October 22nd, 2006  |  Published in etc

“I’m surprised many here are defending the posts and feel it is important work. I find the posts terribly boring and they actually make me more apathetic to the war due to frequency and lack of accessibility in the way they are presented.”

– MetaFilter founder Matt Haughey, commenting on posts related to Iraq

“Goodwin–one of those Roger L Simon-ish ‘I didn’t leave liberalism, it left me (when it went too far)’ types–is a prime example of what’s known in blogdom as a ‘concern troll,’ or what Saul Alinsky called in Rules for Radicals, ‘the Do-Nothings.’ They bore you to death and gum up the works with their phony reasonableness.

“‘These Do-Nothings profess a commitment to social change for ideals of justice, equality, and opportunity, and then abstain from and discourage all effective action for change. They are known by their brand, ‘I agree with your ends but not your means.’ They function as blankets…smoldering sparks of dissension that promise to flare up into the fire of action. These Do-Nothings appear publicly as good men, humanitarian, concerned with justice and dignity. In practice they are invidious.‘ My italics.”

– James Wolcott on the toxic “reasonableness” of columnist Michael Goodwin

I posted the first quote because it was really disappointing. I’m not exactly a MetaFilter true believer, but I paid my $5 and I’m largely sold on the brand, so I want to believe better of its founder. By “believe better,” I mean that I’m put off by the fairly common dodge of protesting a particular style as off-putting as an excuse to lower your level of concern about an issue. In effect, your moral engagement is contingent on being adequately marketed to.

Realistically, for many issues that’s a reasonable response. Much activist energy has to be devoted to education, especially for issues well outside the audience’s direct experience. People I knew in Indiana, for instance, seemed a lot more likely to use “Save the whales” as their shorthand for “dippy causes nobody cares about” than people in Oregon. We can go watch the whales from the beach here. Sometimes dead ones end up on our beaches and someone from a university or coastal aquarium will be on the nightly news to point out that the whale might be dead for a bad reason that bodes even worse for other marine ecosystems. People in Muncie? They don’t tend to get that in their news.

But the war in Iraq? I know the national media’s coverage has been contested from both sides, but only a few dead-enders are thinking to themselves that it’s anything besides a very bad situation that is costing innocent people we set out to liberate their lives in the tens of thousands, and probably even the hundreds of thousands. So saying that posts about that war “make [one] more apathetic,” as if one’s concern is fading proportional to the existence of reminders that the object of concern is still out there and still being bungled strikes me as, well, an indication of an underlying lack of moral strength. It’s not even saying “I don’t want to go to the march because it’s being organized by communists, with whom I disagree about everything except this war.” It’s saying “I’m caring less the more I hear.” Yikes.

The second quote is not, despite appearances, an attempt to link Haughey to Alinsky’s “Do-Nothings.” It actually stung me a little bit, because I came across that a few days ago when it was first posted, and had been mulling over Oregon’s upcoming vote on Measure 43, a parental notification measure.

A quick aside, since it’s on my mind: I’m not “in favor” of parental notification laws, but I vacillate on their utility as a litmus test for inclusion in Democratic party politics. That puts me at odds with plenty of progressive Democrats who are either opposed to them on their face, or because they represent a chip out of the Roe v. Wade edifice. I think the nature of American politics are such, however, that we can’t really have everything we want in a political party, and we can’t exclude everyone we’d like to. Where parental notification laws are concerned, I suspect refusal to participate in electoral coalition with their backers is materially equivalent to voting for a Green Party candidate.

Anyhow, back to Alinsky: In the past few years, I’ve found myself feeling more and more isolated from fellow progressives because I’ve been more and more put off by the style progressive protest is taking. I still am, in fact. But on reflection, I realize that at certain points I’ve spent more time dwelling on the issues I have with that style than dwelling on the odious things being protested.


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