Monday, July 10, 2006

Norms

Every community has its standards, conventions of behavior which govern acts between members. Recently, controversy has arisen about the DailyKos community and the connection between advertising money and political consultancy. Markos and co-author Jerome just released a well-received populist liberal tome, Crashing the Gates. (That was an interesting choice for a title BTW, as I'm sure the image was meant to be the serfs revolting against the insufferable nobility, but it has the secondary meaning of uninvited guests to a party, which in turn can be regarded as the Democratic Party. Well it's interesting to us linguists anyway. Many of us collect witty rejoinders and clever turns of phrase like others mount butterflies.)

However I think the recent round of criticism is too centered on Kos specifically, when the community he created should be the focus. There just aren't enough hours in the day to wield the power over opinion that his critics claim he has. And just what is the ideology that everyone is supposedly in lockstep to? The lack of a coherent party line is considered by many to be the problem with the Democratic Party, which is why Lieberman's line about being abandoned for not 'toeing the party line on Iraq' is such an absurd statement.
The true policing of ideas is done by self-appointed members of the site, perhaps with the tacit approval of a hands-off admin.

Take the curious story of Richard Silverstein, who started a diary on DK where he offered the opinion that taking money as a political consultant while writing about how the out-of-touch political consultancy class is responsible for the Democratic Party's troubles may just be a conflict of interest. It is worth noting at this point that both Markos(sherrod Brown) and Jerome(Mark Warner) have consulted candidates. Personally, I don't see this as some ethical high crime, especially if said blogger has disclosed the relationship. Unless you or your immediate family are receiving compensation, there is nothing inherently unethical with supporting your friends. Silverstein brought up these points in his diary, adding the caveat that he was not personally attacking Kos or Jerome, but thinking of more disturbing examples, such as Sen. John Thune (R-SD)'s astroturfing of Tom Daschle, hiring 'reporters' like Jeff Gannon create attack websites without revealing their campaign connection.
For this, Silverstein was subjected to a barrage of insults, distortions and scatology:
You’re missing a tag “Things blown out of my butt about which I am completely, utterly clueless”.
Others' criticized his statement of ethics, making confrontational statements that take things way too personally:
Are you suggesting that I’m such a cheap intellectual whore that I’ll endorse someone because they take out advertising on my blog?

Them’s fighting words, bitch. Say’em to my face and I’ll put you on your back.

That you’d even ask these questions suggests you have no respect for your own integrity - it’s for sell cheap, eh? Would you lie to America $10K? Evidently, you would.
Ridiculous blustering like this makes a weak defense. But nasty comments are all a part of the experience of saying provactive things online. What is more insidious is the use of dummy tags to bury the diary from site searches. This is a topic I wish I thought of during the seminar I took on the Semantic Web: how malicious tags can be used to enforce normatives in online communities.

Most collaborative websites eschew strict categorization of their content in favor of a user-driven scheme where you the reader can apply a marker or tag to describe the content. This allows a post to be in several categories simultaneously, as well as new categories to be created instantanteously. So far, fairly positive. But as with Silverstein, there is still a potential for abuse: not only did multiple users add malicious tags to his diary, including the misleading 'concern troll' tag, but these pushed out the real tags, meaning theat users could not find a story using its legitimate tags. The diary disappears effectively, or at least until it is so old it has no chance of mattering. The whole troll rating system in fact empowers trolls who have seniority to downrate comments that they disagree with as trollish, excluding them from everybody else's view.

Silverstein tried posting a comment asking for further explanation from his critics, links to information explaining Kos' record in detail. This comment disappeared and all his emails go unanswered. Many comments just say without context that the diary should be deleted. This blind support of the fearless leader is a troubling blind spot. I understand about giving Brooks ammo for his LieberLove pieces, but do we need to eat our won because they bring up an uncomfortable point? Lemme tell you, if you think that's all it will take from the other side raising these questions down the road, you deserve their slurs. No, I don't like having to bring this up because I shouldn't have to, but I expect a standard of transparency from progressive organizations which exceeds the corporate-owned media and neo-conservatives with their sick devotion to Plato's Noble Lie. I don't want DKos to go away like I sometimes wish for the media or the neocons, but just for it to be better.This is disheartening to watch, and reminds me of the recent NY Appeals Court decision rejecting arguments for gay marriage. The key argument is that it is not irrational on its face to keep civil marriage exclusively for straights because the consequences of their irresponsiblity extend to a thrid party, their children. Of course, why should marriages without any children involved be called marriages under this standard and what about gay couples who have children? Apparently the state's interest in encouraging unreliable heterosexuals to pair-bond is greater then the societal benefits to people of the same sex of having legal recognition of their relationship. Straight people have fucked marriage up, the court is saying, they need more incentives to stay together than gay couples, whose needs are fairly dispensible as far as the court is concerned. I'm sympathetic to the idea that deciding socially contentious issues through the legislative process reduces the amount of backlash caused. Just look at Roe for an example. But this is always the argument you hear from the majority. It takes no great courage if you are not gay to say that gays and lesbians should either wait, or sign on to a status quo-maintaining social contract which perpetually gives them the shit end of the stick. Judge Robert Smith dismissed the idea of predicting what future majorities will decide on gay marriage, most likely because they will not have the problem we have with it.

Majoritarianism is a political philosophy or agenda which asserts that a majority (sometimes categorized by religion, language or some other identifying factor) of the population is entitled to a certain degree of primacy in society, and has the right to make decisions that affect the society. This government is known colloquially as mob rule, but meanwhile critics of majoritarianism run the risk of being undeclared undemocratic, especially if they advocate for a particular subgroup to be favored. This is where the aforementioned Noble Lie comes in, as in it is it okay for the noble to lie to the serf so long as the lie protects him from the dangers of the truth. Seemingly rational goals are used to justify today's horrible means. There are only two objections to same-sex marriage that are intellectually honest and internally consistent. One is the simple anti-gay position: "It is the law’s job to stigmatize and disadvantage homosexuals, and the marriage ban is a means to that end." The other is from tradition: it has always been this and to change it would be radically destablizing. The strong Hayekian argument for tradition is only something you can make against a weak moral claim, but the gay marriage ban deprives a whole class of people of the pursuit of happiness. In a shifting current, holding your course is just as dangerous as oversteering. To summarily dismiss the right to marry for love on the basis that 'bad things may happen' is itself cowardice. Bad things can always happen, but so can unintended positive consequences. The old view of homosexuals as heterosexuals who need prayer or punishment or medicine has been exposed as a grievous error. What gay people need is simply the love of another gay person.

Appeals to tradition seem to ignore the fundamental changes the society has already applied to marriage over a course of centuries: abolishing polygamy, abolishing child marriage, divorce, allowing women to independently own property, legalizing interracial marriage, eliminating the power of parents to overrule their children's choice of mates, legalizing contraception, and the fairly recent criminalization of marital rape. Some may say that this is a more fundamental change, but really it would only certainly affect a small currently disenfranchised minority and would have no discernible effect on the majority of married couples. There is so much smoke being blown about the potential catastrophe that the traditionalists perfect track record of wrong predictions as how the social integration of gay people will destroy Western Civilization is overshadowed. Gay people live in the suburbs, work in the highest echelons of the corporate world, and even serve in the armed forces of the United Kingdom without converting the whole of these institutions into 24-7 bathhouse/discos as some thought.

"The attempt to make heaven on earth invariably produces hell," wrote Karl Popper. I still have hope that this is not a setback, as much as FMA would be, but cause for proponents to re-orient them towards the legislative process. While the legal strategy is highly noble, it is stretched to the political limit right now. Populism is a winning philosophy, as long as you are in the majority.

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