Michael Gerson understands neither anti-semitism, bigotry, nor the internet by mattsteinglass

Michael Gerson wrote a column some days ago saying bigotry on the internet was a bad thing. Ezra Klein responded that this is true, but that it’s kind of pointless to ineffectually bemoan the intolerance of zillions of random anonymous posters in squillions of social media forums while saying nothing about the mainstream broadcast media figures who actually are ramping up bigotry and hatred at the moment, viz., Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, etc. Michael Gerson then sneered back that Ezra Klein is a partisan hack who is ignoring and pooh-poohing the deadly anti-semitic internet threat for political reasons. Spencer Ackerman quite rightly responded that Michael Gerson, who is not Jewish, “needs to shut his fucking mouth before he ever even thinks accusing a Jew of insufficient vigilance against antisemitism.” This is a point that remains insufficiently well understood by non-Jews, particularly those like Gerson on the Christian right. So first, let us get this clear: white people cannot say nigger toss around derogatory words that refer to black people (except, as Chris Rock points out, for rare cases where it’s in the song). Christian people cannot accuse Jewish people of being disloyal to the Tribe.

But the other thing I find interesting is that Gerson’s understanding of the internet is so clumsy and primitive. He writes about it in the way I’d expect a 60-year-old with very limited experience of internet use to write…like, 10 years ago or so. Check this:

In preparing my Friday column, I found an interview with David Goldman by the Southern Poverty Law Center particularly interesting. After monitoring Internet hate sites for many years, Goldman has concluded that the main dangers are now found in chat rooms, comment boxes and email. “In chat rooms,” he says, “which are populated mainly by young people, you can swear and use racial epithets with a certain amount of ease, and that helps to support your own stereotypes and racial bigotry. Unlike hate sites, these chat rooms create a sense of immediacy and community.”

These are the type of sources one encounters while doing extensive research for a column. A blogged response to a column, of course, is free from such archaic, old-media constraints.

Gerson considers this webpage he found a “source”, and the Googling he did to find it “research”. You envision him pushing the glasses up on his nose: “In my rethearch, during which I ekthtenthively monitored numerouth chat roomth over a period of yearth, often during the late-night hourth when anti-themitithm reaches peak levelth…” “Hold on! What are these ‘chat rooms’ exactly?” Which is fine, up to a point; Googling is research and webpages with interviews are sources, of a preliminary secondary-source variety. But is Gerson under the impression that Ezra Klein is unfamiliar with Google, or something?

Gerson’s implied stance on supposedly research-heavy old media vs. unsubstantiated blogging is tired, years out of date, and has for that matter always been wrong. Policy blogs like the one Ezra Klein writes are, as a rule, far better sourced and better researched than op-ed columns like the ones Gerson writes. In the specific cases of Klein and Gerson, there’s obviously no comparison: Klein writes a sophisticated, wonkish, data-heavy blog. Gerson writes fact-free partisan opinion fluff, just as he did when he was a Bush speechwriter.

Moreover, Gerson fails to understand the relationship between broadcast media and blogging. Klein was pointing out that there’s not much point in criticizing “incivility on the internet” because you’re not talking to anyone. There are 500 million anonymous posters out there, half of them Chinese. Who does Gerson think he’s addressing? In contrast, broadcast media personalities are individual points of contact who to a great extent drive the conversation on the internet, feed it with new memes, and legitimate it. And they can be addressed, because there are only a few of them, and they’re backed by substantial media organizations. To a great extent, figures like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Michael Savage create or legitimize the memes that circulate in the conservative blogosphere. If they were held to some standards of responsible reporting, that would have a substantial influence on the debate. But they’re not, because their constituency, including Michael Gerson, has no interest in substantial reporting.

Anyway, to anybody who’s reasonably internet-literate, all of this is just obvious background knowledge. (Check, for example, this insightful recent post by one of the other mystery bloggers at Democracy in America — not me.) But Gerson seems not to get any of this. And what I’m wondering is whether there is an intrinsic connection between Gerson’s lack of media literacy and his lack of understanding of how anti-semitism works, or whether he just happens to be ignorant about both of these topics separately. Is there a general semiotic obtuseness involved here, an inability to understand the ways that statements mean different things when spoken by different people — that a dumb comment by a random poster is different from a rant by Glenn Beck, just as a Jew talking about anti-semitism is different than a Christian talking about anti-semitism? Then, of course, there’s the other possibility: that Gerson understands perfectly well that he’s talking crap, and is being deliberately misleading and slanderous. I wouldn’t count that out either.


6 Comments so far
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I think your article is very interesting. I’m just not clear on why you think it’s acceptable for you to use the “n-word” in an article that eviscerates a person for overstepping their bounds with regards to your ethnic group.

Comment by Jessica Faye Carter

I may be unclear about this, but my understanding is that, just as it would be fine for anybody to say “you cannot use the word ‘kike'” because what you’re saying is simply that you can’t use the word, one of the few allowable ways to use that word is in referring to the word itself, rather than in using it to refer to anything else. I believe it should have had quotes around it, though. And you’re right, at some level it’s unpleasant to see the words in print at all, so it probably would have been better to say that it’s just a stylistic error a no-go for white people to toss around words that refer in a derogatory manner to black people, even in fun.

Comment by Matt Steinglass

I used to have that same understanding, but over time found that those who would otherwise be the target of the slur just didn’t like seeing/hearing the word bandied about.

These days I just say “slur” directed towards “whomever.” I do appreciate the adjustment, though.

Comment by Jessica Faye Carter

Context is important, sometimes you have to be careful you don’t lose the forest for the tree.

Comment by Brian In NYC

Good piece Matt, I do know Gerson’s family background is Jewish, I don’t know when or if his family converted it’s not stated in his wiki. I suspect his family converted as he was sent to a private Christian high school. This of course adds another aspect to the entire story in my view.

Comment by Brian In NYC

Yyyeah…that’s getting into a whole other territory.

Comment by Matt Steinglass

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