COUP WATCH: Analyzing Hate Mail; The Cause of Sanity & More From Red Rock Eater News Service
COUP WATCH: Analyzing Hate Mail; The Cause of Sanity & More From Red Rock Eater News Service
By Phil Agre
From - Sat Nov 25 21:13:36 2000
I enclose another, extra-large batch of URL's, again with thanks to
all the good people who contributed. But first, assorted comments.
For a few days after the first outbreak of Republican gang violence
in Florida, the hate mail fell silent for a couple days. One or two
of the formerly most vituperative even said things like, I disagree
with you about everything else but I agree that the violence can't be
justified. It was good. But now the hate mail has started up again,
and it's even worse than before. Although the details vary, as you'd
expect, the great majority of the rhetorical moves fit neatly into a
small number of categories, which follow:
(1) The words "partisan" and "bias". In the time that I have been
writing about the current elections, I have received perhaps 100
messages telling me nothing except that I am either "partisan" or
"biased". These words are outstanding examples of the perversity
of the current jargon. They first entered into circulation when some
Americans called people like Newt Gingrich "partisan" for doing things
like training political candidates to describe their opponents with
words like decay, sick, pathetic, stagnation, corrupt, and traitors
(LA Times 12/19/94). The jargon-speakers did something characteristic
with this: they accused their opponents of identifying as "partisan"
any views other than their own.
Notice how this works: it inflates
the word, deletes all mention of the justification for using it, and
projects both of these moves onto Them. Next, they started using the
word "partisan" in the inflated, dishonest way that they had ascribed
to their opponents. Again very characteristically, this gave them
the cover they needed to go around irrationally abusing people: it
let them think "*they're* really the ones who are doing this to *us*".
This is one reason why the speakers of the new jargon so cherish the
slights that they sometimes experience: they now have new cover to
employ in abusing people. What is more, the word "partisan", like the
word "bias", now means nothing except "you have a different opinion
than mine", except that having a different opinion is now ipso facto
wrong -- not just mistaken but improper. Faced with the discomfort
of differing views, you can now release the tension by flinging these
empty words, thereby assaulting people while feeling inwardly that you
are standing up for morality. And if they have a problem with that,
then of course you can ask surprised and accuse them of abusing *you*.
(2) Bogus claims of double standards. These are pervasive. You
might say, for example, "Jesse Jackson parachuted in and had 10,000
people marching, but when conservatives have 100 people expressing
their views you call it fascism". See how easy that was? See how
the grammatical parallelism locks in a certain construction of the
situation that happens to omit key facts, for example the people who
got kicked, punched, trampled, threatened, and screamed at, not to
mention the people whose votes will now most likely never be counted?
Here is another version: "when Jesse Jackson does it you call it
democracy, but when conservatives do it you call it fascism". Note
the strategic vagueness of the phrase "does it". Did Jesse Jackson
apply the word "thugs" to peaceful bureaucrats and then order a gang
of actual thugs to go attack them? Well, no. Once again, grammatical
parallelism locks in a presupposition of moral equivalence without
the bother of a substantive argument.
One person, in trying to draw
a moral equivalence between Jackson's protests and the Republican
riots accused Jackson of issuing a "call to arms" in Florida, the
trick being to use a metaphor in a way that deniably insinuates that
it was literally true. But even if Jesse Jackson did once, one time,
somewhere, notwithstanding his life-long commitment to the principles
of nonviolence of Martin Luther King, incite people to violence,
note how weak the double-standard argument is.
This is the party
of morality we are talking about -- the party of right and wrong, of
personal responsibility. And one of the basics of Right and Wrong 1A
is that that "they do it too" is not an excuse! The double-standard
argument is at best a diversion, a way to change the topic, to make
Them into the issue instead of oneself. It is a way to dissociate in
one's own mind the fact that one is condoning and defending violence,
and thereby to crush one more layer of one's own conscience.
(3) Bogus claims of stereotyping. I said, and now repeat, that the
Republican party employed fascist tactics to shut down a vote-counting
process that the feared they would lose. Rather than try to refute
this proposition, some have chosen to defocus it, and pretend that
I have stereotyped all conservatives, or all Republicans, or all Bush
supporters, as fascists.
That's a convenient approach for a number
of reasons. Our society disapproves of stereotypes, and of course
liberals have been in the forefront of that disapproval. Accusing
a putative liberal of stereotyping thus serves the double purpose
of delegitimizing the putative liberal's argument and removing the
moral force from the accusations of stereotyping that liberals have
It is not true, of course, that everyone who voted for George
W. Bush is a fascist. Many good people who voted for Bush because
they believed that Al Gore had told a large number of lies about his
record; those people had been subjected to a disinformation campaign,
so one could hardly blame them. Those same people, however, must
now face the fact that the party for which they voted organized a
riot whose express purpose was to shut down the counting of votes.
The moral culpability for Bush voters who remain silent about this
fact is growing day by day, and the more they remain silent the more
we are entitled to conclude that they have no problem with fascist
tactics. We'll give them perhaps a week more.
(4) Quite a few people have asserted that the violence in Miami simply
did not happen. Some people made this claim in response to a message
in which I provided a URL for a video clip of a running mob knocking
down a cameraman and screaming at Miami election officials. I don't
what more I can say to such people. And a reader directed me to the
discussion of the Miami events at the Free Republic Web site (whose
URL is http://www.freerepublic.com/).
Those folks simply took for
granted that the violence did not occur, and they set about planning
to blast-fax the media with demands that it stop reporting its lies.
They also managed to blame the violence, without quite admitting that
it happened, on planned provocations by the liberal media and so on.
In general my mailbox is filled with complicated language that places
responsibility for the violence on the people who were attacked, for
example asserting that they had "incited" the attacks by twisting the
ballots they were counting. (I am not making this up.)
(5) Associative reasoning. Regular readers will be aware that one of
the central tactics of public relations is a primitive, sub-rational
form of logic based on associations between concepts. Every argument
is shorn of its logical connectives and reduced to a matter of
building or breaking associations. Thus, for example, some people ask
me rhetorically whether *every* participant in the Miami protests was
engaged in violence.
In a rational world this question is irrelevant
to the point of being bizarre. But in the world of public relations
it makes perfect sense: the complaint about Republican terror tactics
in Miami is reduced to an attempt to associate Republican protesters
with violence, and the formulaic response is to insert a wedge between
those two concepts. Because associative reasoning is sub-rational
it does not matter how large the wedge is: this kind of logic has no
sense of proportion, and so one single protester who did not manage
to land a punch is enough to snap the association and win the argument.
Arguments like this are confusing to people who do not understand
their underlying logic, and their very senselessness often suffices
to paralyze the audience: because they do not contain any rational
argument, reason can get no foothold in trying to prepare a response.
(6) Mind games. For all its positive value, the Internet can also be
a vast emotional cesspool, as every aggressive nut in the world goes
around recruiting other people into his distorted personal dramas.
It takes two to play these games, and some responsibility must be
allocated to the people who take the bait. One of the games, which
I first identified some years ago, might be called Liberal Professor
Closes His Mind To New Ideas. It has two major roles, Professor (P)
and Questioner (Q), and goes like this:
P: posts material to a large Internet mailing list that has any
sort of political content
Q: sends P a response that presents itself as an innocent comment
full of high-minded language but in fact is utterly snide and
laced with abusive innuendo
P: takes offense and mails back a reply that reacts to the bait
in any way
Q: declares victory by adopting a tone of wounded innocence and
professing shock and/or rueful disappointment and/or abusive
indignation that a Liberal Professor Closes His Mind To New Ideas
The cycle may repeat, with P taking more of the bait and Q escalating
the rhetoric of wounded innocence, grave injustice, unconscionable
rudeness, abuse of authority, and so on. It takes very little for
Q to portray himself (in my experience it is always a man) as the
victim of rude closed-mindedness.
The twisted logic is of course part
of the game -- an invitation to play another round, double or nothing.
This stuff gets old after a while, and after many years of responding
to nearly every message I got, I've now had to start deleting large
amounts of mail. I find that my policy of responding to everyone has
eroded my boundaries -- my inner intuitive sense of which people are
approaching me in a constructive way and which are trying to bait me.
So I'm going to have to let some mail drop on the floor. My apologies
if I mistakenly drop yours.
Those, then, are the major rhetorical devices of the people who have
written to abuse me in response to RRE's coverage of the US election
controversy. Of course, lots of other people have written me in
a constructive spirit as well, and my main point here (as I always
say, or at least mean, when I write about abusive e-mail) is not to
complain but to dissect.
Lots of people -- and I mean lots -- have
to put up with the sorts of twisted rhetoric I describe. And lots of
those people have sat out the current election, either because they
became demoralized through the constant rhetorical pelting they've
had to endure, or because they simply could not figure out what was
wrong with the tidal wave of twisted language that now clogs the
media. Those people have allowed disinformation and doubletalk to
go unrebutted, and many of them are dismayed to see the collapse into
far-right dissociation that is unfolding before us in Florida now.
It will be a long time until normal Americans will be able to rebuild
a movement for democracy that can stand up to the insanity, such
is the destruction that has been inflicted on the English language
in the last ten years. But there's no time like the present, while
our attention is focused on an evil that is so open and above-board.
Several people have asked me where they can read more about the role
of projection in politics. It would seem that we are stuck with it.
The answer is, I don't know of any political works that discuss the
role of projection, which I find surprising given what I perceive
as overwhelming dominance of projection in contemporary political
discourse. The best book about projection that I know, at least the
best for a general audience, is Robert Bly's "A Little Book on the
Human Shadow" (Harper and Row, 1988).
Bly uses the Jungian word
"shadow" instead of "projection", but that doesn't mean you have to
buy the totality of Jung's theories. The idea is that people who
disown parts of themselves thereby acquire a "shadow": the disowned
parts are still real and active, but they operate secretively,
under the cover of a darkness that one creates by dimming one's
own consciousness. Some people disown the weak parts of themselves,
or the emotional parts, or even (as in George W. Bush's case) the
Faced with the problem of getting rid of these
parts of themselves, people often project those disowned, negatively
valued parts into other people. Someone who has homosexual feelings,
for example, might choose to disown them, project them, and thereby
develop a hatred for homosexuals. This is perhaps one reason why
conservative operatives are so often discovered to have hidden lives.
What most concerns me in political terms is projective aggression --
in other words, a shadow that consists of angry, aggressive impulses,
presumably underlain by some kind of terror. People who exhibit
projective aggression are aggressive, but they experience their
aggression as being located in someone else, most commonly in the
person they are practicing their aggression upon.
This kind of shadow
is particularly dangerous because it feeds on itself: the aggressor
experiences himself as being under attack, and this only feeds the
aggression, so that more and more of his personality becomes shadow
and less and less of the human being remains in the light. The mark
of projective aggression is a sustained and cultivated pattern -- not
a random instance or two, not an occasional bad day, but something
deeply integrated into the personality -- of accusing others of doing
precisely what one is doing oneself. For example, having heard a
careful and detailed refutation of his views, the aggressor might
snap, "you shouldn't dismiss my ideas so quickly!". Observe how this
works: it is a false accusation -- his views were not dismissed --
that is also an example of itself -- he is dismissing the refutation
he has just heard. I have given many other, more serious examples.
Some people have been comparing the organized campaign of violence and
intimidation in Florida to the situation in Germany in 1933. I don't
think the comparison is fair. The level of violence is much lower,
the propaganda is dramatically more sophisticated, the extreme economic
conditions aren't there, and the pathological child-rearing practices
that produced the Holocaust with so many willing executioners are not
matched even by the worst of the brutality that is advocated by Focus
on the Family.
Nonetheless, I have been fascinated by the emotional climate of the
present campaign. It's not just the organized violence, which is
simply the culmination of a vastly more extensive trend over years:
the powerfully driven cultivation of projective aggression in all
things. It is crucial that no projection can happen except by
dissociating a part of one's own self.
"Liberals", in the currently
fashionable jargon, are really a disowned part of the jargonmeister's
own personality, denigrated and displaced into someone else, who then
becomes an object of dehumanizing scorn. People who use the jargon
to rant about liberals, in other words, are actually scorning a large
part of their own personalities. Although the think tanks who provide
the cultural ammunition for projective aggression operate for private
gain, as a psychological and spiritual matter it is essentially a
private drama that just happens to be played out on a public stage
with real victims.
When large parts of the self are dissociated in this way, a certain
emotional atmosphere takes over. We are seeing this atmosphere now.
It is sometimes called "anger", and no doubt the biological correlates
of anger are all present. But it's not just anger. It goes much
deeper than that. It has an empty, rote quality; it is primitive
and diffuse. It is thoroughly nonsensical. Its rhetoric increasingly
conforms to a small repertoire of almost automatic patterns, such
as the ones that I have described above.
The purpose of every single
one those patterns is dissociation: every crumb of rationality or
conscience that might short-circuit the aggression is systematically
caught and thrown back at Them -- projected, in other words, into the
demonized object of the aggression. "It is really them who ...", and
"I can't stand listening to their sanctimonious ...". It then becomes
possible, for example, to steal an election by the most extreme and
overt measures while kidding oneself that one is actually preventing
*them* from stealing the election.
I am sure that this week's events are not unique in history. To the
contrary, I assume that the emotional atmosphere that surrounds the
assault on democracy in Florida could be found in most of history's
assaults on democracy. We can't know what it felt like to be part
of history's other great reactions. But if we can somehow bottle
the emotional tone of the assaults on reason and the rule of law in
Florida this week -- all of them launched, as is the nature of these
things, under the guise of protecting reason and the rule of law --
then perhaps we will be able to understand what exactly it is that
went so wrong in other calamities from the past, including ones that
were much worse.
One of the well-known downsides of the Electoral College is the
potential for the situation that we have right now: a candidate who
loses the popular vote but wins the electoral college vote. This
situation is more likely to happen in the future, given the increasing
precision of the poll-driven, marketing-oriented campaigning methods
that are being cultivated by both major parties, and so we need to
understand the problem as well as possible.
A prevailing myth about
the Electoral College is that it produces these pathological outcomes
because of the winner-take-all rule: winning a state by 89% of the
vote is the same in electoral terms as winning it by 51%, and so a
candidate who has a strong base of support in one region or another
can win the popular vote but lose to a candidate who has thin margins
in other states. And certainly this does happen to a degree: George
W. Bush won the southern and mountain states by larger margins than
Gore won much of the industrial midwest.
Yet the winner-take-all system has an important advantage. If we had
a direct national popular-vote system right now then the uproar in
Florida would be extended to the whole country. In particular, those
states which are completely dominated by a single party would have a
great incentive to stuff the ballot box in favor of their candidate.
In my opinion this is reason enough to keep the winner-take-all rule.
But there is another factor as well: the Electoral College gives each
state a vote equal to the number of its Senators plus the number of
its Representatives. This is a bias toward the rural states, which
tend to be more conservative. Was it a deciding bias in the present
It's easy enough to tell. I went back to the Electoral College
results thus far and re-added both Bush's and Gore's totals counting
only the Representatives, not the Senators -- in other words, reducing
each state's electoral vote by two. The total electoral vote is thus
436 instead of 536 (in other words, the membership of the House plus
one for the District of Columbia), and 219 votes are needed to win.
Does Al Gore have more than 219 votes without Florida? Easily: under
the House-only Electoral College system, Gore has 225 votes to Bush's
That does not itself mean, of course, that anyone should
claim a victory for Gore, except for the partial moral victory that
he has rightly earned. The rule of law requires that, barring extreme
illegitimacy, we should stick with the rules until they can be changed.
But it does mean that the supposed anomaly was not random at all,
but is the consequence of a political bias that for historical reasons
became lodged in our laws.
The Florida story has threatened to consume my life since Election
Day, and I want to redeem all the time I've unfortunately spent on it
by trying to draw some conclusions from the experience. When I lived
on the east coast, or in Europe, I could go to bed on Election Day,
safe in the knowledge that nothing important would be decided until
I got up.
It doesn't work that way on the west coast, unfortunately,
and when I started listening to the election returns on Tuesday
afternoon it was like I had grabbed ahold of a live electric wire
and couldn't let go. I had the radio on NPR and three or four browser
windows open the whole time, and I noticed afterward how natural it
felt to be able to watch county-level election returns coming in on
the cnn.com Web site. County-level, mind you, not just state level,
and by Wednesday evening I was already cussing the news organizations
for not having precinct-level returns on their sites as well.
the race deadlocked in the small hours of the morning, my mind slowly
clotted until I gave up, thought of some more numbers to check, gave
up again, looked at some more numbers, went to bed after they called
Florida for Bush, got a feeling that something was wrong, discovered
that Florida had been uncalled, and finally gave up when NPR said that
we would officially have no winner that night.
When I got up in the morning, I had another message I wanted to send
out to RRE anyway, and I wanted to see what happened if I commented
on the Florida train wreck that was dimly taking form. In retrospect
I was not thinking clearly. Long-time subscribers to this list are
aware that I want people to send me useful resources that relate to
the topics this list covers, and I often receive a fresh blast of
such useful resources whenever I mention that I find a certain topic
interesting. Having declared an interest in the unfolding election-
results story, the blast began, and it did not quit for days.
One intuition I have in running this list is that the world is only
loosely knitted together in social-network terms, and that something
important can be happening in one social world without the other
social worlds knowing about it. RRE's readers include a reasonably
diverse mix of people -- people who inhabit a reasonably diverse mix
of social worlds. And so I, like management consultants and newspaper
publishers and many other sorts of professional bridge-builders --
can provide a useful service as a kind of informational arbitrageur,
gathering information from various social worlds and then broadcasting
it all to people in various other social worlds.
In that sense RRE
exists to reduce the world's fragmentation, or put another way to
help (in its own small way) to create a widespread sense of the whole.
This function is especially important when something is new, whether
the medium-term newness of the many facets of the Internet or the
hour-by-hour newness of the story emerging in Miami, and I soon
realized that the story in Miami had an awful lot of parts that nobody
had yet put together into a single coherent picture. And so even
though half the world's news-gathering operations had already sent
highly motivated professionals to the center of the action, I was
still curious to see what I could contribute.
And not just curious.
The live electric wire still had control of me, and I think that on
some level I really believed that nobody would know about these events
unless I publicized them. After all, once I sent out my first batch
of notes and URL's on the emerging controversy, and once my 5000
subscribers had forwarded that message to their heaven-knows-how-many
thousand friends, suddenly I had that many thousand people all primed
to send me whatever interesting stuff they had come across. How many
newspapers have that?
So the stuff came pouring on in. Wednesday was okay; even though I
had work to do, I figured that I could give up one day for democracy.
I've certainly worked enough evenings and weekends to have a day in
the bank. People sent me stuff, I packaged it up, and I sent it out.
I engaged in rapid-fire correspondences with I-have-no-idea-how-many
people, often taking the form of "do you have URL's to substantiate
that, or is it just a rumor?", and then eventually taking the form
of "hurry up, I need this, I need that". This was nonstop, literally,
all through the day.
Thursday was worse. The stuff kept pouring in.
If everyone sent me neatly packaged URL's, all prescreened, then that
would be okay. But in reality I was getting every possible description
of stuff. I was overwhelmed. What to do? I could drop all the stuff
on the floor, but it seemed like I was doing something important that
nobody else was going to do if I didn't.
And the hate mail had started. It's unfair to call some of it "hate
mail", since it was really a dramatically mixed bag. Some of these
people, motivated by a special combination of political strategy and
personality problems, were trying to provoke me with snide innuendoes,
false accusations, and all-around craziness. Couldn't I ignore them?
The problem is that there is no clear dividing line. Lots of people
are angry but rational. Others pretend to be rational but then become
irrational in an insidious way. Some of the crazy people are actually
useful and benign. There's every possible combination. For seven
years I've had a policy of responding to pretty much everyone who
writes me, but the sheer diversity of high-powered mind games was too
much for me to deal with rationally. I've had to abandon that now.
And that probably means that I am deleting, in some case unread, some
messages that are in fact rational and helpful. I don't see a way
In any event, the hate mail was only one relatively small side of the
story. The major story was happening in Florida and elsewhere, and
the people who were getting my packages of URL's and comments were
continuing to send me a steady stream of material. It was oppressive,
to be honest, and I struggled with it. It was only after a couple of
days that I settled into a pattern.
By now I have sent out something
like fifteen packages of URL's containing well over 500 URL's in all,
and I expect to reach 800 by the time the whole thing is over and
we return to our regularly scheduled programming. But the format of
these lists of URL's -- basically, the same format of title-plus-URL
that I use in my "notes and recommendations" and "pointers" messages --
actually emerged over time. I had not originally thought in terms of
a policy; I never made a decision that said, "I am going to cover this
story every day until it goes away". Things were happening too fast
for that, and I was just struggling to keep up. The neat packages of
URL's were actually something of a desperation measure at first, and
it was only after a few days, perhaps on Friday, that I decided to let
the messages settle into that pattern.
Meanwhile I was trying to get work done. The live electric wire was
one problem: no sooner would I start fashioning a new paragraph of
scholarly prose then I would come up with another bright idea for my
election coverage, or else another hypothesis to check out on one of
the many formerly obscure (to me) Web sites where election-relevant
information could be found.
Breaking events were another problem:
whenever something happened, people would send me stuff, and I would
check my mail as I habitually do and read it. Even though I had all
sorts of friendly, helpful people sending me important and useful
information, and even though I was gaining glory by sharing all of
this information with my 5000 subscribers and their unknown thousands
of friends, I was feeling ever more oppressed to the point of a mild
despair. I hate feeling despair, though, and so I decided that I had
to take action.
The solution that I hit upon was counterintuitive: I
didn't want to just drop the whole thing, and so I had to take control
over it, and I did that by asking people to do research for me. Every
person who sent me any sort of constructive or supportive e-mail got a
simple thank-you response, together with a scripted request that they
go out and find URL's or other distributable resources relating to
one or another of the bewildering variety of issues that were burning
at that particular moment.
Then Rich Cowan, who I knew slightly many years ago at MIT, started
putting together his "13 Myths" article, and so I started dragooning
my subscribers into working for Rich. I was struck by how hard it
was to pin down the facts, and so I refused Rich's offer -- a request,
really -- that I list myself as coauthor of his piece. I was being a
conduit, a switchboard, and I didn't have time to stand back and judge
whether I fundamentally agreed with his piece, much less whether I was
confident that he had 100% of his facts completely straight. Having
taken control of the situation in that way, by aggressively delegating
and putting myself in charge to some degree rather than just passively
being bombarded with both the good and the bad of my e-mail in-box, I
managed to beat back the sense of oppressive semi-despair and actually
get some work done.
It was then that I began to notice the role that the Internet was
playing in the dynamics of the political events in Florida. Here was
a story that the whole country was truly focused on, to a degree if
anything that was even greater than during the impeachment debacle.
Literally everyone was talking about it, and I imagined millions of
people on the Internet all pulling down complex Web pages from the
news organizations and major political sites.
Some of those sites
did buckle under the pressure, particularly the New York Times, but
because all of the major sites were using Akamai to distribute their
servers, most of the sites survived perfectly well and even maintained
reasonably good response times even when breaking events were clearly
causing massive coordinated downloads. The Internet of two years ago
would have collapsed under the impact of this story.
I was also struck at how current the information on the various sites
was, and how rapidly it became available. At one point someone said,
"that lawsuit was announced on CNN five minutes ago; why aren't the
briefs up on the court Web site yet?", and meant it seriously enough
that the impulse to spin conspiracy theories began to stir. We have
rapidly become accustomed to the idea that even quite cumbersome
documents from high-visibility legal and political events will be
readily found on the Web, and I received dozens of analyses, both
amateur and professional, of the statistical and legal aspects of
Many people had clearly downloaded and read the
Florida election laws, for example, and I have to say that the state
of Florida deserves congratulations for an infrastructure that was
already in place and operating smoothly before this controversy broke.
(I spoke at a conference of the e-Florida initiative in January 1999,
just as Jeb Bush had been inaugurated. They never paid me, though,
and some day I will get around to suing them.) The Florida Supreme
Court had a video feed for its most momentous hearing, and even some
of the county courts had the major documents available online.
We are also evidently quite accustomed to newspapers being online,
and not just the major national papers but the regional papers as
well. I soon learned that the regional papers had a great deal of
detail that the national papers did not, particularly in the first
few days, and that they were breaking quite a few important stories.
In fact the regional papers remain crucial resources for dedicated
students of the controversy to this day, and I took particular care
to cultivate readers who would scan those papers for me every day.
I also have to say that the reporting at the best three or four of
the regional newspapers was an incredible relief after a year-plus
of the absolute garbage that the New York Times and Washington Post
had been publishing instead of reporting in a serious way on the
campaigns. The national press has been infected by a combination
of echo-chamber celebrity spin and the corrosive trivialization that
is epitomized by the loathesome Maureen Dowd. The reporters at the
regional papers were refreshing for the simple reason that they did
their jobs, and they made me realize how much I had missed ordinary
old-fashioned journalism. Pulitzer Prizes for the staff at the Palm
That said, not everything in the civilian sectors of the Internet was
sweetness and light. A lot of the amateur legal analyses were pretty
bad, actually, and even some of the most celebrated college-professor
statistical analyses were complete bunk -- for example, applying
various statistical operations that require normal distributions to
data that hadn't remotely been normalized. (Alas this was the one
that had gotten the widest distribution, and I swear that I received
its URL from fifty different people. Fortunately the serious analyses
that followed did not change the outcome.)
You had your Free Republic
types sharing their usual toxic swill of speculative semi-truth, and
you had your lazy thinkers complacently lecturing us all about how
it was ever thus and everyone does it. You had your people, way too
many of them, who don't know how to spell the word "liar". You had
your jokes about the people in Palm Beach County who were supposedly
such idiots, including a large number of "jokes" that falsified the
issues but did so under the cover of being "just a joke". You had
your disinformation, but then the disinformation was originating with
the spin machine and being reprinted in the national press, so it
wasn't the Internet's fault, except that the Internet was accelerating
the process by which the disinformation was becoming ineradicably
embedded in the culture.
Everything happened so fast. This wasn't just the Internet's doing,
and in fact I'm sure that it was CNN's doing a hundred times more than
it was the Internet's. (Internet people tend to wildly overestimate
how important they are compared to CNN.)
I was particularly struck
by how fast the famous butterfly ballot in Florida become a cultural
icon. A friend who wrote one of the early scholarly analyses of
that ballot, lamented that he had been out of the office and had
heard about the controversy late enough in the day that, his company's
PR people informed him, he had missed the day's news cycle -- the day
being Wednesday, one day after the election. People kept sending me
different analyses of the ballot and of the vote for Pat Buchanan in
Palm Beach County, but already by Friday these were very old news and
I had started throwing them out.
This speed is mostly a bad thing, in my opinion, given that the first
contributions are not necessarily the most thoughtful, yet in fact
I was surprised and relieved just how useful most of the early well-
publicized materials actually were. The business of the confusing
Palm Beach ballot is still mystifying, although that's largely because
few of the thousands of people who provided affidavits in the matter
wanted to make a big stink about it -- they mostly just wanted their
votes to count -- and so few of those affidavits have yet seen the
light of day.
More recent evidence suggests that Palm Beach suffered
from a range of problems, the real sleeper among which was the failure
to empty the chad out of the Vote-O-Matic machines, as a result of
the overwhelming crowds at the polling station (and many other polling
stations) who had been turned out by the Democrats' massive get-out-
the-vote campaigns. When you don't empty the chads from the voting
machine you get dimpled ballots -- the chads have nowhere to go -- and
this explains why the dimpled ballots occured most commonly in heavily
This story doesn't conflict with the confusing-
ballot story, and in fact in retrospect most of the elements of the
overall story were present in the first few days, but it has only
been this weekend that the picture has started to come together. In
general, despite my distrust of the echo chamber effects of the 24/7
celebrity news machine, I am impressed that so few real myths became
entrenched in instantaneous news cycles -- as opposed to the partisan
spin in the opinion columns -- of the first week of the election
So what difference did it make that I've spent a few hours a day over
the last couple of weeks gathering up roughly 30 Web resources a day
and sending them out? What difference did it make that I wrote my
various short essays on the controversy that people could send around?
I haven't the slightest idea, and maybe my next project should be
to find out.
An Internet mailing list, except for the very largest,
has a much smaller circulation than a real newspaper. But it also
has a much higher rate of pass-along; I would suspect that the average
"copy" of an RRE message -- that is, the 5000 copies that get sent
directly to subscribers, not counting the people who read RRE in the
Web archives -- has many more readers than the average copy of any
first-world newspaper. If Eudora did not mutilate forwarded messages
by default -- I really have a grudge about that -- then the pass-along
rate would surely be much higher.
But it's not just about the numbers of people who receive a message,
but about what they do with it. Some of my collections of URL's,
especially the early ones, did reach people who were on the front
lines of the controversy, or so I am told by people who claimed to
know them. But a package of URL's can be useful in many other ways,
and I cannot imagine what all those ways are, or which ones make
the most difference in the long run.
One citizen who is somewhat
better informed is already a plus as far as a democracy is concerned;
a college professor who has better materials to circulate to the
students in a class is a double-plus; a reporter or columnist who
gets a bigger picture and might otherwise have written nonsense based
on the spinning of the operatives is a quadruple-plus and then some.
But maybe that's just the standard-average civics-class theory of
democracy, as opposed to the real reality of the Internet's place in
the workings of a cognitively complicated, wildly diverse, admirably
energetic, moderately well-educated, thoroughly mass-mediated society.
We really don't know, and we aren't even asking the questions well.
Still, in my view the fundamental issue in our society is not about
technology but political culture. Do people roll over dead when
they confront organized campaigns of disinformation and doubletalk?
Do they feel the confusion and despair that they are intended to
feel? Do they mobilize themselves to refute the nonsense, or do they
just ignore it and hope it will go away?
Al Gore clearly decided to
ignore most of the lies that were being told about him. I'm sure that
he wanted to rise above it all and win the campaign by sheer force
of intellect and effort. Although I disagree with Gore about many
things, I do identify with him as a person; if I ran for president
then my campaign would be lousy too, and for many of the same reasons.
But then for all I know he was really compulsively recapitulating his
father's famous 1970 loss to the Republican smear campaign of Bill
Brock; this year's campaign resembles that one in some ways, though
Whatever else we learn from this year's election, I think we can
conclude that ignoring the insanity of the operatives and echo chamber
is not going to work, and that our sanity as individuals and a society
has already corroded to a much greater degree than we have realized.
The Internet is a tool; it does not create much that is new but
amplifies the forces that are already going on in the society. If
we lie down and allow our sanity to be crushed, then the Internet
will amplify that force and we will all go mad. The alternative is
to rise up and confront the insanity, holding it steady through careful
and responsible quotation long enough for it to lose its emotionally
assaultive force and start revealing itself as the highly engineered
nonsense that it is.
The temptation will always be to sink to their
level, to ingest the insanity because of the false promises of power
that it holds out. That is precisely what the insanity wants, and
that is precisely the way in which the crazy people got crazy in the
first place. The road to sanity is not through insanity, much less
The cause of sanity may call on us to be forceful
in a moral sense, saying NO when we are assaulted with the corruption
of our language. But fundamentally it calls on us to heal ourselves,
to rid the disinformation and doubletalk from our minds, to spread
rational analysis and plain language to the people who need it,
to reconnect with the source of all sanity that lies beyond us, to
rebuild the conditions of democracy, and to let go of the need to fix
it all by ourselves, or else to give up.
With Deadline Near, Florida Recount Grinds On
pure refined projection
Presidential Votes Disqualified in Florida
A Burgher Rebellion in Dade County
Bad Weather and Vote Recounting in Palm Beach
Who Won in Florida?
Florida Absentee-Ballot Lawsuit Has Similarities to Alabama Case
Harris' E-Mail: Another Story
Playing With Fire
Verbal, Real Brickbats Fly in Florida Election Protests
In Praise of the Circus
Partisan Intensity Increases in Legal Battles for Election
Political Parade Surrounds Broward Count
Judge in Seminole Suit Had Similar Absentee-Forms Problem
Judge Hears Overseas Vote Case, Scolds Bush Lawyer
State Judge Rejects Major Review of Military Ballots
Gore Picks Up 400 Votes in Two Counties
Anything to Win
Broward Carefully Races to Finish Count
Dimpled Ballots Blamed on Faulty Machines
Phone Banks Lure Republican Faithful
Ballot Chads Are Tough Cookies, Despite Negative Publicity
In Tangled Race, a "Contest" Looms
Florida Judge Resists on GI Votes
Certification Challenge Would Transform Case
Gore Gains in Broward; Count Reaches Midpoint
Gored in Miami
Justices Dust Off an 1887 Statute for Ballot Battle
Gore Opens Drive to Keep Democrats in the Fight
US Supreme Court to Hear Florida Recount Case
Gore to Contest Recount Result in Palm Beach
tons of legal stuff
Winning by Intimidation
Democrats Call for Federal Investigation
Joseph I. Lieberman on the Demonstrations
Votomatic Inventor Says Indented Ballots Should Be Included
Party Operatives Start "Spontaneous" Demonstrations
Vocal Protesters Swarm Recount
Justices Exercised "Equitable Power" to Try to Resolve Vote Dispute
Florida State Bird
Canadian asylum application
Florida Counties Holding Hearings to Decide Their Counts
Bush reply to Gore in US Supreme Court
Republican reply in US Supreme Court case on manual recounts
Scared of Florida Count, GOP Attacks Democracy