Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Trolling America

Earlier this week, Rachel Maddow presented a fantastic segment analyzing the bulk of conservative discourse as trolling:

A key portion transcribed:

Trolling is a key part of the conservative entertainment slash media business model. These guys say stuff all the time that they do not intend to be persuasive. They’re not trying to explain something, or bring people along to their way of thinking – they’re just doing something to attract attention, and hopefully condemnation and outrage from the mainstream, and particularly from liberals. They want to offend you. They seek to offend you. That is the point.

They want the attention, and they really want the condemnation. Because, hey, attention's attention, and clicks are clicks on the website, right? Bad publicity is still publicity. But more importantly, the key part of their base audience that they are trying to monetize, likes anyone who gets condemned by the mainstream. It's a badge of honor. So it makes people sign up for the Daily Mega-Ditto-Buy Gold Newsletter! or whatever. And pay their, 9.95 for "I used to be on TV, but now I'm on the Internet," right, "Sign up now for exclusive content that you won't find in the lamestream media that hates me!" It's a shtick, right, it is a shtick that pays… and it pays big dollars to big name conservatives, and it pays small dollars to others…

Trolling definitely fits in that "pissing off liberals" is a key motivator for conservatives, and certainly is a key method for conservative fundraising. It also fits in that the bulk of conservative statements are not really aimed at advancing the discourse or solving problems; they are point-scoring, or aimed to derail productive conversation. It's the natural outgrowth of an ideology that is hostile to the very notion of government, and thus the ethic of responsible governance. Conservatism has always been reactionary in nature, but in its contemporary, dominant form, it is petulant and selfish, and at its worst, nihilistic. (See "The Four Types of Conservatives for more.)

While some conservatives are utterly sincere when they spout crazy shit, for others such as Ann Coulter , it's all part of the grift. Rick Perlstein breaks down the dynamics in his excellent piece, "The Long Con: Mail-order conservatism." Or consider this pop-up ad for right-wing magazine The American Spectator; it features Mark Levin, one of the angry cons in Rachel Maddow's segment above:

Give us money, because it will piss off liberals. Conservative leaders can't offer their marks better policies, better lives or a better America, but they can offer spite, and that's been a successful and lucrative approach for conservative leaders since at least Nixon and the Southern Strategy.

Sometimes, the grifters grow to believe their own bullshit (they start using their own product). In the Maddow segment, Mark Levin angrily sputters, "Since when the hell do we Americans believe in separation of church and state?" Levin sells himself as a conservative intellectual, and likes to tout a nickname, "The Great One," bestowed on him by his buddy Sean Hannity. For Levin to actually believe what he's saying, he'd have to be as ignorant as Rick Santorum about the founding of the United States. Obviously Levin knows what he's saying will sell to his audience, but does he actually believe it? Either he believes it, or he knows it's ridiculous… or he has come to believe it over time. In 2005, Dahlia Lithwick wrote a now-classic, scathing review of Levin's book on the Supreme Court:

I use the word "book" with some hesitation: Certainly it possesses chapters and words and other book-like accoutrements. But Men in Black is 208 large-print pages of mostly block quotes (from court decisions or other legal thinkers) padded with a foreword by the eminent legal scholar Rush Limbaugh, and a blurry 10-page "Appendix" of internal memos to and from congressional Democrats—stolen during Memogate. The reason it may take you only slightly longer to read Men in Black than it took Levin to write it is that you'll experience an overwhelming urge to shower between chapters.

In 2010, the debate about "epistemic closure" among conservatives heated up when conservative Jim Manzi at National Review eviscerated the account of global warming in Levin's book Liberty and Tyranny, writing:

It was awful. It was so bad that it was like the proverbial clock that chimes 13 times – not only is it obviously wrong, but it is so wrong that it leads you to question every other piece of information it has ever provided.

Manzi went on to provided detailed examples of Levin's shoddy arguments. Levin reacted furiously, as did many other conservatives, arguing the Levin's work was solid and serious and how dare Manzi, etc. The most entertaining defense came from conservative Ross Douthat, who wrote that "the only way to defend a book like “Liberty and Tyranny” against Manzi’s critique is to argue that Levin should be judged primarily as an entertainer, rather than as a rigorous political thinker." In other words, the best defense that Douthat could muster was to say that Levin knew he was completely full of shit. Levin was trolling. (At a certain point, Levin and other conservatives might not know the difference.)

This brings up back to the old question of stupid, evil or crazy. At a certain level, it doesn't matter. Bad policies still need to be defeated. Regardless of what terms one uses, unfortunately modern conservatism and the Republican Party have very little of value to offer America.

The question remains as to what requires a response and what that response should be. Maddow's definition is that trolling is speech designed to provoke outrage rather than to persuade, and in the context of right-wing media, that trolling is speech designed to raise money. Maddow is right that, in some cases, it's wise not to rise – or rather, stoop – to the bait. Specifically, she's correct that getting angry in the way the troll intended, and ceding control of the conversation to the troll, is rarely if ever effective. That said, there are cases where the trolling is so prominent that ignoring it doesn't work, and it has to be addressed. Alternatively, if "punching down" is an essential part of Maddow's definition of responding to a troll, surely there are harmful arguments from conservatives that require "punching up." Extreme conservative discourse can push the Overton window over time in a bad direction if there's no pushback whatsoever. And conservatives can overreach in their desire to provoke outrage, or by expressing their true craziness, and thus generate backlash – see Rush Limbaugh on Sandra Fluke, or the NRA on Obama's daughters, or Alex Jones on guns. There's also the utterly sincere and ignorant Republican rape caucus, which helped the Republican Party lose several elections in 2012.

Representative Allen West, featured in Maddow's segment, offers another great test case. West definitely trolled for money during his election, and has trolled for money since. His outrageous, baseless remarks about communists in the Democratic Party were strongly criticized by many, including Bill Moyers in a video essay, "The Ghost of McCarthyism." Should West's comments have been ignored? I would argue that, in his case, since he was an actual congressman versus just another shouting head, he could do actual harm if left unchallenged. Rush Limbaugh is more powerful as a commenter than he could be as an elected official, but at West's level, congressman was a step up in power. West was indeed able to fundraise off of 'liberal outrage' over his comments, but his remarks were also so extreme that shining a light on them turned off some mainstream voters and helped him lose the election. (If someone has more detailed analysis of the West race, feel free to pass it on.) The best response often may be situational. Maddow's correct that responding knee-jerk to a stunt, and getting into a shouting match with a troll, gets one nowhere and only helps the troll. But some extremist conservative statements do require serious discussion, or exposure, or ridicule. Perhaps more importantly, some statements require action, in terms of opposing bad legislation and bad candidates. (Bill O'Reilly can rage about the decline of the white establishment all he likes, as long as his movement is losing elections.)

This brings us to a major problem with America's national political discourse. Liberals don't get to choose what statements are taken seriously by the mainstream media. It's fine to try to ignore fringe trolling, but the corporate media consistently validates crazy conservative ideas as legitimate. If and when a crazy, right-wing idea gains this sort of power – for instance, that it's perfectly respectable to choose not raise the debt ceiling and destroy America's credit rating, or to pledge to an unelected figure never to raise taxes ever, even in the fact of Armageddon – the option of "ignoring" no long exists. The same goes for the inane, almost inevitably wrong Beltway conventional wisdom issued by Very Serious People, for instance on the national debt. There's more than one way to troll. To quote a post from last year:

Basically, saying "both sides do it" is a form of trolling. In almost every case, when a Very Serious Person says "both sides do it," "both sides are to blame" or any of its variants, it is to shut down discussion, not to bring it to a deeper, more nuanced level.

Right-wing trolling intended to outrage is indeed a problem, but so is faux centrist concern trolling – and the latter sometimes excuses the former.


Marc McDonald said...

Hi, good post.
Speaking of Mark Levin, to me, he is perhaps the single most scary talker on right-wing radio.
I remember back during the darkest days of the Bush administration when Levin was doing one of his frightening rants.
The topic was torture and the fact that people like John McCain have said that torture delivers bad information.
Levin (a chickenhawk who was never anywhere near a battlefield) casually dismissed people like McCain. In so many words, Levin enthusiastically embraced torture. He blandly dismissed the "bad info" claim saying "all you have to do is go check out the info and if it's wrong, you come back" to the detainee being tortured.
This casual, glib support of torture (which at the time was being echoed by all my right-wing friends) left me badly shaken and ashamed to be an American at the time.
The fact that Levin has many millions of listeners on the airwaves and his books sell by the millions is very scary to me.
Levin's followers, by the way, are fanatical. These are the people who flood Amazon when Levin releases a new book and immediately start posting hundreds of five-star reviews. (They also swarm Amazon and constantly post 1-star reviews for progressive writers). Usually, the latter reviews are only one sentence, saying something like "This book sucks!"
I rarely use the word "evil," because I believe that good and evil in this world are often relative terms. I subscribe to the Japanese/East Asian view in which the world is a series of shades of gray, rather than starkly "good" and "evil."
But in Levin's case, I make an exception. This is truly an evil man.

Batocchio said...

Ugh. I missed that segment, but that sounds typical ("casual, glib"). Contrary to Levin, all you have to do is ask a question, get an answer, and check it out – without torture. Professional interrogators don't use it, because they know it's counterproductive (in addition to being immoral and illegal). Even the Army Field Manual points that out. As Rear Admiral John Hutson observed, "torture is the method of choice of the lazy, the stupid and the pseudo-tough." I have my issues with John McCain, but the man was tortured, and knows more than a little about the subject; he spoke out against torture in several Republican primary debates and had a bunch of chickenhawks (and Dick Cheney) tell him he was wrong. I'm astounded they had the nerve.

Levin has always struck me as noxious and hateful, but that becomes evil at some point, so I buy your assessment. It really is scary that so many people mainline that stuff.

jonerik said...

This post caught my attention since I confess myself to be a reformed, conservative "troller" from my high school days. This was in the mid-1960's though and my "trolling" was in trying to get a rise out of the liberal girls in my English class by making outrageous comments, which I admit, at the time, were the parlance of conservatism at the time. I've since outgrown my childish ways. This experience has enabled me to recognize childishness in others which I'll attest to in agreeing with the validity of your post and the observations therein.