federal Election Commission and the Center for Public Integrity show that Abramoff's Indian clients contributed money to 195 Republicans and 88 Democrats between 1999 and 2004. The Post also has copies of lists sent to tribes by Abramoff with his personal directions on which members were to receive what amounts.

Michael Crowley of the New Republic said in his blog that "while for all practical purposes this is indisputably a Republican scandal, the narrow liberal-blogger definition of whether any Democrats took money 'from Abramoff' -- which neatly excludes contributions he directed his clients to make -- amounts to foolish semantics.''

These facts have been reported many times in The Post and elsewhere. So why would it cause me to be called a "right-wing whore" and much worse?

Well, Ms. Howell, it wasn't right when it happened to Michelle Malkin and it's still not right. The sad thing is that as long as bloggers continue, not only to condone this kind of behavior from their readers but to actively encourage it, the situation will only get worse.

A year ago, I wrote about bloggers, flame wars, and the need for more civility:

Blogging, by nature, differs from that front porch discussion with your neighbor in that there is an anonymous aspect to the 'Net. We fiercely debate topics normally eschewed in polite society: sex, religion, and politics, with people we have never seen. Add this anonymity to the undeniably passionate feelings we have about our cherished beliefs and you have the makings of a Molotov cocktail; for if the web is a faceless medium, it is driven by very real human beings who make alliances and enemies, get angry, annoyed, and defensive with predictable regularity.

All of which mediates for some kind of Code: a set of rules to guide us when we stray. But to the freewheeling, 'little l' Libertarian denizens of the blogosphere such talk is anathema. Rules are for sissies. If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.

...The larger point here is that, when we react by labeling our opponents in this great debate rather than addressing the substance of their remarks with appropriate dispassion, we debase ourselves and close off opportunities for debate. When we really lose our tempers, we prove our critics right and debase the entire medium, a tactic unlikely to encourage either our readership or the MSM to take us seriously.

We are supposed to be better than this. Many of us have rightly criticized the mainstream media for their insularity and snobbish putdowns of the blogging community, but so long as we refuse to police our own ranks, we invite just this sort of criticism. I have long maintained that if 'professional journalists' wish to be treated as a profession, they should adhere to the same rigorous ethical standards observed by other professions. This includes, unfortunately, the distasteful necessity of calling your own to account when they cross the line.

But if this is true for journalists, the same is true for bloggers. If we want to be taken seriously by the media, we need to denounce this kind of destructive and childish behavior. And unfortunately, it does no good for denunciations like this to come from the Right side of the blogosphere, for they will be greeted with accusations of partisanship.

It has oft been observed that we are all too willing to forgive our own side lapses we find unforgivable in our opponents. That being the case, isn't it time for a little serious soul-searching? Am I the only one who thinks this is wrong?

You don't win the war of ideas by calling your opponent a mean-spirited poopy-head, or by snatching his book off the shelves or sabotaging his Amazon review page. You win it, if your ideas can stand the light of serious scrutiny, by putting forth a logical, coherent, and bullet-proof argument that is irrefutable and enhances your standing in the eyes of the intellectual community.

Not by flinging mud at your opponent and delighting in the damage you have caused to her reputation or her pocketbook. I can only repeat, we are supposed to be better than this.

As people. As women. As writers. Irrespective of our political beliefs.

Aren't we? If not, why are we here?

More food for thought:

America's preoccupation with 'emotional truth': John Leo comments on the increasing tendency of people to focus on feelings and ignore facts.

The difference between Dem, GOP brains: summed up briefly, so far as I could tell, Democrats tended to react more emotionally. What does that say?

Posted by Cassandra at January 24, 2006 08:13 PM

Comments

Plainly, there are fewer and fewer "adults" among the ranks of bloggers who choose to tackle controversial issues. The anonymity the web affords has also forged a sub-culture of debasement and crudity. People do and say things on the internet that they would never dream of doing in person, or if their name appeared at the bottom. It's not just simple incivility we're witnessing. It's HATE writ large.

How someone could actually gloat over what is nothing more than an act of non-intellectual vandalism is beyond me. I don’t believe that such behavior is taught, or tolerated, in any home – whether it be liberal or conservative. So where does such incivility incubate? I've got my notions.

Posted by: spd rdr [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 25, 2006 10:08 AM

First of all, I'm glad to see Villainous Company back up and running.
You are right, there has been too much adolescent silliness on both hemispheres of the blogosphere. Deliberately skewing polls etc. proves nothing to begin with. It proves even less when you publicly brag about it. I take that back, it proves how intellectually dishonest one is thus inviting the rest of us ignore you even when you raise a valid point.
The same applies to the drive-by flame comments. Now I'm not sure about the photoshop graffiti like was done to the cover of O'Beirne's book. That strikes me more like a caraciture which is fair in editorial cartooning. That said, if you engage in that (or any of the other acts discussed herein), don't cry, "foul" when it happens to you.
The quality of discourse on the internet in general id pretty low. People can disagree, but come on, people, do we really have to lace our comments with obscenity and personal insults?
Great post, Cassandra

Posted by: JRob [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 25, 2006 11:14 AM

I agree that if the caricature of O'Beirne's cover were posted on a blogger's private site, that legitimately falls under the rubric of lampooning. But if I'm not mistaken, someone hacked their way onto the Amazon site and replaced the photo of the real cover to her book with the image, which is just plain childish and malicious.

Maybe I misunderstood? But this just seems incredibly stupid.

And I agree with spd - it's all part of the ease and anonymity of the Internet. No one wants to accept that with freedom comes the responsibility to reign ourselves in a bit. All of us have a nasty side, and we don't need to let it out in public. What bothers me is that the Left is always railing about making it easier for people to express themselves.

Well not all things need to be expressed, darn it all. Maybe some people should think a bit first before "expressing themselves".

Posted by: Cassandra [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 25, 2006 11:39 AM

Cass,

I am not sure it has all gone bad, per Spd above. In fact, my first reaction was that this is what we get for giving the dimbulbs a voice, but that's a two edged sword, because it gives me a voice too--all of us, in fact.

In the past, they (THOSE people) would be relegated to standing on their streetcorners or on the porches of their shanties or to sitting in a corner bar, screaming their obscenities at the busses, or the cows, or the TV; otherwise, having no way to make themselves heard in any place that other people would be willing or able to listen to them.

Of course, until computers and blogs and the internet, I was restricted too, as were many of us. True, with education and perseverance and talant, I could have found a home among the other elites of the news and editorial world. To be honest, though, as far as I am concerned, you are as good an editorialist as Mort Zuckerman of the U.S. News, and easily as articulate and thoughtful (well, most of the time), but I don't get to write to Zuckerman (or have him care what I think--though you may not either).... Oops going in circles again,

Anyway, while I wish the really stupid people would have their fingers shrivel up like the wicked witch's feet, I am willing to accept their existance as the cost I have to pay for having a voice myself.

I know we all know this, really, but sometimes it's hard to get past the blinding fury engendered by someone like Stein or Hamsher.

And of course, the short payoff is that we really get to have no small amount of fun ripping the loons to shreds. They're kind of like the math teacher who volunteers to be the dunking booth clown who hithertoo had no real idea how many students really despised him. And could throw baseballs that well!

Good thing for the screen in front of him.

V/R

Posted by: SangerM [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 25, 2006 07:21 PM

Sorry, I missed the part about the hacking and replacing the actual cover with that one. That is different.
I still maintain that people who do it and publicly brag about it are deserving of nothing more than the ridicule of those who engage in honest debate and should be relegated to no more attention than pointing and giggling and saying, "Look at the funny monkeys at play."

Posted by: JRob [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 25, 2006 10:25 PM

I looked at the Fire Dog site too. (By the way, it's almost the Chinese New Year; and this will be the year of the Fire Dog).

What I noticed about it was the post where her site has suddenly rocketed to the very top of the Left blogosphere -- she's in company, according to that ranking, with Daily KOS, TPMCafe, and Atrios.

KOS himself, by far the most popular blog in the world, arrived at his fame as a result of the "Screw Them" comments. The thing that drove him to the top was, in other words, precisely his assault on the character of US veterans who had died attempting to aid their government in a time of war.

The market is what it is. As long as this is the way to rocket from nobody to THE BIGGEST THING EVER in a single day, we'll see more of it.

Posted by: Grim [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 25, 2006 10:31 PM

In some odd way, SangerM, I think both you and spd are right.

This is something one of my VPs at work and I have talked about many times: the easier you make it for people to do a thing, the lower the quality of the response you get back. Email is an example. People don't have to take lots of time anymore to compose a response and so they waste massive amounts of time with poorly thought-out correspondence that squirrel-chases through a firm all day long, wasting everyone's time and energy as they cc everyone and his uncle's Yorkshire terrier on the fricking thing and then everyone chimes in with an equally ill-thought-out response. The worst thing is that we all do it, too. I constantly have to catch myself during the work day and say: DO *NOT* SHARE THE HATE! IT WILL ONLY GENERATE MORE WORK!!!

Add to that the constant CYA emails and you have a recipe for disaster.

The online community is even worse because people don't have the constraints of a work environment and there is anonymity factored in.

But you are also right - there is the upside of being able to connect with so many other minds. I wouldn't miss that for all the world. As much as I hate this word, there's a kind of synergy thing that happens when enough like-minded people get together: it sort of reaches critical mass and everyone suddenly feels a bit smarter, a bit wittier, a bit more alive. It's really pretty amazing when you think about it :)

And then there's what Grim refers to: the mass-market phenom. I guess we'll never get away from the lowest common denominator, but so long as I don't have to go to the Daily Kos except to laugh, let them have it. The only scary thing is that people feed on that kind of bile. But whether it is making them worse or whether they go there because they were already inclined to be that way is a question I can't answer.

Reading through a lot of the hateful comments, I can't imagine staying in that environment for very long. There are one or two righty blogs I won't go to and they're not half as bad as Kos or Atrios. So I'm inclined to think you have to be a certain kind of person to wallow in that sort of thing in the first place and not be repelled by the venom, regardless of your political beliefs. There are plenty of reasonable lefty sites out there.

Posted by: Cassandra [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 26, 2006 06:08 AM

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