Braised Chunks of Karl Popper Served in Heavy Sauce

by Henry on September 25, 2008

Scott is probably too self-deprecating to point to this excellently “funny and devastating review”: of Bernard-Henri Lévy’s latest effusion, but I’m not him, and hence have no compunctions. It’s impossible to pick out a favorite bit so I won’t.



HH 09.25.08 at 2:59 pm

There seems to be little correlation between a powerful intellect and the avoidance of juvenile political polemic. It is French intellectuals who seem to attain the greatest mismatches between massive intellectual wattage and the dimmest of political bulbs.

I have always been sympathetic to poor Camus, who had the temerity to apply common sense to the raging left/right food fights of his era and was scorned for it.


Ben 09.25.08 at 3:18 pm

Having not read the book in question, and at the risk of seeming nit-picky, there’s nothing dialectically contradictory about being told an American Left doesn’t exist, and believing yourself that it does, and addressing it accordingly.


Michael Drake 09.25.08 at 4:02 pm

Scott really needs to stop being so mechanical and ritualistic.


Doug 09.25.08 at 5:05 pm

“I frame these questions with all due seriousness”

That’s the best bit, with “due” doing all of the work and getting oh so little of the credit. Scott’s giving BHL every bit as much seriousness as he deserves.


Lex 09.25.08 at 7:08 pm

But if we all know he’s a vacuous twat, why don’t the French? Will they really take any crap so long as it comes from a ‘philosopher’?


Righteous Bubba 09.25.08 at 7:15 pm

But if we all know he’s a vacuous twat, why don’t the French?

That there French nation just can’t spot blowhards, can it? In every other nation people who routinely trot out bullshit are instantly removed from public life.


HH 09.25.08 at 7:40 pm

“In every other nation people who routinely trot out bullshit are instantly removed from public life.”

In France and the rest of Europe, intellectuals are still respected, so their political nonsense receives an attentive hearing. In America, political nonsense is respected only when it comes from ex-actors or charismatic crazies.


Roy Belmont 09.25.08 at 7:47 pm

Backing up the Bubba there.
“But if we all know he’s a vacuous twat, why don’t the French?”
French media, American media.
Masks purporting to be the polis.
Representing the desired state of things of a minority as the whole picture. Until it sort of is.


Mike Hickerson 09.25.08 at 7:48 pm

You just described the Republican Party’s presidential farm team.
As a bonus, many are rewarded with fellowships at Heritage and AM Broadcasting positions in Alaska.


Jaybird 09.25.08 at 7:53 pm

That sort of reminds me, though…

Have you noticed that there are a lot fewer “BUT WHAT ABOUT THE PALESTINIAN OPPRESSION!?!?!??” kinda discussions in the last two-three years?


Watson Aname 09.25.08 at 8:12 pm

In every other nation people who routinely trot out bullshit are instantly removed from public life.

Or rewarded with a presidency. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of middle ground, nations seem to either distrust bullshitters, or enshrine them in the bedrock of political process.


dr. doctrine 09.25.08 at 8:23 pm

In every other nation people who routinely trot out bullshit are instantly removed from public life.

WTF over.


wmr 09.25.08 at 9:10 pm

I don’t get the Popper reference in the review. Can someone explain?


novakant 09.25.08 at 9:29 pm

A well deserved bashing of BHL, the nouveaux philosophes have always been a bunch of superficial rabble-rousers. Unfortunately Lemee ruins everything when he trots out the tired old warhorses of the left in the last two paragraphs. A fundamental hostility towards capitalism and the hope of transforming the political economy of the entire planet isn’t going to get us very far either.


Zrblm 09.25.08 at 10:51 pm

This makes me considerably more sympathetic to Noël Godin’s point of view, I must say.


Michael Drake 09.26.08 at 12:34 am

wmr, I’m assuming it’s a reference to Popper’s political philosophy. In any case, I’m pretty sure the manner in which it is cooked is incidental.


nnyhav 09.26.08 at 2:26 am


Josh in Philly 09.26.08 at 3:01 am

The Mac at his best, wow. I’ve seen BHL’s clichés coming from so many quarters that it’s nice to encounter an evisceration (Novakant, I don’t know that I agree with the ending either, but “Lemee”? The author of the review was not with Motorhead).


Sortition 09.26.08 at 3:03 am

Elegantly done. No discussion of BHL, however, is quite complete without an open-shirted visual.


praisegod barebones 09.26.08 at 5:29 am

‘But if we all know he’s a vacuous twat, why don’t the French?’

Before we start sounding off with quick generalisations about French intellectual life in explanation of this fact, can we try checking that it is in fact a fact.

The one French academic I’ve been able to consult about this (my wife) assures me that not only is he a vacuous twat, but he is well-known for being one. Now admittedly, she did her PhD in Anglo-Saxonia, but the fact that BHL is a regular recipient of much-applauded public custard pieing suggests she might be on to something.


Jim Harrison 09.26.08 at 5:45 am

For good or ill, the French punched well above their weight in the world of ideas until the end of the 70s. After that, you get guys like Bernard-Henri Lévy, i.e. middlebrow nonentitites.


nick s 09.26.08 at 5:46 am

For once, I must applaud Sortition: my wife saw bay-ash-ell on C-SPAN, and his shirt-unbuttoned-to-the-belly burned itself into her memory.

To be explicit, it takes a Belgian to give him the custarding he so deserves? No offence to Ingrid, but you’d think BHL’s compatriots would be up to the task.


Dave 09.26.08 at 7:40 am

Yes, with their armour dented and rusty, their swords bent and blunted, their limbs aching, their eyes dimmed and their ears straining for the sounds of the Internationale, it is only their faithful , but indeed weary, old warhorse that keeps the Quixotic left going.


abb1 09.26.08 at 8:55 am

Why, while there are certainly some of those, there are many more others who are young, energetic and don’t care for the Internationale at all. Read about any of G8 or RNC protests.


Dave 09.26.08 at 10:07 am

From what I saw of the RNC protests, their line seemed to boil down to “Please don’t hit me, it’s against the Constitution”. They were undoubtedly young, some may have been energetic, but if the depth of their critique only goes as far as sticking up for the First Amendment, I would dispute the potential of their supposed “fundamental hostility to capitalism” to be, shall we say, operationalised.


Katherine 09.26.08 at 10:20 am

Perhaps they were sticking up for the First Amendment because they were being hit? Tends to focus the mind.


Chris Williams 09.26.08 at 10:47 am

Abb1: “Read about any of G8 or RNC protests”

Dave: “From what I saw of the RNC protests”

And here we have the pull-out quote at the start of the next “Chomsky for dummies” chapter.


Dave 09.26.08 at 11:00 am

Sorry, I see that only you are allowed to do sarcasm. I’ll confide myself to plodding recital of commonly-agreed facts from now on.


Dave 09.26.08 at 11:01 am

F*ck. “Confine”.


DRR 09.26.08 at 11:04 am

Hostility to Capitalism is the whole point of being “Left” no? Socialism or Communism or Femo-Leninist Anarcho-Sedavacantism would be hard to achieve on an impressive scale with the big C still kicking around.

Besides with comrade Chavez in Venezuela and the collapse of Wall Street the revolution is at least as likely to come as it was in ’68.


stostosto 09.26.08 at 11:12 am

Not that I care much for this BHL character, but does Scott Lemee not seem strangely indignant at his observations on the anaemic state of the American left? For instance, he holds out this statement by his thumb and index finger:

“I was told there has never been an authentic ‘left’ in the United States, in the European sense.”

What, precicesly is the problem with that? Is it the view itself or the fact that BHL says he was told about it? Because the view by itself seems quite uncontroversial to me.


Walt 09.26.08 at 11:55 am

I think Scott objects to being defined out of existence.


Mike 09.26.08 at 12:07 pm

I don’t know about much else, but, not being French, I’m finding ‘Fascislamism’ hard to pronounce.


Chris Williams 09.26.08 at 1:42 pm

Sorry Dave – who’s the ‘you’ above – me or Katherine? Only I don’t want to bogart the CT Sarcasm Licence if it ain’t my turn.


Henry 09.26.08 at 5:13 pm

Abb1 – let me remind you again. You are banned from commenting on my posts. If you try to do so again, I will request that c0-bloggers institute a complete ban on you commenting on any post at CT.


Donald Johnson 09.26.08 at 6:33 pm

Ah, abb1, don’t push him. I generally like having you around and this place will become marginally more pompous if you get Henry riled up enough to ban you blogwide.


MQ 09.26.08 at 6:46 pm

Isn’t BHL sort of exactly the French counterpart to Thomas Friedman? With suitable national shifts in preferred discipline (pop pretension to philosophy vs. pop pretension to international economics), style of fatuousness, etc.


MQ 09.26.08 at 6:46 pm

What the hell is Henry’s problem?


Roy Belmont 09.26.08 at 10:09 pm

It has to do with Henri-Levy and Friedman, in an oblique, sort of undivulgable way.
It may be a microcosmic version of the larger question.
An artificially created vacuum of real and honest dissent, artificial in the sense of being created by force and coercion and overt media censoring and denial of access to venues, rather than simply a lack of vocal partisans, has left plenty of room for the media-sucking megalomania of Friedman and Henri-Levy and others in their affinity group.
It creates the illusion that there is no dissent because none is heard.
Abb1’s already been chagrined here, threatened with banishment, then banned, made to publicly apologize and reconfigure his online positions and concerns for palatability and a kind of political correctness that’s way more about force and power than it is about humanitarian concern.
What a lesson for us all that was.
First they came for abb1, then we all shut up about those things.


Spamzatura 09.26.08 at 11:08 pm

Why do some of you keep calling him “Lemee”? Are you under the impression that his middle name is Mc? I’m pretty sure it isn’t.


novakant 09.27.08 at 12:19 am

Why do some of you keep calling him “Lemee”?

It’s an expression of affection and familiarity, you know, like fans calling McHammer not “McHammer”, but lovingly just “Hammer”.


Order of Magnitude 09.28.08 at 12:17 am

[aeiou] The main flaw of the article and the Achilles heel of the US left is here:

1. Consider the abysmal historic record of Western intellectuals in general and lefties in particular apologizing for totalitarianism and you realize that the left is NOT antitotalitarian. From their infatuation with Mussolini, then their defense of Stalin (even the commies’ firting with Hitler, bet. 1939-41) which few want to remember now, or their providing cover for assorted small time dictators (Let’s hear it for Castro’s Cuba to today’s accommodation of Chavez you realize that anyone with the right anti-capitalist rhetoric and anti-Western violence (real or implied) can earn the plaudits of our lefty friends. Although I would hesitate calling Code Pink leftist (yet I am sure some lefties would welcome them in the fold), it seems they also found the dictator they love.

My point here is that there was really no excuse after the 1930’s to provide cover for totalitarianism yet many intellectuals (primarily lefties) persisted in doing so. The author slips in suggesting that “embracing [the] tradition’s hostility to capitalism” is the litmus test for a true leftist.

Not only is the Western left NOT antitotalitarian, it positively embraces violence and totalitarianism, provided it’s of the “right” kind.

2. Capitalism has elevated more people from poverty than any alternative, real or imagined, and classic liberalism (a la Founding Fathers, and their Scottish/English and some French brethren) is the purest form of antitotalitarianism, because its conservative reading of human nature did not allow for utopian flights of fancy.

3. BTW that thing with the grain is either a straw man argument or denotes a colossal ignorance of how capitalism works. It is precisely the state intervention into the economy which lefties are so fond of, that distorts markets to the point that such waste or imbalance occurs. Just like when the machinery of government is hijacked to make homeowners out of people who cannot afford it (now, where have we seen that?).


Order of Magnitude 09.28.08 at 12:17 am

Sorry, my blockquote was left out:

“Lévy wants to lay claim to the legacy of antitotalitarian radicalism. He treats it almost like a family heirloom. But he avoids embracing that tradition’s hostility to capitalism–the fundamental sense that there is something deranged and profoundly intolerable about a system in which grain is dumped into the ocean to sustain high prices on the international market while people around the world are rioting for food or finding themselves obliged to eat cakes made of mud. “


John Quiggin 09.28.08 at 12:56 am

OofM, you might want to consider the offer I make here.


Order of Magnitude 09.28.08 at 3:13 am

John, I’ll read the thread (and make notes with my Milton Friedman pencil). My main point in this thread is re: delusions of anti-totalitarianism and hostility to capitalism as the leitmotif of the Left.


Henry 09.28.08 at 12:08 pm

Roy – take a look at the rules for commenters here, and perhaps think a little bit about what we (the contributors) are doing here. We write for free. We furthermore support this blog, and its not-insubstantial hosting fees, from our own pockets. We don’t take advertising or make any profit on our activities. We invite people to comment here – but we ask them to respect the rules that we lay out. Think of this as a kind of intellectual party we are holding in our home on the Internets. If guests start behaving boorishly, breaking the rules we have explicitly laid out, and behaving in ways that _we_ think are likely to disrupt the conversation, they are liable to be shown to the door. That is our prerogative as the hosts of the party – other guests may be annoyed, but it isn’t their house. This doesn’t mean that we’re beyond reasoned criticism – far from it – but it does mean that neither abb1 nor any other commenter has a _right_ to comment here. Describe it as being about ‘force’ and ‘power’ if you like – but it’s the kind of force and power that is used to show someone to the door of a house when they start behaving badly at a party.


J Thomas 09.28.08 at 2:19 pm

Roy, there are people who have the right to restrict the discussion here. That does not have to be a bad thing. There can be value in taking a line of thought to its logical conclusions without being constantly disrupted by hecklers who are opposed to the idea being elaborated in the first place.

I can imagine for example an open wiki-like approach to building open software, and in that context the people who’re doing the work wouldn’t want to be continually interrupted by outsiders who say the project isn’t worth doing at all. Even if those outsiders are right, the time and place to discuss whether to do it is not in the middle of the work being done.

What I would like to see is links to other sites where people disagree. If the blog moderators don’t like what you’re saying, there could be some chance to say “I disagree and here’s a link to my argument”. Short and sweet, and you don’t get very much in the way doing that. I don’t know how much that’s allowed here, but I sort of remember I’ve seen it at least once.

So anyway, this sort of thing happens. I thought it was silly when I got banned from Obsidian Wings, but I was saying things they didn’t want to hear. If they had tried to argue with me it would have revealed their own internal contradictions, and it was easier for everybody to avoid it all. So they noted that I quoted somebody verbatim and claimed I was insulting that person by doing so.

Similarly when I was banned at Overcoming Bias. I had made arguments that they couldn’t refute, and so I got one warning because one post was too long and then banned when, on a slow night, four out of six comments were from me. I was a bit disappointed but it was no big deal.

The central rule is: If you want to write things that are likely to annoy people, do it on your own blog or on that of somebody you think won’t mind you offending his readers.


Order of Magnitude 09.28.08 at 3:20 pm

[aeiou] A correction to #42 above. Code Pink is big time Left, Jodie Evans is a bundler for Obama. Evans also liked Iraq under Saddam:
“Let’s go back to the Iraq before we invaded, there was a good education and health care system, food for everyone. That system didn’t belong to Saddam it belonged to the Iraqi, it belonged to years of creating what a civilization needed. If your parents didn’t send you to school they could be put in jail”.
I’ll stop there because the fountain of lunacy of the Left is bottomless.


Walt 09.28.08 at 3:50 pm

Fuck it, I’m not reading this site anymore. I love Crooked Timber; it’s been my first stop on the Internet for years. I don’t want to defend abb1, who is a crazy person. But a site that bans abb1 but tolerates stupid little shits like Slocum, Sebastian, and now this drooling moron Order of Magnitude is not for me.


Order of Magnitude 09.28.08 at 4:06 pm

Walt, my point is clear: the Left is NOT anti-totalitarian. If you have smth substantive to say, pls do so.


J Thomas 09.28.08 at 4:45 pm

Walt, my point is clear: the Left is NOT anti-totalitarian. If you have smth substantive to say, pls do so.

OM, your point is extremely murky.

How would you feel if I tried to tell you what The Bankers believe? Or maybe The Right? The Republicans? The Jews? The Californians? The Government Workers? The Christians?

You are making up stories about a whole large poorly-defined group of people. You have no justification to do that. You are A Troll.

So tell us what The Trolls think. You’re far more qualified to tell us about that than about The Left, a poorly-defined group you are not a member of.


Sortition 09.28.08 at 4:45 pm

For those of us who are curious, is there a way to find out more about the abb1 banning affair? Is there an account of the events Roy Belmont and Henry are referring to? What exactly are the rules that abb1 allegedly broke?

Relatedly, has there been a discussion here regarding the principles involved?


Henry 09.28.08 at 5:21 pm

Sortition – for past history see “here”: and “here”: Also, see “here”: for some background. Abb1 has been barred from commenting on my threads for a long time and he knows it. He has persisted in trying to break this ban, despite repeated warnings, and being specifically told twice that he risks an overall bar on commenting at CT if he continues to flout this ban. He has also made it clear in a comment (which I’ve deleted) that he intends to go on flouting this ban. As noted above, this is our space – if he doesn’t want to abide by the rules that we set, it’s on his own head. I am happy for people to comment on our banning policy on this thread, as long as they keep it clean, but in the end, this is our call to make.


Sortition 09.28.08 at 10:58 pm

Henry – thanks for taking the time to give the pointers.

Regarding the specific matter of banning abb1: I had a look and I feel (like many of the posters on those threads, it seems) that your decision was arbitrary – i.e., it was not based on any consistent policy. Having a consistent policy – any policy – is a necessary condition to having a reasonable policy.

BTW, to be frank, it is possible that I am biased by the fact that I am sympathetic to much of what abb1 says. I do disagree with his claim on the meaninglessness of the term “anti-Semite”, but I don’t see him as claiming that hate of Jews does not exist.

Regarding banning in general: What do you hope to achieve by banning certain people? The only situation I can see that would justify suppressing the views of some people is when allowing them to express their views disrupts the discussion to the degree that it actually interferes with other people’s opportunity to make their ideas heard. Even then, it seems that using an opt-in technique (such as disemvowelling) would be a better idea than an outright ban.

As for “in the end, this our call to make”: de-facto and legally, it is. As a matter of principle, however, I am not sure this is so clear. Would you say that it is the call of, say, the editors of the New York Times, or the owners of NBC, whether to allow a certain view to be heard or not? What about an owner of a shopping-center that bans people who wear t-shirts with the wrong political message?


Roy Belmont 09.28.08 at 11:05 pm

Henry, since I’m constrained by the inability to speak directly and succinctly to the real cause of what we’re discussing, it’s an exercise in agility to get anything down about this.
I’m not addressing abb1’s trollish indulgences, or his response to being banned, but where they began in my reading here. The banning itself being an endpoint and not particularly important except as consequence.
Saying things that kicked off storms of vituperative response, and a set of sabotoging techniques that have proven effective all over the place, not just here. Accusations of a quite specific form of bigotry for expressing dissenting opinion, and defending it against attack.
I’m aware and appreciative in the main for the “intellectual party”. Obviously not disappointed to the degree of abandoning the venue.
But it’s not about rights, it’s about right.
A party has its essence from the gathering itself, the rules of comportment are there to bring that gathering to its optimum of mix and exchange. A good time had by mostly all. The center of the party’s the party, but the center of intellectual debate is the subject, and, in this context, the world.
The US is a glamorous vacuum when it comes to intellectual debate, especially around certain topics. There’s a need for engagement that won’t be shoved into the virtual censorship of Free Speech Zones. The FOXNews logic being these things aren’t discussed because they’re not popular concerns. Though really they’re not popular concerns because they aren’t discussed, and as a result the facts of them are mostly unknown.
Obviously here the rationale is whatever positive good may result can’t outweigh the risk of much harm to the providers, harm that is distinctly real and evidenced elsewhere in academia.
Whether you have a responsibility to provide that intellectual party, more accurately debate, or having provided something that’s morphed into that, is your decision. I’m making no claim about your, or anyone else’s, responsibilities.
Asking someone to leave a party for espousing a cause, or arguing a side that is unpopular with most of the guests is pretty sketchy, if it’s a gathering of disparate intellectuals with a range of affinities, especially if its an open house. You would expect some volatility around passionately held beliefs.
If it’s being held in a free society, where surveillance and repression aren’t real immediate concerns you’d expect, even want, differing opinions, and expect to have them spoken and defended. That’s the risk and gain of those affairs. Whether we live in a free society is kind of up in the air at the moment, I guess.
What I remember of the process, not its details and timeline, but the cumulative image, was egregiously one-sided, where the codes of behavior abb1 was charged with violating were violated repeatedly and with much stronger emphasis and strikingly lower standards of politesse by the other side. And that’s really the crux isn’t it?
We’re functioning under a kind of soft despotism, possibly, and the comebacks for violating the rules, not yours, not CT’s, but those of that larger nameless cohort, whose force and power I was referring to, are a very real threat to those of you with career issues and concerns.
I don’t fault you for that, honestly. Under similar circumstances I’d be reacting the same, probably. I’m not there though, and I think the real issue, whose volatility led to this, is crucial to this moment and to all of us. And it was and is most disheartening to see it disappear entirely here.
Again I understand why, and make no personal accusation, but it is disheartening, and I can’t condone it, or simply accept it and move on.
I’ll defend abb1 where it seems appropriate, trying to contort that defense into configurations that should pass the filter.
I distinctly remember vicious uncalled-for nastiness toward him from other commentors going unchecked, here and in other posters’ threads, clearly because they were partisans of the dominant position, whose force and power, again not yours as moderator, has led to the dangerous illusion that “there is no dissent because none is heard.”

The voice I really miss is Chun the Unavoidable’s.


Henry 09.28.08 at 11:53 pm

Roy – if you want to speak more clearly about what you’re saying, do so. I presume what you’re _not_ writing about is Israel. I agree that there’s a cohort of people – some sincere and honest; others like Daniel Pipes, simply depraved and nasty, who try to police good faith discussions about Israel so as to make sure that certain viewpoints don’t get expressed. I’ve banned one of the people (Dan Simon) who seemed to me to be pushing an unpleasant line on whether people who were critical of Israel were ipso-facto anti-Semites from commenting on my threads. But the specifics of abb1 on Israel aren’t why I banned him in the first place. That was a specific instance of a general tendency on his part to state his positions in a way that is as tendentious and likely to offend people who disagree with him a way as possible. Arguments of this sort aren’t by any means illegitimate in a grand sense – but it seemed to me that his contribution to comments threads on my posts was a negative one, and one that helped forestall proper arguments from developing.

On the more general issue you are hinting at (if I get you correctly) of why I don’t have threads on Israel stuff any more – it is less because I’m afraid of anyone than because I simply don’t have time any more to moderate them as I feel would be necessary to have some minimal light shine through the heat (my last thread on the topic, where I tried to bring the discussion to a meta level, was an unmitigated disaster).


J Thomas 09.29.08 at 12:29 am

Roy, I’m sympathetic to your point of view but it doesn’t work.

The marketplace of ideas is not a bazaar where everybody yells in your ear at the same time. People who find out they want to talk together sometimes find quiet places to do it.

If somebody had a physics blog where they did a lot of pop science, bilyuns and bilyuns stuff, they might be irritated if real physicists came in and started having long abstruse arguments about subtle points of actual quantum mechanics. A little bit of that would be nice window dressing but too much would get in the way.

On the other hand, if some serious physicists had a blog where they looked at serious quantum mechanics problems, they might be irritated at the bilyuns people and also quite irritated at people who cut-and-paste snippets of real QM and blather about it with no understanding. Somebody who could pass as a real irritating physicist among the pop science guys would be even more bothersome with the real thing, and the more seconds it took people to look at his stuff and see it was worthless the more irritating he’d be.

Conversations happen among people who’re reasonably congenial. They don’t want to be around people who bother them. When it’s arguments that make them think in unaccustomed ways, they don’t like it. When it’s arguments that they see are obviously bogus, likewise. The difference between those might be just in how quick they are to dismiss the claims….

If what you care about is Abb1, maybe the best thing you could do would be to set up a blog where his ideas are welcome. Hard to say who else would show up. I expect I would, and Chun the Unavoidable might appear too.


J Thomas 09.29.08 at 12:32 am

That was a specific instance of a general tendency on his part to state his positions in a way that is as tendentious and likely to offend people who disagree with him a way as possible.

I see! You object because his style is invidious. You prefer to get the points across with less offense.


Henry 09.29.08 at 12:33 am

sortition – on the issue of consistency, I go with Teresa Nielsen Hayden, who suggests (I think correctly) that setting out a specific set of rules is an invitation to people to game them. And again, this is in part a result of the fact that I don’t really have time to engage in lengthy back and forths with people over whether or not they have crossed over this particular line. I haven’t banned many people from my threads, nor have we banned many people from CT (we have deleted numerous comments from drive-by anti-Semites and racists and the like, but I think that’s different). Those that I remember banning from my threads are Dan Simon (for repeated unpleasant insinuations of anti-Semitism against people he didn’t like and general sliminess, Deb Frisch (for sockpuppeting and general bad behaviour), David Kane (dishonesty; general dragging down of debate), Seth Edenbaum (not for his incoherence, but for calling us a ‘bunch of motherfuckers’ or some such), Abiole Lapite (for similar) and abb1. Brett Bellmore, who seems to have disappeared, was restricted to one comment a day. I typically do try to opt for less general remedies such as disemvowelling or issuing warnings when I think that someone is stepping over the line. But I also think (and here you may disagree) that maintaining a space for conversation on the Internet requires vigilance, nurturing of what seems to be good debate (or at a pinch, at least minimizing the possibility for bad debate, and active policing). I’ve recently co-written an academic paper that sort of touches on this, which I would be happy to send on request. And I _do_ think that the owners of the NYT have a right to decide what opinions they publish – I also think that people who disagree with those decisions have a right to complain or object vigorously. The tricky set of issues for me is less the public mall example, but rather the issue of speech in the workplace – whether people should be allowed to express strong political opinions at work without the fear of getting fired. On the one hand, I can see the logic of the hostile work environment problem, on the other I can see the ways in which employers, for example, may threaten to fire people whose opinions they don’t agree with, require workers to attend mandatory anti-union ‘information’ meetings and so on. This is something that I genuinely haven’t figured out – although we obviously don’t have the power that employers do to really damage someone’s life.


Henry 09.29.08 at 12:44 am

And on J. Thomas’s suggestion, I have sometimes thought that one way to deal with this would be to invite people who don’t agree with moderation policy here to set up a Salon des Refuses on blogspot or wherever where they can comment on CT posts (and whatever else they are interested in) to their heart’s content. As long as this didn’t contain material that I found actively offensive, I’d probably link to it in my own posts as seemed appropriate


Henry 09.29.08 at 1:13 am

Abb1 – I am sorry to say that you are banned from future commenting on Crooked Timber, for breaking the rules despite repeated and quite explicit warnings about what this might result in. Any future comments you make will be expunged as soon as we see them. I’ve no doubt that you can try to sneak back under a different pseudonym if you want to (I don’t know if you do) – you might even succeed if you are careful enough – but if we spot you, we will delete you.


Henry 09.29.08 at 1:16 am

Finally, sortition, I don’t think that I have banned anyone without either (a) some previous warnings from me or another CTer, or (b) really unusual bad behaviour (calling us motherfuckers etc). This may not do everything that an explicit policy might – but neither abb1 nor others were unaware of the likely consquences of their actions.


Walt 09.29.08 at 1:49 am

Henry, it’s obvious that Crooked Timber has a double standard. While being a center-left blog, attacks from the right are tolerated much more than attacks from the left. David Kane, Brett Bellmore, and Dan Simon befouled this blog for years before they got the boot. Deb Frisch got banned after like a week.

CT has a horrible comment section, and it’s sucking the life out of the blog. You have nothing like the vibrant community that Making Light has. You were right to ban abb1 from posting to I/P threads, because her comments would disrupt the thread. Otherwise, she’s rarely abusive, usually on topic, and ignored by almost everybody. Instead, you have some dumb-ass right-winger (Order of Magnitude in this thread can serve as exemplar) who shows up without comprehending the simplest facts about the world, and successfully diverts the thread into a discussion of whatever weird cognitive distortion is bouncing around the wingnut brain these days.

The most interesting discussion you had this month was the one-thousandth repetition of John-Emerson-versus-analytic-philosophy. You have a terrific array of front-page posters, so that’s a really bad sign.


Henry 09.29.08 at 2:39 am

Walt – I can’t find the thread where Frisch got the boot, but my memory is that she had been around for a while. In any event, she wasn’t banned for the quality of her comments, but for failing to respect a ban on posting on a specific poster’s threads (mine) that had been imposed for sockpuppeting and for repeated and persistent sockpuppeting (including sockpuppeting of offensive comments under CT posters’ names) thereafter. It took a few weeks of persistence to get rid of her, but we persevered. I hadn’t spotted the OM comments until you pointed to them – if I had, I would have disemvowelled em earlier as obvious attempts to troll for outraged responses. More generally, I don’t think that Frisch is a good or convincing example of CT’s solicitude towards rightwingers and hostility towards leftwingers – it was quite clear that the problems with Deb Frisch’s approach to commenting weren’t about her ideological druthers.

As for the ML comparison – two points. First is that ML is probably the best comments section on the WWW, and TNH has gotten hired for Real Money for her comment-fu – so it is a tough act to live up to. Second is that CT has an obviously left wing group of front page posters, with a mostly left-leaning comments section, but has more right of center commenters than most left leaning blogs. However annoying that may be at times, I think it has real value (not that all blogs should be like this – the paper I reffed up above is all about how it is legitimate to have blogs that preach to the converted, contra Cass Sunstein etc). Not unsurprisingly, these arguments are often non-productive – but I think it’s useful to have some places in the blogosphere where they happen.

Final thing to remember is that we are not a hierarchically organized group. Different people in CT have different degrees of toleration for different practices. I banned Dan Simon pretty sharpish, but he’s still allowed to post comments on a few other CTite’s posts. Generally, we don’t impose collective bans except where (a) someone is clearly horribly racist, anti-Semitic or unambiguously nasty in other ways or (b) is clearly breaking rules over sockpuppeting, failure to respect limited bans etc. Abb1 falls under the second category. When I repeated my warning above, he made it clear that he had no intention of respecting it, and effectively challenged me to bring it on. That is the kind of behaviour that is liable to get you a general ban.


Roy Belmont 09.29.08 at 4:34 am

Okay, here.
I was disemvowelled, in the very earlymost days of disemvowelling, at Making Light, in my view for suggesting that the Iraq war was being prosecuted in the interest of Israel. Theresa herself chastised me with a kind of reserved patronizing, based on her assumption of my youth and inexperience.
It began with my saying relatively overtly that it looked like Israeli interests and Israeli partisans had had a lot to do with the invasion and occupation of Iraq. And then defending that position, then defending the right to express that position, then defending the right to express the right to express that position.
This was in I think 2004 or 5.
My memory is severely challenged but I feel pretty confident saying there hasn’t been a thread here in the last couple years on Walt & Mearsheimer’s book, certainly no ongoing series of threads, so my stance going in is something’s up. Conspicuous in its absence.
When you say “That is the kind of behaviour that is liable to get you a general ban” I think it’s important to keep a clear sense of what led to that threat. Not just the triggering action but the series that produced it. And what’s being conserved or protected there.
If abb1 is arguing that the Palestinian side is never considered in American media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and his defense of that opinion in the face of vituperation and contempt leads to a firestorm of unpleasant at best back and forth, banning him will likely suppress that fire, but it goes a way toward confirming his point.
I’m not asking you to solve any of that, or even commit yourself to a side in it, I’m saying I recognize some of the subtleties there.
Also the almost binary inversion of the consensus view.
Most of us, as writers and readers, if we felt that we were treated unfairly around something we’d written, would react at least initially with resentment and resistance of some kind to further censure of our writing.
In this case abb1’s aberrant behaviour has to be significantly related to his treatment in response to what he’d written and in response to what was written back to him, and the outcome of that escalating conflict.
That you’ve banned Dan Simon as long as you’re banning abb1 is to your credit as moderator, and I herewith make no compunction that this is an understandable and acceptable method for dealing with the conflagrations pursuant.
It doesn’t change the essential dynamic.
We’re discussing a topic that if entered too deeply will self-destruct, or seem to, enough that hobbyist-level bloggers mostly find it not worthwhile to pursue.
I don’t mean hobbyist in any demeaning sense.

My fault as a a writer for allowing the ambiguity of “force and power” to influence your response unnecessarily.

JThomas, thank you for providing me these opportunities to experience for myself my own maturity and patience.


John Quiggin 09.29.08 at 5:28 am

Actually, Henry blogged about Walt/Mearsheimer here

but I think most bloggers have come to the conclusion that the trouble involved in dealing with a discussion of this kind outweighs any enlightenment that is produced. It’s a long time since I saw any new ideas on this topic.


Order of Magnitude 09.29.08 at 6:16 am

Henry, Contrary to your claim, I did NOT post “as obvious attempts to troll for outraged responses”.

I did read the Nation article you referred in the OP, I have been familiar with BHL’s work for many years, including his regular feature in Le Point and his short-lived blog. I do think the Nation article is invoking a straw man argument about how grains are dumped in the sea because of capitalism and McLemee’s reference to the alleged antitotalitarianism of the left is weak.

I write to the OP and I have been consistently civil with those hurling abuse at me.

If, after all this, you think I crossed a line, fine.


Roy Belmont 09.29.08 at 6:57 am

John Quiggin:
Couple of years ago, that.
And again, I understand, indeed sympathize with the difficulties around the ratio of prominence to controversy for moderators such as yourselves. That doesn’t make it go away. The central issue in all this is the central issue, in a lot of people’s minds, and a lot more every day, of this political moment.
Certainly John McCain’s mentioning Israel more times than the US in the first presidential debate illustrates that, as does Obama’s first public appearance after the nomination taking place before AIPAC.

The production of enlightenment can be a game of inches, not always a sudden rush of satori, especially in the arena of contemporary online opinion.
The new ideas may have to wait until the old ones get a fair and open hearing.

JThomas: I’m sorry for being snippy. It’s more a matter of tone than content. That’s a worthwhile suggestion, though one I’m unlikely to act on.


David 09.29.08 at 8:30 am

Wait – abb1 is a _man_?


Lex 09.29.08 at 8:37 am

Ecce homo. Or not, in this case.

Ave atque vale, abb1, we hardly knew ye, strange, USSR-loving, Swiss-dwelling person you allegedly were.


deliasmith 09.29.08 at 5:08 pm

John Quiggin @ 66:

the trouble involved in dealing with a discussion of this kind outweighs any enlightenment that is produced

In what way does ‘the trouble involved in dealing with a discussion of this kind’ differ from ‘the number and vehemence of accusations of racism / anti-Semitism posted in response, and the embarrassment accruing as a result of being casually labelled a racist /anti-semite on forums that may well be read by or drawn to the attention of colleagues and superiors’?


Righteous Bubba 09.29.08 at 6:57 pm

Part of Walt’s complaint must be that there is not enough moderation, though constraints on the time our hosts can spend doing this are understandable. Witness Asher:

I first noticed Asher here:

Abb1 seemed to be able to type any thought filter-free, and your house, your rules, can’t disagree. But loons who favour abortions to keep ethnic dummies from breeding – flagged as trolls by abb1! – may fly under the radar if they’re using more civil language to dress up the crazed meanness.

Another aspect of this is that – guessing – moderators usually police only their own threads and don’t meddle in others. Readers then get confused at the varying amounts of tolerance, assuming there should be some kind of site-wide definition of the Pale. I don’t actually think there should be site-wide strict rules as different contributors must value contributions in different ways. But I as an internet user involuntarily see CT as more of a monolith than I’ll bet the moderators do.

My own comments aren’t exceptionally brilliant or civil, so where there is moderation I can accept it, although it’s always something of a surprise given what I see elsewhere at CT (and again, stuff elsewhere is justifiable).

I guess all I’m saying is that there will always be complaints in such a system and nobody needs me to tell them that. Shutting up.


Righteous Bubba 09.29.08 at 7:01 pm

Since posting it seems someone noticed Asher. Good work.


Roy Belmont 09.29.08 at 7:59 pm

“aren’t exceptionally brilliant or civil”
The gadfly tradition. An ancient and honorable path.
Also see Kenneth Patchen’s Little Man With Wooden Hair.


MQ 09.30.08 at 3:23 pm

I truly liked abb1 as a commenter, and I thought his way of expressing himself was actually helpful and added something. What he usually did was simply point out some very real and very common sense issues with the standard liberal Western consensus. In the examples Henry linked, these were beliefs like the U.S. is automatically better than a country like China, the creation of the state of Israel is a reasonable response to the Holocaust but the desire for Israel to cease to exist as a Jewish state is an unreasonable response to the dispossession of the Palestinians, etc. He never cursed, never made it personal, never hectored people, just made his points.

I think his posts were offensive to many because his positions attack the core of a mainstream liberal-left consensus that is very emotionally meaningful to people. Including me — I frequently disagreed with him. But his points weren’t radical or off-the-wall outside of the particular mainstream Western liberalism that forms the dominant discourse here. For example, I think his perspectives on China would have been quite mainstream in many parts of Asia and his perspective on Israel would have been mainstream throughout the Islamic world. His posts helped you make the imaginative shift to seeing those non-Western perspectives.

I think the fact that some people were *so* offended by him is indicative of a certain level of self-righteousness.


Nick L 09.30.08 at 8:06 pm

I’ll miss abb1 as well, although I didn’t agree with his (I always thought he was a she too) opinions very often. I think he often expressed views that left wingers in hostile anti-leftwing environments have to constantly disown, so it is discomforting to have someone on the left state them apologetically. But those on the centre left are far too blasé about ‘actually existing liberalism’, just as abb1 was far too keen in supporting anyone vaguely anti-systematic and in sticking his oar into debates on issues that he knew nothing about.

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