November 15th, 2007

I recently had a disturbing experience that has finally convinced me of something terribly important. I like to visit political blogs and engage people in discussions. I don’t like to talk with people who agree with me, because I can’t learn anything from such a group. You only learn from the people who disagree with you – when they nail you. And so I wander the web, sampling different blogs, looking for some rich discussion.

I’m not looking for a fight. I’m not a troll. I hate getting into arguments with people. In fact, I always walk away when the temperature of the discussion starts rising. I am rigorously fair and civil in my comments. { 2015 addendum: see below} I don’t make assumptions about the people I’m talking with; I respond only to what they actually wrote; and I never, ever say anything denigratory (I must confess to a few transgressions, but I’ll explain those later.)

Since I am more anti-conservative than anti-liberal, I tend to spend more time at the conservative blogs. However, I have spent plenty of time on some liberal blogs as well.

I can summarize what I have learned in a simple slogan:

Conservatives mean, liberals obscene.

I’ll start by explaining the latter part. The liberal blogs are actually very impressive. They tend to focus on the facts, gather their evidence, and they’re pretty civil with those who disagree. The only real complaint I have about them is that they love to sprinkle obscenity into their writing. I’m no prude and I take no personal offense to the use of obscenity. My complaint is twofold. First, it’s offputting to some people, and it strikes me as really stupid to engage in behavior that unnecessarily antagonizes people. Second, it makes for lousy writing. It’s like, you know, one of those, you know, behavioral tics that, like, people use so often that, you know, it just really, like, gets under your skin. You know? Obscenity is a powerful tool in the hands of somebody who knows how to use it well. It’s like hot pepper in food. You don’t sprinkle it on everything, you restrict it to just one dish where you really want to have an impact. A single well-placed obscenity can add tremendous power to your writing. A hundred scattered obscenities do nothing more than communicate juvenility.

But now let’s move on to the conservatives, because they’re much worse than the liberals. Well, actually, they’re not so bad – from a very special point of view. You see, conservatives don’t blog to discuss the issues or consider the problems of the world. Their real purpose is to band together and enjoy their tribal unity. A conservative blog is more like a pep rally than polite conversation over dinner. The point and purpose is to achieve mass agreement, to reinforce the tribal bonds, to celebrate their power.

This is best demonstrated by their behavior towards infidels. If you’re not one of US, then you’re one of THEM – the enemy! If you don’t agree with the tribe on all the key points, you are a stain on the blog, a disease, a taint that must be excised from the community. Many conservative blogs have ferocious banning rules – they will ban people for so much as whispering a liberal comment. No kidding! They’re really hard-nosed about this. You spout the party line or you’re kicked out.

The more open-minded conservative blogs don’t rely on banning policies – they rely on the membership to take care of that task. In these blogs, if you are stupid enough to mention that you think that Jimmy Carter is a generous soul, well, you’ll have a dozen people posting ugly messages denigrating your patriotism, your intelligence, your ancestry, your manhood, and your virtue. I have been advised by these people that I don’t know the first thing about global warming, foreign affairs, Islam, science in general, logic, history, religion, politics, Republicans, Democrats – you name it, if it was under discussion, somebody had to say that I didn’t know the first thing about it.

But what’s really characteristic about these blogs is the viciousness. These people revel in nastiness. They are snide, sarcastic, rude, insulting – if there’s a way to use words to hurt people, they do it. I often feel like a stiff Englishman trying to maintain his aplomb as he attempts to discuss philosophy with a bunch of chimpanzees flinging feces at him. My primary rule is, never write about the person, write about the idea. Act as if there’s no human being at the other end, that you’re just arguing mathematical hypotheses with a computer. But eventually the hurricane of spittle gets to me and anger starts to creep into my words. Shortly thereafter I realize with a start that I’m starting to fling little bits of litter back at them. That’s when I compose my “Vaya con dios” message in which I declare that the time has come for me to move on, that I have no hard feelings, and that I wish well to all. Invariably that post triggers sneers, triumphant clucking, and last-minute insults. These people are really mean!

The level of ignorance these people display is appalling. I’m not talking about the nitwit cases who hang on the fringe. I’m talking about the average, typical conservative blogger. I had one insist that the Nazis weren’t right-wing, they were left-wing, just like the communists. Almost all of them are impatient for Mr. Bush to begin bombing Iran – and some want an all-out attack, not just a few wimpy airstrikes. To a man, they all reject the basic global warming hypothesis. I explain the science and they just refuse to accept it. I have repeatedly challenged them to point out errors in the IPCC reports. Their response is always something along the lines of “We don’t need to read no stinkin’ IPCC report – we already know that it’s just a liberal pack of lies!”

Another scary thing is that they aren’t in the least bit intimidated by facts. They know what they believe, and that’s that. If you dare provide a contradictory source of evidence, they don’t bother to come up with some evidence of their own – they just call you a liar, dismiss your source as a liberal, or ignore your evidence and keep on re-asserting their beliefs.

And then there’s the bigotry. Yes, many (not all) of these people are bigoted. Currently the object of their bigotry is Islam. They are absolutely certain that all Muslims are bloodthirsty orphan-rapers. They will quote the Koran to prove that all Muslims are out to kill all Christians. They are certain all Muslims want to conquer the world and impose Shariah upon Christians. I have tried combatting these crazy notions with quotes from literally scores of Islamic theologians condemning the 9/11 attacks, condemning terrorism, and condemning Osama bin Laden, and they have a ready answer: these are just the lies they tell to deceive gullible liberal fools like you.

Did I mention that their logic stinks? I have witnessed just about every crime against logic in the books. Guilt by association, non-sequiturs, argument by assertion, ad hominem arguments, false dichotomies, cherry-picked data – the whole schmeer. (I can still laugh about the person who admitted that her data was cherry-picked, but insisted that her point was still valid because the data were still correct.) And again, these aren’t the occasional errors of a minority – they’re standard operating procedure.

Now, this isn’t just a diatribe meant to convince you that all conservatives are bad and that conservative blogs are dens of iniquity. I have a more important point to make. Consider how complex the problems we face are. Consider the intricacy of the problems of the 21st Century. Consider the way that economics, military factors, political factors, religious factors, and nationalism all intertwine in today’s world. Now add to this the realization that a sizable portion of the American population is approaching these huge problems with all the sagacity and education of a clutch of feces-flinging chimpanzees.

What does this spell for America’s future?

P.S. About two weeks after I wrote this piece, I experienced the maliciousness of conservative bloggers firsthand. I had been participating in what appeared to be a serious and thoughtful blog (“Dean’s World” and had been careful to be extra-courteous to all. Some malicious person falsely informed a blacklist site that my IP address was a source of spam. That blacklisted me from the site. I notified the site owner by email of the problem but he never responded. I have abandoned all efforts to find an honest conservative blog wherein I can engage conservatives in thoughtful discussion of the issues. It appears that no such blog exists.

2015 Addendum
I wrote this essay back in 2007, when I still entertained some hope for the quality of discussion on the Internet, but since then things have gone downhill. I now avoid political discussions, but I have selected one corner of the Internet to defend against a particularly evil kind of troll: the climate change denier. And the worst of the lot is a fellow named Rick Cina. He is despicable because he is very clever about presenting the appearance of rationalism, while violating just about every rule of rational discourse. I have had literally hundreds of exchanges with this guy, and he uses every dirty trick in the book. He tells flat-out lies when he thinks he can get away with it. He is a master of obfuscation, presenting long, long posts redolent with citations of scientific papers. The catch is that he misrepresents the contents of the papers. He apparently figures that most people are too lazy to check out the papers and wade through all the technical language. But readers with some scientific background can see right through his falsehoods, and they challenge him — to which he replies with even longer, more obfuscatory screeds that look good on a cursory overview, but fall apart when subjected to educated scrutiny. If somebody nails him, he shuts up, then starts all over repeating exactly the same falsehoods in another thread. He has repeated the same basic arguments dozens and dozens of times. Most of the rational readers have grown tired of refuting him for the umpteenth time.

Mr. Cina has no education in science, as is demonstrated by his repeated failure to grasp basic scientific principles. I have on many occasions stumped him with simple questions that might appear on a high school physics test. He would certainly flunk a high school physics course. He can’t calculate anything, and he has no grasp of formal logic.

After many months, I have taken to treating Mr. Cina with disdain. This violates my earlier commitment to the highest standards of civility. Yes, I call Mr. Cina a liar — because he *is* a liar!

I have decided to simplify things by preparing standard refutations of his claims that I can simply link to.