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I step out, blinking into the glare: commentary at huffpost

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PostPosted: Thu Nov 03, 2011 10:19 pm    Post subject: I step out, blinking into the glare: commentary at huffpost Reply with quote

I step out, blinking into the glare.

Occasionally I see people writing that they notice that the people of the United States are more divided than ever, followed closely, I note, by saying that it is Barack Obama's fault. I'm not ready to assign blame, but so far as the division goes, I see it too.

I see it at Huffington Post, where a random google search took me a month or two ago. I became intrigued by the commentary associated with articles there, I suppose because 1) they appear to be a real mixture of viewpoints, and 2) they are so voluminous.

Since I've started noticing, I've seen multiple occasions where articles that fit into a single page are able to provoke over 10,000 comments from online readers. The content of this commentary? Often horrifying, and yet, strangely exciting. The breadth and scope of backgrounds represented in these commentaries is mind boggling.

In the past, I've been charmed by commentaries on the New York Times web pages. Especially in what might be called "think pieces", editorials, or short essays on some bit of philosophy (the meaning of life, anyone?) or first person stories about selling a dead parents belongings, for instance. During the process of reading 20 or a hundred different perspectives on such a topic, many heartfelt, illuminating, and clearly well-written, I could really appreciate the gift that I had been given.

In one particular case, an essay making the case that a "meaningful" life required a kind of narrative arc, brought in Sartre, as it happens, and mentioned Hitler, as I recall (giving it a Godwin # of 1, perhaps). The article seemed to misuse Sartre's argument, and seemed to rest on some shaky assumptions, besides, but.

the remarkable thing was that although there was the usual quibbling about the argument, the commentaries greatly outshone the original essay. It seems that at least a hundred or two people were already primed in a way, they had a story they wanted to tell, about their lives and what hardships they'd faced, and what meaning they had derived from the sum experiences of their lives.

Few people were bothering to correct spelling errors, and though different people's ideas for what constituted a meaningful life were not compatible with each other, the tenor of the commentaries was not so much contentious as revelatory.

As you might imagine (or, check it out for yourself), this kind of writing is dense in a way, not to be skimmed, or to be taken in at one sitting but at a measured pace over the course of many days.

This is where I stepped out into the glare, and started blinking. When I saw the content and volume of Huffington Post commentary I was repulsed, and ultimately, fascinated by it. The first thing I noticed was the partisan rancor, that spread into every conceivable topic. I don't know if there is a finely graded terminology for it but I hear the word "troll", and I also think of the personality of the bully. There is a lot of name calling, and declaiming how stupid the previous poster must be if they don't understand XYZ. I find what appear to be "conservative" / Republican / Tea Party proponents seeming to start derogatory threads, making what I can often tell are spurious, spinning-type, arguments. The other side, the Dems? can sometimes be provoked to the same techniques, but mostly seem very earnest, writing multiple paragraphs to prove the 3 different ways, say, that the previous post is misleading, or even disproven. It seems a bit unfair because the one can pack 3 lies into a sentence, and it may take 3 paragraphs (or more) to refute them.

Meanwhile, how is it relevant what the first Lady wears, and how should that persuade me to take any particular political point of view? I don't want to be unfair, so I admit I've been a "bit" one-sided. Many conservative posters have well-reasoned arguments based on clear, available facts, and maintain a respectful style of discourse, without adding derogatory terms to their arguments. [I'm tempted to come up with some scheme ala Godwin's law for the terms "libtard" and "teabagger". Horrible, really.] But these few are drowned out by what seem to be waves of sloppy, mean, talking-point repeaters.

When I want to be fair, again, I try to get more information. A recent story concerned a couple with a child in a store who ate some sandwiches from the deli, and left the store after buying 40$ worth of groceries. When confronted they said they had forgotten to pay for the sandwiches, and offered to pay. Safeway had them both arrested on the spot, meaning their child was taken by a child protective services agency. A short story and a minute or so of video coverage was enough to generate over 10,000 comments over only a day or so.

In even a topic as mundane and removed from national politics as this, thousands of people posted back and forth, often in violent disagreement, and often even enraged, it seems, that the other people just didn't get it, that other people did not share their own particular viewpoint. While I might savor 200 well-written essays on the meaning of life (NYT), 200 comments such as these on HuffPost, could be read in less than an hour, with no extra benefit likely from reading further. A virtual ping pong match played between "serves-em-right" and "should've-been-handled-differently", each talking past each other.

Still, this volume tells me that there is a great deal of passion that is being expressed. Most people didn't get opportunities like these very much in the past, to make a statement in a public forum, saying your piece, and being heard, not only by a few people, but, potentially, worldwide, and in actuality, by tens or even hundreds of thousands of people. To a bully, someone angry, it must be hard to resist the temptation to join in, especially, I think, because people can just toss these off on their phone (I sure hope they aren't driving at the same time), and with as little effort as a tweet, perhaps.

The rough and tumble of the the public opinion front-lines can be bracing, but I find myself relying on highlighted or favorite postings, despite the risk of missing some valuable insight. I wonder what it would be like to have a "bouncer" at these public fora, not just for outright vulgarity, but for any name-calling, trolling, bullying, etc. A patricularly nice (or even automated) moderator could give advice, or ban someone outright. Mainly, we could have a good discussion without a lot of loudmouthed boorish bullies coming in and tipping the furniture over, and making it all about them.

Meanwhile, how can it be that 2 stolen sandwiches can divide us so powerfully? It's not just illusion. We *are* as deeply divided about those 2 sandwiches as we are about most any other longstanding political issue.

The Huffington Post commentary sections have become the skirmishing line of the culture wars, which have re-ignited. Are OWS'ers revealing how the Tea Party movement is more "astroturf" than "grassroots", or are they just a bunch of dirty hippies. Which President or party should we blame for the bad state of the current economy? And did they hide the sandwich wrappers before they went through checkout?
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PostPosted: Mon Nov 28, 2011 11:36 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

For me this represents yet another sign that the current hierarchy does not scale well to new forms of participatory democracy.

And that is how I see commenting...a kind of participatory democracy. We are each 100 Senators and Representatives screaming our opinion on each and every topic. We want to comment, because we understand that our entire society is still hugely leveraged. The money supply for example, seems way out of control of the average person. The media -- well, that seems to be coming under the control of democratic social networks.

As I've said in YRIHF before, think about the growth in scale it to the top levels of Government. When this was a nation of 25 million there was still one President and two Senators for every state. Same with the Supreme Court (that went from 7 to 9 right? Still shouldn't there be a few hundred justices at this point?). And I'm sure if I looked it up, the requirements for a House Representative were much lower than the 500,000 it has become.

That said, what do we do. One idea might be that rather than having too much Government, we might not have enough of it! That is, we don't have accessible local representatives with power to affect real change. Just to get a sign on a road fixed, or to report a broken walk signal requires me to interact with a city Government that manages 120,000 people. Is that right-sized...too big...(or to a bureacrat, in need of annexing other territories!)

I am a powerless elected representative. A Precinct Committee Officer of the Republican Party. In the days of "Gangs of New York" I think PCOs were the guys who rustled up the voters (maybe handing out bottles of booze for the five or six votes each union member was expected to deliver). I have no power, no budget. But I was elected by 72 out of 100 republicans in this district of 500. Now imagine if each neighborhood had a representative who could tap directly into the national governance. 500 people means each citizen could have a day to himself with the Rep. He could attend local street fairs, for more than a few hours without having to "jet off to Committee".

Alternatively, I see the plethora of comments as a prelude to true e-Democracy, where each citizen is interfaced directly not only with a voice, but with power...the power to really affect the direction of his neighborhood, county, city, state and nation...if those things are still around.
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