Monday, February 9, 2009

Internet civility, an oxymoron?

John Hawkins does have a point:
That sort of compartmentalization is one of the reasons politics has become so ferociously partisan. On the Internet, people have broken up into small, like-minded groups where they have minimal contact with people who disagree with them. As a result, there is little pressure to show respect for the opinions of people who see the world differently -- since those people are, for the most part, not present. It means that facts that run contrary to their ideology will tend to be viewed with suspicion at best and will be totally ignored at worst, thereby creating groupthink on a titanic scale.
Yes, but also no. The Internet is a medium and, as Marshall McLuhan taught us, the medium is the message. Television has been a far more powerful contributor to the decline of civility and the loss of the sense of civic duty. The rise of the 100-plus-channel cable environment has made it easier to "drop out" of mainstream society, to spend all your leisure hours watching sports or whatever specialty programming suits your taste. And considering what is now "mainstream" -- the worthless dreck of network programming -- this is an understandable instinct.

TV destroys civility because TV watching absorbs time that educated people once filled with reading. Furthermore, by its very nature as a primarily visual medium, TV celebrates the superficial. This is as true of TV news as of any episode of "Oprah" or "American Idol." Give credit to Fox News impressario Roger Ailes for the brilliant insight of finding glamorous anchorettes like Laurie Dhue. If we're going to tune in for an hour of war, murder, celebrity gossip and political intrigue, why not let a hottie be our hostess?

One of McLuhan's students, Neil Postman, wrote a great book about the culture-killing phenomenon of TV, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, and it's a book I wish everyone would read. Postman was a man of the Left, politically, but he cared deeply about how the image-based medium of television, when consumed in large quantities, rendered people incapable of engaging effectively with the text-based medium of writing. Another great book addressing the same basic issue is The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, by Sven Birkerts.

All this is far afield from the question of how the Internet -- and especially the blogosphere -- contributes to the loss of civility. But the blogosphere is still, for the most part, a text-based environment. Literacy and civility generally coexist, and I think the savagery that sometimes erupts among bloggers is due in large part to the influence of TV on the discourse.

When does TV ever explain, in a dispassionate way, the fundamental facts of economics? If you understand how markets work, and if you understand the inherent limitations of the alternatives to a market-based economy, then the entire class-envy rationale of the Democratic Party's economic agenda becomes absurd.

I refuse to apologize for "incivility" toward dangerous ignorance, which is why I was so curt in dismissing Rod Dreher's Crunchy Cons. How does a man, describing himself as a "conservative," reach a mature age without apparently ever having read Mises or Hayek? The Road to Serfdom is less than 300 pages, and I don't think it took me more than a weekend to finish the first time through. Socialism is a bit over 500 pages, and might take longer.

Yet in 10 days, I believe, you could read through both books, and any intelligent, decent person would finish that experience wholly persuaded of the case these great Austrian economists make: Socialism doesn't work, it is ultimately destructive of both liberty and prosperity, and even a liberal democratic government attempting to implement socialist ideas will tend toward increasingly undemocratic and illiberal governance.

If I am contemptuous of the intellectual laziness of "conservatives" who can't be bothered to read economics -- hello, Governor Huckabee! -- why should I be less contemptuous of liberals who are equally ignorant if not more so? And what about Paul Krugman, who can't even plead ignorance, but whose advocacy of welfare state socialism must be attributed to evil?

We are right, and they are wrong. We do not merely "disagree with them." We advocate liberty, and they are enemies of liberty. The socialists aim to destroy all opposition, to deprive us of our liberty, and to immerse our nation in hopeless poverty. Some support socialism due to their ignorance, while others are simply evil. We can hope to educate the ignorant, but what shall we do with the evil?

Am I engaged in "groupthink on a titanic scale"? Were Mises and Hayek likewise engaged? When it comes to the basic truths of economics, "the opinions of people who see the world differently" -- i.e., people whose opinions are rooted in ignorance, falsehood and error -- ought not be respected, and indeed ought to be disrespected loudly and often. If we would resolve to be less tolerant of these economic ignoramuses, perhaps we might shame them into actually learning something.

The evil, of course, are another matter.

UPDATE: Fear & Loathing in Georgetown comments:
The conservatives he refers to are Dreher's Crunchy Cons and, as mentioned in the quotation above, the evangelical types. I agree wholeheartedly that they should read their economics, but that might miss something more fundamental. The Crunchy Cons and the evangelicals to an even larger extent pursue politics for their own therapeutic purposes. They want the government to ban, discourage, encourage, promote behaviors because that's what makes them feel better about themselves. The economics aren't particularly relevant to accomplishing that.
I am myself an evangelical, but like James Madison (who was educated at Princetown under the Presbyterian tutelage of Witherspoon) my views on faith are heavily Calvinistic. That translates, politically, into a distrust of power and a skeptical view toward "progress." Men are not more virtuous today than they were 50 years ago, nor will men 50 years from now be any better. Original sin is a constant, and which is more likely over the next 50 years, enlightenment or decadence?

"Progress"? We've made progress down the road to hell. We appear to be gaining momentum as we go, and the young do not even notice the acceleration.

However, the failure to learn economics is not exclusively a problem of "crunchies" or evangelicals. Crazy Cousin John confessed his own economic ignorance, and many who rallied to the colors after 9/11 -- the patriotic hawkish types -- share that ignorance.

I consider economics of the Austrian school completely compatible with Christian faith. What did the Good Samaritan do to deserve Christ's praise? He gave personal and direct assistance to the waylaid traveler, from his own resources. He did not circulate a petition or stage a protest march or enact legislation on behalf of waylaid travelers in general; the Good Samaritan's mercy was self-sufficient and independent.

Much of this noise you hear about "social justice" from evangelicals nowadays is nothing more than Pharisaical do-gooderism. If you want to help the poor, help the poor; nothing prevents you from doing so. But if you're waiting for me to praise you for collecting a six-figure salary as head of a 501(c) operation -- as if being the president of a non-profit makes you Mother Teresa -- you will be waiting a very long time.

UPDATE II: Linked at The Week. Thanks, you %@#&ing @$$holes.


  1. Right on, RSM!

    This lady had no illusions about playing nice with socialists:

    She told them to their faces that she had contempt for them.

  2. You can even find the entire text of 'Animal Farm' here:

    and read it online without worry of overdue library fines or the hassle of going to the book store to find it.
    (one of the first books I read about collectivism)

  3. Laurie Dhue but no mention of Megyn Kelly or Julie Banderas?

  4. my views on faith are heavily Calvinistic.

    OK, didn't see that coming.
    Never made it past 2.5 of the 5-point Calvinism scale.
    Given the whole of scripture, one can cherry-pick to support just about any viewpoint.
    I may have to burn one with you at Shelly's Backroom sometime to discuss this further.

  5. One can be both polite and civil when flaying an opponent's arguments. Too many try to attack the person rather than focus on the ideas. Personal attacks are boring, plentiful, largely unoriginal, and fade from the mind as they are read.

    Ideas outlive us all. It's why Marx must be fought every generation, and why no one remembers a pointless, personal flame in a thread somewhere.

    I think our host here does a very good job at focusing on the facts, the ideas they represent and/or frame, and hammering their faults.

    If Stacy drops a personally-directed flame here or there, it is at least a consistently-applied bit of style.
    Everyone has a limit. It's good to have a consistent style for each threshold. If you read here regularly, you know what those thresholds are.