Analyzing Hate Mail

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COUP WATCH: Analyzing Hate Mail; The Cause of Sanity & More From Red Rock Eater News Service

By Phil Agre

From - Sat Nov 25 21:13:36 2000

I enclose another, extra-large batch of URL's, again with thanks to all the good people who contributed. But first, assorted comments.

1

For a few days after the first outbreak of Republican gang violence in Florida, the hate mail fell silent for a couple days. One or two of the formerly most vituperative even said things like, I disagree with you about everything else but I agree that the violence can't be justified. It was good. But now the hate mail has started up again, and it's even worse than before. Although the details vary, as you'd expect, the great majority of the rhetorical moves fit neatly into a small number of categories, which follow:

(1) The words "partisan" and "bias". In the time that I have been writing about the current elections, I have received perhaps 100 messages telling me nothing except that I am either "partisan" or "biased". These words are outstanding examples of the perversity of the current jargon. They first entered into circulation when some Americans called people like Newt Gingrich "partisan" for doing things like training political candidates to describe their opponents with words like decay, sick, pathetic, stagnation, corrupt, and traitors (LA Times 12/19/94). The jargon-speakers did something characteristic with this: they accused their opponents of identifying as "partisan" any views other than their own.

Notice how this works: it inflates the word, deletes all mention of the justification for using it, and projects both of these moves onto Them. Next, they started using the word "partisan" in the inflated, dishonest way that they had ascribed to their opponents. Again very characteristically, this gave them the cover they needed to go around irrationally abusing people: it let them think "*they're* really the ones who are doing this to *us*".

This is one reason why the speakers of the new jargon so cherish the slights that they sometimes experience: they now have new cover to employ in abusing people. What is more, the word "partisan", like the word "bias", now means nothing except "you have a different opinion than mine", except that having a different opinion is now ipso facto wrong -- not just mistaken but improper. Faced with the discomfort of differing views, you can now release the tension by flinging these empty words, thereby assaulting people while feeling inwardly that you are standing up for morality. And if they have a problem with that, then of course you can ask surprised and accuse them of abusing *you*.

(2) Bogus claims of double standards. These are pervasive. You might say, for example, "Jesse Jackson parachuted in and had 10,000 people marching, but when conservatives have 100 people expressing their views you call it fascism". See how easy that was? See how the grammatical parallelism locks in a certain construction of the situation that happens to omit key facts, for example the people who got kicked, punched, trampled, threatened, and screamed at, not to mention the people whose votes will now most likely never be counted?

Here is another version: "when Jesse Jackson does it you call it democracy, but when conservatives do it you call it fascism". Note the strategic vagueness of the phrase "does it". Did Jesse Jackson apply the word "thugs" to peaceful bureaucrats and then order a gang of actual thugs to go attack them? Well, no. Once again, grammatical parallelism locks in a presupposition of moral equivalence without the bother of a substantive argument.

One person, in trying to draw a moral equivalence between Jackson's protests and the Republican riots accused Jackson of issuing a "call to arms" in Florida, the trick being to use a metaphor in a way that deniably insinuates that it was literally true. But even if Jesse Jackson did once, one time, somewhere, notwithstanding his life-long commitment to the principles of nonviolence of Martin Luther King, incite people to violence, note how weak the double-standard argument is.

This is the party of morality we are talking about -- the party of right and wrong, of personal responsibility. And one of the basics of Right and Wrong 1A is that that "they do it too" is not an excuse! The double-standard argument is at best a diversion, a way to change the topic, to make Them into the issue instead of oneself. It is a way to dissociate in one's own mind the fact that one is condoning and defending violence, and thereby to crush one more layer of one's own conscience.

(3) Bogus claims of stereotyping. I said, and now repeat, that the Republican party employed fascist tactics to shut down a vote-counting process that the feared they would lose. Rather than try to refute this proposition, some have chosen to defocus it, and pretend that I have stereotyped all conservatives, or all Republicans, or all Bush supporters, as fascists.

That's a convenient approach for a number of reasons. Our society disapproves of stereotypes, and of course liberals have been in the forefront of that disapproval. Accusing a putative liberal of stereotyping thus serves the double purpose of delegitimizing the putative liberal's argument and removing the moral force from the accusations of stereotyping that liberals have lodged.

It is not true, of course, that everyone who voted for George W. Bush is a fascist. Many good people who voted for Bush because they believed that Al Gore had told a large number of lies about his record; those people had been subjected to a disinformation campaign, so one could hardly blame them. Those same people, however, must now face the fact that the party for which they voted organized a riot whose express purpose was to shut down the counting of votes. The moral culpability for Bush voters who remain silent about this fact is growing day by day, and the more they remain silent the more we are entitled to conclude that they have no problem with fascist tactics. We'll give them perhaps a week more.

(4) Quite a few people have asserted that the violence in Miami simply did not happen. Some people made this claim in response to a message in which I provided a URL for a video clip of a running mob knocking down a cameraman and screaming at Miami election officials. I don't what more I can say to such people. And a reader directed me to the discussion of the Miami events at the Free Republic Web site (whose URL is http://www.freerepublic.com/).

Those folks simply took for granted that the violence did not occur, and they set about planning to blast-fax the media with demands that it stop reporting its lies. They also managed to blame the violence, without quite admitting that it happened, on planned provocations by the liberal media and so on. In general my mailbox is filled with complicated language that places responsibility for the violence on the people who were attacked, for example asserting that they had "incited" the attacks by twisting the ballots they were counting. (I am not making this up.)

(5) Associative reasoning. Regular readers will be aware that one of the central tactics of public relations is a primitive, sub-rational form of logic based on associations between concepts. Every argument is shorn of its logical connectives and reduced to a matter of building or breaking associations. Thus, for example, some people ask me rhetorically whether *every* participant in the Miami protests was engaged in violence.

In a rational world this question is irrelevant to the point of being bizarre. But in the world of public relations it makes perfect sense: the complaint about Republican terror tactics in Miami is reduced to an attempt to associate Republican protesters with violence, and the formulaic response is to insert a wedge between those two concepts. Because associative reasoning is sub-rational it does not matter how large the wedge is: this kind of logic has no sense of proportion, and so one single protester who did not manage to land a punch is enough to snap the association and win the argument. Arguments like this are confusing to people who do not understand their underlying logic, and their very senselessness often suffices to paralyze the audience: because they do not contain any rational argument, reason can get no foothold in trying to prepare a response.

(6) Mind games. For all its positive value, the Internet can also be a vast emotional cesspool, as every aggressive nut in the world goes around recruiting other people into his distorted personal dramas. It takes two to play these games, and some responsibility must be allocated to the people who take the bait. One of the games, which I first identified some years ago, might be called Liberal Professor Closes His Mind To New Ideas. It has two major roles, Professor (P) and Questioner (Q), and goes like this:

P: posts material to a large Internet mailing list that has any sort of political content

Q: sends P a response that presents itself as an innocent comment full of high-minded language but in fact is utterly snide and laced with abusive innuendo

P: takes offense and mails back a reply that reacts to the bait in any way

Q: declares victory by adopting a tone of wounded innocence and professing shock and/or rueful disappointment and/or abusive indignation that a Liberal Professor Closes His Mind To New Ideas

The cycle may repeat, with P taking more of the bait and Q escalating the rhetoric of wounded innocence, grave injustice, unconscionable rudeness, abuse of authority, and so on. It takes very little for Q to portray himself (in my experience it is always a man) as the victim of rude closed-mindedness.

The twisted logic is of course part of the game -- an invitation to play another round, double or nothing. This stuff gets old after a while, and after many years of responding to nearly every message I got, I've now had to start deleting large amounts of mail. I find that my policy of responding to everyone has eroded my boundaries -- my inner intuitive sense of which people are approaching me in a constructive way and which are trying to bait me. So I'm going to have to let some mail drop on the floor. My apologies if I mistakenly drop yours.

Those, then, are the major rhetorical devices of the people who have written to abuse me in response to RRE's coverage of the US election controversy. Of course, lots of other people have written me in a constructive spirit as well, and my main point here (as I always say, or at least mean, when I write about abusive e-mail) is not to complain but to dissect.

Lots of people -- and I mean lots -- have to put up with the sorts of twisted rhetoric I describe. And lots of those people have sat out the current election, either because they became demoralized through the constant rhetorical pelting they've had to endure, or because they simply could not figure out what was wrong with the tidal wave of twisted language that now clogs the media. Those people have allowed disinformation and doubletalk to go unrebutted, and many of them are dismayed to see the collapse into far-right dissociation that is unfolding before us in Florida now.

It will be a long time until normal Americans will be able to rebuild a movement for democracy that can stand up to the insanity, such is the destruction that has been inflicted on the English language in the last ten years. But there's no time like the present, while our attention is focused on an evil that is so open and above-board.

2

Several people have asked me where they can read more about the role of projection in politics. It would seem that we are stuck with it. The answer is, I don't know of any political works that discuss the role of projection, which I find surprising given what I perceive as overwhelming dominance of projection in contemporary political discourse. The best book about projection that I know, at least the best for a general audience, is Robert Bly's "A Little Book on the Human Shadow" (Harper and Row, 1988).

Bly uses the Jungian word "shadow" instead of "projection", but that doesn't mean you have to buy the totality of Jung's theories. The idea is that people who disown parts of themselves thereby acquire a "shadow": the disowned parts are still real and active, but they operate secretively, under the cover of a darkness that one creates by dimming one's own consciousness. Some people disown the weak parts of themselves, or the emotional parts, or even (as in George W. Bush's case) the intelligent parts.

Faced with the problem of getting rid of these parts of themselves, people often project those disowned, negatively valued parts into other people. Someone who has homosexual feelings, for example, might choose to disown them, project them, and thereby develop a hatred for homosexuals. This is perhaps one reason why conservative operatives are so often discovered to have hidden lives.

What most concerns me in political terms is projective aggression -- in other words, a shadow that consists of angry, aggressive impulses, presumably underlain by some kind of terror. People who exhibit projective aggression are aggressive, but they experience their aggression as being located in someone else, most commonly in the person they are practicing their aggression upon.

This kind of shadow is particularly dangerous because it feeds on itself: the aggressor experiences himself as being under attack, and this only feeds the aggression, so that more and more of his personality becomes shadow and less and less of the human being remains in the light. The mark of projective aggression is a sustained and cultivated pattern -- not a random instance or two, not an occasional bad day, but something deeply integrated into the personality -- of accusing others of doing precisely what one is doing oneself. For example, having heard a careful and detailed refutation of his views, the aggressor might snap, "you shouldn't dismiss my ideas so quickly!". Observe how this works: it is a false accusation -- his views were not dismissed -- that is also an example of itself -- he is dismissing the refutation he has just heard. I have given many other, more serious examples.

3

Some people have been comparing the organized campaign of violence and intimidation in Florida to the situation in Germany in 1933. I don't think the comparison is fair. The level of violence is much lower, the propaganda is dramatically more sophisticated, the extreme economic conditions aren't there, and the pathological child-rearing practices that produced the Holocaust with so many willing executioners are not matched even by the worst of the brutality that is advocated by Focus on the Family.

Nonetheless, I have been fascinated by the emotional climate of the present campaign. It's not just the organized violence, which is simply the culmination of a vastly more extensive trend over years: the powerfully driven cultivation of projective aggression in all things. It is crucial that no projection can happen except by dissociating a part of one's own self.

"Liberals", in the currently fashionable jargon, are really a disowned part of the jargonmeister's own personality, denigrated and displaced into someone else, who then becomes an object of dehumanizing scorn. People who use the jargon to rant about liberals, in other words, are actually scorning a large part of their own personalities. Although the think tanks who provide the cultural ammunition for projective aggression operate for private gain, as a psychological and spiritual matter it is essentially a private drama that just happens to be played out on a public stage with real victims.

When large parts of the self are dissociated in this way, a certain emotional atmosphere takes over. We are seeing this atmosphere now. It is sometimes called "anger", and no doubt the biological correlates of anger are all present. But it's not just anger. It goes much deeper than that. It has an empty, rote quality; it is primitive and diffuse. It is thoroughly nonsensical. Its rhetoric increasingly conforms to a small repertoire of almost automatic patterns, such as the ones that I have described above.

The purpose of every single one those patterns is dissociation: every crumb of rationality or conscience that might short-circuit the aggression is systematically caught and thrown back at Them -- projected, in other words, into the demonized object of the aggression. "It is really them who ...", and "I can't stand listening to their sanctimonious ...". It then becomes possible, for example, to steal an election by the most extreme and overt measures while kidding oneself that one is actually preventing *them* from stealing the election.

I am sure that this week's events are not unique in history. To the contrary, I assume that the emotional atmosphere that surrounds the assault on democracy in Florida could be found in most of history's assaults on democracy. We can't know what it felt like to be part of history's other great reactions. But if we can somehow bottle the emotional tone of the assaults on reason and the rule of law in Florida this week -- all of them launched, as is the nature of these things, under the guise of protecting reason and the rule of law -- then perhaps we will be able to understand what exactly it is that went so wrong in other calamities from the past, including ones that were much worse.

4

One of the well-known downsides of the Electoral College is the potential for the situation that we have right now: a candidate who loses the popular vote but wins the electoral college vote. This situation is more likely to happen in the future, given the increasing precision of the poll-driven, marketing-oriented campaigning methods that are being cultivated by both major parties, and so we need to understand the problem as well as possible.

A prevailing myth about the Electoral College is that it produces these pathological outcomes because of the winner-take-all rule: winning a state by 89% of the vote is the same in electoral terms as winning it by 51%, and so a candidate who has a strong base of support in one region or another can win the popular vote but lose to a candidate who has thin margins in other states. And certainly this does happen to a degree: George W. Bush won the southern and mountain states by larger margins than Gore won much of the industrial midwest.

Yet the winner-take-all system has an important advantage. If we had a direct national popular-vote system right now then the uproar in Florida would be extended to the whole country. In particular, those states which are completely dominated by a single party would have a great incentive to stuff the ballot box in favor of their candidate. In my opinion this is reason enough to keep the winner-take-all rule.

But there is another factor as well: the Electoral College gives each state a vote equal to the number of its Senators plus the number of its Representatives. This is a bias toward the rural states, which tend to be more conservative. Was it a deciding bias in the present case?

It's easy enough to tell. I went back to the Electoral College results thus far and re-added both Bush's and Gore's totals counting only the Representatives, not the Senators -- in other words, reducing each state's electoral vote by two. The total electoral vote is thus 436 instead of 536 (in other words, the membership of the House plus one for the District of Columbia), and 219 votes are needed to win. Does Al Gore have more than 219 votes without Florida? Easily: under the House-only Electoral College system, Gore has 225 votes to Bush's 188 votes.

That does not itself mean, of course, that anyone should claim a victory for Gore, except for the partial moral victory that he has rightly earned. The rule of law requires that, barring extreme illegitimacy, we should stick with the rules until they can be changed. But it does mean that the supposed anomaly was not random at all, but is the consequence of a political bias that for historical reasons became lodged in our laws.

5

The Florida story has threatened to consume my life since Election Day, and I want to redeem all the time I've unfortunately spent on it by trying to draw some conclusions from the experience. When I lived on the east coast, or in Europe, I could go to bed on Election Day, safe in the knowledge that nothing important would be decided until I got up.

It doesn't work that way on the west coast, unfortunately, and when I started listening to the election returns on Tuesday afternoon it was like I had grabbed ahold of a live electric wire and couldn't let go. I had the radio on NPR and three or four browser windows open the whole time, and I noticed afterward how natural it felt to be able to watch county-level election returns coming in on the cnn.com Web site. County-level, mind you, not just state level, and by Wednesday evening I was already cussing the news organizations for not having precinct-level returns on their sites as well.

As the race deadlocked in the small hours of the morning, my mind slowly clotted until I gave up, thought of some more numbers to check, gave up again, looked at some more numbers, went to bed after they called Florida for Bush, got a feeling that something was wrong, discovered that Florida had been uncalled, and finally gave up when NPR said that we would officially have no winner that night.

When I got up in the morning, I had another message I wanted to send out to RRE anyway, and I wanted to see what happened if I commented on the Florida train wreck that was dimly taking form. In retrospect I was not thinking clearly. Long-time subscribers to this list are aware that I want people to send me useful resources that relate to the topics this list covers, and I often receive a fresh blast of such useful resources whenever I mention that I find a certain topic interesting. Having declared an interest in the unfolding election- results story, the blast began, and it did not quit for days.

One intuition I have in running this list is that the world is only loosely knitted together in social-network terms, and that something important can be happening in one social world without the other social worlds knowing about it. RRE's readers include a reasonably diverse mix of people -- people who inhabit a reasonably diverse mix of social worlds. And so I, like management consultants and newspaper publishers and many other sorts of professional bridge-builders -- can provide a useful service as a kind of informational arbitrageur, gathering information from various social worlds and then broadcasting it all to people in various other social worlds.

In that sense RRE exists to reduce the world's fragmentation, or put another way to help (in its own small way) to create a widespread sense of the whole. This function is especially important when something is new, whether the medium-term newness of the many facets of the Internet or the hour-by-hour newness of the story emerging in Miami, and I soon realized that the story in Miami had an awful lot of parts that nobody had yet put together into a single coherent picture. And so even though half the world's news-gathering operations had already sent highly motivated professionals to the center of the action, I was still curious to see what I could contribute.

And not just curious. The live electric wire still had control of me, and I think that on some level I really believed that nobody would know about these events unless I publicized them. After all, once I sent out my first batch of notes and URL's on the emerging controversy, and once my 5000 subscribers had forwarded that message to their heaven-knows-how-many thousand friends, suddenly I had that many thousand people all primed to send me whatever interesting stuff they had come across. How many newspapers have that?

So the stuff came pouring on in. Wednesday was okay; even though I had work to do, I figured that I could give up one day for democracy. I've certainly worked enough evenings and weekends to have a day in the bank. People sent me stuff, I packaged it up, and I sent it out. I engaged in rapid-fire correspondences with I-have-no-idea-how-many people, often taking the form of "do you have URL's to substantiate that, or is it just a rumor?", and then eventually taking the form of "hurry up, I need this, I need that". This was nonstop, literally, all through the day.

Thursday was worse. The stuff kept pouring in. If everyone sent me neatly packaged URL's, all prescreened, then that would be okay. But in reality I was getting every possible description of stuff. I was overwhelmed. What to do? I could drop all the stuff on the floor, but it seemed like I was doing something important that nobody else was going to do if I didn't.

And the hate mail had started. It's unfair to call some of it "hate mail", since it was really a dramatically mixed bag. Some of these people, motivated by a special combination of political strategy and personality problems, were trying to provoke me with snide innuendoes, false accusations, and all-around craziness. Couldn't I ignore them?

The problem is that there is no clear dividing line. Lots of people are angry but rational. Others pretend to be rational but then become irrational in an insidious way. Some of the crazy people are actually useful and benign. There's every possible combination. For seven years I've had a policy of responding to pretty much everyone who writes me, but the sheer diversity of high-powered mind games was too much for me to deal with rationally. I've had to abandon that now. And that probably means that I am deleting, in some case unread, some messages that are in fact rational and helpful. I don't see a way around it.

In any event, the hate mail was only one relatively small side of the story. The major story was happening in Florida and elsewhere, and the people who were getting my packages of URL's and comments were continuing to send me a steady stream of material. It was oppressive, to be honest, and I struggled with it. It was only after a couple of days that I settled into a pattern.

By now I have sent out something like fifteen packages of URL's containing well over 500 URL's in all, and I expect to reach 800 by the time the whole thing is over and we return to our regularly scheduled programming. But the format of these lists of URL's -- basically, the same format of title-plus-URL that I use in my "notes and recommendations" and "pointers" messages -- actually emerged over time. I had not originally thought in terms of a policy; I never made a decision that said, "I am going to cover this story every day until it goes away". Things were happening too fast for that, and I was just struggling to keep up. The neat packages of URL's were actually something of a desperation measure at first, and it was only after a few days, perhaps on Friday, that I decided to let the messages settle into that pattern.

Meanwhile I was trying to get work done. The live electric wire was one problem: no sooner would I start fashioning a new paragraph of scholarly prose then I would come up with another bright idea for my election coverage, or else another hypothesis to check out on one of the many formerly obscure (to me) Web sites where election-relevant information could be found.

Breaking events were another problem: whenever something happened, people would send me stuff, and I would check my mail as I habitually do and read it. Even though I had all sorts of friendly, helpful people sending me important and useful information, and even though I was gaining glory by sharing all of this information with my 5000 subscribers and their unknown thousands of friends, I was feeling ever more oppressed to the point of a mild despair. I hate feeling despair, though, and so I decided that I had to take action.

The solution that I hit upon was counterintuitive: I didn't want to just drop the whole thing, and so I had to take control over it, and I did that by asking people to do research for me. Every person who sent me any sort of constructive or supportive e-mail got a simple thank-you response, together with a scripted request that they go out and find URL's or other distributable resources relating to one or another of the bewildering variety of issues that were burning at that particular moment.

Then Rich Cowan, who I knew slightly many years ago at MIT, started putting together his "13 Myths" article, and so I started dragooning my subscribers into working for Rich. I was struck by how hard it was to pin down the facts, and so I refused Rich's offer -- a request, really -- that I list myself as coauthor of his piece. I was being a conduit, a switchboard, and I didn't have time to stand back and judge whether I fundamentally agreed with his piece, much less whether I was confident that he had 100% of his facts completely straight. Having taken control of the situation in that way, by aggressively delegating and putting myself in charge to some degree rather than just passively being bombarded with both the good and the bad of my e-mail in-box, I managed to beat back the sense of oppressive semi-despair and actually get some work done.

6

It was then that I began to notice the role that the Internet was playing in the dynamics of the political events in Florida. Here was a story that the whole country was truly focused on, to a degree if anything that was even greater than during the impeachment debacle. Literally everyone was talking about it, and I imagined millions of people on the Internet all pulling down complex Web pages from the news organizations and major political sites.

Some of those sites did buckle under the pressure, particularly the New York Times, but because all of the major sites were using Akamai to distribute their servers, most of the sites survived perfectly well and even maintained reasonably good response times even when breaking events were clearly causing massive coordinated downloads. The Internet of two years ago would have collapsed under the impact of this story.

I was also struck at how current the information on the various sites was, and how rapidly it became available. At one point someone said, "that lawsuit was announced on CNN five minutes ago; why aren't the briefs up on the court Web site yet?", and meant it seriously enough that the impulse to spin conspiracy theories began to stir. We have rapidly become accustomed to the idea that even quite cumbersome documents from high-visibility legal and political events will be readily found on the Web, and I received dozens of analyses, both amateur and professional, of the statistical and legal aspects of the controversy.

Many people had clearly downloaded and read the Florida election laws, for example, and I have to say that the state of Florida deserves congratulations for an infrastructure that was already in place and operating smoothly before this controversy broke. (I spoke at a conference of the e-Florida initiative in January 1999, just as Jeb Bush had been inaugurated. They never paid me, though, and some day I will get around to suing them.) The Florida Supreme Court had a video feed for its most momentous hearing, and even some of the county courts had the major documents available online.

We are also evidently quite accustomed to newspapers being online, and not just the major national papers but the regional papers as well. I soon learned that the regional papers had a great deal of detail that the national papers did not, particularly in the first few days, and that they were breaking quite a few important stories. In fact the regional papers remain crucial resources for dedicated students of the controversy to this day, and I took particular care to cultivate readers who would scan those papers for me every day.

I also have to say that the reporting at the best three or four of the regional newspapers was an incredible relief after a year-plus of the absolute garbage that the New York Times and Washington Post had been publishing instead of reporting in a serious way on the campaigns. The national press has been infected by a combination of echo-chamber celebrity spin and the corrosive trivialization that is epitomized by the loathesome Maureen Dowd. The reporters at the regional papers were refreshing for the simple reason that they did their jobs, and they made me realize how much I had missed ordinary old-fashioned journalism. Pulitzer Prizes for the staff at the Palm Beach Post!

That said, not everything in the civilian sectors of the Internet was sweetness and light. A lot of the amateur legal analyses were pretty bad, actually, and even some of the most celebrated college-professor statistical analyses were complete bunk -- for example, applying various statistical operations that require normal distributions to data that hadn't remotely been normalized. (Alas this was the one that had gotten the widest distribution, and I swear that I received its URL from fifty different people. Fortunately the serious analyses that followed did not change the outcome.)

You had your Free Republic types sharing their usual toxic swill of speculative semi-truth, and you had your lazy thinkers complacently lecturing us all about how it was ever thus and everyone does it. You had your people, way too many of them, who don't know how to spell the word "liar". You had your jokes about the people in Palm Beach County who were supposedly such idiots, including a large number of "jokes" that falsified the issues but did so under the cover of being "just a joke". You had your disinformation, but then the disinformation was originating with the spin machine and being reprinted in the national press, so it wasn't the Internet's fault, except that the Internet was accelerating the process by which the disinformation was becoming ineradicably embedded in the culture.

Everything happened so fast. This wasn't just the Internet's doing, and in fact I'm sure that it was CNN's doing a hundred times more than it was the Internet's. (Internet people tend to wildly overestimate how important they are compared to CNN.)

I was particularly struck by how fast the famous butterfly ballot in Florida become a cultural icon. A friend who wrote one of the early scholarly analyses of that ballot, lamented that he had been out of the office and had heard about the controversy late enough in the day that, his company's PR people informed him, he had missed the day's news cycle -- the day being Wednesday, one day after the election. People kept sending me different analyses of the ballot and of the vote for Pat Buchanan in Palm Beach County, but already by Friday these were very old news and I had started throwing them out.

This speed is mostly a bad thing, in my opinion, given that the first contributions are not necessarily the most thoughtful, yet in fact I was surprised and relieved just how useful most of the early well- publicized materials actually were. The business of the confusing Palm Beach ballot is still mystifying, although that's largely because few of the thousands of people who provided affidavits in the matter wanted to make a big stink about it -- they mostly just wanted their votes to count -- and so few of those affidavits have yet seen the light of day.

More recent evidence suggests that Palm Beach suffered from a range of problems, the real sleeper among which was the failure to empty the chad out of the Vote-O-Matic machines, as a result of the overwhelming crowds at the polling station (and many other polling stations) who had been turned out by the Democrats' massive get-out- the-vote campaigns. When you don't empty the chads from the voting machine you get dimpled ballots -- the chads have nowhere to go -- and this explains why the dimpled ballots occured most commonly in heavily Democratic districts.

This story doesn't conflict with the confusing- ballot story, and in fact in retrospect most of the elements of the overall story were present in the first few days, but it has only been this weekend that the picture has started to come together. In general, despite my distrust of the echo chamber effects of the 24/7 celebrity news machine, I am impressed that so few real myths became entrenched in instantaneous news cycles -- as opposed to the partisan spin in the opinion columns -- of the first week of the election controversy.

7

So what difference did it make that I've spent a few hours a day over the last couple of weeks gathering up roughly 30 Web resources a day and sending them out? What difference did it make that I wrote my various short essays on the controversy that people could send around? I haven't the slightest idea, and maybe my next project should be to find out.

An Internet mailing list, except for the very largest, has a much smaller circulation than a real newspaper. But it also has a much higher rate of pass-along; I would suspect that the average "copy" of an RRE message -- that is, the 5000 copies that get sent directly to subscribers, not counting the people who read RRE in the Web archives -- has many more readers than the average copy of any first-world newspaper. If Eudora did not mutilate forwarded messages by default -- I really have a grudge about that -- then the pass-along rate would surely be much higher.

But it's not just about the numbers of people who receive a message, but about what they do with it. Some of my collections of URL's, especially the early ones, did reach people who were on the front lines of the controversy, or so I am told by people who claimed to know them. But a package of URL's can be useful in many other ways, and I cannot imagine what all those ways are, or which ones make the most difference in the long run.

One citizen who is somewhat better informed is already a plus as far as a democracy is concerned; a college professor who has better materials to circulate to the students in a class is a double-plus; a reporter or columnist who gets a bigger picture and might otherwise have written nonsense based on the spinning of the operatives is a quadruple-plus and then some. But maybe that's just the standard-average civics-class theory of democracy, as opposed to the real reality of the Internet's place in the workings of a cognitively complicated, wildly diverse, admirably energetic, moderately well-educated, thoroughly mass-mediated society. We really don't know, and we aren't even asking the questions well.

Still, in my view the fundamental issue in our society is not about technology but political culture. Do people roll over dead when they confront organized campaigns of disinformation and doubletalk? Do they feel the confusion and despair that they are intended to feel? Do they mobilize themselves to refute the nonsense, or do they just ignore it and hope it will go away?

Al Gore clearly decided to ignore most of the lies that were being told about him. I'm sure that he wanted to rise above it all and win the campaign by sheer force of intellect and effort. Although I disagree with Gore about many things, I do identify with him as a person; if I ran for president then my campaign would be lousy too, and for many of the same reasons. But then for all I know he was really compulsively recapitulating his father's famous 1970 loss to the Republican smear campaign of Bill Brock; this year's campaign resembles that one in some ways, though not all.

Whatever else we learn from this year's election, I think we can conclude that ignoring the insanity of the operatives and echo chamber is not going to work, and that our sanity as individuals and a society has already corroded to a much greater degree than we have realized.

The Internet is a tool; it does not create much that is new but amplifies the forces that are already going on in the society. If we lie down and allow our sanity to be crushed, then the Internet will amplify that force and we will all go mad. The alternative is to rise up and confront the insanity, holding it steady through careful and responsible quotation long enough for it to lose its emotionally assaultive force and start revealing itself as the highly engineered nonsense that it is.

The temptation will always be to sink to their level, to ingest the insanity because of the false promises of power that it holds out. That is precisely what the insanity wants, and that is precisely the way in which the crazy people got crazy in the first place. The road to sanity is not through insanity, much less through violence.

The cause of sanity may call on us to be forceful in a moral sense, saying NO when we are assaulted with the corruption of our language. But fundamentally it calls on us to heal ourselves, to rid the disinformation and doubletalk from our minds, to spread rational analysis and plain language to the people who need it, to reconnect with the source of all sanity that lies beyond us, to rebuild the conditions of democracy, and to let go of the need to fix it all by ourselves, or else to give up.

-- by Phil Agre (really@smart.guy), November 26, 2000

Answers

What? Are you writing a book? I tried to read this and went to sleep.

-- yuk (Boring@geta.life), November 26, 2000.

This article DID ask a number of questions that I've asked myself, one of which is why no one seems to question any of these editorials plastered all over the internet. Someone named Margaret Shemo took it upon herself to question one of Peggy Noonan's pieces, and I must give the woman credit for actually reading what Peggy wrote and noticing Peggy's discrepancies.

Margaret Shemo on a Peggy Noonan article

-- Anita (Anita_S3@hotmail.com), November 26, 2000.


Anita, It's a deluge of garbage from the far right. It won't stop, but they can't shut down the recounting and the voting. They can't shut down democracy. We have a right to know what the voters said. Trying to hide this information is on a par with communism. This is what dictators do -- they try to "shut down" the democratic process and keep information away from the people. THe more this goes on, the more I'm convinced that the Republicans are going to come out of this smelling very badly, and will lose votes in 2002. Only the very stupid are still buying into their lies.

-- Old Softy (old@softy.com), November 26, 2000.

From: Politics, la Carte by Dancr (pic), near Monterey, California

Red Rock Eater rox, as usual. As for Peggy Noonan's comments... the rant accusing ballot processing teams of focusing disqualification efforts only upon those who have voted Republican seems quite unlikely, considering that all disqualification happens before ballots are opened. The dream editor didn't catch that one.

-- Dancr (addy.available@my.webpage), November 26, 2000.


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