Sunday, June 20, 2010

Why Most Politics Blogs Are A Waste of Time-- And Why It Matters

Dina Nisser asked me what I thought of Joe Biden's remarks in Brussels, and I, embarrassingly, had no idea what Biden had said in Brussels. So I typed "Biden Brussels" into Google, and got an astonishingly long list of right-wing websites in response.

It seems that in his opening remarks to the European Parliament, Biden had said this:

As you already know, ladies and gentlemen,[...] some American politicians and American journalists refer to Washington, DC as the “capital of the free world.”  But it seems to me that this great city, which boasts 1,000 years of history and which serves as the capital of Belgium, the home of the European Union, and the headquarters for NATO, this city has its own legitimate claim to that title.

This strikes me harmless political flattery. In particular, note that the phrase "its own legitimate claim" clearly implies that Washington has a legitimate claim to the title, and that the inclusion of NATO suggests that wherever the capital is, American military power has a lot to do with it.

But this innocuous sentence provoked fury in the right-wing hemiblogosphere. It probably started with a syndicated column by one Jonah Goldberg that appeared in National Review Online,,, and other places, and was then picked up on by Rush Limbaugh. (I've made no attempt to get the exact sequence of events straight; for all I know Limbaugh may have been the first.) Goldberg remarks, "He was telling the unaccountable Lilliputians of the EUrocracy that Gulliver sees them as equals now." (Mr. Goldberg, you do know what "parliament" means, right?)

And before you can say "Michele Bachmann"  the story is popping up on gatewaypundit,,, David Horowitz's NewsReal Blog, Freedom Eden,,,,,,,,,,, (remember them?),,, and so on and so on.

So why are most politics blogs a waste of time? Because they're saying the same thing as a hundred other blogs. It's like two mirrors facing each other in a barbershop (back when there were such things as barbershops)-- you get the impression of a vast corridor, but it's an illusion. And why does it matter? Take a look.

At the more popular of these sites, the story on Biden is followed by a string of comments from readers: "sounds like treason to me;" "you know when they scooped out his brain tumor, half his brain was removed instead;" "This is further evidence of the obsession progressives have with instituting a global government. There are NO elected representatives in world government. Their goal is a world-wide socialist dictatorship run by elites;" "This is a slap in the face of every American who ever served and especially the ones who gave their all and never returned. This is an insult to them of huge proportion an unforgivable insult. To have these two dolts tell us that the capital of the world is Brussels Belgium." And so on and so on.

OK, so there are a lot of angry wackos out there. What's your point, Howard?

Here's the point: a democratic society needs not just voting but discussion, argument. And this is getting harder and harder to find. We spend more and more time on the much pleasanter task of talking to people who agree with us. Indeed, as a recent Important Book has pointed out, people are increasingly choosing to live in neighborhoods with people who think like them.  To cite one cited-to-death statistic, in the 1976 presidential election 27% of Americans lived in counties where one candidate won by 20% or more; in 2004, 48% did. And there is evidence that people who are only exposed to the opinion of people like them develop more extreme views; in effect, the extreme looks like a small deviation from the norm.

The internet has allowed the development of virtual communities of people who may live very far apart. But this makes it even easier to avoid those annoying people who don't agree with you. The role of comments on these websites seems to be mainly to allow people to luxuriate in how virtuous they and their fellow commenters are and how dumb the outsiders are. Few people actually bother to look at the original items that the blogger is discussing; the point is more to affirm membership in the group.

For all you liberals who are thinking, "Tsk, tsk; aren't those right-wingers terrible!"-- not so fast, buddy. I had no sooner come back from visiting the echo chamber on Biden than I stumbled into The NewYork Times's environment blog. The writer was lambasting the chairman of BP for his infamous "We care about the small people" remark, which struck me as an obvious mistake by a non-native speaker who doesn't grasp fine nuances in English. A lot of the commenters wasted no time in piling on. You can see my comment at #27. (In fairness to Times readers, a number of them came to Mr. Svanberg's defense, some with detailed discussion of similar expressions in Swedish.)

The political implications of all this are unsettling enough. Even scarier are the psychospiritual implications: Technology has enabled us to isolate ourselves more and more from anything outside our control, and to move ever closer to a solipsistic virtual reality where all we see is reflections of ourselves. I don't think this can be good. But enough on that.

What can be done about this? Here's a suggestion for personal action: several times a week, read a website by someone you strongly disagree with. Maybe you'll be convinced on that particular issue. If not, break up the stifling consensus by adding a comment. Make it polite and respectful no matter how annoyed you feel; yelling begets yelling, and that doesn't convince anybody. But don't feel bad if you don't convince anyone. Your goal is just to let in a little air.

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