Talking Back to the Talkbackers

Reacting to Glenn Beck’s interview with filmmaker Patrick Courrielche, who broke the news about the National Endowment for the Arts plumping for Obama and his major pieces of proposed legislation, one talkbacker who goes by the sobriquet of Smokey expressed his anger not at the NEA but at Glenn Beck. His formulation left little to the imagination: “We should be encouraging art that portrays Beck’s head exploding from internal pressure.” Smokey cannot believe that “people watch hours and hours of this gasbag.”

True, Beck is no stranger to intemperate remarks, but he rarely errs on the side of gross indecorum. He makes solid points, delivered polemically and with spontaneous enthusiasm, and his books in particular are backed up by extensive research and careful auditing. The trouble is not with Glenn Beck but with the Smokeys of the informatic domain.

For some time now, I’ve been diligently scoping out the comments and talkbacks to articles posted on various internet sites. Some of these are intellectually provocative, well-informed, logically sound, and historically erudite, and I have gained enormously from them. But far too many stubbornly refuse to connect or “dock” with the propositions, hypotheses, or contentions being developed in the articles they are presumably annotating, and indeed frequently steer perilously close to gutter talk, if not actually wallowing in the verbal gutter.

And I’ve found -- no big surprise -- that the great majority of these crude and invidious remarks come from patently left-leaning readers. Moreover, certain sites feature articles, reports, and analyses of contemporary events that, in their content and phrasing, differ little from the productions of the most thoughtless and vitriolic commenters themselves! I refer to proudly leftist newsletters like Counterpunch, which describes its method as “muckraking with a radical attitude,” or sites like the Soros-funded MoveOn.org. But the distemper is pervasive and, as I say, is far more a phenomenon of the left and even of the liberal-left than it is of the conservative-right. Pat Buchanan is an anomaly; Alexander Cockburn is not.

Looking at the more conservative sites, such as Pajamas Media and FrontPage Magazine, it is obvious that most of the commenters will be of kindred disposition and frame their glosses in a reasonably civilized manner, approving, sometimes disapproving, expanding, or correcting the postings. But often the minority of commenters who take vigorous exception to the articles in question will fall back on invective, vulgarity, and execration in lieu of weighing facts and arguments or accessing primary texts for confirmation before rendering judgment. And even in those instances when an article’s reasoning is firmly anchored and readily verifiable, it seems as if it had never been written or had simply evaporated before the reader’s grudging perusal.

And there’s the rub. One of the things I find most disturbing is the stubborn resistance to data that does not consort with a prior and deeply held conviction, the unwillingness to reflect upon one’s own prejudices, assumptions, and ideological stances. I believe it was Jonathan Swift who said that “what a man has not been reasoned into, he will not be reasoned out of.” Was he right? One would like to believe that intellectual curiosity can always be stimulated and that acquired knowledge can have a salutary effect, despite so much evidence to the contrary.

I have, mirabile dictu, known people who are capable of changing their minds, rethinking their political positions, accepting fresh information, and revising their congenial opinions. Not many, to be sure, but enough not to lose heart entirely. I myself was frozen in standard left-wing groupthink for much of my adult life, until 9/11 clarioned its wake-up call. I spent the next five years trying to educate myself, reading everything I could get my hands on from all sides of the political spectrum and following world events with close attention. This led to the painful awareness that I had been wrong about nearly everything and eventuated in my book, The Big Lie, which represented the “moment” when I came of age and finally learned to take the world more seriously than myself. The result, of course, is that I have become something of a pariah in my own literary and political community in Canada.

How common is an experience of this nature? I know it has happened to others -- consider the salient examples of David Horowitz (Radical Son) and Ron Radosh (Commies), among others. In my own more modest case, in the course of an evolving thesis I did my utmost to present the facts I uncovered over years of dedicated research -- and I mean real facts that cannot be denied, like the actual articles of UN Resolution 242 (accepted by Israel but formally rejected by the Palestinians at the Tripoli conference on December 2-5, 1977) or the actual substance of the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention or the actual history of the Middle East gleaned from impeccable documentary and archival sources, to cite only a few such items. Yet the response I frequently got was: “Well, let’s agree to disagree.” There was no recognition of what is.

And this is among friends! When it comes to those who are anesthetized by partisan desire and transfixed in a strict intellectual, literary, or political posture -- members of what Jeff Barak calls “virtual communities of like-minded zealots” -- the response is usually ad hominem. Rather than enter into rational debate or engage with presented arguments, such people almost invariably resort to threat, expostulation, name-calling, slander, and explicit profanity. Reactions of this kind are clearly ubiquitous but, once again, I must say that they occur disproportionately among those of a manifestly leftist and left-liberal persuasion.