A contretemps about the value of political blogging is currently taking place between Oliver Kamm and Norm Geras, two British intellectuals who have vigorously opposed what today passes in Britain for mainstream liberal commentary–and, as it happens, two formidable bloggers. Kamm, a leftist in domestic politics, vocally supports a neoconservative foreign policy; Geras is a Marxist political philosopher and a co-author of the Euston Manifesto, an online statement denouncing the growing alliance between the European Left and radical Islamists that has garnered dozens of signatories.
So what, you might ask, are they arguing about? About this puzzling statement from Kamm in the Guardian last week:
Blogs are providers not of news but of comment. This would be a good thing if blogs extended the range of available opinion in the public sphere. But they do not; paradoxically, they narrow it. This happens because blogs typically do not add to the available stock of commentary: they are purely parasitic on the stories and opinions that traditional media provide.
This was a curious lament from one who not only has his own blog but who sees nothing but political tendentiousness on display in such “old media” outlets as the BBC and, indeed, the Guardian. What is more, Kamm’s book Anti-Totalitarianism: The Left-Wing Case for a Neoconservative Foreign Policy shows how ideological echo chambers, whether on- or offline, have always diminished the style and substance of political debate. Were Communists in the 1930’s any less “parasitic” on the stories and opinions of the Daily Worker than bloggers are on their mainstream-media counterparts today?
In making his case, Kamm cited Nick Cohen, another disillusioned leftist whose book, What’s Left?: How Liberals Lost Their Way, is the polemic of the hour in Britain. If Cohen “did not exist,” Kamm asserted, “a significant part of the blogosphere . . . would have no purpose and nothing to react to.” To this, Geras’s swift riposte was to point out that Kamm had things backward. In fact, the torrents of anti-Semitic abuse on certain left-wing blogs, including the comment thread on the Guardian’s own “Comment Is Free” blog, provided Nick Cohen with much of his evidence for the rabid degeneracy of today’s British Left. If anything, one might say that political blogging, by bringing this degeneracy to light, has gone some way toward getting at least a few liberals to break ranks with old comrades.
The Kamm-Geras dispute is related to a larger one that has been equally in the news: the question of civility in blogging. Kathy Sierra, an American technology blogger, recently announced that she had canceled a speaking engagement due to recurrent threatening and insulting comments made about her on other websites—sometimes accompanied by violent, Photoshop-doctored pictures. This led to a predictable cycle of loud self-examination within the blogosphere: Should we adopt a “civility code” to regulate the style and substance of our discourse? Is it time to rein in the free-for-all character of this embryonic medium?
This kind of talk is nothing new. But now Jim Wales, the founder of the collective online encyclopedia Wikipedia, and Tim O’Reilly, a publisher and the primary advocate of Web 2.0, have advocated adopting just such a code. O’Reilly and Wales want what amounts to a decency code for the internet. Their idea has in turn been widely denounced, including by Kamm himself.
In their disparate ways, both of these discussions circle around the large problem presented by the blogosphere’s laissez-faire mode of conversation. The problem is especially egregious on blogs that do not require comment-writers to post a working email address. Just as one chooses words with greater care when talking face-to-face, so one tends to be somewhat less vituperative with an accessible inbox. But even moderated, non-anonymous comments still contain plenty of stupidity and vitriol.
In short, the anarchy of the blogosphere, which is the source of much of its good, is also the source of its ills. What remains to be seen is whether, absent regulation, the theory that good speech drives out bad has here met its final test, and lost. If so, the age of the regulators will not be far behind.