Following GW Lawprof Jonathan Turley’s posting of his Washington Post op-ed on changing the number of Supreme Court Justices, an idea that was further discussed here, a peculiar thing happened. Wisconsin Lawprof Ann Althouse picked up on the story and, rather than discuss its merits, bizarrely ridiculed Turley.
It was good enough for FDR, and it’s what the Washington Post is pushing in anticipation of the Obamacare decision. Jonathan Turley writes:The health-care decision comes 75 years after the famous “court packing” effort of President Franklin D. Roosevelt…. Roosevelt may have had the right idea for the wrong reason.Oh, spare me the bullshit. It’s the same reason. You don’t like the opinions. It was a bad idea then, and it’s a bad idea now.
No, you didn’t miss anything. That’s how Althouse’s post opens, not merely calling bullshit on Turley but imputing disingenuous motives related to Obamacare. Why? Perhaps a wayward youth, giving rise to reality-altering acid flashbacks now that she’s reached the crone years? See, that’s how you can make something up entirely of whole cloth to impugn someone without any basis whatsoever. It’s easy to do.
But one post was sufficient for Althouse, who posted again to attack Turley, this time to ridicule his choice of the number 19, offering up such well-founded guesses as secret mathematical importance or its mystical relevance to Islam and Baha’i.
I don’t know what put the idea of 19 into Jonathan Turley’s head. It could be something mystical and nutty. Maybe he loves Adele’s first album.
But I assume there’s nothing mystical or artistic about Turley. I think he likes the number 19 because it’s the smallest odd number that’s big enough to make individual Justices inconsequential — to dilute their power to the point where they don’t loom large as personalities and seem like mere humans.
Again, why? Turley explained his basis for the number 19, and Althouse could have addressed it had she chosen not to go off on some wild flight of fancy.
What makes this quite extraordinary is that these are two member of the legal Academy. Scholars don’t do this.
Turley was shocked by Althouse’s attacks.
When another law professor and blogger (Ann Althouse) joined this ill-informed and uncivil chorus, I thought I would respond. This blog has always strived to maintain a strict civility rule — distinguishing it from many other blogs by discouraging and sometimes eliminating ad hominem and personal attacks. Yet, I am still surprised by the lack of civility and responsibility by many — particularly fellow lawyers and academics — in responding to such proposals.After addressing the fallacious assumptions (when it might have been better to ignore them), Turley concludes:
I must confess that, when one of our regulars sent me this link, I was taken aback. I do not expect such ill-informed and uncivil attacks from a fellow academic. While Althouse writes a conservative blog and has been something of a lightning rod in the past, I would have thought that she would do a little research before going after another professor.
My only point is that the overall commentary following the column shows once again how we have lost the tradition of civil discourse in this country. The tendency today is to personally attack people with whom you disagree and suggest hidden agendas or conspiracies. I am always delighted to see spirited debate following a column, including those with whom I disagree. As in a classroom, I value the debate for its own sake — forcing people to consider alternative views and possibilities. The current tendency to shout down other voices with shrill or sophomoric attacks is degrading our politics and our society.
As bizarre as it was for Althouse to attack as she did, what followed at her blog was 141 comments that crystalizes a far more damning problem than vapid, tin foil hat commentary from someone who is allowed to teach students.
With a few exceptions, calling Althouse out for her wholesale attribution of baseless motive and challenging her credibility, the vast majority reflected a cult-like acceptance of her accusations, and spewed anger and hatred toward Turley and his “ilk.” This reflects a growing danger, and one of the worst problems, facing both the blogosphere and virtual society, and happens not just at blogs like Althouse’s, but is becoming increasingly pervasive.
At Above the Law, Elie Mystal poked fun at the situation by noting:
but here on the internet we don’t have a tradition of civil discourse. We do have a tradition of ad hominem attacks, hyperbole, and pictures of cats.
And apparently Althouse is as much a cat lady as any aficionado of FunnyJunk.
Whether they’re called tribes, fans, cheerleaders or a cult, the development of a coterie of believers who bolster the bloggers self-esteem by blind acceptance of their words, taking it from uncivil challenge to outright hatred, and often attacks in the real world, scares the daylights out of me. This is not merely how we have the potential to make people stupider, but to cause actual harm to others by the fostering of a community of political sycophants whose disaffected online personas can create a mindless frenzy that manifests in real harm.
It seems to me that those bloggers who are receiving the adoration of their community are loving it a bit too much. They pander to them. They feed the frenzy. At the very least, they do nothing to limit the growing fury they foster. They love being loved too much.
Even with Charles Carreon, whose attack on the Oatmeal merits universal condemnation, there have been allegations of people engaging in real world attacks. If true, these are where things have gotten out of hand, where appropriate challenge crosses the line of a feeding frenzy on the part of weak-minded and dangerous people who, unsatisfied with merely expressing their disapproval, feel some sick need to cause actual damage.
Are these the tribes we’re trying to create in the blogosphere? Is this some internet version of Lord of the Flies? Why, when we see commenters and followers going too far, getting too crazy, expressing seething anger that goes beyond reason and seems likely to burst into real life, do we not calm things down, explain that they’ve taken an idea and gone off the deep end.
Where is Althouse’s responsibility to tell her tin foil hat crowd to take a deep breath and cool off? Where is that responsibility for all bloggers who gain any following? I’ve often suggested that we have a responsibility not to abuse our trust, not to make readers stupider for having been here. But it’s gone way beyond merely making people stupider, and is reaching the point where bloggers are fostering such bizarre anger and hatred that the likelihood of some weak=minded fool doing harm becomes almost inescapable.
My suspicion is that some bloggers love being loved. They thrill at the adoration given their words, and refuse to do anything to quell the fervor, no matter how ridiculous or out of control it gets. It’s not about suffering legal liability for the actions some nutjob on the internet causes, but that their basking in the limelight of fame and glory is a sick reflection of their need for validation and approval.
As Elie says, the internet has no tradition of civil discourse. On the other hand, pandering to the ignorant and crazy to maintain their adoration and make you feel validated is pretty warped. It was bad enough that Ann Althouse wrote two posts that cost her credibility among anyone capable of thought, but that she lit up her sycophants with hatred toward Jonathan Turley, and allowed it to fester, is sick.