Posted by: mutantpoodle | February 18, 2008

Blogs, reality, and real-world civility

Alicia has some thoughts here on Blogtopia, as it is, and the mainstream media, as it’s become.

The reason that the press is singled out in the First Amendment is that they were expected to be advocating for the people who do not have access to the information that has an impact upon their lives. Can I be in Washington in the halls of Congress every day? Can you? I can’t be where the decisions are being made. That’s what the press is supposed to do for me. But when it’s more important to sell products than give me unbiased information, my rights as a citizen are being infringed upon. The press is protected only upon the assumption that it is advocating for me; doing what I cannot do. The press is supposed to be adversarial, not complicit with power. But that is not the case any more.

One more time: the press is supposed to be adversarial to the powers-that-be.

That concept has been stood upon its head, and never more egregiously than during the Bush Administration. As media become more consolidated and power over it concentrated in a mere five corporations, the idea of media independence is a thing of the past. Opinions are being disseminated by only a handful of people, all in the same club.

Blogging has become a powerful antidote to the consolidation of media. While it is not always appropriate to call it ‘journalism’, it has become a voice for the voiceless. It is able to take an adversarial position precisely because it is mostly unpaid and therefore uncontrollable, and with the wide variety of opinion available, it’s possible to compare different points of view and come to your own conclusion. If you read something that sounds like BS to you, you can search for other articles on that topic and see what the other arguments for and against it are. No one is prevented from saying anything they want, no matter how false or misleading or vile, but it has to stand up to the scrutiny of the rest of the blogosphere and will stand or fall upon its merits.

Our conservative friends should take note: the blogosphere is an unfettered (note: this is why net neutrality matters) free market of ideas. And media elitism doesn’t spring from some hidden underlying liberalism, but from its condescension towards those not in the club. It is, as so many have pointed out, like high school.

But recently I’ve been thinking more about how blogs affect us in the world away from our flickering monitors.

My first comment on a political blog was on Firedoglake – and it wasn’t terribly political, unless you consider a butternut squash soup recipe, shared on one of Christy Hardin Smith’s “Pull up a Chair” segments, particularly leftist.

Eventually, I was a regular visitor at night, and came to know – virtually – the passionate, articulate, kind, and sometimes enjoyably crass group that came to the Lake with me. After one of my lengthy comments, I thought that perhaps I should publish them under my nom de poodle, and so this blog was born.

The evening group at Firedoglake was a community of souls, most of whom had never met. But we’d help each other out with advice, support, consolation, and, on occasion, money, if asked. Their greatest value to me was that they saw what was happening in this country and didn’t turn away – which, to Alicia’s point, the corporate media did – but affirmed my perceptions, as I did theirs, and made me feel both less alone and less crazy in my thoughts about this country’s condition. They were the friend standing next to you when the UFO flew by, turning and giving you that knowing look that says, “yeah, I saw it, too.” And for that, I am continually grateful. Sure, there was the risk of smug superiority when everyone agrees with you, but, dammit, we were right, and needed reinforcement we weren’t getting from those charged with being unbiased arbiters of truth.

Here’s the concern: a few days ago, my friend Heidi posted this piece about how polarization has infected her friendships:

These days the world seems to be much quicker to dismiss people based on politics. I don’t know too many people who are not of my same party. ‘Well why would you?” a friend snorts when I bring this up, “They’re assholes to think that way.” Listening to a political speech by a member of the opposition party, I’m hard-pressed to disagree. And that, I believe is the heart of the issue. Politics and debate in general has become intensely personal. The assessment of a person’s character now goes hand in hand with a person’s politics. Fairly – some of the time, sure, but undoubtedly unfairly much of the time.

And I completely get it. I have a friend who is a Republican (a Rockefeller Republican to be sure, but still…) who clearly gets most of her talking points from GOP fund raising letters. Every time we talk politics, it takes me a half hour to debunk the crap they peddle.

In fairness, living in the liberal blogosphere can harden one’s opinions, and I’d like to think that I’m open to new information and different points of view. And there is a way to do that, but it’s getting harder. Here’s what I wrote to Heidi:

A guy who worked for me a long time ago was a die-hard Republican – but this was in the [pre-Monica] Clinton era, and no one was questioning your patriotism if you disagreed with the President (or, for that matter, agreed with him).

Now, given the sneering dismissiveness so many of us who opposed the Iraq war were subjected to when it started, and the way that effort crashed and burned at such high human and monetary cost, perhaps some of us are afflicted with the world’s worst case of schadenfreude.

What worked for my colleague and me is we focused on what we thought were problems -and we agreed on a lot of them – and then differences in solutions didn’t seem so insulting.

These days, those of us on the left can point to a great deal of evidence that shows that the other side’s solutions to a myriad of problems have been failures, and so people who espouse them, we feel, are not paying attention. Those on the right, in order to continually justify (what I consider) their failed policy prescriptions are able to do so through severe cognitive dissonance, and the response to their opponents becomes highly personal.

I saw Janine Garafolo on the Daily Show say, a few years ago, that at this point she considered support for Bush a character flaw – not a helpful construct, admittedly, but one I completely understood. Mostly because in order to think Bush a success, you need to invent a whole new set of facts.

And when people start arguing about what reality is, as opposed to how to address it, things get very personal.

As Daniel Patrick Moynihan used to say, “everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.”

And facts matter. I get the “Obama is a Muslim” and “Hillary murdered Vince Foster” e-mails, and all of a sudden, it’s not the free market of ideas coming to a discernible truth, but a hideous game of whack-a-mole: for each ridiculous lie debunked, two new ones spring up to take its place. And if someone spouts one of those to my face, I come down on them pretty hard. I try not to get personal, but I call bullshit what it is, and I don’t give people wiggle room. Maybe, when confronted with a wave of data that undermines the foundations of their beliefs, they’ll re-evaluate those beliefs. Of course, research suggests that ideology is hard-wired, so perhaps we’re doomed to talk past each other forever.

I never changed my colleague’s mind about politics, but I think I changed his mind about liberals. Is that the best we can hope for out of our efforts to persuade committed conservatives – that we will respectfully, as opposed to disrespectfully, disagree?

Maybe. But if the Republican theme continues to be, basically, that liberals hate America, we’ll be lucky to get that far.


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