December 29, 2007

On the Weakness of Prim 'n' Proper

Justin Katz

In a tangential comment to Marc's post about population loss, "Chalkdust" issued the following multipart critique of Anchor Rising's comment sections:

"Of course, once NOW stayed on its knees for Bill Clinton"

Another reason (along with "brown babies") that Anchor Rising MIGHT be an interesting place to debate issues, if one can manage to close one's ears to this trash.

Does anybody in charge here ever try to actively disassociate from this crowd? I don't mean censor, I just mean say loudly that they're over the top and unwanted. Just curious. ...

... I hadn't realized until now that "conservative talk" actually requires crude sexual and racial references. Maybe I was reading too much Buckley, Safire and Scalia, but thanks for the clearer picture of what conservativism in RI means. ...

... It's just that being raised by very, very conservative parents (Goldwater Republicans) , I was taught that, at least in public discussion, vulgarity, name-calling and hubris were not only improper, but sinful. I guess it's a different game today.

Monique left a subsequent comment explaining that we do pull the trigger, from time to time, when comments shift out of bounds, but I think a somewhat more involved answer might be useful.

I can't speak for the other contributors to Anchor Rising, but I grew up on the highway side of town in Jersey — by the exit, if you get what I mean. Nobody was poor in my town, but neither were the cardigans plentiful. Now, I live in a working-class neighborhood, which is fitting considering that I spend my days on the construction site and need a driveway in which my work van won't look out of place at night. This is all to say that, while I appreciate — and enjoy — restrictive, rules-based conversations that seek to address ideas and issues with viscera at arm's length, colorful language has its attractions and uses in certain contexts.

As a word guy, I'd suggest that choice imagery — emotion-drenched though it may be — can more fully convey a thought than antiseptic descriptions and abstractions. Comme il faut faux civility has actually become a useful mechanism for the Left. It's not "sucking the brains out of a just-about-born baby"; it's "partial-birth abortion." (Sometimes, it's not even "abortion"; it's "dilation and evacuation.") Racist, bigot, fascist, sexist, homophobe... these are all words that purport to be descriptive, but are wielded in such a way as to beat back and dismiss an opponent without staining one's white gloves with any taint of irrationality.

I suppose the writer of the "trash" could have avoided the fellatial metaphor and written, instead, something like: "Of course, NOW once compromised the integrity of its ostensible message." But that loses something of the justified scorn and the curiously stained irony of the empowerment group's fawning passivity before an alpha male.

I suppose that, if a reader's tender sensibilities are such that he or she cannot filter through the inevitable range of voices in an open online forum, then, yes, the Anchor Rising comment sections might not be the place to seek conversation. For my part, I figure that Carnegie Mellon called one of its required freshman English courses "Argumentative Writing" for a reason.

Comments, although monitored, are not necessarily representative of the views Anchor Rising's contributors or approved by them. We reserve the right to delete or modify comments for any reason.


I'm completely baffled by your raising issues of class in response to my comment. What's the point? In what way is this relevant? In case it IS relevant , I'll tell you that I worked my way through school as a painter, parts-counter guy in an auto dealership and third-shift foundry worker. I don't know if that establishes my bona fides to your satisfaction, but at least you can imagine I've been exposed to, "colorful" language as much as anyone, so none of this is about my "tender sensibilities". I will admit, however, that I like a nice cardigan.

Actually, socio-economic status is one thing. "Class" is another thing entirely. Pat Crowley giving the finger lacks class. So did the comment about brown babies and the one about NOW on its knees for Clinton. None of them is a political use of language in the sense that you mention. They are only bile spilling over, just as when people call you a homophobic bigot. Do you think that's effective?

In any case, I just wanted to know if the tone of those comments reflects the sensibilities of the people who maintain the blog. I'm still not sure, but I'm perfectly capable of ignoring such comments and, if I can't, I know where the exit is and won't let the door hit my ass on the way out.

As to the more theoretical point you raise, it's a mistake to suggest that the left has some sort of monopoly on manipulating language for political effect. From the "pacification" of Vietnamese villages to the "PATRIOT" act, the right has done a pretty good job itself. In fact, I'd say that in the last 15 years or so, the right has been winning this game. My gosh, just calling the estate tax the "death tax" has convinced huge numbers of people that it affects more than a small fraction of the population.

Posted by: chalkdust at December 29, 2007 2:05 AM

As to the "sensibilities of the people who maintain the blog," I wonder why you don't judge that by the content of our posts and comments. Much gets said here by others, and unless it's personal to the extreme or highly stifling of discussion, we let it slide.

It appears to me that your entire line of attack was to isolate and dismiss particular commenters, perhaps a particular subbranch of a political movement, and it struck me as a shifty way to go about things. You haven't, in short, addressed the substance of those points, appealing instead to our sensibilities, with the cost of our incorrect response being your participation and an insinuation that we are guilty by association.

As it happens, the "brown babies" comment makes me uncomfortable, but I have to admit that it does capture the inherent racism of those who exploit race issues (often, perhaps usually, wealthy white liberals) on such matters as social services. It's a disgusting practice, and it could be that our response to the discomfort ought to be directed in their direction.

The knees comment makes me less uncomfortable. It's got grit, yes, but it's certainly in line with Clinton's behavior and a fitting belittlement of his sycophants.

Do I think it's effective when people call me a homophobic bigot? I suppose it depends by what you're measuring effectiveness. Effective in proving a policy argument, no. Effective in isolating me and raising the price of holding my views? Well, I'm pretty sure related considerations have kept me out of graduate school and cost me job opportunities — all without the need for colorful language to give the speaker reason to consider whether the accusation mightn't be inaccurate and extreme — i.e., cause to question assumption.

That, longstanding impressions suggest, is a specialty of the Left. The Right uses language to good effect, of course, but there's a style of antiseptic excision that I've found to be more prominent on the other side.

Posted by: Justin Katz at December 29, 2007 7:56 AM

I am not sure that I get your point. Or, at best, it appears your point is that you are actually at a loss for debating some of the very effective metaphors being used. Take, for instance, one that you find particularly galling - "Of course, once NOW stayed on its knees for Bill Clinton"
This very short sentence speaks volumes about a very important issue - that of the hypocrisy of the left. Personally, I think this is a well constructed, descriptive and thought provoking sentence. It seems to me that your own objection is not to the words, themselves, but to the very clear, concise and accurate message those few words articulate so well. Very effective writing, in my estimation.

Posted by: Mike Cappelli at December 29, 2007 12:55 PM

Your past comments have been interesting and intellectually challenging without the usual having to muddle through partisan/ideological biases. But your accusation of the tone of comments being reflective of the “… sensibilities of the people who maintain the blog” is unfair and reflective of your partisan bias.

The people who run this blog are not hiding their conservative viewpoints and certainly allow for dissent. There is also no evidence that they censor one side’s hyperbole over another.

I agree with you that the left does not have a monopoly on political demagoguery or that even it is more prominent on the left . Both sides use it equally well when it benefits their agenda. What is unfortunate to me is that such simplistic rhetoric is effective in political persuasion.

Though I don’t understand why you’d use the name of a bill such as the ‘Patriot’ Act as an example. How is that any different than “Patient’s Bill of Rights’ or ‘School Lunch’ program – as if without them a patient had no rights or children would have no lunches? Please.

Posted by: msteven at December 29, 2007 2:51 PM

This is a conservative forum. If you're expecting Marquis of Queensbury rules in here, you're hopelessly naive. We're all just pixels to each other, which, given the tenor of the debate in here sometimes, is a good thing.

Posted by: rhody at December 29, 2007 3:49 PM

And Rhody is lower than the bottom row of pixels on my screen.

Posted by: smmtheory at December 29, 2007 5:19 PM

Smm, you just proved my point more eloquently than anything I could possibly say. But hey, what's a little good-natured cyberribbing between friends?

Posted by: rhody at December 29, 2007 8:52 PM

Justin said: "colorful language has its attractions and uses in certain contexts". Agreed. In barrooms and at football games it's a laugh. In policy discussions, it might make your fellow travelers snicker, but it makes me discount your opinion depending on the comment's level of vileness.

There are few pursuits in America more rough and tumble than politics. You learn to deal with it or get out of the game. But if you intend to make your case in the rarified world of policy forums, then choose your language carefully.

And what any of this has to do with what side of the tracks people grew up on, I have no idea.

Posted by: Pragmatist at December 30, 2007 2:54 PM

To borrow a page from the Lefties: My language was artistic expression, and I was merely engaging in artistic freedom! ;-)

Posted by: Ragin' Rhode Islander at December 30, 2007 8:39 PM
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