Atrios says the thing that is not

In fighting monsters, beware of becoming monstrous; stare into the abyss too long, and the abyss begins to stare back.Also Sprach Zarathustra

More than once, Atrios has jumped all over Glenn Reynolds for making a quick, thoughtless remark and not backing off when he was called on it. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Atrios just flattered Glenn.

Here’s the history:

Jane Galt heard a rumor that some of the anti-war demonstrators in New York were planning to trash the place, Seattle-style. She reported that the New Yorkers she knew were upset, angry, and afraid, but trying not to show it, and quoted a friend whose attitude was “Bring it on!” She then — imprudently, in my view — went on to describe a fantasy where a protester wrecking one of the Korean family-owned grocery stores that dot New York was confronted by a New Yorker with a two-by-four and given a demonstration of the value of pre-emptive violence.

Atrios, like me, thought that was a pretty bad idea, and after the protest passed without violence made a backhanded observation that “Jane Galt’s goon squad” hadn’t had any mass vandalism to deal with. That was a pretty rude remark, considering that Jane doesn’t actually have a goon squad and hadn’t actually proposed that anyone organize a goon squad. Of course, anyone reading Jane’s original post would have known that. But equally of course, most of the fifteen or twenty thousand people who read that post never clicked through; all they knew was that Jane Galt was running a goon squad. That’s exactly the sort of thing that Atrios (and Kieran Healy) have blasted Reynolds for. Nothing would have been lost by writing “hypothetical goon squad” to make it clear that this was imaginary, rather than real, activity. Still, it was just a throwaway line.

[I criticized it mildly, in the course of criticizing the original post more seriously, here. Jane defended her basic position, but said that her original comment “was not a very-well considered thing to say, and it came out wrong the first time I wrote it.“]

Things got more serious when some thug in a truck threw a brick at a group of children at an anti-war march in Athens, Georgia, hitting one boy on the leg. Atrios posted a link and a paragraph quoted from the news story, with the comment “Looks like Jane Galt’s goon squad went to Athens, Georgia”.

Now that, I submit, was completely out of line. Not only did Jane have absolutely nothing to do with the violence in Athens, she — unlike Rod Dreher at the group hate-blog National Review Online calls “The Corner” — never wrote a syllable advocating violence against anti-war protesters per se, as opposed to vandals.

Jane describes the result in an email, which I quote with her permission:

Thanks to Atrios et. al. I’ve had several hundred truly revoltingly nasty emails that made me remember the reasons I quit the Left in the first place. Why is it that the people allegedly on the side that is fighting sexism think that the way to make their point is by making four-letter references to my sex life? At this point I’m so angry that I am incapable of saying anything rational on the subject, so you can tell Atrios and company they scored a big win — I’m stopping blogging until I’m not angry any more, which, given the pool of mind-sewage I just waded through, will be quite a while. I’m sorry to cut off our online debate, but it’s just fodder for people who, no matter what I say, are going to frame the argument as fascist conservative who was hoping there would be violence this weekend so she could stomp ass, which is exactly the opposite of what I am: someone who is willing to threaten stomping ass in the hopes that the people who attend rallies so they can throw things (I know you know the kind of people I’m talking about) will think the better of it. You can argue whether this is effective, as you are, but the people who emailed me just wanted to give their rather limited vocabulary a workout. I’m a fairly patient person and I pretty much never get mad, but I’m worn out. I’m going to read mystery novels and look for a job and let the debates carry on without me.

Atrios, I’m sorry to say, is unwilling to admit any error whatever; in an email exchange (which I neglected to get his permission to quote) he dismissed his comment as pardonable hyperbole. He hasn’t dropped the issue; I found the link to the Dreher post about how protesters help him get in touch with his “inner Teamster” on Eschaton. But he won’t say — apparently doesn’t believe — that he did Jane Galt any injury, or his own reputation any harm.

I think otherwise. Blogging is journalism on the cheap, but it’s journalism nonetheless, and basic journalistic ethics applies: you shouldn’t say, or clearly imply, something damaging about someone else that isn’t true, and if you do you owe that person a full retraction and apology.

So far, the debate about the invasion of Iraq has involved far less vituperation than was the case about Vietnam. (As far as I know, I haven’t lost any friends by being pro-war, and I wouldn’t expect to lose any if tomorrow I became anti-war.) That civility is worth holding on to, and won’t be easy to hold onto if the thing goes badly, as well it might. So let’s all be careful about what we say and do.

I’d like to hear from my friends on the right about Dreher’s post — and NRO’s willingness to leave it up — and from my friends on the left about Atrios’s.

UPDATE Ted Barlow was on this story first, and more pithily.


Steve Verdon at Deinonychus links to this post with the comment “Atrios is scum.” Well, he’s entitled to his opinion, I suppose, but I don’t think the facts support him. Atrios and Jane Galt each got carried away; that doesn’t make either of them “scum” or “an ass.” Really and truly, folks, it’s possible to disagree without being disagreeable.

No right-blogger, to my knowledge, took me up on criticizing Dreher. I got a couple of thoughtful emails on the “Oh, that was just a joke” theme, one of them from someone more familiar with Dreher than I am, but I’m not buying. It’s also noteworthy that no right-blogger thought it worthwhile to bring his or her readers’ attention to the fact of the Georgia brick-throwing. Now I don’t want for a moment to suggest that any of them would condone the deed itself, but I strongly suspect that if the political polarities had been reversed we would have heard about it long and loud.

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: