Protein Wisdom and The Radness of Crowds
For the first time in the history of any nation, a significant portion of our citizenry is in perpetual and unfiltered contact with a significant portion of the citizenry of other nations. This is almost certain to bring a fundamental change to the manner in which America communicates with the outside world; rather than being conducted by employees of the State Department, a ring of well-connected diplomats, and those media prominent enough to be heard overseas, foreign relations will become an eternal sort of process, conducted at a million points of contact each day and with each point communicating a different opinion and a unique manner of presentation.
All of this has the potential to accomplish a great deal of what governments often attempt on their own by way of diplomacy. If half of Uganda gets on the internet tomorrow and the world’s non-Ugandans find them charming and reasonable, Uganda is that much more likely to win trade concessions, financial assistance, and student visas with which to get the fuck out of Uganda. And before any conflict can arise between two nations, there will have been an informal and scattered yet nonetheless tremendous “talking phase” between the respective memberships of those populations that would end up doing the actual fighting.
That is what the Clinton-era AT&T commercials would have you believe, anyway, and to some extent it is true, or at least potentially so. But there also exists the very strong possibility that Ugandans will prove themselves to be boring or emotionally needy, causing them to lose out on tourism and become the subject of international ridicule. And perhaps two populations that suddenly find themselves in constant contact will discover that each hates the other very much, making war not only necessary but desirable. Utopia is a fine prospect if you’re handling an information technology firm’s marketing campaign, but it tends not to translate well to real life.
How will Americans look as the globalization of the internet brings a billion new foreigners in close contact with those of us who express our political views online, no matter the medium? Some of us will seem reasonable and well-intentioned, and to the extent that this comes through, our standing will increase. Some of us will seem unreasonable and downright mean-spirited, and to that extent we will suffer from the ill will of the rest of the world at the very time in which we most need it to achieve our national objectives. Some of us will appear both benevolent and malicious at various times, as those of us who have acted poorly on the internet are all too aware.
On the whole, though, we are in danger of presenting a bad face. This nation, like many others, is home to millions of strange, unhappy people of bad character and worse debate skills, and it would appear that every single one of them has a broadband connection.
For the last two years, I have been commenting at a popular blog called Protein Wisdom, which, though written from a largely classical liberal bent, is frequented by a crowd that’s probably best described as conservative. Over the course of this time, I have made every effort to engage in honest debate without resort to incivility, saving my various lame attempts at barbed wit for those who conduct themselves badly. This has been confirmed by blog founder Jeff Goldstein, who on Friday noted that I “like to debate, and are civil in so doing,” although he does express reservations about my methods and intent. “I don’t think you are always as invested in the question under discussion as you are invested in the act of debating,” he wrote. “And like any skilled rhetorician you have retreated to semantics when your position weakens. As have I.” Likewise, contributor Dan Collins, who ran the blog for a while in Goldstein’s absence and with whom I have debated on several occasions, noted on Friday that “I have always found you civil at PW,” adding that “you argue in good faith, and make the effort to inform yourself and to consider other people’s views.” All of which is to say that I am a swell guy whom you would probably not mind dating your daughter.
Bearing in mind my your-daughter compatibility, the largely negative and often incompetent reaction I received is illustrative of a number of things, several of which you probably already knew without my help:
1. It is impossible to argue with a crowd of people who are constantly reinforcing each other’s opinions.
2. Large groups of like-minded people, even when presented with facts to the contrary, will nonetheless advance false assertions.
3. The blogosphere cannot only be a useful means of advancing information that might otherwise be left untouched by the traditional media, but may also be a means by which nonsense is incubated, spread, and implemented.
4. It is important to ridicule people who damage the national discourse.
5. The internet is serious business.
It should be noted at this point, and will be related more thoroughly later, that Protein Wisdom was picked for this article not because it is some unusually terrible venue for online discussion, but for the opposite reason; in fact, it caters to one of the most collectively cerebral audiences one may find within the right side of the blogosphere. Several commenters conducted themselves with perpetual poise and good faith, and even some of the sillier reactions I received are not without some back story; as Goldstein told me, his readers “are forced to deal with a lot of trolls, many of whom attack me personally. My commenters have always had my back, and the quick trigger comes from their having seen how people who come by pretending to argue in good faith quickly degenerate into attacking me, my family, etc.” Meanwhile, blog chieftain Dan Collins in particular was not only exceedingly civil, but also quick to correct any minor errors on his part when alerted to them, even when alerted to them in the irritating and unnecessarily verbose manner in which I like to alert people to their minor errors. Protein Wisdom was picked because, if such nonsense can occur there, one can imagine what sort of even more bizarre nonsense can occur on other, lesser “conservative” blogs.
Here, we’ll take a look at a few examples culled from my growing list of hilarious examples. Later, in a series of follow-up articles, we’ll take a look at how many of the dynamics listed above are universal to the blogosphere; why several editors of The New Republic are nonetheless wrong about their fear of “blogofascism,” as one of them has called it; what the folks at Protein Wisdom have to say in response to this article; and perhaps something else. Incidentally, all of this is filler intended to disguise the fact that I am actually just airing my various inconsequential internet debate grievances. I mean, uh:
The Thomas Paine Affair
Protein Wisdom contributor Darleen Click, who has been running the site for a while now, at some point got into the habit of characterizing ACORN as a “criminal enterprise,” presumably because some of its employees were found to have committed crimes while engaged in the enterprise in question. I suggested that, if this was how a “criminal enterprise” is to be defined, then the Catholic Church must also be a criminal enterprise insomuch as that many of its employees were also found to have committed crimes while engaged in the enterprise in question, and that these crimes were not only of a more serious nature, but also seemingly more widespread even when taking into account the relative size of the church. This made several people very angry, leading me to be denounced as some sort of anti-papist, which I am. I noted in response that Thomas Paine and other Founding Fathers were just as distrustful of the church as I; some fellow retorted that Thomas Paine was not a Founding Father; I replied that many historians disagree, and further noted that Paine “has long been referred to as the Father of the American Revolution for a reason;” the same fellow proposed that this could be because “people don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about;” I explained that it was Thomas Jefferson who first described him as such, and further implied that Thomas Jefferson may have known what he was talking about insomuch as that he is Thomas Jefferson.
The Point: If ACORN is a criminal enterprise, then so are plenty of other things that the gang at PW would probably not want to see referred to as a criminal organization. Incidentally, ACORN is indeed kind of a criminal enterprise insomuch as that it is an enterprise with several employees that have broken the law in the course of their duties – just like the Nixon Administration, the Carter Administration, the Reagan Administration, the Bush Administration, the Clinton Administration, the other Bush Administration, and, according to my watch, the Obama Administration, and also the Catholic Church. So perhap we should save the term “criminal enterprise” for those enterprises that are involved first and foremost in crime, such as the Crips or that incorrigible gang of older fellows on my dad’s side of the family who worked for Lyndon Johnson before he was president. Oh, and the Johnson Administration. So, yeah, let’s save it for the Crips and the Johnson Administration.
Advantage: Darleen Click.
The They-Did-It-To Conundrum
In the midst of a discussion about degenerate populist John Edwards and his then-rumored affair with some terribly trashy woman, a regular commenter called Mr. Pink wrote, “Well he does not have an (R) in front of his name so this is only natural. Carry on people, carry on,” thereby implying that Republicans are treated unfairly relative to Democrats when found to be sexing up a sex-up partner instead of a wife. I made the following insufferable yet relevant retort: “Hey, remember when that gay Republican congressman got nabbed trying to pick up interns via IM, and Fox kept calling him a Democrat?” Soon, I found myself in several arguments during which I countered anecdotal evidence of anti-Republican perfidy with anecdotal evidence of Republican perfidy. Another regular commenter known as Big Bang Hunter responded to my tactic thusly: “Barrett, does it ever occur to you that arguments to the effect ‘well they did it too’, qualifies at the level of 5th grade discourse?” Ignoring his terrible grammar and the resulting irony, I pointed instead to another, far more relevant item of irony: “I’m sorry, BBH, I’m going to have to direct your comments to Mythos McGee, who was overheard to have told the duchess: ‘Remember the laudatory proclamation that Gerry Studds (D-MA) got after he got caught shtumphing the pages?’ Uh-oh! Blowback!” A regular by the name of Rob Crawford responded with a simple, “WTF is your point?”
The Point: What the fuck is it? My point was that it is kind of silly to attack someone with whom you’re arguing for countering a piece of anecdotal evidence with piece of contrary anecdotal evidence when someone on your side has just countered a piece of anecdotal evidence with a piece of contrary anecdotal evidence. Or, to put it in simpler terms for the benefit of Rob Crawford: Primus takes a cookie. Secundus takes a cookie. Rob Crawford’s political ally criticizes Secundus for taking a cookie. Secundus points out that Primus also took a cookie yet was not admonished, whereas Secundus was indeed admonished for doing the same thing. Rob Crawford is all like, “WTF is your point?” This is wrong.
Advantage: Rob Crawford.
The Bosniak Kerfuffle
On the day after the disappointing travesty of a vice presidential debate between Biden and Palin, Darleen Click decided that Biden had made some silly mistake which the media had ignored. “I keep hearing this morning that Biden was ‘gaffe free’ and had a ‘great command of foreign policy,’” she noted, taking reasonable issue with the candidate’s muddled narrative on the subject of our past dalliances with Lebanon. But Biden had also made, she claimed, yet another error, one that had been ignored by the mainstream media: “Funny, I don’t know who ‘Bosniacs’ are…” I agreed that this was very funny indeed, thereafter explaining that the term “Bosniaks” – also correctly rendered as “Bosniacs” – is in fact a real word referring to Bosnian Muslims, and that Biden had used this correct term in a correct fashion, which, in my opinion, seems okay. One commenter expressed the contrary opinion that I was simply a “stupid troll.” Another regular who had been making fun of Biden’s use of the entirely correct term admitted that she had learned the previous night that the term was indeed entirely correct, but that “it’s too funny not to mock him” for, uh, using a word with which she was unfamiliar; a couple of other commenters expressed similar sentiments. Someone else asserted that “[t]he trouble with using the term ‘Bosniacs’ is that it does not refer to all Bosnians,” to which I replied that this is no trouble at all insomuch as that it was not supposed to refer to all Bosnians, as Biden had been listing the various groups which are now getting along in Bosnia and other former bits of Yugoslavia. An otherwise lucid regular going by urthshu suggested that it was ironic that I am “a comedy writer, yet you insist on fact being presented in a comment thread where people tend to just bat crap around and make jokes.” At this point, the perpetually helpful Big Bang Hunter suddenly announced that “[t]he term is ‘Bosnians’ Brown. Bosniacs? You should get a hack job writing for Warners Bros. dick head.” Rather than work for those pricks, I instead pointed out to urthshu that, contrary to his “joking around” theory, both Darleen and Big Bang Hunter clearly believed that “Bosniak” is some sort of crazy made-up word; urthshu conceded the point and asked me in a civil manner what I thought about the debate. Big Bang Hunter wasn’t done yet, though. “Barrett, the joke is on you. No one said the term is incorrect. It would be like calling native Americans ‘Americaniacs’. It may not be technically wrong, but everyone would point at you and laugh. Something you’re probably accustomed to asshole.” Later, Mr. Pink claimed that Tina Fey “has taken SNL into irrelavancy [sic].”
The Point: I don’t even know where to start with the SNL thing, so I won’t. Otherwise, my point is that (1) “Bosniaks” is a real term and Biden used it correctly, that (2) Darleen Click and a couple of regular commenters simply decided that the term doesn’t exist instead of taking five seconds to check, that (3) other commenters decided that, rather than correcting these falsehoods, they would instead just play along with them, that (4) when I pointed all of this out, several people tried to pretend that those commenters who were clearly wrong about the term were themselves just joking, and that (5) it’s best to end a numbered list with something divisible by five for purposes of symmetry.
Advantage: Tina Fey.
The Bear Slap Thingamajig
In the midst of a soon-to-be-aborted debate on whether conservatives or liberals are smarter in general, a fellow named Cave Bear with whom I had exchanged a few comments suddenly proclaimed that I had just been “Bear Slapped.”
The Point: This all happened so fast that I really don’t know what to make of it.
Advantage: Bear enthusiast Andrew Sullivan.
The Rick Santorum, uh, Incident
As some commenters were still angry that I had unfairly compared the Catholic Church to ACORN simply because the Catholic Church has knowingly employed and abetted some untold number of child molesters whereas a single employee of ACORN had assisted in what he believed to be child sex trafficking – and in case you’re confused, as I am, it is the Catholic Church that is apparently being treated unfairly by way of such a comparison – the discussion again turned to these two “criminal enterprises” and their respective connections to prominent statesmen. “What conservative politician has closer ties to the Roman Catholic Church than Barcky has to ACORN?” asked a fellow called JD. As I responded: “Rick Santorum comes to mind – he goes to their functions at least once a week as he has for decades, believes that the organization is closely associated with God and capable of providing laymen a crucial connection with Him without which their souls will be consigned to torture for all of eternity, provides money to the organization, often praises the organization at length and in no uncertain terms, and considers the organization to be the most important institution in the history of humanity. Would you say that Obama is closer to ACORN, and if so, how?” I didn’t receive an answer so much as a misguided outburst: “ZOMFG, a former Senator is a practicing Catholic! Burn him. Kill him. Throw him to the lions. I am still waiting for the classic liberal to actually act like one, instead of a fucking douchenozzle, apologies to actual nozzles of douche.” Another regular suggested that I am a “hipster douchbag [sic];” yet another made a reasonable request: “Now, quit hijacking the conversation you dishonest piece of shit.” I tried to explain that I had simply answered the fellow’s question, and in rather neutral terms at that. Then I noted that I’d decided to write an article about all of these interesting people and that this would be finished and released later in the week. This must have made them angry because, at this point, some of the commenters began to act in an uncivil fashion. But Darleen, bless her heart, was simply inquisitive. “Are you going to include your dishonesty in your ‘article’?” she asked. “You are making unsubstantiated assertions..such as because Santorum attends mass that is exactly the same as Obama’s ties to ACORN.”
The Point: It never ends.
A few things to note:
1. Other incidents will be published here as I go back and find them and to the extent that I might need any such things to back up my points.
2. Although several commenters at PW are asserting that I intentionally provoked them in order that they might look bab, this is clearly not the case; the idea of writing this article did not occur to me until about a week ago, around the time that some misguided fellow decided to knock Thomas Paine. And if any of my internet adversaries would like to point to anything I have done which is allegedly so provocative that it would merit the reaction I have received, they are free to try, and I will link to any such incidents from here as well.
3. Jeff Goldstein, though initially cooperative, is now upset about the piece, even to the extent that he recently said that he might simply shut down the blog. I believe he’s changed his mind about that since. Still, he has accused me – accurately – of writing this article for money and has correctly noted that I tend to make more money if I receive more hits. Although I have noted in reply that this applies to he himself as well as any blogger who runs ads and attacks other people, he remains adamant that I ought not to be doing this, presumably because I’m not in the union.
4. As mentioned above, I will be expanding upon all of this in future posts.
5. End all lists with numbers divisible by five.
Update 3:30 p.m. EST:
It looks like Goldstein won’t be shutting down Protein Wisdom after all; he has edited his original comment to remove that particular assertion along with some of his other, more flamboyant language. A screen cap of the pre-memory hole version may be seen here.
Update 5:25 a.m. EST:
Jeff Goldstein has sent me Protein Wisdom’s “official response” to this article:
I think Barrett might have titled the thing, “Barrett Brown is, like, so much smarter than some blog commenters he could name!” and therefore saved his readers the effort of poring over this rather strained love affair to himself.
Generally, I try to write my headlines with some word play or a cultural reference incorporated somewhere therein. I also prefer that they not draw attention to my significant personality flaws.