Friday, July 23, 2010

An issue: The problem with judging a blog by its commenters

It might be wishful thinking, but one would have hoped that anyone attacking a blogger would at the very least get his or her facts right.

Stephen Walt, no lesser person than a professor of International Relations at Harvard, in his latest post on FP takes on those who have criticised him, and others, for being anti-semitic or anti-Zionist for the simple reason that they query the Israel Lobby's influence in US politics and whether it is in the interests of America to be so-one sided in its support for Israel.

"Smith therefore has to resort to a new and bizarre form of "guilt-by-association." He attacks the four of us-and me in particular-by looking at some of the anonymous reader comments that appear in response to some of our posts. He finds that a few of those individuals who comment make some extreme statements, which he uses to argue that we are deliberately fostering anti-Semitism on our blogs. In other words, we must be anti-Semites because a handful of people whom we don't even know -- because their identities are secret -- are commenting on our posts. (It's not clear how this applies to Sullivan, by the way, because his blog doesn't have a comments thread.)

The problems with this line of argument should be obvious. First, people of all persuasions write in to disagree -- sometimes vehemently -- with my views on Middle East policy, and that includes individuals who defend Israel down the line. So, one could just as easily use the comments thread to argue that I am providing a platform for pro-Israel hasbara. Second, any website that deals with Middle East subjects, especially Israel, will inevitably attract some wing-nuts. Just take a look at the comments on New York Times or Washington Post pieces dealing with Israel, or even better, check out the "talk-backs" in the Jerusalem Post or Ha'aretz. There is virtually no difference between what you will find at those sites and what you will find on the Greenwald, Weiss, and Walt sites. Does Smith also believe that Ha'aretz and the Jerusalem Post are "mainstreaming hate?" Third, if we judge bloggers not by what they write but by what some of their readers write in response, we would be giving opponents of those bloggers an easy way to discredit them. If you don't like what a particular blogger says, write an anonymous comment praising him or her, add some bigoted statements of your own, and then send Smith an anonymous email and tell him to check out the comments thread. Voila! Lastly, if we take freedom-of-speech seriously (and I do) we have to be tolerant of discourse that we personally find offensive and sometimes even hateful. I am confident that the vast majority of people who read my blog can tell the difference between what I write under my own name and what anyone else says about what I have written, even if Smith cannot."

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