Letters

I'm supposed to chat people up who think I'm a godless feminazi? I think not. Readers respond to Andrew Leonard's "Trapped in the Echo Chamber."


Salon Staff
November 4, 2004 10:06PM (UTC)

[Read the story.]

Let me get this straight: About half of America has spoken clearly and told me that I am a faggot-loving, race-mixing, overeducated, godless feminazi, and Andrew Leonard wants me to get out there and chat them up? What am I supposed to do on a conservative discussion board, post that I'm a Democrat and wait for them to start calling me names, paint a big target on myself and let them vent their righteous scorn on me? Don't tell me to engage in reasoned discussion with them -- here's a sample from one of the more polite posts today: "Don't go away sad. Just go away. On the upside, now Edwards can go back to his day job, playing Jack on 'Will & Grace.'" I'm supposed to go out of my way and explain to this person and his or her less-polite compatriots that my views are also American views? No thank you. I'm suffering enough right now without going out of my way to find people to gloat at me about how my dream of America is dead.

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-- Jennifer McGee

On election night at a San Francisco bar, once a White Russian had calmed my anxious stomach, I asked a fellow TV-watcher if he knew anyone who had voted for Bush.

"Nope. And I'm from Michigan. I know folks there, here, in Arizona, Florida, Colorado, got family and friends everywhere, but they're all educated people. It's all about ignorance."

I told him my parents in Ohio had voted for Bush, and soon he was shouting at me. No matter how many times I said, "Yep, I agree. I'm on your side. I'm with you. I don't get it myself," he didn't even hear me.

But I was being just a bit disingenuous. I voted for Kerry, and I'm sad, and worried about the outcome. But after months of discussion with my folks, I had at least concluded that there were possibly one or two compelling reasons to reelect Bush -- that the other half of registered voters were probably not all insane, stupid, bigoted, evil and selfish. My mom and dad, after all, are nice, bright people who read.

That is, they read mostly conservative columnists (David Brooks, Daniel Pipes, et al.) and listen mostly to Republican rhetoric. Just like my liberal friends and I do on our side.

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That, I think, is a big problem. It's not just that we in our bubbles end up shocked at the outcome of the election -- it's that we don't have thoughtful, intellectually honest discussions with people who think differently. The candidates don't, the pundits don't, the activists don't, and the voters don't. Instead, many of us dig in, use only facts that support our views, jump to conclusions without clear evidence, oversimplify, dismiss those who disagree, and then complain that democracy is in serious trouble.

But democracy depends, at least partly, on being able to listen and discuss with eyes, mind and heart wide open.

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-- Mitch Neuger

You know, I live in Tennessee. Every day I talk to people in Tennessee. And I have absolutely no clue why we went for Bush in such eye-popping numbers. Forget it. Just forget it. You are not going to understand these people. And neither am I. It is not to understand. These people did not make rational judgments, and you are not going to get any insights into their minds that you would not get from reading a magazine article. It just is.

The sad thing is that it just gets worse and worse and worse. Every year it seems like the blue Tennesseans and the red Tennesseans drift further and further apart, to the point where we no longer speak a common language.

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And as far as the echo chamber goes, you knew it was an echo chamber. You knew you were drinking the Kool Aid. And you knew that every time Atrios was pointing out a particularly egregious media misstep, that Rush was pointing out one of his own. But just think about how badly we would have lost if you hadn't been doing this.

-- C.R.

Andrew Leonard's "Trapped in the Echo Chamber" is spot on. I went into this election convinced that Bush was going to be decisively voted out; that the majority of Americans saw clearly his failures and dangerous incompetence, and were going to do the right thing.

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I have been seriously disillusioned by what actually happened. I certainly accept basic responsibility for not seeing it coming, but I blame the blogs for making it so easy to delude myself. And as of now, I am going cold turkey on political blogs. No more echo chambers for me.

Of course, since I already disdain mass media, this puts me on a course of withdrawing from political/social news altogether. So be it; ignorance, if not actual bliss, is less painful, and I need to be numb for the next four years.

-- Andy Moore

Andrew Leonard's piece "Trapped in the Echo Chamber" did prove a good point about the Internet's temptations for radicalism among Americans. However, the tone of the article suggested a defeatist attitude that I think is unhealthy and unnecessary. The fact that there were differences of opinion and that there was an energized opposition to the president proves that all is not lost in what we call America. We will move forward from this moment, as we have from others.

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-- Joanna Peterson

I enjoyed, and I concur with, your article today. Like-minded sites are a powerful narcotic. As an example of like-minded thinking I offer you this anecdote.

I worked for several years at a branch school of the University of Wisconsin system. The director of the Advising Center, now long retired, told me about the reaction to Nixon's landslide in 1972. Professors and staff at this branch school were stunned that McGovern lost!

To turn Emerson on his head, whether they are Internet blogs or an insular academic community, familiarity of views breeds contentment not contempt.

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-- Richard Taylor

Andrew Leonard is way too hard on himself. If he had spent time talking to people in Alabama who held radically different views than his on subjects like abortion, gay marriage and religion, he would have ended up being even more depressed than he is now.

Those of us with blue state values have to accept that some Americans have very different values than ours and are not necessarily receptive to our attempts to "understand" them.

It's only by gravitating to people who do share our views, online or off, that we can work together to bring about social change. And keep our sanity.

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-- Mary Durkee

Your article, like the echoes it considers, reflects pitch-perfect my own thoughts this afternoon. This time yesterday I was pre-election partying, pretty frigging certain about a Kerry victory. I finally went to bed all numbed out and pessimistic about Ohio at about 3:30 a.m. Every time I got slapped in the face last night by return numbers, I mentally lashed out at Salon. You guys have bolstered my vision and fostered my hopes for six months and now it feels like you lied to me. You gave me proof over and over again to think it was in the bag!

I knew you all were in as much pain, but I also entered a paranoid state, certain I would get up the next morning and read some unrealistic excuse-making, some pathetic liberal crying festival that encourages even more hope in me. Maybe the lead story would be an argument that the absentees and provisionals will go 90 percent Kerry.

And then I was gonna be pissed. It's an irrational feeling. But your article reassures me that I'm not the only one thinking this. I guess Salon will always be my echo chamber, for better or worse, in victory and defeat.

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-- Susan Bourland

With regard to Andrew Leonard's recent column: Andrew, take some deep breaths and try to keep your eye on the ball. That "echo chamber" you are now complaining about is more properly called a "team." The "false hope" that you've carried around for several months -- the confidence that your arguments would prevail and that your opponents were absurd -- is called a "game face." And that "nice, soft cocoon of intellectual safety" could more charitably be called "high morale."

By mentally preparing oneself to lose, one may cushion the blow of defeat, but successful athletes don't do this. Instead, they somehow convince themselves that they can win, and act accordingly.

Of course, overconfidence can sometimes bring weakness -- but Democratic overconfidence wasn't the cause of our defeat. We read the polls -- indeed, we read them to excess. In our heads, if not our hearts, we knew the election was going to be close, and we fought back hard. And it nearly worked -- it came within a few hundred thousand votes of working. But our opponents occupied a stronger position -- built, ironically, around an "echo chamber" that is much, much more tightly sealed than our "reality-based community" has ever been.

Are you seriously suggesting that we liberals should abandon our newfound tendency to routinely gather in large groups, share ideas, motivate each other, and donate money and time -- a strategy that has greatly enhanced our strength -- and that we should instead wander the wilderness by ourselves, reaching out across the divide and trying to understand the conservatives? Haven't we tried this plan before? For decades at a time? And aren't those the same conservatives that deliberately built the enormous chasm between our two sides? The ones who famously said that bipartisanship is like "date rape"?

-- Mike Booth

Andrew -- you so nailed it. I experienced exactly what you did, and was similarly caught completely off-guard by Bush's win. The good news is that the energy and structure of the blogs remain, and now we are so much the wiser.

Here's Todd Gitlin, correct on this as on so many things: "When you belong to a small minority -- as I did in the sixties -- on the one hand, it's a comfort to share your life with fellow believers: to read the same articles, get the same references, wince at the same insults, pass around the same jokes. Very much on the other hand, disbelievers are a drag. Why bother talking to them when there's so much they don't get? When you live in an echo chamber where your cheers boom and cheerleading substitutes for thought, you enclose yourself in a sect, though you may call it a movement." -- Letters to a Young Activist, Page 121

-- Hillary Rettig

Thanks for a fine column. But I talk to people in Alabama all the time, and it didn't help me with this.

As a Yankee living in Atlanta, I have always been amused and disgusted by the Southern obsession with the Civil War. Well, I feel like I've just seen Lee at Appomattox, and I can understand how anger can fester for generations. Lee was the better general, the better man. The South had the strength of its convictions. We know them to be wrong now, but they were certain then.

Having the echo chamber readily available makes us surer we are right, and less likely to hear other opinions. It gives us the strength of our convictions. Thus, we stop talking across the aisle. We do it at Kos, they do it with Rush. We raise our armies, and they do too.

I keep going back to Nicholson Baker's book "Checkpoint." The novel, which you may have read, is a dialogue between two friends, one of them planning to assassinate Bush. There is so much anger in that character. And there is no real resolution to that anger. But the other character convinces him to come home and sit in the back yard, with his feet in the grass. Take some pictures, look at some trees.

I feel shattered, and I'm sure the carpetbaggers are going to be here soon. The earth around me is scorched. But, I am beating my sword into a ploughshare, and I am turning to the things I love, and I will build a life from that. I will endure these invaders for the time they have here, and I will pray that the next time, we can shake hands and not have to raise armies. We don't have to have a war every four years.

-- Daren Wang

I'd like to thank Andrew Leonard for his thoughtful commentary on the virtual "echo chambers" in which we take refuge from those who do not share our views. This election has demonstrated that we cannot huddle in our cozy little circles and blithely write off the rest of society. May we be brave enough, patient enough, and humble enough to bring our perspective into the world outside our spheres of comfort, without isolating ourselves by patronizing and delegitimizing those who disagree with us.

-- Annie Bradford

I agree with much of your article -- it's a good assessment of the range of discussions taking place on the Internet and mailing lists. We do have a tendency to associate with like-minded people. However, I'm not sure you'll be better prepared to deal with the opposing side by talking with them. I live in Austin, Texas, and have been sweating this election for months. The apparent result was not surprising -- it was expected (even though Austin went for Kerry).

I associate with conservatives on a daily basis and it's not fun. Most of the time, if anything remotely political comes up, the discussion gravitates to the typical opposing positions. I find that I'm listening to a Fox broadcast. I have really tried to remain objective but find that in order to remain civil, I have to cede too much. The mainstream media have been successful in painting liberal thought as something despicable. I don't see much hope in anything improving until reason, logic, and honesty return to journalism and public discourse. Thank you for your article,

-- Jon Brandt

Regarding Andrew Leonard's article criticizing the leftist Internet echo chamber ... I think he's wrong. I think we need like minds now more than ever. Which is not to say we should play ostrich, and never poke our heads out of the blog trenches. But to survive in this blood-red America we need to commiserate and plan strategies for dealing with the future. My first (meager) thought is to do what the Christian Coalition does so well -- support like-minded businesses. So I am planning to dump my Republican doctors and dentists and find Democratic or left-leaning healthcare providers. As I said, it is a puny protest, but it's something I can do now. I can put my money where my mouth is. And I can keep researching other people/places that I believe are less exploitive than the smug "moralists" who, I believe, are the antithesis of moral.

-- Lynn Wasnak

My wife and I spent the weekend and Election Day volunteering at the Lois Murphy campaign; they just finally called the race around noon for Gerlach (R), the incumbent. We had a 30-vote margin at 6 a.m., but the heavy Republican area always comes in last, and we lost by 5,000 votes (Gerlach won the newly gerrymandered district two years ago by 5,000 votes also.)

Needless to say, we're both devastated today. Seeing how amazingly effective all the get-out-the-vote drives were here was thrilling. And because of them (and only because of them), we held Pennsylvania for Kerry by a thin margin.

We were Dean supporters, though I wasn't unhappy with Kerry, and we also found Clark interesting. A good friend of my father's is Jim Rassmann, the Green Beret rescued by Kerry.

I know what you mean about the echo chamber. I see it all the time in my father-in-law since we introduced him to the Internet.

Meteor's comment that you linked to is very eloquent, and appropriate, as is yours. Maire and I are planning on going to the local Democratic committee meetings starting now (not a month or a week before the election), get involved in helping candidates earlier, talk to neighbors, etc.

We need to not only hold together the people who made this a close election (and not a Bush blowout), but find some way to step out of the echo chamber and make our case to the not-already-convinced. We need not only find some coalition that has enough plurality to be elected, but also to change society itself to create that plurality. Not so much persuade them they should agree with us on a candidate, but persuade them to change how they view the world. Convince them that imperialism is a bad idea in the first place; that the basic ideas of the founding fathers are still important and not obstacles in the way of fighting terrorism, that the leaders they have do not value individual liberties in the way they think they do.

So long as we have this uncrossable cultural divide with half on each side we're going to have a form of civil war. One can try to put together an electable slate by driving a wedge between the "paleo-republicans" and moderates and the religious right and neocons; that's unlikely to work or if it does to be stable or strong.

Unfortunately, typically a societal change like this requires something traumatic like the Vietnam War, and I'm afraid that's what we're in for. Perhaps a combination of Iraq, a failing economy for anyone not already well-off, perhaps overreaching authoritarianism from Bush and Ashcroft, perhaps seeing doctors and young girls hauled off to jail, perhaps seeing Southern states outlawing birth control, first for teenagers and later for everyone. And undoing this damage may take the rest of our lives.

The silver lining (if you can call it that) is that Bush and the Republicans will now have to live with what they wrought; at least they won't get to hang it around Kerry's neck and blame him for it all going south. And Kerry would have been hamstrung by a strongly Republican congress.

Keep up the good writing and work. And keep poking your head out of the echo chamber.

-- Randell Jesup


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