Saturday, February 18, 2012

Coates, Goldberg and a Question of Approach

Another day, another comment thread online, and the Makabit is slinging comments with another 'critic of Israeli policies'. This isn't a good one; it's like playing ping-pong with a robot. His moves are predictable, his shell impenetrable, and we can do this for as long as I'm willing to send the ball back across the table. As the conversation deteriorates, it gets even more routine.

We've identified one another's agendas, and are no longer even pretending to talk. "Israel seized a country," he says. That's not true, by any possible definition, I tell him. He doesn't bother to bring the facts he's been demanding from everyone else, defaulting to telling me that I 'know' I'm not right about that. Finally, he informs me that if I want people to think I'm a peacenik (a goal and title I hadn't actually laid claim to), I should change my name. "Makabit" apparently, is too warlike...darn those indigenous freedom fighters!

I sign off, bored and frustrated, and vowing, probably in vain, not to engage in this sort of futile fight again. And I start thinking:

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a reputation for having an excellent and active group of commenters at his Atlantic blog. I read there often, and occasionally comment, and I find it to be an extremely pleasant experience. The commentariat is bright, literate, and interested in the issues Coates addresses. Conversely Jeffrey Goldberg only recently opened comments on his blog at the Atlantic, and the results have been mixed.

Goldberg is currently carrying on a running feudette with Glenn Greenwald over Greenwald's use and defense of the anti-Semitic slur "Israel-Firsters", but I think that any widely read blogger with a positive attitude toward Israel would have drawn a similar crowd. The words 'anti-Israel' are enough to bring them popping out of the woodwork. "Define anti-Israel!" they scream. "Was is racist when South Africa was boycotted? Define anti-Semitic! Give us links!"

Under these circumstances, any conversation deteriorates back to the ping-pong game. You have to start from basic principles every time, going over the essential history of the region, fighting over framing. Then the rest of the bag of tricks. It is combative, and mind-numbingly repetitive. Trying to have an intelligent conversation about Israel, anti-Semitism, or pretty much anything else under these circumstances is like trying to play chess under artillery fire.

How does Coates do it? I started to wonder. After all, he frequently writes about race in the United States, not exactly a non-controversial subject on the Internet, and one with its own endless framing arguments. How has he created a place where people have intelligent discussions about the things he posts, without endlessly setting the discussion back to, "Wah, wah, you say everything's racist! Define racism succinctly! I want links!"?

Well, Ta-Nehisi Coates doesn't allow people to show up and pee on the floor, and he bans people when they do that. I've watched him do it. He's not liked by some for it. They complain bitterly, elsewhere. If you show up referencing racist authors, or pouting that you could say that affirmative action is black supremacism, and why doesn't anyone want to discuss that, or wanting to go over the complicity of Africans in the slave trade, Coates will show you the door. Then you can go and talk about what a coward he is on your own blog, and the rest of us can actually talk about whatever the subject du jour is.

Most pro-Israel blogs with discussion-prone comments sections don't do this, and many blogs (by no means most, or all, I have no statistics) dealing with racial issues or gender issues do.

I suspect we don't do it because we think that banning commenters who are being asses is censorship. We don't want to provide ammunition to people who already like to claim they're being silenced all the time. I think we've also developed within the BlogoZion a belief that action online means addressing these people, all the time, and debating them wherever they show up.

It's kind of pointless, though, and I think it hinders our ability to talk about more nuanced issues. What would happen if, instead of indulging the "Define anti-Israel!" crowd, Goldberg simply blocked them and left them to go elsewhere? Would we be able to talk about a wider range of subjects? Would people feel freer to explore nuance, without the artillery fire coming in from everywhere?

Beyond the practical, I think that setting standards for discussion about Israel and enforcing them is a healthy move toward reframing. It says: Israel exists, and has a right to. We won't discuss this any longer, and we won't allow the conversation to be derailed with false history or attempts to put words in our mouths. We won't waste our time endlessly playing games with people whose clear agenda is to harm Israel, any more than we waste our time playing games with people who want everyone to agree that racism is over, and women have too much power in modern society.

What would it mean to actually log out of conversation with the armchair anti-Israel crowd? What could we do with that time? That emotional and spiritual energy?

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