A while back, I suggested that it was time for everyone to cool it a bit on linking to the craziest, least thought-through, most over-the-top writing coming from the margins of cultural conservatism. My point was that during the previous presidential administration, those figures were important to criticize because they had substantial intellectual or political access to actual policy-makers, but that after November 2008, the best thing to do was to try and shove them off into the margins where they belonged.
If they continued to be the targets of regular links-for-deserved-abuse, I felt, there was the danger that those margins would continue to drive the national conversation about policy and politics. The way I saw it, it’s the same issue that you have when you’ve got a bunch of participants in an online forum who are having perfectly interesting disagreements and conversations and then suddenly an invective-spewing lunatic troll drops into the discussion. The result is something most online writers and readers have seen happen many times: everyone will drop their previous conversations and preferentially reply to the troll, with ever-increasing hostility. There’s a lot of reasons why this happens. It’s easier to mock and abuse than to carry on a subtle discussion, but also folks who’ve treasured a sense of a respectful ongoing conversation between unlike individuals are also honestly hurt and confused by the persistent presence of someone who is determined to destroy that community, who programmatically stays outside of a consensus culture but aggressively hounds its every move.
A lot of folks back then disagreed with my point, saying that there was no surer way to check the influence of the fringes than to expose and mock their craziness. Can I just ask: how’s that working out for you all? There’s pretty wide mainstream consensus that the parents who didn’t want their precious children to hear the President’s radical, socialist message about working hard and staying in school are pretty much batshit crazy if they’re serious about believing the President was going to suck out the precious bodily fluids of the nation’s children and pretty much nihilistic saboteurs if they’re just trying to sandbag the current political leadership wherever and whenever they can by getting the batshit crazy folks worked up.
And yet here we are: the crazies and the saboteurs are driving the national conversation as reported in the MSM and masticated by the Sunday-morning TV pundits. It’s the world’s biggest trollage ever. It doesn’t matter how crazy the responses are: they’re treated earnestly as a political problem while also generating earnest replies and assurances as well as mockery and contempt. In an alternate reality, the grown-ups would collectively shrug off a speech by any President about working hard and staying in school as a wholly conventional pro forma gesture and we’d get back to talking about the actually difficult issues involved in health care reform, none of which involve death panels or similar rot. We wouldn’t debate with “birthers” in mainstream media any more than we have debates with people who think the earth is flat or that the Hale-Bopp comet is coming to cleanse the planet and we should kill ourselves now to get to the next level. That’s not to say that there wouldn’t be such people in any alternative discursive reality, but there’s a difference between having fringes and representing fringes as included within and constituting an argumentative space that will help to shape collective action.