Tuesday, June 12, 2012

In Defense Of Steve Almond

One reason I detest the preening self-righteousness that is so prevalent on the Internet is I used to engage in it. Back in the dim dark days of the summer of 2006, I had a comment-conversation with Glenn Greenwald about his use of the word "neoconservative". These were the days before he went big time. I made the not unimportant point on a post he wrote that he referred to pretty much anyone in the Bush Administration as a "neocon", yet the word actually meant something, referring to a specific group of political thinkers, with a particular ideology, and a history that had been well-documented by Garry Dorrien. Greenwald, displaying the same open-mindedness and willingness to stand corrected that is his hallmark, essentially told me he didn't give a damn what I said, or what anyone said; he was going to continue to call these people "neocons" and I would just have to live with it.

Back in those same dim, dark days, I thought it necessary to revive the notion of "heresy" because I kept running in to in so many places that called themselves Christian that were, in fact, awash in all sorts of historical heresies. Best way in the world, I thought. to teach these people about Christianity is to show them how they are not within any historical stream of orthodox belief. Right on!

Let me just say, mea culpa.

I was reminded of this particular deficiency this past weekend when some folks I respect made fun of a New York Times op-ed by Steve Almond.
Over the past few years, I’ve come to view my appearance as somewhat less heroic. I hadn’t spoken truth to power or caused anyone to reassess Secretary Rice’s record. I merely provided a few minutes of gladiatorial stimulation for Fox News. In seeking to assert my moral superiority, I enabled Hannity.
This, to be blunt, is the tragic flaw of the modern liberal. We choose to see ourselves as innocent victims of an escalating right-wing fanaticism. But too often we serve as willing accomplices to this escalation and to the resulting degradation of our civic discourse. We do this, without even meaning to, by consuming conservative folly as mass entertainment.
While I do not, as a rule, listen to right-wing talk radio or visit right-wing websites; while I do not, as a rule, think liberals and progressives who do so are masochistic or enabling; while I do not think doing this kind of thing is "ruining" America; all this, yet I do think there is more than a bit of honesty and candor here.

Many critics have taken Almond to task for the following, in particular the second sentence:
It’s for this exact reason that the left can no longer afford to squander time and energy engaging the childish arguments of paid provocateurs. We have to seek out those on the right willing to engage in genuine dialogue and ignore the rest.
They latch on to the very idea there might be some folks on the right out there who aren't, well, pretty much looney. I happen to agree with the critics here, only because I used to believe it possible to have discussions with folks on the right that might be productive. I discovered fairly quickly there are far too many who seem to think it far more important to win an argument, whether they actually do, than it is to actually hear what other folks have to say. So, the whole, "let's all sit around and chat" thing doesn't work.

All the same, the first sentence here is, I think, spot on. All of us who write on the internet want attention. We want folks to read what we have to say. The easiest way to do this, very often, is to be provocative in some way. Folks come running to clap you on the back, or troll your comment section, baiting you and commenters. Few benefit from these games. The internet's reputation as a sewer free from actual thought and discussion continues not least because of these nonsensical dick-waving contests.

While I think Almond gets much wrong in this piece, the general point that it would be far better if we worried less about what other folks were saying and far more about what we were saying is spot on. If we did so, we might actually accomplish something.

Virtual Tin Cup

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