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.

When I published my conservative critique of Canadian poetry and fiction, Director’s Cut, in 2003, I was appalled to read the comments on diverse blogs and websites. Practically none attempted to approach or to contest my arguments, but many had a lot of pejorative things to say about my mental abilities and some even targeted certain of my physical attributes -- without the slightest visual corroboration, be it said. Most of these commenters, writers themselves, whom I either know personally or know of via the grapevine, form part of the great liberal constituency in this country which flatters itself as progressive and enlightened.

It was no different after The Big Lie came out in 2007. I suddenly found myself being dissed right and left (well, mainly left), pricked with derogatory nicknames, and snidely repudiated by people I had once respected, including onetime friends and acquaintances of a distinctly leftist stamp. Again, few of my detractors were willing to meet the book on equal terms, to sift the testimony I had amassed to establish a case, to consider my deductions, to counter my conclusions with attested facts of their own, or even to absorb the authentic data and historical events laid out in its pages. There was nothing that resembled a conversation. It was far easier merely to denounce my attitudes as archaic, bilious, ineptly grounded, or -- the ultimate put-down -- as neoconservative. This raving fusillade was supposed to pass for judicious and legitimate disputation.

Cognitive paralysis is a staple human failing and none of us is immune to it. But one can always hope that a saving skepticism regarding one’s own motives and inevitable myopia may kick in at some point and compel one to reexamine one’s condign prejudices and emotional investments. I’m sure it was tough for Horowitz and Radosh, or reputable bloggers like Charles Winecoff at Big Hollywood and Jeremiah Duboff at Jeremayakovka -- and others in a similar ideological bind -- to reconceive half a lifetime of thought and practice, to admit mistakes, and to proceed in a different direction. It’s also deeply humiliating to acknowledge that one’s political allegiances and commitments over the course of many years were fueled by myth, make-believe, and magical thinking.

One can move both ways, of course, from left to center-right as did David Horowitz, or from right to liberal-left, as did Andrew Sullivan. The difference in the current political arena, however, is decisive. The conservative generally finds himself out of favor, whether in the media, the academy, or the political administration; the liberal is the recipient of special dispensation and sympathetic treatment, especially as he gravitates further to the left. There is no incentive to “go conservative” -- it is a question of conscience and entails pretty severe risks. But there is every temptation to profit from embarking on the opposing trajectory, which also guarantees the pleasures of what Czeslaw Milosz, drawing from the Arabic, characterized as ketman, the being “at one with others, in order not to be alone.” Which makes one wonder -- without impugning any particular individual -- on which side of the divide one is more likely to find those evanescent qualities of political integrity and personal rectitude.

Although most conservative thinkers I am aware of tend to argue their case with precision, a respect for history, and, for the most part, a disciplined graciousness, the distressing truth is that the protocols of debate are honored more in the breach than in the observance. Of course, there are hortatory nutbars and slouching troglodytes on the political right -- as Jeff Barak notes above -- but in today’s ideological world the incidence of rancor, malice, and spite is appreciably higher on the hard left and the liberal-left. This is so across the board, from President Obama and his apparatchiks and disciples seeking to discredit their opponents as a mischief-making rabble, an “angry mob,” “Neanderthals,” “astroturfers,” “Brown Shirts,” the “Brooks Brothers brigades,” and other choice epithets, to the ordinary run of leftist talkbackers on traffic-driving sites like Fark, many of whose comments decency forbids reproducing. Where there’s Smokey, there’s fire.

In the same way, conservative sites are often prey to sophisticated leftist hackers, who prefer unsavory means of competition to appropriate modes of objection or rebuttal. As of this writing, the latest victim of such illicit tactics is the watchdog organization HonestReporting.com, which is robustly pro-Israel. CEO Joe Hyams reports a “massive upsurge” in cyber attacks, over 740 in the last few months alone. There is no mystery from which quarter these attacks emanate. They plainly belong on the same continuum of misbegotten leftist riposte.

I have no statistics at my disposal. Nevertheless, the affective residue of the last several years in which I have been involved in the “political realm,” as writer, reader, and concerned citizen, have made it fairly clear to me that civil discourse and common decency are not conspicuous properties of the literary and political left. These traits are more likely to be found on the conservative-right -- which is to say, among those who profess the tenets of classical liberalism -- with its tradition of individual responsibility, cordial encounter, political accountability, and epistemic grist. This is by no means a hard-and-fast rule, but it is, despite the exceptions, a demonstrable tendency. Republican Congressman Joe Wilson’s famous outburst during Obama’s health care speech at a joint session of Congress on September 9, 2009, was palpably churlish, but we might recall in context the heckling leveled at George Bush, not by a single representative who happened to lose his temper, but by a contingent of primed, irascible Democrats.

It appears there is not much we can do about the leftist penchant for vituperation, impropriety, and -- to use Humpty Dumpty’s favorite word -- “impenetrability.” Pajamas Media, too, among the many excellent discussions that embellish the trailer segments, has its share of pugnacious commenters for whom the Marquess of Queensbury’s boxing code, as applied to the discursive ring, do not always seem to apply. This is unfortunate. Certainly, though pugilistic strategies may be employed and blows exchanged, none should be below the belt. It would be nice if we could do better and allow the norms of chivalry to govern our forensics.