Apologies to Digby; more on Colbert

I was wrong to attribute misogyny to Digby.
I never said, and don’t believe, that Colbert was “uncivil.” I loved his performance.
Arguments are often more potent than insults.

1. As soon as my post on the Cox/Colbert column was up, I sent an email to Digby asking whether I had misunderstood her. I now have her reply, and it turns out that I did misunderstand.

In writing “Our little Wonkette has grown up,” Digby did not intend to disparage Cox’s youth or sex, but merely to suggest that, having been metaphorically brought up in the blogging family, Cox had moved on to the mass media and was being disloyal to her roots by using the megaphone Time provides to criticize bloggers.

It does seem to me that Cox has suffered from misogyny, and in particular the brand of misogyny that assumes that any young and conventionally attractive woman who achieves professional success must have done so by trading on her looks. But I was wrong to attribute that attitude to Digby, and I apologize.

2. Yes, literally “jerk” and “wanker” are the same insult. But “jerk” has long since worn out its sexual reference; my guess is that most people who use it couldn’t give its derivation. (“Suck” &#8212 as in “Mean People Suck” &#8212 is moving in the same direction.) “Wanker,” which is a much younger term on this side of the Atlantic, hasn’t had as much time to wear down, and retains much of its original meaning and force. So I stick with my view that “wanker” remains an obscene insult, and one that’s incongruous (as “jerk” certainly would be if read literally) applied to a female.

3. Keeping the level of abuse, and especially obscene abuse, down strikes me as a worthy goal. Cuss words are to writing as salt is to cooking: useful in limited quantities in the right circumstances, but easy to overdo and also a frequent fallback for the unskilled. So I disapprove of routinely referring to those one wants to criticize as “wankers.”

4. In real life, I have a fairly foul mouth, but several readers politely complained about the frequency of naughty words on this site, and there were some indications that the site wasn’t making it past various nanny filters. So I cut back. My co-bloggers seem to naturally keep within FCC limits. That’s a matter of style and strategy, to which I don’t attribute any moral significance one way or the other. Transgression is often good, but transgression is impossible unless there are some conventions to transgress.

5. Some people love the rough-and-tumble among blog commenters. Many don’t. This blog’s comments section operates according to “play nice” rules: no dirty words, no insults to posters or other commenters. “Your attack on X was completely unjustified and you should apologize for it” or “That is an unusually foolish argument” doesn’t count as an insult; “You’re a fool” does.

6. As I said right up front in my post, and as I said at the time, I loved Colbert’s routine, both substantively and as a work of comic art. (And I’m grateful to Atrios for providing a video link to the whole thing.)

Some people on the right and in the mass media thought &#8212 or at least said and wrote, which isn’t quite the same thing &#8212 that Colbert was rude or uncivil or dull. I thought none of those things.

I agreed with Cox that he wasn’t laugh-out-loud funny. Your mileage may vary. Cox’s essay implied that failing to be laugh-out-loud funny in Colbert’s situation was failing, period. I disagreed, and said why. But Cox didn’t disagree with anything Colbert said; indeed, she expressed dissatisfaction that those things weren’t being said at Congressional hearings instead.

7. The current dispute is among a group of people all of whom would like to see George W. Bush in prison, and all of whom have said unforgivable things about him and his cronies on the public record. The question isn’t about “civility” (a word that doesn’t appear in my original post) to Bush. So the argument “My vicious personal attack is justified because torture is wrong” seems misplaced, at best. (For an example of that argument, see the Sadly, No! post to which Atrios links approvingly.) Insofar as the discussion is about “civility” at all, it’s about how disputes ought to be conducted among Bush’s opponents. I don’t agree that viciousness towards one’s allies is a measure of commitment to the common cause.

I also don’t agree that viciousness toward those with whom one has profound disagreements is always and everywhere desirable. “Retardo Montalban” is horrified that I sometimes argue with people I disagree with instead of insulting them. But I’d rather make converts than enemies. And I find that an argument, especially one conducted in calm tones, is far more likely than a rant to convince onlookers, as well as the person on the other side of the dispute. Again, your mileage may vary.

On the rare occasions that I manage to persuade someone to change his mind and say so, it’s my practice to accept the concession with as much grace as I can muster, rather than rubbing my interlocutor’s nose in his previous error. No one likes a sore winner.

As Meng-tse wrote (scholars differ about whether he had Karl Rove specifically in mind):

A benevolent man

extends his benevolence

from those he loves

to those he does not love.

A ruthless man

extends his ruthlessness

from those he hates

to those he does not hate.

We should aim at relentlessness, not ruthlessness.

Footnote Not that it matters much at this stage, but since the two primary ideas in the original post have gotten completely lost in the foofaraw, let me repeat them here:

&#8212 A text or performance can be superb comedy without making its audience laugh out loud.

&#8212 Even superb comedy has limited value in actual political struggles, so comics and their fans shouldn’t take themselves too seriously.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

36 thoughts on “Apologies to Digby; more on Colbert”

  1. Not having read Meng-tse, perhaps you could help me understand his advice for the benevolent man who finds ruthlessness being extended his way?

  2. I think the origen of the insult "jerk" is classist
    not obscene. IIRC "jerk" was originally an abreviation of "soda jerker", that is a person who
    pumped C0_2 into a soda to make it bubbly. This was very heavy, poorly paid, unskilled work. The meaning related to sex (but not authentic sexual intercourse) was based on the analogy with the energetic pumping motion required to jerk a soda.
    I find the use of the word "jerk" basically neither obscene nor snobbish, since it now is a rude way to describe someone as pushy, aggressive and of poor character. I wrote I found it "inoffensive" but, of course, it is still rude and I have realiably been hurt each time I have been called a jerk (note I don't contest the validity of the accusation).
    Still, I believe (perhaps incorrectly) that the word's meaning has changed into almost the opposite of the original meaning. I believe that a jerk originally was someone who had lost the rat race, failed to get ahead a sap or what would now be called a sucker excpet that word might have sexist and homaphobic overtones (although of course it refers to the ingenousness a nursing baby). The way in which "jerk" or "loser" came to be used to refer to bad peple not unfortunate or disadvantaged people reminds me of an aspect of the American world view which I do not like at all.
    I would much prefer to believe that "jerk" refers to autoeroticism. Actually, that makes much more sense. It is possible that the same word has been used as an insult with different metaphors in mind.
    Now what are we to make of this comment and the undersigned commenter ? What sort of person can't help writing pompous disquisitions on the word "jerk" ? I submit that "twit" is not sufficient to describe the unfortunate case ant that I, sir, am a Wanker.

  3. Good stuff. Still disagree on "Even superb comedy has limited value in actual political struggles", though, unless "limited" means something like "won't instantly resolve the issue by itself". E.g., what about Tartuffe, or Candide, or the collected Swift?

  4. Mark,
    If I may call you Mark? That was a pretty nice apology. Just saying "I'm sorry I chose to insult people on my side of the political divide on behalf of an opportunistically offended press prostitute like Anna Maria Cox" would have done just as well. Perhaps you should have tried originally extending your benevolence from the center to the left, from digby to atrios, rather than from Cox's little screed to the center/right. Then you would have had no problems at all. Still, I like the quote from Meng-tse and I'll save it up for the time when benevolence is possible and won't be rewarded (as it has been for most of my adult lifetime) with a kick in the teeth.

  5. I'm a little confused about why people think that Wonkette is a liberal. I didn't read her all that much, but I never read anything that would make me think she was a liberal. She mostly just seemed snarky to me, and I always got the feeling that if John Kerry was in office she would have been even harsher to him. Is this impression incorrect?
    Also, I disagree with the comparison in #3. By the "salt" logic, I would cuss much, _much_ more often, because I find that more salt almost always helps any dish. Especially chicken.

  6. Kudos to you for apologizing to Digby. The accusation of misogyny was undeserved, and far more serious than calling someone a "wanker." But sincere apologies are a rare and valuable commodity, and can repay even an serious insult.
    Now let's all hold hands and sing "Kum Ba Yah"!
    Robert, the Online Etymology Dictionary says that "jerk" may come from "jerkwater town," where "a steam locomotive crew had to take on boiler water from a trough or a creek because there was no water tank."

  7. Wasn't it Meng-tse who also said this to Co-hen:
    a pompous man
    extends his pompousness
    from those he bores
    to those he does not bore
    As for comedy, when a majority of people get their political news from late night comics rather than journalists, I would be hesitant to say it has little or no value in politics.

  8. Colbert replied the end of his act and I'm glad he did. I first watched it like you by going to that net link. First part was really funny but I did not get his audition tape part until I saw his show last night. That part was also a real crackup when one got to see it clearly. It seems Justice Scalia and Helen Thomas were the only two at the dinner who have any sense of humor. And yes, I've been a Colbert fan for a while. Funny man on TV by far.

  9. It seems that a lot of people have been accusing Digby of sexism, then abruptly apologizing and pretty clearly identifying the pseudonymous one as a female.
    Now that's what I call some serious heteronormativity.

  10. At some point, is this going to reach the requisite meta-mass to cause the blogosphere to collapse into a neutron star?

  11. I personally don't think it's civil to start off a post proclaiming equality between Atios and those who think disagreeing with the president is treason… While not using foul language, it certainly isn't extending benevolence, eitber. That may be why it seems tlo others that you're far more benevolent to torture supporters tban you are to those who are horrified by such discussion.
    Oh, and didn't Wonkette make her name through the mass repeating of @ss f&cking? I'm curious as to why that gets such a wide break. It's a curious definition of foul language and tone you seem to be proffering.

  12. Lots of helpful responses here, for which my thanks.
    The derivations of "jerk" from "soda jerk" or "jerkwater town" are both attractive, but I think the balance of opinion is with "jerk off." But I wasn't really taking a position on that; I was merely responding to the comment that it wouldn't seem at all odd to call a woman a jerk, so why should it be odd to call a woman a wanker?
    I'm puzzled at why people think of Atrios as being to my left and Cox to my right. If "left" and "right" refer primarily to how steep status gradients should be, and in particular how unequal the income distribution should be, I count as pretty far left, and I have no idea how Cox and Atrios compare to one another. But that calls for a longer post.
    David W. has introduced a dreaded "ness monster" into this highly elevated discourse. Why use "pompousness" instead of "pomposity"? (he replied, pompously).
    Two responses to Hal:
    1. Saying that in one particular form of bad behavior X is like Y isn't saying that X is as bad as Y.
    2. There's a difference between telling dirty jokes and calling someone dirty names.

  13. 1) The point is that Cox is a panderer. When she was blogging she pandered to the audience that reads blogs. Now that she's graduated to newsweeklies she's pandering to that audience. "Our little Wonkette has grown up" was right on target. Her shtick on the blog was that she was a naughty little girl. She could have posed for Playboy in pigtails and knee socks. Now she's pompously bloviating with the rest of the adults. Both personas are frauds.
    2) Colbert's audience was not in the room, any more than Bush's audience is in the room when he gives the SOTU address. Jeebus Christmas, hasn't anyone around here heard of television?

  14. Noticed you've been quite the busy beaver in various comment sections yet curiously not at the one to the post which seems to vex you so much… so I figured I'd come here and meet you more than half-way. Why not? It's the civil and decent thing to do.
    I could give a crap about Ana Marie Cox. My problem was with your attitude to Digby and Atrios whom you thought were being such meanies; though you didn't say the word, your beef with them had absolutely everything to do with your perception of their civility — or rather lack thereof. THAT was enough to get your dander up, though, curiously, calls for hitting protestors with 2x4s or general torture advocacies can't manage to get your blood boiling in quite the same way.
    Sorry, you can't weasel out of this with the lame excuse that word "civility" doesn't show up in your post. I busted you on a pattern — you're ever-ready to engage the indecent but your line is firmly drawn against the "uncivil".
    One more time to make it clear — it's not that I'm "horrified" that you debate those you disagree with. It's that you're very willing to countenance the moral depravity of your opponenets but at the same time you refuse to abide people — often your ostensible allies — being "mean". I get the distinct feeling that if Eugene Volokh or Megan McArdle had larded their depraved, absolutely concentrated-evil suggestions with a few f-bombs, and ad hominems, you'd have treated them differently. But since they didn't, they're ok — while it's the people who cussed them who are Truly Bad People.

  15. "Retardo":
    Please take a deep breath and then read carefully what I actually said about Atrios (that he's frequently mad at people, which seems a fair thing to say about someone who appoints a "Wanker of the Day," and that he tends to convert disagreement into personal attack) and about Digby (that one remark of hers, which I specified, seemed to me envious, condescending, and misogynistic). I didn't say that either of them was evil. I didn't curse them out, or attribute obscene improbabilities to them, or accuse them of lack of reading comprehension or sympathy with torturers. I didn't bring up irrelevant things I'd disliked about their posts from years ago. I disagreed with things they said, and explained why. When it turned out that I'd misread Digby, I took it back and apologized.
    [As is my usual practice when I criticize someone's views in a post &#8212 except for those, such as Atrios and Glenn Reynolds, who have stopped responding to such emails &#8212 I sent a courtesy email to Digby when the post went up.]
    Then go re-read your own scream of incoherent, gibbering rage directed at me, and see if, on reflection, you think it might have been just a teensy bit excessive.
    Then we can talk about meeting halfway.
    As to why I responded in other people's comment sections rather than yours, let's leave that problem as an excercise for the reader.

  16. "THAT was enough to get your dander up, though, curiously, calls for hitting protestors with 2x4s or general torture advocacies can't manage to get your blood boiling in quite the same way."
    Retardo, please. That's just absurdly wrong.

  17. I used to be all for relentlessness. Now I'm into ruthlessness. Too much is at stake.

    The commenter above, who is also the poster who exploded in fury at me on Sadly, No! signs himself "Retardo Montalban" on his blog and simply "Retardo" above.
    In my reply above, I adress him as "Retardo," since that's the only name I know for him. This brought a stern rebuke from a reader, appalled that I should use a variant of an insulting label (now happily obsolete) for a person with developmental disabilities as a term of abuse.
    I couldn't agree more that the use of "Retardo" is in appallingly bad taste. (I would have called him out on it, but he might have considered that another plea for civility and been prompted to issue another blast of fury in response.)
    I've now inserted scare quotes around my use of the name in my reply, lest any more readers attribute the insult to me rather than my interlocutor. And please, if you were offended, don't send him reams of obscene abuse.

  19. I've now inserted scare quotes around my use of the name in my reply, lest any more readers attribute the insult to me rather than my interlocutor. And please, if you were offended, don't send him reams of obscene abuse.
    Mark, you seem to misunderstand us on a fairly basic level.
    We don't care if people do send reams of obscene abuse, because we don't take it personally. 'Obscenity' is simply irrelevant to whether an argument is sound or faulty. It's a matter of diction, a stylistic issue.
    This is the dichotomy between 'civility' and 'decency' that Retardo was talking about. It's a very simple argument, and a very important one, and it's regrettable that you haven't engaged it and are instead finding ways to be 'offended' by even more things pertaining to Retardo, such as his name. Which is, in fact, once again, a word and not a thing.

  20. Gavin:
    The objection to "Retardo" was that of a reader, who attributed it to me.
    I've spoken out quite strongly against the indecency of torture. Why are you and "Retardo" so insistent that I join you in personally abusing those who (even temporarily) disagree?

  21. Colbert wasn't laugh-out-loud funny. The reaction of the audience was. By the time he finished I was wiping tears from my eyes.

  22. Mr. Kleiman – did you actually delete my commentt in which I defended you, using no uncivil words whatsoever? The one in which I merely said Retardo was "absurdly wrong?"
    Good Lord. What a wanker thing to do, sir.
    By the way – why the hell didn't you email Digby asking if you had misunderstood her post beFORE you posted that bit about her being a "male chauvinist?" Instead of "as soon as?"

  23. Mark, dude, you're mostly right on this one. It's astounding to see how irrational folks in the leftosphere get over stuff like this. Criticism of Atrios, in particular, tends to generate amazingly vitriolic responses.
    One of my favorite type of responses goes like this:
    Your criticism of X is unwarranted–and shows you to be a bad person–because X is opposed to Y, and Y is worse than X, and you wasted time criticizing X instead of Y.
    The righties use this criticism against us for criticizing Bush (there X=Bush, Y= OBL, Saddam, whatever); in the dispute at hand, lefties are using it against you (where X=Atrios, Y= Bush, Fox News, etc.)
    You were wrong about the Digby thing, and you apologized, and good for you, man. It's tough to apologize in American political discussions these days because almost no one has the grace to accept the apology. It's usually just an invitation to more abuse. Which is why it's so hard, and so rare, and so admirable.
    But you're laregely dealing with a certain kind of person now (that shows up on the right AND the left) that brooks no disagreement. It's difficult to act perfectly, difficult to do something that a committed critic can't pick at. If someone has decided ahead of time that you're wrong, there's often little you can do–no matter how right you are–to change their mind.
    Anyway, you're right, and you probably realize you're right. No amount of strained and Gerrymandered criticism will change that.

  24. KC:
    Please check your email. I put your comment on "pending" because I couldn't figure out whether you were criticizing "Retardo" or me, and wrote to ask for clarification. I'm happy to replace it as soon as I know what you meant.

  25. "I've spoken out quite strongly against the indecency of torture. Why are you and "Retardo" so insistent that I join you in personally abusing those who (even temporarily) disagree?"
    We don't ask that. We ask that one keep in mind the seriousness of the issues without retreating behind a scrim of words, wordishness, speech-codes, and policing of speech.
    There are words, Mr. Kleiman, and there are things-in-the-world. Language certainly is important, but there comes a time, as Mencken said, to spit upon one's hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats. I think that time came quite awhile ago.

  26. Why do all these conversations ultimately turn into discussions of who pays more obeisance to the awesome populist power of the blogs?

  27. KJM,
    You know, that seems to me to be just one component of this whole weird affair… I didn't think that Colbert was very funny, and I don't think that comedy is really newsworthy, so I just don't see that MSM is irresponsible for not covering it. In fact, before this came to be a Whole Big Thing, I saw the bit about the Bush impersonator, and kept thinking "is this s#!t *news*???" I guess I think the same thing about Colbert.
    I actually think that it might be good that Colbert said those things to Bush, b/c I think that he might need to hear them. (But maybe not–that guy seems mercifully bereft of the ravages of self-doubt.) What I don't get is the angry denunciations of those who just don't think Colbert was funny, the claims that the MSM had an obligation to cover this, and the extraordinary anger that's been pouring out of the left over every aspect of this *utterly insignificant* case.
    I mean, look: I'm a liberal. I really, really dislike Bush, and have really, really disliked him longer and more vehemently than most sane liberals. But even I'm left scratching my head about this Colbert affair.
    This is, I'm afraid, the kind of thing that gives ammunition to the righties' charges of "BDS." And, aside from being unseemly and intemperate, such things undermine the force of our righteous and rational anger.

  28. WS, the point is that traditionally this event is covered – Imus's attack on Clinton (around '97?) was widely discussed in the press. And why was the double shtick covered and not Colbert's routine? The latter had the virtue of being surprising and visibly affected the president and first lady – either normally prime examples of "newsworthy".

  29. A-hem. I've read your email, Mr. K, and I see why you deleted my post. But it was all a big hilarious misunderstanding – I was quoting one of Retardo's comments, and I messed the italics up, and you apparently thought I was browbeating you. Also, I was simply addressing Retardo by the only name by which I know him, which is "Retardo" (well, I guess I COULD call him "Mr. Montalban"), not chastising you, Mr. K, for using the word "Retardo."
    I responded to your email, but gmail was acting up, so hopefully you only got one response from me. Not 25.
    Isn't it all pretty funny when you think about it? Let's put down our swords and have a big group hug . . . you too, Retardo, c'mere . . .

  30. Um, by the way, it isn't strictly necessary to re-post my comment.
    'Cause I sure don't want Mr. Montalban mad at ME . . .

  31. It'll be a tragedy if frequent use of profanity winds up driving normally-prudish voters away from blog truth.
    For me, profanity doesn't usually improve the the base-rallying snark effect of a post. And, I don't think my hip-but-nice sister or brother-in-law want to sit in a room with a bunch of "fu&K you," and I doubt they want to read it either. A little bit; ok. But don't kill the power of rude words through over-use unless you know it's an election winner.

  32. Why would anyone be envious of Wonkette? She wrote a book that BOMBED recently; her blog certainly is no must read for newsjunkies.
    It has a tabloid quality to it thats more
    suitable for celebrity gossip than politics.
    I am female and a feminist, but I think its absurd to call a man a misogynist every time he makes a rude remark about a woman (I recently referred to Richard Cohen as little Richy Cohen-am I a man-hater pray tell?)
    There is some fine hypocrisy & sophistry here-baselessly calling someone a racist, bigot or misogynist is IMO viler than generic insults like "jerk", "wanker" etc. They might be slightly more refined as taunts go, but the implications are so much worse. So can I just call every Republican I disagree with a homophobic white supremacist? Its less "uncivil"-clearly I don't have to be right on the facts of it-as long as I am nice and prim in how I put it.
    Digby's post was spot on imo. Cox's column was whiny, absurd, attention-seeking hyperbole. Its also comical how sensitive someone, who made a reputation out of viciously trashing other people, is when someone criticizes her/hubbie.
    Whats truly irritating about people like Cox and Lehmann is not that they disagree with us on Colbert. Its that they STATE that "XYZ is not funny"-cuz ya know, THEY are cool enough to know what is funny, what is wise etc. Not once does Lehmann say-"in my opinion". Oh no its a FACT (I have never read Lehmann before but based on that one column, he seems so sour, humorless & pompous that he is surely an odd choice to be deciding whats funny-assuming that can be done?)
    Its really annoying how any one even remotely associated with the media, now feels that they can tell us plebes what to think.
    Enough of paying attention to media whores like Wonkette, Chris Lehmann or Cohen. These people are just trying to pile on to Colbert's spotlight.

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