Saturday, May 15, 2004

Lefties, Away!

The other day, Steven Den Beste wrote a lengthy post about linguistics, which was mildly interesting (not because he was right or wrong or some degree in between, but because I find linguistics itself only mildly interesting). Then, a day or so later, Matthew Yglesias linked SDB's post, in which he took a couple of mild potshots at SDB for long-windedness and pointing out that Noam Chomsky's work, like that of many philosophers, may be valuable for something other than whether he is right or wrong. (We still read Aristotle, for example, even though nobody except for the Ayn Rand weirdos think he got it all right.) SDB then appended his post with one of his standard updates, saying of Matthew, "Those who can, do; those who can't, sneer."

Well, setting aside the issue of whether Matthew's post can really be construed as a "sneer" – it seems more like a rolling-of-the-eyes to me, but whatever – that's not the end of it. It seems that SDB wasn't content to leave it at that: when I read the comments on Matthew's post, I read that SDB had employed the same kind of referral-block thing that LGF used against Nathan Newman some time back, first setting it up so that if one clicked Matthew's link to SDB's post, one was referred right back to Matthew's blog (I did not see this and cannot directly confirm this), and later changing it so that it led to SDB's 404-message (I have confirmed this). I thought, "No way", but sure enough, it's so: if you cut-and-paste the URL of SDB's post from Matthew's link into your browser, you get the post, but if you directly click Matthew's link, you get the 404. And it's not just this way for that one post: I did a search on Matthew's blog for every time he's mentioned SDB (using "Den Beste" as my search term), and sure enough, this is now the way it is for every time Matthew has linked SDB.

And it's not just Matthew. Just looking through a few of the left-leaning blogs on my blogroll, I see that SDB has similarly blocked referrals from Kevin Drum. (Use this post of Kevin's as a test.) As of now he does not seem to have got round to blocking Atrios or Tbogg, but that's probably because those fellows haven't linked SDB in a while.

I don't know if there's more to the story here than is public, but SDB has never struck me as the kind of ultra-thin-skinned guy he's evidently decided to act like in this manner. At least, he's always cultivated the image of Blogistan's uber-rationalist, the guy who carefully constructs every argument and follows it through to logical conclusion no matter where it leads, the guy who prides himself on engineer-like thinking and who doesn't really care what you or anyone else thinks. (I didn't say that's the way he really is, I said that's the way he presents himself. Big difference.)

But coming from a guy who once went to great lengths to argue the evils of pseudonymity on the Web and who can at the drop of a hat identify at least six informal fallacies in any argument no matter how short, this kind of thing is very disappointing. No doubt SDB has some rationale for doing this – maybe he doesn't want to have to wade through the e-mail crush that must result whenever one of the biggies of Left Blogistan links him, or something like that – but it hardly seems fair for him to block their referrals at the same time he's linking them back. As several of Matthew's commenters point out, SDB has no comments on his blog and he disabled his message board eons ago, so if he's just worried about the onset of liberal trolls, well – that's just sad. And it's not like Matthew or Kevin link him all that often to begin with, so what is SDB afraid of?

For my money, this shows that SDB is lot less willing to let disagreement run off his back than he otherwise implies. "Those who can, do; those who can't, sneer" kind of loses its cachet as a rejoinder when SDB is simultaneously reaching into his bag of tech-tricks to keep people off the scent.

UPDATE: SDB has since appended his post with the explanation that I expected: "There's a difference between criticism of the material presented in an article and mocking disparagement of the author of the article. The former is welcome; the latter is not....I do not need any refer traffic from those who cannot tell the difference between these. That is why blog authors who express their 'disagreement' via ad hominem will be placed into another kind of 'bozo bin', and why direct refers from their sites will be refused by this server. (Their readers can still visit my site directly, but only by going to a small amount of extra effort. Most will not.)"

This rings rather hollow, given the number of ad hominem artists who have at one time or another been featured on SDB's blogroll (Rachel Lucas, for example) or defended by SDB in his blog (LGF, for example). To SDB, apparently leftie namecalling is unacceptable ad hominem while rightie namecalling is "authorial voice". OK, then. Of course, in the Matthew Yglesias post he links back, Matthew (a) doesn't really sneer; (b) openly admits that he is not qualified to delve into merits of the argument; and (c) poses a larger point that SDB completely ignores. Therefore, it seems to me that the combination of summing up Matthew's post as a "sneer", combined with the characterization of Matthew as someone who "cannot tell the difference" between criticism and "mocking disparagement" (as lunatic a characterization of Matthew -- and, incidentally, Kevin Drum -- as I think I'm likely to see), constitute an ad hominem attack all on their own. (Plus, I'd almost bet money that I could find at least one or two examples of "mocking disparagement" somewhere in SDB's body of work.)

But that's not even what really bugs me here. It's that last parenthetical clause of SDB's, where he openly acknowledges that most of their readerships won't go to the small amount of extra effort needed to get around his little firewall. Linkage is really what makes Blogistan work the way it does. Even granting SDB's distinction between "linkers" (bloggers who mostly link other stuff, like Glenn Reynolds) and "thinkers" (bloggers who produce mostly new material, like SDB himself), it's still very rare to see a "thinker" produce something in Blogistan that's without any connection to something else. That's why the vast majority of even SDB's essays kick off with an "On Screen" citation to something on the Web, be it a blog post or a news article somewhere.

By mucking around with the ins-and-outs of linkage in this way, SDB tacitly endorses the much-vaunted, and much-derided, "echo chamber effect" of Blogistan. The three blogs he cites as being so blocked -- Matthew's, Kevin Drum's, and the Daily Kos (which I don't read, and thus cannot comment on its content) -- constitute three of the most heavily trafficked liberal blogs in existence. Thus, in one fell swoop, SDB has seen to it that most of his arguments will never be seen by these readers. And for him to react suchly against three blogs that have linked him a combined four times in the last six months (and with two of those coming yesterday) just seems, well, a bit over-the-top.

(To be fair, the Kos post SDB cites is deserving of at least some indignation, seeing as how it is riddled with spelling, punctuation, and grammatical errors. That post is a sneer, and a poorly written one, no doubt about it.)

One thing that attracts me about Blogistan is the way controversies (what would on Usenet be called "flamewars") tend to die out fairly quickly, as posts fall off the main pages of those blogs involved. Why SDB felt the need to do this is utterly beyond me, especially since his is one of the most-visited and linked blogs in existence. Ultimately, a person willing to go to such lengths to disrupt the way blogging works, and to thus direct such efforts at two guys who in my experience are really very mild even when they do engage in "mocking disparagement" (Daniel Davies said far worse about SDB back during the whole "bloody shirt waving" fiasco, in which I thought Daniel was in the wrong), and to do so even while linking back to those guys, seems to me a person whose blogging ego has inflated beyond the point where I can no longer take him seriously, and whose trustworthiness as a blogger I now question.

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