Making the click-through worthwhile: How the modern era of social media has expanded our exposure to horrible antisocial people, how a lunatic and baseless theory about secret white-supremacy hand gestures rocketed around lefty Twitter yesterday, and what Bob Woodward’s past books about the White House tell us about his newest one about the Trump administration.
Were Things Better before the Internet?
If you’re old enough to have experienced life before the Internet, I’d like you to think back to those years.
In the course of a day, you probably interacted with significantly fewer people offline than you do online today. If you spend just a few minutes on Twitter or Facebook, you’ll see the short messages and thoughts and comments of dozens of people.
In pre-Internet life, if you found someone to be a jerk, you subsequently tried to avoid the jerk. Maybe they were in your class or workplace, and you couldn’t avoid them, but you certainly wouldn’t choose to hang around with the jerk. You wouldn’t invite him into your house and ask him to intermittently blurt out a jerky opinion whenever one popped into his head. You certainly wouldn’t want a device that would automatically inform you when a new jerky opinion popped into his head.
Last night, I watched a video about “toxic fandom” that pointed out that almost all pop-culture offerings that are now super popular mainstream Hollywood mega-hits were once considered geeky, nerdy, or somewhat socially undesirable: Star Wars, Star Trek, comic books, Lord of the Rings. Being a fan of a pop culture phenomena in the pre-Internet era — say, from the 1960s to the mid 1990s — was a completely different experience. If there was a fan magazine, it arrived by mail. There was nothing like the modern giant, glitzy San Diego Comic-Con; comic-book conventions were sad, small affairs at the local Holiday Inn.
If you were a superfan of a particular movie, television show, or comic book, you probably only had a small group of other superfans in your town or neighborhood. Chances are you and your friends shared some common interests, maybe subjects such as football, or trading baseball cards, or comic books, or Dungeons and Dragons. (Yes, I know that’s a very teenage-boy frame of reference; I was a teenage boy in those last years before the rise of the Internet!) You and your little group of friends formed a mini-community, and if someone’s personality clashed too much with the rest of the group, you probably wouldn’t choose to spend time with that person again.
Fast forward to today, where suddenly being a Star Wars fan doesn’t just mean getting together with a small handful of like-minded buddies and watching the movies on VHS in their family room or den and debating how cool it would be if they ever made a movie about the Clone Wars or Jedi-fighting Mandalorians. Since the late 1990s, Star Wars fans have been constantly interacting with each other online, almost all the time, dissecting every new rumor and trailer and bit of casting news. And this applies to just about every other interest on earth — every sport, every television show, almost every movie (including a slew of cult hits), every conspiracy theory, you name it. Whatever you’re into, you can find an impassioned group of enthusiasts on the Internet.
The best thing about the Internet is that it connects us to so many other people! The worst great thing about the Internet is that it connects us to so many other people — including a lot of people who we probably would not invite into our homes or choose to be around. We are constantly informed about, and exposed to, behavior that would instantly repel us if it occurred offline. If you and your friends were griping about a Star Wars movie that disappointed you, and one of your buddies said, “Hey, let’s send the director death threats!” you would probably, at minimum, cut him off from the excessive caffeine from Jolt Cola forever.
The problem is, the Internet and social media do not weed out and help you avoid the lunatics. One way or another, they end up in your presence without you ever seeking them out. For example, if you’re on Twitter, you probably don’t follow any of the people who concluded, without any evidence, that Zina Bash, a Mexico-born, half-Jewish Latina former clerk of Judge Brett Kavanaugh and a member of his confirmation team, was making a white-supremacist hand gesture during Tuesday’s hearing. No less an authority than the Anti-Defamation League has declared that the “okay” hand gesture is not a subtle signal of “white power.” They note that online communities such as 4Chan enjoy creating hoaxes and taking “innocuous items, symbols or gestures and falsely attribute white supremacist meanings to them in order to fool liberals and get them to spread such false messages.”
But the baseless accusation was so outlandish and outrageous that many Kavanaugh defenders understandably went to DefCon One to dispel it and defend Bash’s good name. If you checked political Twitter on Tuesday, you witnessed an ongoing debate about that lunatic theory, whether you wanted to hear more about it or not. And it mostly took the form of sane people trying to persuade insane people that their theory about Bash was insane.
We gripe about the old gatekeepers that would limit who appeared on television and radio, who wrote for newspapers and magazines, and what arguments were considered “beyond the pale.” And indeed, the old system could be insular and clubby and connected and narrow-minded. But that system did have an upside: It generally kept the lunatics out. (Insert your favorite exception here. Popular suggestions: Dan Rather, Herblock, Stephen Glass, Janet Cooke, Walter Duranty.)
Dan McLaughlin recently asked the tough question of how much our society still wants civil, reasoned debate. You can’t have a reasoned debate with someone who makes arguments that are unhinged or blatantly bad faith, such as, “Your seemingly innocuous hand gesture is a secret signal of allegiance to white supremacists.” This is Son-of-Sam-my-dog-is-telling-me-to-kill-people-level stuff.
If you met someone, face to face, and one of the first things they told you was that they believed that anyone who used the “okay” hand gesture was a secret white supremacist — including members of minority groups! — you might nod politely and then back away slowly, concluding that this person was wildly paranoid and quick to accuse others of horrific beliefs with no real evidence.
Sadly, avoiding those types of people was easier before the birth of the Internet.
The Lessons of Bob Woodward’s Past Books
A couple of things to keep in mind when you hear about the new Bob Woodward book and the jaw-dropping anecdotes about chaos within the Trump administration. First, Woodward operates by a well-known if unwritten rule: Individuals who talk to him are portrayed better than individuals who don’t. This means a lot of White House sources over the years talked to him, if only to protect their own reputations. He gets a lot of “if only they had listened to me” anecdotes.
Second, this is pretty much his brand; he’s written similar books about every White House since Clinton’s presidency, and they’ve all had the same theme: “Despite the placid, carefully managed image, this White House is deeply divided between warring factions, each convinced that the president is being led down the wrong path.” They always create a stir, but it’s fair to point out that few of his recent books have had lasting consequences for the administration he covered.
Thirdly, there’s a difference between disputing the accuracy of an anecdote and denying that any version of the events occurred. The president, unsurprisingly, is calling it the “already discredited Woodward book, so many lies and phony sources.”
Yes, there’s dispute about whether Woodward ever got to former CIA Director Bob Casey’s bedside and heard a deathbed confession about the diversion of Iran arms-sale money to the Contras. But beyond that, Woodward’s reporting in book after book has held up — at least in the sense that his sources exist and he’s quoting them accurately. Whether they’re offering a version of events that flatters themselves to the point of inaccuracy is a separate question.
The excerpts reported by the Washington Post yesterday paint an ugly portrait of a president who barely understands the job he’s taken, who constantly rages and fumes in furious rants, and who staffers are constantly trying to save from himself.
Trump denies calling Attorney General Jeff Sessions “mentally retarded” or a “dumb Southerner,” as Woodward’s book claims.
Still, look back at the contemptuous tweets the president has thrown Sessions’s way over the past year and a half, calling the attorney general “disgraceful,” and “very weak,” and saying that he “doesn’t understand what is happening underneath his command position,” that he’s “very disappointed” in Sessions so far, and that he should have picked someone else for the job.
In light of that publicly expressed blistering disdain, is it really so unthinkable that Trump would mock Sessions’s accent or insult him in the ways Woodward describes?
This morning, the editors of National Review write, “Nothing good can come from Trump’s campaign against his own attorney general, and if he understood the role of the Justice Department — or his own long-term political interest — he’d immediately cease and desist.”
But he doesn’t, and thus, he won’t.