Towards A Good Samaritan World

Tuesday, March 15, 2005


For the past couple days I've had a good time commenting over at Brad DeLong's blog. I found it interesting because it seems to be a liberal- and Democrat-dominated environment. I've been on the lookout for such venues, because I'd like to counteract the tendency of the blogosphere to get bifurcated into a right camp and a left camp which just talk past each other.

I put in a few comments which I wish I could quote; but the best of them have been deleted. Here's one, though:

SteveH writes:

"Good gosh, Lancelot Finn. How many generations of Burmese or North Koreans or Sudanese or anyone else are you willing to sacrifice? Should the USA eliminate dictators, who are no threat to us, anywhere and everywhere?"

Tough question. We don't have the resources to do what we did in Iraq in all those countries. Iraq was the model, the symbol, the blazing of the trail towards a new dawn of freedom. Now diplomacy and hard-headed strategizing is needed to turn the precedent into a principle. Right, everyone?

This morning I've got an e-mail from Brad, which said simply:

You've crossed the Troll Line...

I didn't know what this meant, but (to get ahead of the story) he eventually helped me out with this link.

I wrote Brad:

Maybe there's something wrong with the site, or maybe it's just my incompetence, but I couldn't find a description of what a "troll" is anywhere. Does this mean I'm not allowed to post any more comments, or does it mean I should do it less often and try to be more careful about the contents thereof? If the former, I'm not sure how I feel about it. Of course, I'll respect your wishes, as it's your site, but it seems a little bit cheap and maybe cowardly to exclude those who
disagree with your readership, thus stifling debate and encourage the bubble mentality that has obviously developed. But probably you just mean that I should tone it down and not try to hog the limelight, and in that case, you're probably right. I didn't mean to hijack the discussions, but one comment led to another...


So it looks like being a "troll" means that all your comments are deleted from your blog? Wow.

Sorry, Brad, I was willing to defer to your wishes and quit. Still am. But I've definitely lost some respect for you.

And then, when I noticed that a few of my comments were still there, generally in truncated form and sometimes with his rebuttals, I sent this:

I took another look at the blog. So you've left some of them on there, but you throw in some responses. That's better than I thought, thanks. I'm still a bit annoyed that you deleted some of the best ones, however. The one on the liberals' double standard in wanting to impeach Bush but not Saddam was particularly good, and just what your readership needs to hear. And very much on-point, too. If you wanted to delete some and not others, why not the "that's crazy-talk" comment, which might have been pushing the limits of civil debate?

I'm torn. I think you're halfway to engaging in debate. And it's okay for you to try to control your forum. But the way you've done it shows a fear of being challenged at least as much as a desire to keep the debate on topic.

Since a lot of people responded to my comments, the fact that some of them disappeared without so much as a "[troll]" remark to indicate where they were gives the debates a peculiarly censored character.


Finally Brad replied to me as follows:

I'm trying to run a conversation. People have latitude to express themselves that is proportional to the amount of information they bring to the table.

What pieces of information have you brought to the table?

In the relatively unlikely event that you don't know what a "troll"
is and seek to learn, take a look at... (link above)

Answer: First, plenty, and I wish I could pull some of my old comments out of Brad's oubliette to prove it. Second, if Brad wants to claim/pretend that all his other readers are contributing useful information while I was not, take a look at some other (more or less randomly selected) comments on Brad's site, which he did not see fit to censor:

We need to ensure that everyone responsible is eating out of garbage cans. Being torn to pieces by an outraged mob would be better, but you can't have everything.


If we're going to beat a country into our preferred shape, there will usually be resistance; and with the kind of people we are today, that means torture.

Hmm. A bit vague. Or this:

Would be appropriate. Won't happen. While we're at it, why can't we fire all the pundits who believed in the Administration's case for invading Iraq?

Seems like Brad is not alone in liking the idea of censorship...

Fuck Bush, fuck his cronies and fuck the mouth-breathers who voted for him.

Really? That's informative...

When are the Dems going to have the guts to introduce a bill of particulars on impeachment in the House? Sure, it wouldn't go anywhere, but it would do a world of good to get the case against Bush on the table, in a way that left no doubt as to its seriousness.

I could go on and on, but it would be superfluous. Brad obviously censored me as a "troll" not because my contributions were "disproportionate to the amount of information I brought to the table," but because I disagree with his views and those of most of his readership. Now, if Brad wants to ensure an ideologically homogeneous comment section on his site, he has every right to do so: as I said, it's his site. But there's really no avoiding the conclusion that he and his readership are running away from debate. And there's a broader point here about the difference between the contemporary Right and Left. The Right is rich in ideas and likes to dispute and solve problems. The Left is convinced of its innate superiority and tends to avoid debate, preferring to purge and censor.

To wit, I've never heard of a right-leaning blog cutting "trolls" out of the debate. A revealing line is Brad's mention of the "relatively unlikely event" that I had never heard of trolls. Apparently, being on the left, he thinks the idea is well-known; coming from the right, it's an unfamiliar concept.

There's one more point here. Brad's letter suggests that the only thing a reader-commenter could contribute to the debate is "information." This is consistent with the motto of his website: "Proud Member of the Reality-Based Community." Note that phrase: reality-based community. The implicit contrast is with ideology.

Brad is committing a basic philosophical error. Our perceptions of the world are always mediated by ideas. If I perceive a cat, this is not due solely to "reality"; it's also because I possess the concept of a cat. A newborn baby could experience the same sensory impression but would not perceive a cat, because she would not possess the concept of a cat, or underlying concepts such as that of an object. Ideas, and (to cite the same phenomenon at a higher level) ideologies, matter, indeed they're indispensable. If you think you perceive "reality" without any lens of "ideology," you still have an ideology, you're just so naive that you don't realize it. It's easy to take the next step and dismiss those who disagree with you as suffering from "ideology," of which you are blissfully free.

Brad, I contributed facts, but I contributed something else that your side needs even more: argument. Argument deals with facts, rearranges them, assesses their importance, draws conclusions. In a time when the political spectrum is giving way to a kaleidoscope and the traditional signposts of right and left are in flux, argument is beginning to seem like the basic litmus test that distinguishes right from left. Libertarians, free-market conservatives, theocons, neocons, pro-business moderates, even the occasional paleocon, they differ tremendously from one another, but they all love to argue, they live by arguing, they accept that they must stand or fall by argument. Liberals speak a different language: they lament, or scold, or scoff, or call themselves "reality-based."

One honorable exception to this rule is the Left2Right blog, run by a bunch of liberal professors who, however, are happy to entertain dissenting views.

And here's a word for Alan, if he happens to drop by:

Mr. Finn, could you enlighten the rest of us wretched fools where Krugman's numbers are wrong? I get it that you don't like that Krugman isn't supporting a position you would like, but you fail to say what he has written which is actually wrong.

Unlike the rest of the punditorcracy -- and unlike you -- he cites numbers that hold up when you get back to the source. Please tell us where his numbers don't add up.

What's interesting here is that I never claimed Krugman's numbers were wrong. In fact, in the quote in question, Krugman was not offering numbers; he was calling Bush and Lieberman (wait for it...) LIARS for making a claim that each extra year of delay cost $600 billion. Now, I don't think this number can be characterized as either true or false: it's a simplification of a much more mysterious set of facts about the growth of unfunded liabilities that can't be explained in a soundbite fashion. Quarreling about numbers is to some extent a red herring here. The basic facts are clear enough: Social Security will eventually run out of funds unless there are policy changes; this is confirmed by the SSA and the CBO, it was always known, Krugman himself has admitted it. A reform could make SS cheaper or more expensive, save money or lose money, depending on how it's designed, and until we get a more specific plan there's not much to be said, except that, given the degree of uncertainty and complexity surrounding the issue, and the difficulty of explaining it to voters, we need to give politicians who are TRYING to explain the problems to the public a break.


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