Of online debate and hidden agendas

Tim Burke has a cri de coeur that resonates deeply with me:

I'll try to post on Zimbabwe itself soon, but this reflection by Lessing made me think about something entirely different. I'm going through one of my periodic bouts of disaffection with reading aggressively political or partisan blogging, but I don't feel any comfort or shelter in studied moderation, either. I'm having a hard time putting my finger on it, but it just doesn't seem worth the time or the bother because there isn't anything I recognize as a conversation going on a lot of the time in many political blogs, nor does there seem anything like a remotely adult sense of weary awareness about the messiness of the world as it is lived and experienced by most people.

Lessing helped me to recognize that one feeling I'm having is that I simply don't trust people who are selling this kind of "idealistic, rhetorical, politics" and yet don't confess to having experienced this kind of heartbreak. Or worse yet, tell themselves that if they can only find the right romantic partner, the next time everything will be perfect and there will be ponies and rainbows for everyone, that it was only this regime, these people, this leader, that disappointed. Or, from what I can see in a lot of American conservative writing, it was the damned political opposition or overseas enemies or corruptors of the youth or some such again that kept all the good magical things from happening which otherwise would inevitably have happened.

Most of the time, it seems to me that trying to write anything more reflective, more ambiguous, more exploratory in a blog is either going to bore an audience that's come seeking their Two-Minute Hate or it's just going to be willfully misconstrued by someone else who needs fresh meat for their own hounds to feed upon. Read the comments section at Inside Higher Education, for one example. There's no point to trying to talk about nuance or complexity or what makes for a good research design or anything else in that kind of back-and-forth.

In most online conversations I've been involved with, you eventually come to a point where the people interested in an evolving, exploratory dialogue, in learning something new about themselves and others, in thinking aloud, in working through things, find themselves worn out by a kind of rhetorical infection inflicted by bad faith participants who are just there to affirm what they already know and attack everything that doesn't conform to that knowledge. (Or by the classic "energy creatures" whose only objective is to satisfy their narcissism.) I used to think that was a function of the size of the room, that in a bigger discursive space, richer possibilities would present themselves. Now I don't know. Maybe it's a product of the form itself, maybe it's a sign of our times, and maybe it's my own unfair expectations or my own character that's the problem.

I'm profoundly tired of being unable to say anything about the candidates without having it turn into a shouting match.  I post a mildly amusing video about John McCain, and it immediately degenerates into a shouting match over whether he's, like, the worst person ever, or the victim of a liberal media conspiracy.  No one seems to be able to be able to hold two different thoughts in their heads at once:

  1. The houses thing is a silly issue that shouldn't make any difference in peoples' willingness to vote for McCain
  2. The houses thing is funny, especially when set to Feist.

Both Obama and McCain supporters seem convinced that my every utterance on the topic is part of my not-so-hidden agenda to undermine their candidate.  I have no hidden agenda.  My agenda is out-front and open; I'll probably vote for Obama, but not with any expectation that I'll like the result very much.  I am not excited about this election.  I do not believe that my vote is going to immanentize the eschaton.  I do not think that I am engaged in a titanic battle, in which the forces of good must beat back the cosmic evil that threatens to engulf us all.  I think I'm deciding which of two politicians to hand a lot of power I don't want either of them to have.

It should be possible to debate the issues in this election at a level above "My guy's awesome and your guy is a big fat doody-head".  But it doesn't seem to be.  I find this profoundly depressing.