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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Motes and Beams

One of the longest-running themes in a certain sort of mainstream journalism is the claim that the internet has enabled a vast rise in unregulated hate speech, particularly of the antisemitic variety. Almost invariably, such claims focus on comment threads in which crazy people lurk in obnoxious obscurity.
Last week Washington Post columnist (and former George W. Bush speechwriter) Mike Gerson penned a particularly strange and sweeping version of this claim, suggesting that “cyber-bigots” pose a threat similar to that of–yes, you guessed it–the Nazis, whose pioneering use of radio for hate speech is supposedly the precedent and analog for today’s comment-thread lurkers.
When fellow Post-man Ezra Klein posted a pretty obvious response noting that a more reasonable analog for yesterday’s radio-enabled hate talk is today’s radio-(and cable TV-)enabled hate talk, Gerson had a public meltdown. Writing in a Post blog, Gerson went directly after Klein as an a member of the President’s “unpaid policy staff” (a strange complaint coming from someone who became famous as a paid presidential staffer), called his observations “ignorant,” and then insulted his ethical sensibilities. But as Jonathan Chait notes today in a tart smackdown, Gerson’s big trump card was the fatuous claim that Holocaust Museum shooter James Van Brunn was a creature of the internet.
On a separate front, Spencer Ackerman performed his own smackdown of Gerson for the man’s audacity in lecturing liberal Jews about how to deal with antisemitism.
Since Gerson is a Christian, and so am I, allow me to offer my own advice: it would be more seemly, and for that matter, ethical, if you didn’t dismiss the obvious, huge-audience haters in your own political community, and your own more conventional media, before going all Confessing Church on the incredibly marginal internet ranters that you apparently associate with the Left. You know, Matthew 7:3: “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”

4 comments on “Motes and Beams

  1. edkilgore on

    ducdebrabant:
    Thanks for this perceptive comment. It helped remind me that Gerson wasn’t complaining about extremist web sites (which, as you note, really are worrisome), but about anonymity and the alleged “infection” of respectable sites by anti-semites on the comment threads.
    In my own experience with high-comment-volume sites, those that “ban” crazy people do a reasonably good job, and on those that don’t ban crazy people, peer ostracism usually gets the job done. As you say, anonymity is largely irrelevant. Serious crazies don’t mind identifying themselves. Poseurs and agents provocateurs (along with a lot of folks with legitimate reasons for failing to disclose their identities) may use pseudonyms, but they are not the problem.
    Gerson’s barking up the wrong tree, aside from his huge blind spot about radio, cable and right-wing opinion generally.
    Ed Kilgore

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  2. ducdebrabant on

    Gerson’s original argument has some merit — message boards are indeed polluted with racist screeds. I myself worry more about more subtle screeds — disinformation with links to WorldNet Daily, etc. Not all of the bad actors in our culture are so helpful about flagging themselves with racist slurs and the use of the caps lock.
    But still, the basic argument is that comments sections and message boards matter. On this point I agree with Gerson more than Klein. Lies proliferate on Twitter, and if you try and respond to them all (I know this from personal experience) they’ll suspend your account for spamming. I’m not as sanguine about Gerson’s own suggested solutions, though.
    One solution he offers is more monitoring, but there are problems with aggressive monitoring too. The lag in posting time prevents conversation (you might spend half the day waiting for your reply to appear), and the poorly paid grunts that do it get a power complex.
    For example, (another thing I know from personal experience) you can’t suggest Roland Martin’s support for Roland Burris may have been influenced by his race and expect your comment to be posted in Martin’s CNN message board. And if you point out to Jack Cafferty on his Cafferty File board that right wing craziness is mouthed on CNN itself — by guests on Lou Dobb’s show, AND by Lou Dobbs — the administrator will delete all references to Dobbs before he posts your edited comment.
    Yet another thing I know from personal experience: if you happened to notice that Taegan Goddard’s Political Wire was bullet no news about the Prop 8 fight in California, and asked him to, he not only didn’t do it, not only deleted your posts when you tried to discuss the matter under any other topic, but banned you from posting at all.
    The second solution Gerson suggests is that nobody should be allowed to post under a username — you should have to sign everything with your own identity. That idea chills me to the bone. Maybe Sicilians should have to do that before they criticize the Mafia on message boards; I wonder how that would work out.
    If your next door neighbor believes abortion doctors should be shot on sight, and you do not, you can express it anyplace now on the internet without your neighbor finding out and leaving cow’s blood on your stoop at night. I’m not sure at all that making people own up publicly to all their own comments is the way to avoid intimidating behavior in society.
    What I’m most worried about regarding anti-Semites and the Internet isn’t so much the anti-Semitic railing on regular websites but the use of specifically anti-Semitic blogs and boards to cluster and organize. It’s not that anti-Semites are going to convert everybody on the message boards of respectable news organizations, but that lonely anti-Semites in Oregon will meet lonely anti-Semites in Utah, and they’ll organize retreats and get-togethers, and uh, activities….
    And although that may be a drop in the ocean of the Internet, I don’t think such sites should be dismissed too easily. Also, factually speaking, when Gerson brings up the Holocaust Museum shooter (in what he thinks is his aha moment) he’s bringing up an individual whose blogging on the Internet WAS under his own name, and who WAS therefore known by name to law enforcement organizations and the Southern Poverty Law Center. We don’t have preventive detention in this country (well, we’re not supposed to), but thanks to the Internet, the guy was at least on the radar.
    Finally, yes, I agree with Klein in taking hate radio more seriously than I take the Father Coughlins of the Net. Limbaugh and Savage and Liddy are often just as bad as all but the worst neo-Nazis and Klansmen on the web, and their audience is much larger. When you look at polls, and at how many Americans now think Obama is foreign born or a secret Muslim, it’s shocking. These things may circulate on message boards, but they circulate on right wing radio and TV too, to bigger effect. Gerson may not want to talk about that, and may want to whitewash his compatriots, but it’s still true. If he condemns it one place, why so ostentatiously refuse to condemn it everywhere?
    And don’t tell me more people don’t believe what they hear on Rush Limbaugh’s show more readily than what they read an anonymous poster screaming on the Net. Limbaugh addresses great big Republican groups, who cheer him to the rafters. The Washington tea party protesters kept saying they were there because of Glenn Beck. Why is Gerson defending as free speech from Beck or Limbaugh what he wants an administrator to delete when Joe Anybody says it?
    Glenn Beck isn’t a racist because Klein disagrees with him. Glenn Beck is a racist because he claims the white race is being victimized and targeted by Barack Obama’s concealed hatred of the white race. He’s not a Nazi because he disagrees with us; we disagree with him because he’s a Nazi. It’s a bit like telling Jesse Owens his only problem with Hitler is that he insists on being Jesse Owens.
    Hate speech is a seamless robe worn now by far too much of the right, and it’s harder than ever to tell the mainstream on the right from the fringe. Gerson can’t obscure that by making artificial distinctions between the hate speech of syndicated speakers and the hate speech that appears at the sufferance of privately owned message boards. It doesn’t smell any better just because somebody’s getting paid for it.

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