Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The many flavours of right-wing thought: Silly, nasty and scary

Many thanks to Lawyers, Guns and Money for bringing to my attention the flap surrounding conservative law blogger (and tenured law professor) Ann Althouse's meltdown while appearing on (Context and links are explained below, and if you don't know the background then the event itself is not quite so rich in meaning.)

Althouse came to my attention sometime last year--I believe it was during another Bloggingheads segment--and even then I couldn't quite understand the amount of attention she was getting as a commentator. I read her blog for a while but then stopped, since I found she was too often either a) boring, b) silly, c) unpleasant, or d) simply mouthing the sort of political platitudes that issue forth at regular intervals from Republican Party central office.

Sometimes, she managed to be all four at the same time. She, however, seemed to think of herself as some kind of rebellious free-thinker. I think it was the exhaustion that resulted from coping with this cognitive dissonance that made me just lose interest.

But, you know, that's fine; after all, there's no accounting for taste, and I know I have my own bad hair days when it comes to blogging. Nobody makes you read something. So I stopped.

Nonetheless, since I was already aware of her, I did note the bizarre little incident last September in which Althouse made snide comments about the photo of a female blogger who appeared in a photo with Bill Clinton. (Her comments, actually, referred to the prominence of said blogger's breasts in the photo.) When the blogger in question wrote to Althouse and took issue with Althouse's post, Althouse merely upped the criticism: in a further blog post--and in comments which followed--she launched into a crass diatribe which was both unnecessarily personal and ill-informed.

It's difficult to summarise the whole thing, but it revolved around Clinton, feminism and...erm...breasts. Excellent overviews are available from Michael Bérubé, Orcinus and, Althouse's target herself, Jessica Valenti, at Feministing. (With Bérubé's being the most entertaining and possibly insightful: he, rightly enough, identifies Althouse as a typical 'academic bully'.)

So, in the Bloggingheads episode from last Saturday, Garance Franke-Ruta, in the context of a discussion about nastiness and the blogosphere, referred to 'the Jessica Valenti breast controversy' and Althouse...well...seems to go into a kind of enraged-yet-still-somehow -self-pitying meltdown. (Which can be found at Bloggingheads if you want to watch the whole thing and look for it. However, it's also been excerpted by Crooks and Liars and is probably by now on YouTube somewhere. Firedoglake also has a very good overview.)

Now, this may be not so interesting in itself. The debate itself was kind of ridiculous, and as I said, I think Althouse is terribly overrated. (I don't, actually, find Feministing to be really my cup of tea either, though I agree with several others that Althouse's comments have been unfair and uninformed.) Moreover, I think Garance Franke-Ruta could have done a much better job of handling (and confronting) Althouse's odd rage. (But, you know, I'm not sure I'd have been all that quick on my mental feet in the moment either, so fair enough. I mean, there you are in a public debate where a certain professionalism might be expected and someone freaks out at you for nothing. )

Althouse has already received a fair amount of criticism (see above summaries and related links) so there's no point in piling on, other than, perhaps, to note that her latest comment on the matter (scroll down to the 'update') seems to mistake the issue at hand.

No, I don't think anybody would expect her to play nice in a debate or to pull punches (she never has in the past, quite the contrary): the point, however, is that her hysterical reaction to Franke-Ruta and her whinge about all the mean-spirited liberals online simply makes her look like a fool with a paranoid persecution complex and a delusional opinion as to the actual balance of ideological bile in American politics.

That's all.

This sorry episode is, actually, all mere prologue to the interesting things I ran across while looking into this story.

To take Althouse's comments at half face-value, I have no doubt that there are people with liberal/left politics out there who say illegitimately cruel, nasty things about their political opponents on the right. (And I've taken the opportunity to point out the failures of liberal and left thinking when I run across something egregious.) Sometimes that kind of invective goes too far, but sometimes it's just part of the rough-and-tumble of debate. (It is unfortunate when discussions about ideas are replaced by personal attacks.)

Sometimes, though, it may be that the targets of such invective actually deserve it.

I was driven to this thought by David Neiwert at Orcinus, who has compiled an excellent library of right-wing commentary which is truly offensive and not simply compiled from comments sections on obscure blogs. Neiwert suggests there is a noticeable tide of what he refers to as 'eliminationism' in some right-wing political thinking. What does that mean?

It's a fairly self-explanatory term: it describes a kind of politics and culture that shuns dialogue and the democratic exchange of ideas for the pursuit of outright elimination of the opposing side, either through complete suppression, exile and ejection, or extermination.
And he has written a fascinating 10-part series about this topic. I've only started looking at it, but it begins here with part one.

The appendix to his series is, in itself, a fascinating read, putting Althouse's comments about nasty liberals into context. (I don't, though, associate her views with those catalogued by Neiwert. They are truly nasty. She is just a bit silly.)

And it leads me to a point where, with a surprisingly short hop to the right, we encounter the sort of people interviewed by Louis Theroux in his gripping documentary, Louis and the Nazis.

This came out a few years ago, but I only ran across it a couple of weeks ago. It was then on Google Video, whence it seems to have disappeared. However, at least for now, there is a version currently at YouTube. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.)

It's...deeply uncomfortable viewing.

But excellent and insightful.



Geoff Coupe said...

Coincidentally, Louis Theroux has a new documentary airing on BBC2 this coming Sunday. He's been spending time with the utterly delightful Phelps family of Topeka, Kansas. Should be toe-curling stuff.

J. Carter Wood said...

I'm glad to know that, though I won't be able to see it until somebody sticks it online somewhere. (But, that's happening faster and faster these days, so...)

I'm glad that Theroux is getting some attention. I've always thought he was excellent.