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More on the CBS forgeries

People who haven’t dealt much with difficult family members and co-workers are sometimes puzzled when someone takes an utterly indefensible position, insists it’s beyond question, and refuses to budge. The strategy’s rational in the right setting, though. If someone who can’t simply be gotten rid of (wife, brother, colleague, pastor, CBS news, whoever) insists that bicycles have wings, and treats a contrary assertion as a personal attack aimed at destroying the relationship, then everything stops dead until the point is dropped. The more absurd the point the better, because it makes it harder to discuss the matter without saying things that really do look as if you’re attacking the relationship. If someone is in a strong position in a continuing relationship, stonewalling works. You can always make others drop an issue by refusing to discuss it rationally.

All of which provides a setting for Al Gore’s complaint that W and his team have aligned themselves with “digital brownshirts” who intimidate the press. On the face of things, it’s hard to imagine anyone in a worse position than a blogger to intimidate anyone, and it’s hard to see how even a supposed superman like Karl Rove could go about aligning himself with something as diffuse as an open-ended set of private individuals posting their thoughts on their own volition to their own personal websites. What in fact gives bloggers influence is that they are able to keep making obvious points like the fraudulence of the CBS memos even when CBS in effect says “we are putting ourselves on the line for this, and an attack on the memos is an attack on what we are.” They can then treat the point as settled and discuss the issues actually presented, like who was behind the forgeries, without the least deference to the indefensible CBS position.

That kind of discussion would be much harder to carry on among people with established positions in public life, because among established people the point of the discussion is finding common ground, and that makes it impossible simply to ignore the position of a major player. In such a situation no conclusion on the question of forgery is possible, so the issue has to die. What Al Gore’s “brownshirt intimidation” amounts to, then, is that the web in general, and blogging in particular, makes it harder for a powerful institution to pull off an abusive strategy for avoiding responsibility for bad conduct. When conduct is plainly bad, near-absolute silence is needed to make it go away as an issue, and bloggers make that much harder to achieve.

Still, technology that lets more people join the discussion by itself won’t save us from a corrupt political and intellectual culture. In discussion as in other social situations exclusions and boundaries are necessary for coherence. As the fate of usenet shows, when discussions on the web are totally open they eventually succumb to abusive conduct. Some sort of boundaries are needed. The established news organizations want the boundaries to be based on professional status. That approach has failed, and the future of political discussion depends on what approach succeeds. The obvious approach is to let the boundaries be set by networks of mutual trust and respect. That’s a splendid idea, of course. The question is whether mutual trust and respect can be maintained within networks extensive enough to constitute public life for society at large, or whether coherent discussion will be possible only within much smaller groups. In the latter case an intelligent self-ruling society will be impossible. I’m inclined toward the more pessimistic view, at least in the foreseeable future and in a country as large as the United States. We shall see.



“…The question is whether mutual trust and respect can be maintained within networks extensive enough to constitute public life for society at large, or whether coherent discussion will be possible only within much smaller groups. In the latter case an intelligent self-ruling society will be impossible. I’m inclined toward the more pessimistic view, at least in the foreseeable future and in a country as large as the United States…”

I’m not sure what you mean by “networks” in this context. The elite news networks would not qualify, if you mean something that’s characterized by a back-and-forth real discussion; they have always been a one-way system, delivering to the rest of us the ruling-class position on things and establishing by ukase the boundaries of acceptable thought. If you refer to something like Usenet as a place where fruitful discussion can take place, you’re pretty much correct, as it seems to me. The wackos quickly take over and rule by means of decibel level.

But between these two extremes there seems to be a new thing forming that is valuable. The blogosphere or whatever it’s called has allowed a new form of communication among those who dissent from the ruling-class party line. It consists a loosely-organized small groups like this one which, when aggregated across many centers, form a community of interest that is making what the elite media used to do difficult or impossible, as the attempt to pass off the Bush National Guard forgeries demonstrates.

So I’m not certain what you’re pessimistic about. If you mean that the Internet in and of itself doesn’t guarantee a successful challenge to the status quo, you’re right, of course. But that it’s an improvement over what we had before can hardly be denied, can it?

By “network” I meant a connected group of people and activities that’s coherent enough for consecutive discussion to get carried on within it. Self-government at least ideally would require that kind of network to embrace the whole society, so that what the government does can come out of a somewhat rational public discussion.

I think the development of independent centers of orderly discussion in the blog world, and the networking of those centers into larger formations, is a good thing. They add some intelligence and some additional checks on abuse to the process. I just wonder how far its influence can extend. We’ve got a long way to go, and my comment was really directed toward technotriumphalism.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

I would agree with your pessimissim. I don’t know that it’s even possible to create the type of discussion milieu that you are proposing. Certainly not in a self-obsessesed, radically individualistic society like our own.

I don’t know that its even desirable to try to draw in the majority of people, who can only rarely even identify what the major issues of the day are into the discussion.

Face it, in the US 50% of people are registered to vote, under 50% of them regularly do vote and the vast majority of them are brainwashed Republicans or Democrats.

How does one have a rational discussion about much of anything with them?

I’ve made clear in other threads I think democracy is a really bad idea, this is the primary practical reason.

These people will follow any demogogue that says the right words.

Kevin V.
(God asks for our obedience, not our opinion)

It would be nice if technology would favor traditional values (e.g., truth), but that doesn’t seem to be the case. So I join Mr. Kalb’s pessimism. Birth control (which includes safe abortions), nuclear weapons, and an immensely technological military are all working to deprive people of responsibility, of choice. One can no longer choose to have children because the female makes all the decisions. One can no longer choose to fight a war against nuclear power. One cannot manage a popular resistance against a determined, wealthy foe possessing night vision, particle-beam/laser technology, fuel-air munitions, robotics, and no regard for keeping women out of combat. So which values are going to prevail is more out of our control than at any time in the past. Our task then, it seems, is to rely on religion, moral argument, and great effort to fight the foe, the current Democratic/Republican Party. The foe controls the popular media, which has the ugly power of saying anything it wants without responsibility.

Perhaps someone familiar with the First Amendment has an explanation as to why people such as James Carville, Paul Begalla, and Dan Rather are not sued constantly and successfully. Maybe the foe does not fight itself? Paul Henrí.

Instead of religion, read Catholicism. Paul Henrí.

Rush Limbaugh has lauded us bloggers for taking CBS to task. Here is the transcript.

I hope this encourages the moderators and followers of our traditional blogging sites. The moderators, at their own expense and with great effort, are VOLUNTARILY (like the anonymous Revolutionary War Minutemen) are fighting like hell to rid us of liberalism. So I hope this observation will encourage people to fight, fight, fight, and to support our blog hosts, who are giving of their gifts.

Is it easy? No. The Cold War was long and bloody (Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Nicaragua, the Suez Canal, the Arab-Israeli wars, the Soviet-Afghanistan War, the missiles of October, the loss of two U.S. nuclear submarines, etc.). But the war of ideas is bloodless, so we have no excuse for not fighting it. Recall how far the modestly powerful Germany got in 1938-1939 without firing a shot. They got Czechoslovakia, the Rhineland, and Austria. Don’t underestimate the power of the determined foe you can be: Grecian Sparta is probably the penultimate example. But such an extreme is unnecessary when it is realized that most people are not interested in fighting, much less a determined foe. So pick your battles well, and immigration reform, it seems to me, is a battle worth picking.

Everyone gets down. The odds are stacked against us, or so it would appear to many of us. But always remember most people are not interested in fighting immigration reform or anti-liberalism; they are interested in taxes, jobs, racial set-asides, hate, the environment, campaign finance reform, abortion, stem cell research, free trade, etc. If we pool our resources to accomplish one objective at a time (I am strongly anti-abortion by the way) we can isolate and defeat one enemy at a time. This will require unholy alliances, but I just don’t see any other way in the public sphere. Jesus, in anger, overturned the tables of the moneylenders. Still, we must remain holy in our private spheres. Paul Henrí.

In the summer of 1995, I was sitting around a campfire with a group of RVers in Connecticut. One of those there, George, was a retired nuclear engineer, ran an amateur racing team, built his own house—all in all a very bright and capable guy.

The talk turned to politics. Someone mentioned Newt Gingrich. George’s reply was “He’s too extreme for me.”

When I asked him what positions of Newt’s he found “extreme”, George got a “I’ve been found out” look on his face. He had no idea what Newt’s politics were. All he knew was the background chatter he had absorbed from TV and the rest of the MSM.

Because he was, like most Americans, not an ideologue but simply more concerned about living his own life than politics, he wasn’t hostile in the least when I ran down wn the points in the Contract with America. He agreed with every single one of them. In fact, he wanted to go further than Newt.

It is tedious to change minds one at a time but it is not difficult. Provided, that is, one keeps away from the ideologues. Liberal ideologues can, have been and should be turned. But many of us, myself included, become frustrated because those are who we spend the most time debating.