The Foxification of Our Public Sphere

These days when I send one of my columns to Common Dreams, I do so with an inward cringe.  I know that CD has become infested with slavering rightwing drones, who lie in wait just waiting to do their best Bill O’Reilly imitation from the comment balcony.

In recent months, CD has tried to address the issue of attack-dog commenters, instituting a comment policy that is now posted at the bottom of every published article.

It doesn’t seem to have had much effect, and I am beginning to wonder:

a) Is it worth my time and effort to open myself up to this kind of harsh, superficial debate?  When I write, I write from the heart, and while I certainly welcome spirited discussion of my ideas, including intelligent disagreement, the vicious savaging of my ideas, usually taken out of the context of the column’s overall message, feels unproductive at best.

b) If I bow out of CD, am I allowing myself to be “silenced”?  Shouldn’t I stand up for freedom of speech and stand my ground, even if it means opening myself up to the snipers?  Public speakers have to have a thick skin, after all, right?

c) Are there other fora I might join where the level of commentary is more elevated, more thoughtful?  Am I being an elitist snob for even wishing for such a space?

d) If I can’t beat’em, should I join’em?  In other words, should I be jumping in and giving as good as I get?  Or would that be stooping to their level and just encouraging their attack-dog mentality all the more?

As I ready myself to teach my media studies class this fall, these certainly seem like important questions to be pondering.

For years now I have been celebrating and advocating “citizen journalism” in my classes, encouraging students to start their own blogs and get their voices into the public sphere.

But if even Common Dreams has been overrun by the Bill O’Reilly wannabes of the world, then our public sphere has become a skewed and dangerous place.

However, if people like me and my students opt out of it, that only leaves a greater vacuum for the rightwing ideologues to fill.

Anyone have any advice on how to grow a thicker skin?

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  1. In my experience, “Common Dreams Staff” have taken CD off in an autocratic direction, subtituting opinion for news.

    They moderate comments with a heavy hand, responding to “complaints” by right-wing attack drones by banning those who don’t toe the company line. Not only is future participation banned, but all previous comments are deleted!

    For me, it’s not worth the effort of toeing the line between idiot attack comments and outright censorship.

    I’ll have to admit, that I not only responded to the attack drones, I also criticized “Common Dreams Staff” for the shift in policies. That probably didn’t set well with Komizar Brown, either.

    So I’ve written off CD as a once good site gone bad.

  2. Tom

     /  August 26, 2012

    “I know that CD has become infested with slavering rightwing drones, who lie in wait just waiting to do their best Bill O’Reilly imitation from the comment balcony.”

    I really would suggest you go to the comment section of your 8/26 article on CommonDreams and read the comments. The above assertion couldn’t be further from the truth. Just because the commenters strongly disagree with Obama’s murderous foreign policy doesn’t mean they are “rightwing drones”.

  3. Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

     /  August 26, 2012

    This is true. So many of us are very disappointed with what Obama has been able to accomplish. But I simply can’t align myself with those who see Obama as part of the problem. He’s not the problem; the structure into which he was inserted is the problem. We must change the structure itself. No one politician can do that; it will take an overwhelming push by the people–US. The push must be fueled by idealism, not the cynicism that is the prevailing note on CD now.

    The truth is that the planet will do this realignment for us, if we don’t work up the will and the way to do it ourselves. If Mitt Romney wins in November, collapse will come sooner rather than later.

    Perhaps that will be a good thing.

  4. Bruckner

     /  August 26, 2012

    Ms. Browdy de Hernandez, I appreciate your dilemma. Your article at Common Dreams was an honest and heartfelt attempt to express what you believe is a vital strategy in the upcoming election.

    That said, I fail to understand why you think the comments are overrun with rightwing ideologues. Many of the comments, granted, are rude, if not downright vicious. But there are also many that do attempt reasoned debate.

    The majority of comments appear to be from readers like myself who detest Obama as much as Romney, and would never vote for either of them. The overreaction to your article is due, most likely, to our disgust with voting for the lesser evil every election, and we no longer accept such arguments as valid, especially given Obama’s horrendous record that arguably surpasses Bush II in its terrible ramifications. (I refer you to and if you’re not aware of the reasons why we loathe him.) At CD, being told we must get on board the Obama-train is like waving a red flag to a bull. (Just read any other article comparable to yours on this topic and you’ll discover that you’re not alone.)

    I understand your reluctance to express yourself in such a public forum, especially given the vehemence of the reaction to your thoughts and feelings. I, for one, hope that you will continue to express yourself, and that you impart the importance of it to your students. Our society is richer for the variety of its voices that speak up. As a believer in freedom of speech, I think you have every right to express yourself. Just know that if you preach the gospel to unbelievers, you will not be received with a open arms.

    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  August 26, 2012

      OK. But what is needed is not negative attacks on what is WRONG, but positive approaches to real, attainable change. If not Obama, then what? Or who? Having lived through the debacle of 2000, when a vote for Nader was a vote in the Bush crowd’s pocket, I am not going to be lured into voting for Stein this year. Unless the whole rotten structure can be brought down, then we MUST do what we can to keep our fingers in the dyke and hold off the Romneyites.

      • Ms. Hernandez, I followed the link on your CommonDreams column to your website. I find that I like it a lot – and am confirmed in my unease with the response to your column on CD. A response I joined in. After rereading the comments, I decided I should communicate with you.

        I’m not sure where to start, because I need to say two very different things. Perhaps I should start with saying that I think you’re too nice a person for the intensely political atmosphere there. I actually think you’re too nice a person for politics, at least as they are now. It was abundantly clear on CD today that I am not. But I feel bad that you were exposed to all that fury – even though some of it was mine.

        On the other hand: the people who attacked you today are progressives, not “O’Reilly right-wingers.” As Bruckner notes above, your article waved a red flag in front of people whose patience is at an end (and will have an impact on this election.) You were repeating precisely the notions that we’ve been fighting with for years now. I don’t think you have the personal agenda that would justify exposing yourself to rage that I, for one, consider justified.

        May I make a constructive suggestion? I would love to see more articles in the major political websites about Transition, the subject of this site. It is the most constructive, most needed movement out there. It cries out for good journalism that will inspire people to transform their lives and their communities. I think you could do that very well, and get your students involved, as well. And it stands well above the vicious free-for-all that our politics is and, frankly, should be. Please: write about the Transition and related movements. No one will attack you, at least no one you have any reason to care about. Personally, I’ll get on board and cheer, or try to add something. (One suggestion: you could check out Corvallis, Oregon. It isn’t called a Transition Town, but it’s one of the more successful ones.)

        But stay away from politics.

        And having said that, I have a question: considering your comment just above, why does your Twitter update begin with “I support Jill Stein for President of the US. Read her bio. …”? Because that’s who I support; I’m actually an officer in the Oregon Green Party. The apparent contradiction puzzles me. How do you think we can “bring down the whole rotten structure,” if not by voting for someone else altogether?

        On the off chance you’re willing to communicate with a partly-tamed attack dog, I’ll give you my contact information: gnewlin at peak dot org. Being human, you can reconstruct that address. I’m a contact person for the party, so it’s on our website, anyway: I’m hoping something constructive can come out of the ill feelings on CD.

        And good luck with your tenure process. I suspect you deserve it.

        Charles Newlin

      • Nick

         /  August 27, 2012

        “Having lived through the debacle of 2000, when a vote for Nader was a vote in the Bush crowd’s pocket, I am not going to be lured into voting for Stein this year.”

        The notion that Nader cost Gore the 2000 election is a Democratic party fable, aimed at keeping their base contained by fear. First, it focuses on a factor as being decisive when it was microscopic compared to other behemoth factors, like all the underhanded measures Jeb took in Florida to make sure his brother won, and the vastly greater number of Democrats who actually voted for Bush. Second, it makes unfounded assumptions, such as Nader only took votes away from Gore (false) and if Nader had not been in the race, all those Green voters would have gone to the polls for Gore (false). Polling indicates Gore would actually have done worse in Florida if Nader hadn’t been in the race. And third, despite Gore’s seemingly determined efforts to lose, he actually won Florida. Bush was able to steal the rightful presidency away from Gore primarily because Gore politely laid down and let him.

        In this election, most of the Greens I know of consider Obama their political enemy, and would not vote for him even if Stein weren’t in it. The Democratic party has done nothing to earn the support of Greens, in fact, they have crapped all over the values of the Greens, so it is just unmitigated gall for Democrats to think Green votes should belong to them by rights. Stein is stealing votes from no-one. She is staking out a position and we who agree with her are voting for her. That’s how democracy is supposed to work. If the Democrats think they can beat up and abuse a chunk of their base and not pay a price for it, the fault for that folly lies entirely with the party, not with the abuse victims who leave.

        But, even so, if Democrats were truly worried that Stein might take away critical swing state votes, then instead of attacking Greens, which is a sure way to solidify them as enemies, they should be working with them. There were two strong vote-swapping exchanges back in 2000 which probably delivered more critical votes to Gore than he would have gotten with Nader out of the picture. Democrats could convert useless red state Obama votes into a smaller number of valuable swing state votes, and both the Greens and the Democrats would come out ahead. But will the Democratic leadership let this happen? My bet is that the money-masters of the Democratic party would rather see the Democrats lose (handing the show over to their Republican puppets for a while) than risk a populist platform and message gaining any traction.

  5. Hi Jen,

    Arguing with right-whingers is like arguing with spoilt children or scared children or both. I amuse myself by imagining them, hands plastered against their ears screaming “I hate you, I hate you, I hate you” in their rage at your message. (Obnoxious extreme lefties are just as silly, of course.) So issue a gentle, silent “There-there, honey. I’ll engage again with you when you grow up…” and engage with mental adults. But please keep posting your stuff, everywhere you can, remembering that no amount of organised shouting will drown out the message, and that the quiet groundswell of care is, well, swelling.

    Given the heartbreak of Obama, is it possible that this most historic of tasks must fall to a woman and an alternative political method? I’m thinking Stein represents the only hope for our kids, worldwide. It’s too late for Obama – he’s locked in. Is there no way the Green party could be elected? Greenies tend to be well educated. What makes smart people, more politically interested and informed electors risk Romney, I wonder?

    Don’t forget, the polls and analysis can get it all wrong, not that I follow them in the States. Is there really no way Stein could win? Do you see much of the Greens in the MSM?

    All the best!

    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  August 26, 2012

      Thank you, Angie, your words are always inspiring–and today, soothing.

      No, I don’t think there is any hope for Stein. The establishment simply won’t allow her in.

      But yes, maybe it’s true that it’s time for a woman–or many women–to lead the charge to a new world order. I think this will have to be a worldwide, grassroots movement, a groundswell that will get past the batons and bullets of the status quo elite.

      Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow may be all we have, so let’s spend those precious days fighting for the health and welfare of our planet, especially all the legions who do not have a voice in the public sphere.

      My question to Tropical Storm Isaac (you can see what kind of mood I’m in tonight): Who do you speak for? How far will you go?

      • Nick

         /  August 27, 2012

        “No, I don’t think there is any hope for Stein. The establishment simply won’t allow her in.”

        1) It wasn’t very long ago I heard much the same thing being said about the chances a black would be allowed to be president.

        2) If you are trying to talk people out of voting for Stein, then you are part of that establishment.

        3) Sometimes, it takes gamblers, renegades, and visionaries to lead a breakout from the status quo straightjacket of conventional wisdom. If you aren’t that sort of person, fine, but when you lecture those who would take a different path in a condescending fashion, saying that they need to get a grip–as if they are delusional, or ignorant, or haven’t given the matter any thought–then it really shouldn’t come as a surprise if the reactions get a bit toasty. First rule for a writer: know your readers.

        4) I agree Stein is currently unlikely to actually win the election, but the only way she can become likely is if masses of people will commit to her while she is still unlikely, and I don’t think that process should be discouraged, disparaged, or condemned. Besides, every reform movement starts with losses. But even losses can accomplish good things. For example, if Stein puts in a strong showing in those states where Obama is virtually certain to lose, and where there will be very little establishment opposition, that would help to raise the visibility and credibility of a progressive party, and could help open up the presidential debates to someone other than just the duopoly candidates. (I hear Stein mopped the floor with Romney the last time they met in a debate.)

        5) If you teach gender studies, then you probably know about many independent-minded women of integrity who, at great personal risk, fought the status-quo for what they believed was right and good, even when the chances they would succeed seemed remote. Don’t you even present some of them as courageous role models? How do you think those women would feel about your timid view that the *safest* option is to vote against one of their own in preference for one truly bad man–in hopes of staving off a maybe slightly worse man? What sort of role model or profile in courage is that?

  6. Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

     /  August 27, 2012

    Charles and Nick, I absolutely support the principles of the Green Party, and therefore I support Jill Stein–in principle. But in practice, the lesson of the Nader campaign in 2000 is still smarting for me. Think of how differently the last decade might have gone if Gore had been in the White House during 9/11, rather than Bush. I believe Nader’s run lost Gore that election–and Nader didn’t win, Bush did! So as things stand, I can only support Stein in principle, not in fact.

    I have been thinking about your comment, Charles, that I’m too nice for politics. Yes, I am rather nice. I am not big on confrontation–I don’t do it well. I tend to go off in a corner and brood, rather than come back swinging. But I started this blog a year ago, and named it Transition Times, precisely because I see this as a huge turning point in our trajectory as a human civilization on the planet. It’s too big and important and imminent to waste time off in a corner brooding.

    So nice or not, I am not going to shy from wading into the political sphere. Every foray is an education, as was my experience yesterday on Common Dreams. I thank the readers who pointed out to me that many of the CD commenters were in fact progressives who are so thoroughly disgusted with Obama that they can stand no sympathy for the man. I stand corrected.

    My comments were really about Obama the man rather than Obama the politician. I believe he’s a good man who shares my values. But that good man has been savaged by American politics, and I suspect his heart is no longer in it–which is why, in other columns on Transition Times, I’ve called him a “zombie.”

    Heaven protect nice Jill Stein from such a fate!

    It is urgent that we keep the Romneyites out of the White House. Therefore I will vote for Obama. But it is also urgent that we continue to keep our focus local, and build transition networks at the community level. There may very well come a time, in the not-too-distant future, when our resilience at the local level will make the difference between life and death. A time when who sits in the White House will be of no interest or use at all.

    We are not there yet, and it’s still worth fighting at the national and international levels to keep us from ending up in the state of total system collapse that I am speaking of. However, we should also be building local community structures that can withstand the coming storms, be they called Green Parties, Transition Towns, or eco-spiritual circles.

    It’s a good time to read or re-read Starhawk’s prophetic novel, THE FIFTH SACRED THING.

  7. Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

     /  August 27, 2012

    If you teach gender studies, then you probably know about many independent-minded women of integrity who, at great personal risk, fought the status-quo for what they believed was right and good, even when the chances they would succeed seemed remote. Don’t you even present some of them as courageous role models? How do you think those women would feel about your timid view that the *safest* option is to vote against one of their own in preference for one truly bad man–in hopes of staving off a maybe slightly worse man? What sort of role model or profile in courage is that?

    Nick, of course I am proud of Stein for standing up as a woman and taking the risk of running for President of the United States. Of course I applaud her as a role model, and yes, in my Women Write the World and Women Writing Resistance courses we do focus on and learn from great women like her.

    I don’t see myself as being “timid” here, I see myself as being pragmatic, as I explained above. I don’t see Obama as “truly bad,” only the victim of a truly bad system that is totally stacked against him. In his second term, he may be able to be bolder; and if the Tea Partiers can be ejected from Congress, he may be able to get more done. But “ifs,” I know, but such are the scraps of hope I live on.

    • Nick

       /  August 27, 2012

      “I don’t see Obama as “truly bad,” only the victim of a truly bad system that is totally stacked against him.”

      Okay, well, that is completely at odds with what the majority of the commenters at CD see, so that is probably a big part of the perception disconnect between you and your readers there. I think it would make for a fascinating article if you could actually mount a defense for that thesis. But I anticipate two large challenges for such a project. The first is accounting for all the energetic bad behavior Obama appears to have undertaken on his own initiative, sometime even trying to conduct it in secret, and showing how he was forced by the system to do all those things. And second, to the degree you succeed in showing that the system is overwhelmingly determinative regarding what a president does, you simultaneously undercut the position that it matters who the president is.

      I’m going to assume you are already familiar with Obama’s record, but maybe I can clarify the particular sorts of things which most CD readers tend to see as actions of his own volition. To support your “good man” thesis, you’d need to show how Obama was forced into: operating an environmental regulation wrecking operation out of the White House; opening up the arctic for petroleum drilling; torpedoing international environmentalist and arms limitation treaty efforts; not only giving the crooks of Wall Street a legal pass for their criminal behavior, and making sure their lavish lifestyles were insulated, at taxpayer expense, from all the pain and wreckage they caused everyone else, but then handing over fiscal and regulatory policy to the very people who crashed the system in the first place; hugely expanding drone attacks, including into countries where there is no Congressional authorization or oversight, and embracing “double-tap” strikes to take out rescuers and funeral-goers (what we used to deplore as the lowest form of terrorism); continuing torture renditions and operation of black torture sites, and indefinite detention facilities with no legal rights for the prisoners; running, at his sole discretion, a kill list of people he wants assassinated; putting Monsanto insiders in charge of food safety, and agribusiness insiders in charge of farm policy; greenlighting the planting of GMO’s in at least 50 wilderness areas; pre-emptively taking a public healthcare option off the table, and then consulting in secret with insurance and Pharma lobbyists in drafting the mandatory customers bill they wanted; completely reversing his promise for open and transparent government; cracking down hard on whistleblowers; increasing domestic spying by orders of magnitude; orchestrating the crackdown on Occupy and signing anti-Occupy laws; ramping-up the failed war on drugs and medical marijuana prosecutions; and hustling around the globe to forge corporate-friendly union-busting trade deals. The readers of CD could probably greatly expand that list, but just offhand, I think those would be on the bare-minimum list. And of particular interest in such a thesis would be an answer to this question: How much evil can a good man do before we should conclude he actually isn’t a good man?

      “In his second term, he may be able to be bolder”

      He will certainly be less accountable to the voters. Remember, this is the guy who took millions of small voter donations, and hundreds of millions of dollars in union contributions, and then could hardly deliver fast enough for his rich and powerful donors (who actually donated less) while the rest of us got shafted. One tidbit I always found interesting is that in 2008 Boeing donated five times as much to the Obama campaign as it did to McCain, mostly at a time when McCain was leading in the polls. I have to wonder what Boeing, one of the largest military industrial contractors on the planet, knew that would cause them to so greatly prefer a junior Senator and community organizer over a reliably military-friendly Republican veteran. It has, of course, turned out to be fabulously lucrative for them (I think last year their tax bill on 9.4 billion profit was negative 650 million–that’s right, after all the deductions and tax incentives, the IRS actually paid them 650 million taxpayer dollars for their billions in profit). But how did Boeing know back in 2008 that Obama was going to be so good for their bottom line?

  8. Martin Lack

     /  August 27, 2012

    Dear Jennifer,

    For what it’s worth here is my advice: I am sure it is hard to stomach but, having been given another platform from which to deliver your message, you should not relinquish it. However, neither should you feel under any compulsion to imitate those who use sarcasm and/or personal insults in lieu of having a legitimate argument.

    I understand why Obama generates so much anger amongst non-Republicans – because of broken promises and for having done absolutely nothing about the excessess of globalised Capitalism that gave us the 2008 financial meltdown. However, just as Republicans seem to forgot how awful the World could be without the EPA and sensible regulation that is now nearly 40 years old, so Democrats seem to forget how much more awful things could have been if the Sarah Palin had become VP 4 years ago.

    No matter what Obama may have failed to do – and no matter what else he may fail to do in the future – the World simply cannot afford to have in the White House an anti-scientific and anti-intellectual (or suggestible sock-puppet and/or hypocrite) of such distinction as is Mitt Romney. (N.B. I speak as someone who supports the Conservative Party in the UK).

    So, dear citizens of the USA (I speak to you all now), one crazy government in North America is bad enough; please don’t feel you have to compete with Canada!


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