I promise to try to be more upbeat tomorrow, or at least more entertainingly sarcastic. The post I want to write right now isn't quite as depressing as the others I've written today (genocide, civil war, torture), but it's still not really optimistic. It concerns something that happened about a week ago, which I know is the blogosphere equivalent of about half a century (but I only started blogging this Wednesday!).
You've probably all seen this picture of the lunch Clinton recently had with a group of all-white bloggers in Harlem. The woman standing in the center, in front of Clinton, is named Jessica Valenti; she's an intelligent and talented young writer who's also the driving force behind Feminsting.com, a group blog on feminism and women's issues in culture and politics. I've never met Jessica or anyone associated with Feministing.com, so what I'm about to say is not motivated by any sense of personal loyalty or animus.
Jessica's appearance in the picture prompted several blog posts from Ann Althouse, a law professor and blogger at the University of Wisconsin. The first was simply opaque snark. But then Althouse decided to post another entry, with the intelligent and tasteful title "Let's take a closer look at those breasts," and a series of comments in which she let drop pearls of wisdom like "when she goes to meet Clinton, she wears a tight knit top [yes! those sinister knit tops!!] that draws attention to her breasts and stands right in front of him and positions herself to make her breasts as obvious as possible," and "Jessica should have worn a beret. Blue dress would have been good too" (like Monica, of course), and "Jessica looks like Paula Jones (check her profile photo: she does)." When Jessica called Althouse on the blatant sexism of judging her on her looks, Althouse gracefully responded "I'm not judging you by your looks. (Don't flatter yourself.)" Althouse's repellent comments inspired others from right-wing commentors (who we know are always so mature about women and sex), both on her blog and elsewhere. For so many "conservatives" on the internets, riffing on this vile and spiteful little bit of trollery was clearly the most clever thing they would ever be able to do (and apparently everyone who used the word "intern" got a free set of steak knives).
(Althouse also tried to suggest that her own prurience was somehow shared by Feministing.com. This is called projection, and it's something that freshmen in high school learn about in psychology class. If you're wondering where the quintessence of banality resides in the universe, it's in the person of Ann Althouse. I've tried hard, so far successfully, not to call her "Outhouse." But I surrender to the inevitable.)
Jessica gives the best explanation of what's wrong with all this on her own blog:
And this whole boobgate bullshit isn’t just about Althouse and her mean-spirited attack. It’s about how young women are routinely reminded that they’re only good for one thing—consumption...This kind of incident is a perfect example of how so many people see women—especially young women. We’re there to be ogled or ridiculed. We have nothing else to offer.
Michael Bérubé’s comments are also very good. So why am I drudging all of this up again, a week late and so many dollars short?
In the first place, because Althouse is, as Bérubé notes, a bully, and as we all know, the only way to bring a bully to heel is through public humiliation. Althouse deserves to be known for this gratuitous display of butt-ugliness, if not simply as "Outhouse," henceforth (although having to be such a revolting person is clearly her most severe punishment).
But this also raises larger questions about the internet, and blogs, as means of communication. Yes, as right-wing bloggers have been crowing for so long, blogs are "more democratic" than the old days when the MSM was our unquestioned overlord. But blogs also, from everything I can see, tend more than anything to fracture and polarize the political landscape. The internet, and again making allowances here for my necessarily partial perspective, rarely facilitates the easy exchange of information and opinions between formerly opposed groups, as its most enthusiastic proponents claim it does. It instead creates a series of almost hermetically-sealed echo-chambers, in which increasingly radicalized idealogues shout ever more hoarsely to one another about their own perfect virtue and, of course, the Satanic vices of their opponents.
In this atmosphere, political discourse, and indeed any kind of discouse, is constantly being stripped of anything that would make it meaningfully human. The grotesque treatment doled out to Jessica Valenti by Althouse and her spiritually hunch-backed minions is a case in point. An intelligent, articulate, and morally serious person is turned into an occasion for cheap and banal pseudo-jokes by emotionally retarded hacks who know nothing about her. Their behavior was simply sub-human.
If the twentieth century taught us anything, it's that our grip on our own humanity is much more tenuous than any of us would care to admit, and that technology, more often than not, acts to rip us loose from any ethical, humane mooring. While acknowledging, and indeed lauding, the democratic and progressive aspects of blogs and the internet as a news medium, it is also, I think, worth asking whether they make our communications with one another more or less human.