Clip-Clopping Across the Bridge

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.

This entry was posted in Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Clip-Clopping Across the Bridge

  1. Laura says:

    Totally agree. Every time a liberal pundit–Rachael Maddow or Keith Olbermann, for example–gives air time to these people and their ideas, I cringe. Rush Limbaugh would not be such a big deal if he weren’t mocked so much by those who oppose them. We should just take the attitude of “move along, nothing to see here.”

  2. aaron says:

    I don’t know; the trouble is that whether or not bloggers “cool it a bit on linking to the craziest, least thought-through, most over-the-top writing coming from the margins of cultural conservatism” doesn’t have any effect on whether or not the MSM takes those people seriously. After all, the awful thing about our moment in time is that those people *aren’t* marginal, however much they deserve to be. If bloggers giving them the silent treatment had any practical effect — do you think that it does? — I would agree with you, but the fact that the MSM lets them drive the conversation makes ignoring them a pretty impotent gesture (especially since so many of those cultural conservatives actively strive for isolation (in search of cultural purity for their children, or something). I agree that the MSM *should* treat them like the crazy people they are, but the fact that they don’t makes it a different kind of problem for bloggers; Scott Kaufman, for example, spends an inordinate time arguing with intellectually deficient right wing bloggers, and while I can’t muster the patience even to read most of it, it does seem like that serves a constructive purpose (or at least you can make the argument that it does). But I don’t see what the efficacy of not linking to these people would have, given that bloggers are still a very minority voice within the public conversation. Congress listens to those people not because they’re smart or right but because they’re powerful and numerous, and that makes their crazy opinions relevant, unfortunately.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    Well, ideally, I’d like to see the MSM follow the same road. This is sort of what I mean by this is now the largest forum being targeted by the biggest troll ever: not just the blogosphere but the MSM is part of the whole dance.

    Some of what’s going on here, in fact, is the final last gasp of the old consensus-politics mass media. Mostly I don’t mourn its death, and I welcome the relative fragmentation of the current order. But it does mean at moments like this that there isn’t any elite that can make a top-down decision to turn the cameras away and turn off the mikes.

    Arguably the MSM started losing that capacity well before the Internet came along, when folks like the Yippies started to understand that some visual spectacles would in many ways compel visual mass media to depict or represent what consensus elites had wanted to ignore, much more than sober countercultural critique might. You could get Pigasus on television pretty readily. And that’s roughly what the town hall freakshow and OMG the President’s speech crowd really is, a far-right group of Yippies getting their version of Pigasus all over the airwaves.

    I suppose that analogy could provide further support for the “link and mock” argument, though, given that countercultural spectacle was ultimately one of the things which led a kind of centrist or middle-American voter to feel a lot of distaste for anything they associated with that spectacle, giving the “dirty hippies” trope a sort of lengthy time-release political and cultural power. So from that perspective, you could say, “Just endure, let them keep doing it, keep the cameras rolling and the links coming in, and the disgust will follow”. My major concern is that I don’t think we really have the luxury of time in this case, because there’s some urgent stuff that needs doing that can’t be put off while we let the clownshow types grab the microphones and hijack the public sphere.

  4. I think you’re a retarded, liberal, Hippy.

    (okay, flood of responses…wait for it…) Sorry, I couldn’t help but contribute to the avenue of trite, comments.

    Looking forward, a suggestion might be to develope, at least for blogs, some kind of commenting system which would allow for the moderator to segregate comments into three piles instead of two. We currently have the ‘approve’ or ‘do not approve’ options, though I think generally more gets approved than not in the name of being a good listener (It can be feared that it’s bad form to ignore even the dumbest, least productive comments, ie. my example at the top of this comment). We could have three choices, ‘approve,’ ‘do not approve’ and something similar to spam. The spam option (which will need a new name for our purposes) will allow all those which are clearly not spam, but which are clearly not helpful. Instead of these messages not being approved, and the moderator facing the title of dictatorship (where their blog is concerned) who wont here any dissimilar opinions, the spam option would allow these messages to be clearly labled as acknowledged but not considered helpful. There could then be an option, were one to read through these particular comments, to sort of thumbs-up it, as a reader, if you felt that it had merit enough to warrant a general comment. This would also have the benefit of keeping the active discussion separate from the knee-jerk responses to said unhelpful comment.

    Million dollar idea; I offer it to you.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    There’s reputation systems that do something like that. They sort of work in some cases and not in others.

  6. hestal says:

    So, just what are you after?

    This article obviously fits into a mosaic that I presume identifies problems and then proposes solutions. If that is the case then is it fair of me to say that you have identified the problem that our system of national communication permits crazies and fringe elements to set the tone and the content of the national conversation? Is it also fair of me to say that your proposed solution is to ask everybody to act like a ??grown-up???

    I know that these questions identify me as a crazy troll from the fringe and I am prepared to live with that. So it is not necessary to castigate me. Friends and family have done that very well for a very long time. But even from my addled, remote outpost I think you have identified a truly serious problem but you have not put forward a solution. I hope I am wrong about that.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    If you’ve got a magic solution, I’m game to hear it. How we talk to one another as a society, or as Amanda Anderson puts it, “the way we argue now”, is a quintessential problem of cultural practice in my view, a “bottom-up” issue. Others might see it as top-down, and as I note in this post, there was a time where I think that might have been an accurate characterization (1960 or so), when consensus elites had a much tighter grip on mass media and where corporate ownership could dictate to a much greater degree what was and was not in the public sphere. For very good reasons, there was a sustained rejection across a broad social front of that kind of control from 1960 on, and the advent of online media provided a new technology for a new kind of public sphere. We solved the problem of a narrow elite tightly controlling what could and could not be said in the public sphere, but now we have a different set of problems to consider, about what kinds of speech constitute the determining arguments we have as a society, and about how highly organized and well-financed groups can still herd a political discussion in particular directions with novel techniques.

    I don’t see any dictated, top-down reform that resolves this issue. Let’s suppose every single news outlet in the country said, “We will not show on camera any of the angry activists who came to town-hall meetings with the deliberate intent to sabotage those meetings. We will not cover ‘birthers’. We will not even mention that there are parents who don’t want their children to see Obama’s speech”. This is unlikely enough in a world that has Fox News in it, but ok. We’d still have YouTube with videos of town-hall confrontations, we’d still have birthers popping up in online conversations, and we’d still have principals bewildered by angry calls from parents about the speech.

    What I really think works is people who recognize the existence of such sentiments, but also recognize them for the views of a small, highly aggravated minority and who recognize that there’s little point to trying to answer those complaints in the terms that the complainants offer. E.g., you don’t get into a debate with a ‘birther’ about Obama’s birth certificate, because no birther enters into that debate with you intending to have a good-faith evaluation of evidence as you understand evidence. They’re operating in a completely different epistemological space in which it is impossible to falsify their claims; every proof you put forward is often taken perversely as further confirmation of their own case. That’s a classic example of the “paranoid style” or of conspiracy logic. The only way to engage it is as a social phenomenon, a subject of study, outside of the public sphere that corresponds to or advises the action of government and civil society.

    Given that’s how I see things, how could one possibly get to that point other than changing the customary behavior of “grown-ups” participating in public life? The practice of public debate can’t be changed any other way: there is no statute or dictate, no neat solution. If you want such a solution, then in my view you’ve misunderstood the problem.

  8. hestal says:

    I don??t have a “magic” solution, but I do have a practical one. However it would take a lot of space on your blog to spell it out. But your response to my questions touches on my idea.

    You see the behavior of certain people as the problem itself. But it is merely the symptom. The cause of the problem is our political system. The Framers, particularly Madison and Washington, warned us that political parties were dangerous and would lead to the ruination of public liberty. They omitted parties from any functional role in the Constitution. Most people don??t even realize that political parties are not part of our Constitutional System. But they are private organizations that are for sale. So they and the misunderstanding the people have about them lead to the problems you worry about. Once parties are removed from the equation, our national conversation would focus on issues, not on personalities or ideological positions.

    But most people, including ordinary citizens, the media, political scientists and other scholars, predominantly think that political parties are a good thing, or at least a necessary thing. And some think that the Framers did not understand political parties, that they were simply wrong, or that the Framers were “dumb” and “stupid.” Bruce Ackerman is one of the latter. In his book “The Failure of the Founding Fathers” he said that the Framers were “dumb” and “stupid” and that they failed in a serious way. He said:

    “I begin with the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 and its failure to foresee the development of democratic party competition. Following the teachings of classic republican thought, the convention equated parties with factions and considered them unmitigated evils. Two-party competition is at the core of modern democracy, but the Convention had a very different aim. It sought to create a republic that transcended faction, not a democracy in which parties rotated in office. Its complex constitutional machine aimed to encourage the selection of political notables to govern in the public interest, and to disdain the arts of faction.”

    But Professor Ackerman was wrong. He had his own failure. He failed to see that even though “two-party competition is at the core of modern democracy,” is true, it is not the whole truth. He failed to see that the “core of modern democracy” is rotten, and that the blind assumption that political parties are the best way, or even a good way, to organize our democracy is “blind” and “stupid.”

    There is a very simple way to correct this problem that will have many benefits. It will focus our conversation on issues, it will make the media look more like the Lehrer Report, it will remove corruption from our national government, and it will make our government more democratic, faster, more responsive, more robust, and vastly more transparent. It will solve the problems that Madison set out in Federalist 10, and if he had been able to do it in 1787 I think he would have. But he and the others had no choice. Technologically our Constitutional System still relies on 18th century tools. We can do better. We can eliminate elections.

    This single, simple change will produce many benefits. No longer will partisan politics, or money, play any role in determining who gets to serve as a representative of the People. Political parties will be emasculated if they are not extinguished. Because the two parties will no longer be able to elect candidates to national office and therefore will have no influence to peddle, their funding will dry up and they will most likely disappear. They might convert to some form of think tank. Real, honest think tanks can get funding because they have people who think, who have real ideas, but our political parties would have to recruit thinkers to replace their ideologues?if they can. If the two parties have enough money left in their treasuries we may see the remaining Republicans open a museum in Denison, Texas, or perhaps a travel agency for organizing golf junkets to various red state resorts, and the surviving Democrats may open an amusement park in Independence, Missouri, or game arcades at blue state fairgrounds.

    Lobbyists will no longer have to find ways to funnel money into the campaign treasuries of political office-seekers. They will be free to perform their most valuable services: to inform the People about important issues affecting their clients, and to provide good ideas for good government. Lobbyists, in my view, are victims of our political system. Corrupt lobbying reminds me of illegal drugs. Nobody would be selling drugs, or doing corrupt lobbying, unless there was a demand for it. Yes, there are corrupt lobbyists, but I am convinced that the system of payoffs was created by Congress and the two political parties. In fact, when our current representatives meet with lobbyists, I??ll wager it is difficult to tell who is lobbying whom. If Congress and the two parties didn’t offer to sell their offices to the highest bidders, lobbyists would be able to mail it in. They would produce position papers, rather like think tanks, but on behalf of specific companies or industries. Corruption would have to go elsewhere, because its fuel is money. No influence to peddle, no corrupt lobbyists. I have no way of knowing but I??ll wager that most lobbyists, like most people, are honest, and they probably will be the most pleased of all citizens when we the People put a stop to corrupt lobbying.

    Not only will the power of political parties vanish, but the political power of tyranno-Christianity will vanish as well. Under the present Two-Party System the managers of tyranno-Christianity can focus their energies on inflaming their congregants to reach maximum anger on Election Day. They can trot out the usual hate messages by railing against whatever aspect of sex has the most political advantage at the time, or attack ??activist judges?? who favor Science and are trying to keep God out of the schools, or decry ??liberals?? and their headlong rush into perdition while taking the rest of civilization with them. This intense period of emotional exhortation, culminating on Election Day, now concentrates their political power. But with the disappearance of elections the tyranno-managers?? work will be constant and spread over years, and they will have to keep up a steady drumbeat of hatred in order to keep the flock in full cry. But that won??t last long. The flock will tire of constant demagoguery, and they will come to ignore or resent their managers. In a little while the managers of tyranno-Christianity will themselves tire of the lack of response and their own interest will wane as their political power diminishes. The reward will not be worth the effort and they will search for new ways to exploit others. All will be quiet on the tyranno-Christian front. In fact, it is just barely possible that, like political parties, tyranno-Christianity will vanish and liberto-Christianity, with its tendency to follow the teachings of Jesus, will flourish ? a result devoutly, and fervently, to be wished.

    The media, who make a living from promoting the inflammatory aspects of election campaigns and partisan battles, will find their revenue from such spectacles will vanish. Their rancorous, “gotcha” political talk shows featuring officeholders, office seekers, political strategists, and ideologues will disappear. The People will no longer have to juggle their daily lives to cope with the events of the campaigns, no longer will they have to consider giving political contributions to this or that candidate, and they will no longer have to worry about Election Day. Employers will be happy because the First Tuesday in November will be just another workday.

    With tyranno-parties, corrupt lobbyists, tyranno-Christianity, and elections becoming bad memories, the relationship between tyranni and liberti will cool down. Discussions will center on issues and facts, not on vile personal attacks and unsubstantiated hypotheses. Each proposed legislative act would be subjected to factual analysis. Emotional appeals will still be made, but they must have a factual basis. It is one thing to accuse a group of citizens of being immoral, or accuse health insurance companies and HMO??s of being driven by profits at the expense of patients, or to say that the titans of Wall Street are selfish and steal from the People, but it is quite another to prove these claims. This new democracy will require that claims stand up to factual analysis. If those lying snakes who (fill in your favorite hated practice) can??t be shown to truly be lying snakes who practice what you say they practice, then your hypothesis will be stamped, “Unsubstantiated.” It won??t take long for the People to get the hang of an open, public system built on reasoned, honest, factual deliberation, and America will be the better for it. Let the sun shine in.

  9. Bill McNeill says:

    Yes, the town hall antics are karmic payback for Pigasus just as the cultural right’s mastery of the language of aggrievement is liberal identity politics chickens come home to roost. Also Richard Hofstadter had everybody’s number years ago and will continue to have it years hence.

    As a way of turning this question on its head, can people think of instances in which communities have developed natural antibodies to discourse-hijacking tactics? What about the troll metaphor this post is built around? If someone on a message board is foolish enough to respond to a troll’s post someone else can chime in with “Don’t feed the trolls”, and the currency this particular phrase has in the online world is often enough to at least dissuade others from taking the bait. This doesn’t mean there still aren’t trolls online, and there aren’t still unbridgeable ideological gaps (because of course one man’s troll is another man’s unbowed voice in the wilderness) but at least it does provide a useful rathole-plugging codeword that often circumvents the whole losing battle of explaining anew what ad hominem means and why it is bad.

    Unfortunately in the broader offline spectrum of U.S. discourse saying “Don’t feed the trolls” won’t work because too many people won’t know what you’re talking about. Likewise, you can’t just shout “Godwin’s Law!” at someone and have a trapdoor open beneath their feet. But are there other broadly accepted techniques for curtailing specious lines of argument already in place? I’m having a hard time coming up with any, but that may be a fish-don’t-feel-the-water-type blind spot.

    I’m thinking of these redirection techniques as being short phrases, but that may be a bias from my linguist training, and in truth they may actually manifest a broader variety of cultural phenomena. I’m not sure how to go about creating them????his may be an organic process that can’t be set about purposefully, though I’ll bet mockery isn’t as useful tool as you’d like it to be. (I love Jon Stewart too, but…) Also, the slippery irony of enabling broader discussion by mastering rhetorical tricks for shutting people down is not lost on me. Still: trying to be an optimistic devil’s advocate here.

  10. back40 says:

    Isn’t the focus on the antics of fringe dissidents a strategy to avoid reasoning in good faith with more sober dissidents due to fears that they have compelling arguments?

    It reminds me a bit of “truthers” kerfuffle except that there were a lot more of them. If you can dismiss dissidents as crazy then you don’t have to actually think about the points they make, and there always will be some crazies among the more sensible members of any group.

  11. joe o says:

    Obama isn’t giving the conservatives real things to be angry at. He needs to raise taxes on the rich to pay for single payer health care or something. That would crowd out the birthers off of fox news.

  12. barry says:

    back40, that would be reasonable, except that there is no mainstream sanity left in the GOP. Notice that there are Reps sponsoring Birther bills, and that in the recent healthcare reforms the starting and ending GOP position was ‘F*ck You!’. Limbaugh (otherwise known as the guy to whom the RNC chairman had to bootlick) is clearly figuring on repeating 1993-4.

  13. back40 says:

    You add an exclamation mark to my point. The idea that, in Tim’s words, batshit crazy trolls are an attribute of just one party or ideology is clearly false.

Comments are closed.