Thursday, September 07, 2006

More Trouble With Comment Threads

A good while back I made a resolution not to blog about blogging more than once in a blue moon, and I've kept the resolution well enough that I literally can't find my last post on the subject, after googling and scanning the site for about an hour. I do recall that this long-lost post explained why I don't provide comment threads--which some folks consider essential for any legitimate progressive blog--mainly because I literally don't have the time to read, much less manage, a significant number of comments.

But at present, there's quite a bit of buzz about comment threads in the blogosphere. Much of it is devoted to the recent incident over at The New Republic, which shut down a "culture blog" written by Lee Siegel after he got caught pseudonymously doing self-hagiographical posts in his own comment threads. And there's continuing discussion (most recently by my colleague The Moose) about anti-semitic comments on progressive blog sites and whether their managers are sufficiently policing them.

Siegel's stunt struck me as reflecting more of a psychological disorder than some sort of massive violation of blogospheric ethics; you have to wonder how many other bloggers have succumbed to the temptation to stuff their own ballot box with self-praise. But it does raise obvious questions about the function of comment threads. Their ostensible purpose is to allow readers to "comment" on primary posts. But as anyone knows who slogs through comment threads, particularly at high-traffic sites, threads typically drift into collateral and then non-collateral topics. And there is clearly a hardy band of frequent commenters who drift from site to site; who know each other's views; and who often conduct long-running debates that have little or nothing to do with the posts on which they are "commenting." I have no inherent objection to this practice, but would observe that comment threads in many cases simply offer a way for non-bloggers to blog without the muss and fuss of running a site or creating diaries on the sites that offer them.

The topic of objectionable content on comment threads is more important and troublesome. I agree with Kevin Drum that it's fundamentally unfair to tar whole sites, much less whole categories of bloggers, with occasional disgusting views as expressed in comment threads. The Moose is making the somewhat different claim that blog proprietors aren't doing enough to rid their sites of anti-semitic comments.

I dunno about that. Most of the big progressive sites have an elaborate (and to me largely incomprehensible) machinery of policies and technological tools to police comments threads, and do regularly "ban" posters who violate the policies chronically. But they don't, and probably can't, instantly expunge comments that express objectionable prejudices, in part because it's not always easy to draw the line between, say, objections to the U.S. alliance with Israel, and genuine anti-semitic utterances, even though they may often overlap.

As it happens, I once (successfully) urged Josh Marshall to ban a guy from comments at TPMCafe who was constantly popping up (not just there, but all over the blogosphere) to claim that anyone he disagreed with on virtually any topic was, in fact, acting as an agent of AIPAC, a.k.a. "the Israel Lobby." I contacted Josh after about the fifth time this jerk breezily announced that the DLC existed purely and simply as an AIPAC front. My objection was not exactly that he was expressing anti-semitic opinions, though he likely holds them; it was that his comments weren't expressions of opinion at all, but completely unsupported statements of "fact" that were actually lies, and had to be either conscious lies or products of a deep delusion, since he had no idea what he was talking about.

Seems to me this might not be a bad rule of thumb for the general treatment of possibly anti-semitic content on blog sites. After all, the diseased heart of all classic anti-semitism is the stubborn claim that Jews exercise shadowy and disproportionate influence by way of a conspiracy that has ensnared or corrupted the gentiles who ostensibly are in charge of governments and opinion-leading media.

If, God forbid, I were in charge of a comment thread, I wouldn't have a beef with people who wanted to argue that America's alliance with Israel is not in our national interest. But there are dozens of reasons for the strong pro-Israeli tradition in U.S. foreign policy--reasons that range from coldly rational analysis to all sorts of ideological and cultural affinities. It would exist if there were no AIPAC, and no high-profile Jews writing about the Middle East. So I'd bounce anybody from a comment thread that resorted to the "Jewish cabal" kind of argument. It's a short distance from there to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. And quite frankly, that point of view has been aired more than enough over the centuries, with horrific consequences.
-- Posted at 11:49 PM | Link to this post | Email this post

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