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Tuesday, October 13, 2009  

Let a Hundred Flowers Putrefy

Roger Ebert is horrified at the paranoid and crazy:

I've had these thoughts for some time, but have been reluctant to express them. Now so many others have voiced them that it's pointless to remain silent. I am frightened by the climate of insane anti-Obama hatred in this country. I'm not referring to traditional conservatives or Republicans. They're part of the process. I'm speaking of the lunatic fringe, the frothers, the extremist rabble who are sweeping up the ignorant and credulous into a bewildering and fearsome tide of reckless rhetoric.

Well and truly said. Whet, in a collegial spirit, responds (read the whole post, it's very good):

I'm unusual in this, but I'm fully in support of anonymous, open, vile comment sections on newspaper and television Web sites, something that journalists are regularly donning hairshirts about.

Give 'em enough rope, says I. Turn on the light and let the roaches run around the room. Driftglass, in reference to Ebert's post, mentions a famous quote from the brilliant, amoral Republican strategist Lee Atwater:

"You start out in 1954 by saying, 'N****r, n****r, n****r.... By 1968, you can’t say 'n****r' — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things, and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites."

And that works, as long as everyone plays along with the abstractions, which is easy to do when everyone's being "reasonable." And the "Internet" aside, you could still do that when the abstractions were in the news and the realities were on Usenet and AOL chat rooms, or even on the further reaches of the AM band.

Now Usenet has been replaced by newspaper comment threads - the effect is right next to the cause, because some moron always wants to step up and say what the powers that be just want him to think. And that makes readers and journalists uncomfortable. And that's good.

(emphasis added). I've seen Whet make the argument for vile comment threads before (to be fair, typically in person after we've both had a few) and I never really got this part of it, which is crucial. There is a sense in which giving any lunatic with a computer the keys to the kingdom allows them to do the decoding for you.

All the same, I wonder whether this becomes just another subtle way to confirm the educated and reasonable in their self-understanding. In order to salvage any shred of hope for the democratic citizen, you have to assume that the average newspaper comment thread is read by more people who are repelled than persuaded/energized by vicious extremism. But can that be true while internet hate culture still amplifies and deepens paranoia more generally? I think so. And given the curious psychodynamics of politics in modern America, I'm not sure a situation in which the temperamentally reasonable are confirmed in their reasonableness while the crazy are driven into ever more baroque craziness is one in which we are all better off. If I were a hard leftist looking at the last nine months, I'd be wondering, "where was our Glenn Beck?" And you can bet that when the pendulum swings back the other way, I'd be beating the hell out of the crazy drum even beyond the crazy stuff you saw in some quarters of the left during the Bush years.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 8:46 PM
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