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Two items from prominent opinion journalists point to a meltdown in the Democratic base even as they close in on a vulnerable GOP in midterm elections. Jonah Goldberg and Richard Cohen have one thing in common: irrational e-mail. However, while the conservative Goldberg received one ludicrous rant regarding the Jewish conspiracy to control oil, Cohen received thousands of hysterically angry e-mails denouncing him as an administration stooge -- for writing that Stephen Colbert bombed at the White House Correspondents Dinner. Cohen responds in amazement in today's column, "Digital Lynch Mob":
It seemed that most of my correspondents had been egged on to write me by various blogs. In response, they smartly assembled into a digital lynch mob and went roaring after me. If I did not like Colbert, I must like Bush. If I write for The Post, I must be a mainstream media warmonger. If I was over a certain age -- which I am -- I am simply out of it, wherever "it" may be. All in all, I was -- I am, and I guess I remain -- the worthy object of ignorant, false and downright idiotic vituperation. ...
But the message in this case truly is the medium. The e-mails pulse in my queue, emanating raw hatred. This spells trouble -- not for Bush or, in 2008, the next GOP presidential candidate, but for Democrats. The anger festering on the Democratic left will be taken out on the Democratic middle. (Watch out, Hillary!) I have seen this anger before -- back in the Vietnam War era. That's when the antiwar wing of the Democratic Party helped elect Richard Nixon. In this way, they managed to prolong the very war they so hated.
The hatred is back. I know it's only words now appearing on my computer screen, but the words are so angry, so roiled with rage, that they are the functional equivalent of rocks once so furiously hurled during antiwar demonstrations.
Perhaps the Right got this insane during the Clinton presidency, but I doubt it. When we disagreed with columnists who overall remained sympathetic to conservatism, we didn't send hate e-mail (or regular mail) by the thousands accusing them of being Clinton stooges. There was certainly a segment of irrational people involved in the debate, but they didn't control it the way that the analogous segment on the Left appears to do now. We see it in the rise of MoveOn and International ANSWER as significant political forces on the Left. Now Cohen has felt its power, and he sees its danger.
It occurs in the blogosphere as well. Many on the Left have well-written and provocative arguments, sometimes overheated but usually not irrational. However, a large segment rely on nothing but schoolyard namecalling (as I noted here) and a deep, unrelenting anger colors all of their discourse. It's not just the blogs, either. Not a day goes by when I don't receive some meandering and hyperbolic rant from anonymous individuals with fake e-mail domains like "bushboy.org" who appear to lack the courage of running their own blog. These inevitably wind up in my spam folder, as they come to me via mass e-mail addressed to an ever-increasing number of conservative writers. I'm not sure what purpose these misspelling-filled missives serve, but they certainly provide entertainment, although of a different sort than its senders intend.
The irrational Left appears more enthusiastic about venting than argument. Cohen, a liberal columnist, found this out when he dared challenge the Colbert orthodoxy. Instead of reasoning with a columnist that they should consider a political ally, they filled his mailbox with hatred, venom, and ridiculous accusations of war-mongering. As Cohen writes, it's difficult to see how this will convince anyone of the rightness of their cause, and this impulse to vent rage instead of offering argument will backfire in November. If all you give is rage, then eventually people assume you have no argument, and vote accordingly.
UPDATE: Jim Hill notes the conversation on the Washington Post Writer's Group blog. He has the right perspective on how the media should view the Internet and the blogosphere:
If we in newspaper journalism would see this as an opportunity and not as a threat, we could turn it into our salvation, not our demise. It's taken awhile, but I think the newspaper industry now gets it. Little signs keep emerging that newspaper publishers are moving rapidly to find their niche in cyberspace, and earning the profits to maintain the quality journalism this country must have for democracy to thrive. Today's online reading of Romenesko brought two promising reports, which I'll share here and here. One is that Wall Street is reacting positively to the online growth of newspapers, even if circulation of the "dead-tree editions" continues to slide. Another, about journalism in the Boston area, casts the Web as being positively Emersonian.
I like that. A year ago, in a forum on blogging in which I took part, I told a questioner that I thought the Founders were surely smiling seeing all the blog activity that was developing on the Internet. We're finally having a national conversation -- all you need is a modem to take part.
Welcome to the conversation, Jim, even if it gets a little strained from time to time.
UPDATE II: Josh Trevino at Swords Crossed give us the latest example of this rage-hatred -- bloggers on the Left are chortling with glee over the news that Jeff Goldstein at Protein Wisdom takes anti-anxiety medication. Making fun of people with real problems is of the same piece as making fun of people's names, and you won't be surprised to see some of the "Special Ed" crowd involved in this one.Sphere It View blog reactions
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