Monday, January 25, 2010

Jonathan Dee: Little Green Footballs and the 'Missing Link'

Photo by Zach Johnsen
(Image from New York Times)

Jonathan Dee, writing in his recent article "Right-Wing Flame War!" (January 21, 2010) for The New York Times, has analyzed a cultural crackup that split rightwing blogs into warring camps two years ago. This rightwing kulturkampf was initiated by Charles Johnson when he accused a number of rightwing bloggers of fascistic tendencies because they were 'linked' with individuals whom Johnson considered fascists. There is some irony in this, for Johnson's own blog, Little Green Footballs, was often itself accused of post-9/11 fascism for what many considered its shrill nationalism, its contempt for Muslims, and its inflammatory language:
If the tone of Johnson's writing on the blog sometimes bordered, as his detractors claimed, on hate speech, that of his mostly anonymous commenters was reliably worse. A popular blog like L.G.F. functions as a kind of cloud-sourced id. It is not uncommon for a simple, 200-word post to accrue upward of a thousand written responses from readers. The question of how responsible he is, or should be, for these expressions of uncensored reader sentiment is one that Johnson, like many bloggers, has struggled with; but in the middle years of the last decade, whether for free-speech reasons or simply because he enjoyed being the popular focal point of such strong nationalist feeling, he did very little to rein it in. Muslims were described as "vermin." The posthumous nickname St. Pancake was coined for the young American pro-Palestinian activist Rachel Corrie, in reference to the Israeli bulldozer that killed her. Discussion of U.S. foreign-policy options included terms like "targeted genocide." As for Palestinians, "they don’t need statehood," offered one commenter; "they need sterilization." And on and on. A so-called stalker blog, called L.G.F. Watch, sprang up to document instances of what it considered hate speech on the part of Johnson and his followers. Vanity Fair's James Wolcott compared Johnson’s site to a "disorganized Nuremberg Rally."
I vividly recall those days at LGF because I used to read not just Johnson's blogposts but also many of the comments, and they were indeed inflammatory, but they got LGF a lot of attention and garnered the blog a huge number of links:
L.G.F. was, by 2007 or so, at the heart of a vast, amorphous grid of right-wing sites of every description, an interdependence that Johnson himself had become, in a way, too popular to control.
That sentence stumbles a bit. Dee means that Johnson could no longer control the linked interdependence because he had become so popular on the right. But despite the awkward sentence, Dee is on to something about Johnson's way of thinking:
That concept of the link, in all its permutations, is the key to what happened next, both to Johnson and because of him, and it says something enlightening not just about blogging but also about the nature and prospects of citizen journalism. Whatever you think of him, Johnson is a smart man, a gifted synthesizer of information gathered by other people. But just as for anyone in his position, there is an inevitable limit to what he can learn about places, people, political organizations, etc., without actually encountering them. Instead of causes and effects, motivations and consequences, observation and behavior, his means of intellectual synthesis is, instead, the link: the indiscriminate connection established via search engine.

. . .

He came of age, as a writer and as a public figure, in the culture of damnation by link, and he does not exempt himself from its logic.

. . .

[Johnson employs] a kind of six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon approach to political rectitude, in which the existence of even a search-engine-generated connection between two people anywhere in the world implied a mutual back-scratching, an ideological partnership.
Johnson therefore decided that certain groups were fascist and anyone linked to those groups, even by a mere internet link, was tainted by fascism. But that would entail that Johnson himself was linked to fascism, for he was linked by internet to those whom he considered fascist. Dee argues that Johnson therefore decided "to conduct a kind of public self-purge of the alliances he acquired on the road to fame" as a radical means of 'de-linking' himself from them. It was also a way of 'de-linking' himself from his own rightwing persona, for despite some points of ideological contact, Johnson had really always been more of a libertarian than a rightwing conservative. He thus attacked many of his erstwhile rightwing allies in strongly personal terms. "It was unfair and simplistic and petulant, but it also seems to have achieved its goal," notes Dee, for "[v]ery few people on the right want to be linked with Charles Johnson anymore."

Johnson is obviously intelligent, at least in a techie sort of way, but but he doesn't seem especially well-read in history or political theory, nor does he seem capable of nuanced distinctions in this age of internet linkage, His preferred style of blogging about those whom he dislikes (or prefers to dislike), by posting highly emotive personal attacks, is a method that most serious-minded people would consider a sign of intellectual immaturity.

But those personal attacks did get him very effectively 'de-linked' from individuals with whom he no longer wants to be linked, including his own very public rightwing persona. Johnson himself has recently observed that "the best way to deal with defamatory statements on the Internet is to make sure your defense shows up in a Google search too." By that same internet logic, the best way to make your 'de-linkage' show up on Google searches is to make the break as publicly acrimonious as possible.

Everyone will then link to your 'de-linking'.

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