A hallmark of idiocy

Those who think they are making a substantive point by citing randomly chosen blog comments reveal themselves to be bereft of substance.

Published February 27, 2007 6:25PM (EST)

(Updated below - Update II - Update III - Update IV)

UPDATE -- relevant parts bolded below for the benefit of reading-impaired "hypocrisy" accusers:

The smoke had barely cleared from the suicide bombing in Afghanistan this morning, near a base where Dick Cheney was located, when right-wing pundits -- whose sole expertise seems to be in exploiting terrorism-related issues for political gain -- began their attempt to politically exploit the attack on or near Cheney. Seemingly in unison, they all went digging deep into the comment sections of various liberal blogs, found inappropriate and hateful comments, and then began insisting that these isolated comments proved something.

It is only a matter of time before Brit Hume and Matt Drudge begin hyping the scandal of how liberal bloggers were expressing dismay that Dick Cheney wasn't killed, and Howard Kurtz will write a drooling profile of the Blogging Warriors who exposed this scandal and join in with stern condemnation over how terrible it is that the Left is so filled with venom and rage. Maybe ABC News' Terry Moran can even join his right-wing-blogging brother again and chime in about all the terrible Hate Speech on the Left.

But what this predictable and moronic episode actually reveals is an axiom that journalists would do well to comprehend -- just as calling someone randomly at home and asking their opinion about a topic proves nothing other than what that individual thinks, the ideas and comments expressed by anonymous commenters at blogs prove nothing other than what those individuals think -- particularly in the absence of an attempt to show that the commenters are representative of the blog itself. Is that really that difficult a concept to comprehend? To know what the views are of a particular blogger or "bloggers" generally, one can read those bloggers' words.

But stray, anonymous comments prove nothing. And those who rely on them to make an argument -- especially without bothering to make any effort to prove that they are reflective of anything -- should be presumed to have no argument at all. That is why they are relying upon such transparently flimsy and misleading methods to make a point. And the same principle applies to journalists -- those who write articles about "the blogosphere" by using random, stray comments (or mean emails they receive), by definition, have nothing to say, no point worth making.

The peak of this idiocy was reached several months ago by former Clintonite Lanny Davis. In order to help his friend Joe Lieberman's primary campaign, Davis who wrote an entire Wall St. Journal smear piece claiming that "liberal blogs" spew hatred and anti-semitism based on nothing more than randomly chosen anonymous Kos and Huffington Post comments. Though (I believe) even Davis subsequently acknowledged that relying upon randomly chosen blog quotes to make a point of that sort was misguided and wrong -- particularly where no attempt is made to demonstrate that the comments are representative of anything -- the tactic continues to be wielded by the most bottom-scraping demagogues (and journalists) who have no substantive point to make.

There is a reason why those who seek to demonstrate the alleged extremism and hate-mongering in the anti-Bush blogosphere need to go digging for anonymous commenters. And the converse is also true: those who document the extremism and sociopathic mentality in the right-wing blogosphere do so by citing the twisted writings of leading right-wing pundits, not randomly chosen commenters with no connection to the content or theme of the blog. Perhaps there is a journalist somewhere who can figure out the meaning of that difference and write an article about it.

UPDATE: Several commenters have noted that it is incorrect to say -- as I did in this post -- that the comments in question here were "randomly chosen." The comments would actually be more meaningful if they had been. Those trying to exploit these comments did not randomly choose them at all, but instead trolled through all the comments and chose the ones which they thought would reflect most poorly on the blogs in question. That makes their exercise far more manipulative and meaningless than if they actually had selected the comments at random.

It is also worth nothing, as several commenters did, that most of the largest right-wing blogs do not allow comments at all precisely because they know the monstrous sentiments that would spew forth. And the one large right-wing blog that does allow comments (LGF) provokes such vile and violence-advocating sentiments on such a regular basis that an entire website is devoted to tracking them.

As but one of literally countless examples, see here, where multiple LGF commenters celebrated the allegedly accidental Israeli missile attack on a UN outpost in Lebanon and lamented that Kofi Annan was absent and therefore not among the dead. The proprietor of that site actively deletes comments he finds offensive, but left those standing. He is also, needless to say, one of the above-linked right-wing bloggers expressing such deep, deep offense at the anti-Cheney anonymous comments today.

Finally, it is undeniably true that there are people of every ideological stripe who express profane and reprehensible sentiments. The difference is that right-wing authors, talk radio hosts and bloggers -- read and listened to by millions of people -- traffic in such sentiments regularly (as several commenters noted, Dave Neiwert's superb series on the use of eliminationist rhetoric, starting here, has documented this as well as any other resource). But to find such sentiments outside of right-wing circles, one must go where right-wing bloggers went today -- digging into anonymous blog comments (or e-mails allegedly received). That difference is so obvious -- and so meaningful -- that it all ought to go without saying.

UPDATE II: This whole issue raises a broader point: the reliance by idiots and deceivers on the fallacy of argument by anecdote, one of the lowest (and most commonly invoked) forms of fallacious reasoning.

It is hard to overstate how pervasive this lowly and manipulative weapon is wielded by right-wing demagogues to shape our political debates. LGF's simplistic trick, for instance, is to post individual stories every day of Muslims who engage in violent acts ("hey, look - I proved that Muslims are inferior and dangerous!"). Michelle Malkin repeatedly posts individual stories of supposed leftists engaging in illegal or violent acts ("hey, look -- I proved that liberals are unhinged"). Or the right finds a single obscure college professor nobody ever heard of who referred to 9/11 victims as "Little Eichmanns" ("hey, look - we proved that 'the Left' hates America and believes that the 9/11 victims deserved it!").

Those who rely on that cheap, tawdry tactic are really indistinguishable -- just in terms of the methods -- from, say, websites run by white supremacists who, every day, troll the news wires and post individual stories of crimes committed by African-Americans and then think that they've made a broader point. In that context, most people can see how transparently fallacious the tactic is, but in other contexts, they are blind to it.

In fact, because such sloppy, illogical shorthand -- when used against "liberals" -- is easy to both convey and ingest, journalists love it. They use it themselves and are easily manipulated into passing such arguments along (just fathom how quickly this story is going to make the usual rounds -- "'liberals' hate Bush and Cheney so much that they actually expressed sorrow that Cheney wasn't killed in the explosion today").

UPDATE III: Ann Coulter previously expressed sorrow that Timothy McVeigh did not bomb The New York Times building, and she also called for the murder of Supreme Court Justices. As Blue Texan notes, she is one of the featured speakers at the Conservative Political Action Conference next week, along with Vice President Cheney and three separate GOP presidential candidates -- as well as Michelle Malkin, who is very, very upset by the remarks from the anonymous HuffPost commenters today.

In fact, it was at this very same conference last year where Coulter received a standing ovation after warning: "raghead talks tough, raghead faces consequences." In the same speech, she also asked: "If we find out someone [referring to a terrorist] is going to attack the Supreme Court next week, can't we tell Roberts, Alito, Thomas and Scalito?" Those comments were apparently so popular among the "conservative" luminaries (the same ones who put her books at the top of best-seller lists) that they invited her back this year. But the Left is deranged and angry because of some stray remarks made by some anonymous comments at "HuffPost."

Here is the political movement which is very upset by the anonymous blog comments today and finds such sentiments absolutely appalling (via Blue Texan - click to enlarge):

When one wants to point to derangement and violence-incitement on the right, one looks to its political leaders, not to anonymous blog commenters.

UPDATE IV: Via Flying Dutchman, I'm reminded that Kevin Drum last year tried to codify the anti-anonymous-comment axiom by clearly articulating it and then (modestly) naming it:

COMMENT TRAWLING....A reader notes that the practice of trawling through open comment threads to find wackjobs who can be held up as evidence of "crazy liberals" is on the rise. Needless to say, this practice is almost self-discrediting: if the best evidence of wackjobism you can find is a few anonymous nutballs commenting on a blog, then the particular brand of wackjobism you're complaining about must not be very widespread after all. So how can we mock this practice effectively enough to make people ashamed to indulge in it? . . .

"Kevin's Law" has a certain ring to it, doesn't it? It would go something like this: "If you're forced to rely on random blog commenters to make a point about the prevalence of some form or another of disagreeable behavior, you've pretty much made exactly the opposite point."

As indicated, comments can offer limited meaning and insight if an attempt is made to demonstrate that they are in some way connected to, or representative of, the content or principal viewpoints of the blog (e.g., a sentiment that is consistent with the blogger's views and expressed on a daily basis by a large portion of commenters in a moderated comments section). But what happened here -- trolling for the most shocking comments without any attempt to show they were representative of anything other than those commenters -- is a worthless exercise which, as Kevin's Law holds, enables one to do nothing other than "make exactly the opposite point" of the one sought to be proven.

By Glenn Greenwald

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