Nation building on the Internet: Why I am grateful to join the RBC

A few years back, while I was teaching a psychiatry short course in Iraq to about 80 mental health professionals from around the country, an Iraqi physician took me aside one day to caution me: “Don’t be fooled by those of us who have gathered here, we are not the real Iraq. This country is like Russia under Peter the Great. Our educated middle class is a thin veneer of civilization spread over a teeming mass of people who are misinformed, angry and radicalized. You can’t build a nation here: We have nothing to build on.”

The relational structure of many political websites recalls this comment about Iraq to my mind. One of the website’s authors will write an intelligent, thoughtful and nuanced post on some controversial topic and beneath the post in the comments section will issue forth a sea of bile, misunderstanding and misinformation.

Other websites are worse, being less like Iraq than Saudi Arabia, where even the veneer of modern civilization is lacking. The owners of such sites not only provide inept governance, but actively gin up rage and stupidity among the masses who follow the postings.

Websites like the impressive Belgravia Dispatch surmount the challenges of Internet nation-building by staying small. On these Liechtensteins of the web, the owner’s posts are rare enough that most people don’t even know the site exists except (judging by the comment sections) for a small number of people who are unusually informed and willing to seek out infrequent, intellectually challenging postings.

In the Reality-Based Community, Mark Kleiman, his fellow authors and the readership of this site have created a civilized country that is more than a boutique destination for elites. The posts come frequently enough to give immediacy to the dialogue, the readership is large enough to offer a cross-section of views, and the comments reflect an engaged citizenry that knows what it is talking about. I am patriotic enough to say that RBC thereby reminds me of the best aspects of the United States. That’s why I am delighted to accept Mark’s offer to become an occasional poster to RBC and thereby indulge my taste for civilized democracies.  Thanks to everyone for letting me enter the country.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

6 thoughts on “Nation building on the Internet: Why I am grateful to join the RBC”

  1. Interesting. Many years back, before the revolution, I was consulting on a curriculum development project for a new university in Tehran, that would be to Tehran University something like the Cal State system to Stanford. A prof at TU tried to explain their situation for us: "You have to understand: this new university is a crazy PR idea of the Shah. The students are ignorant peasants; it doesn't matter what the curriculum is, they're incapable of learning anything."

  2. Welcome aboard, Keith. I'm sure we will have interesting discussions on the topic of marijuana at some time — since I view its legalization as not a 'tolerance for a vice' but a positive benefit to society. Bu that will be for another time. Right now I can only tip my hat to your introduction. The RBC is precisely like you describe, and I can think of few others that are. (Maybe Ed Brayton's DISPATCHES FROM THE CULTURE WARS qualifies, and COGITAMUS, and OBSIDIAN WINGS, though COG suffers from a lack of variety, and ObWi lost a lot of its appeal when Hilzoy and Publius stopped posting.)

    Too many of the best sites to read have unreadable comment sections — the best example being Steve Benen. His site is the single most important daily read — im(ns)ho — on the Net, but the comments sections are pretty awful, and I no longer even glance at the comments at C&L, and carefully did NOT register to avoid the temptation of diving into the maelstrom.

    The RBC is different, and this gives me a chance to doff my (non-existent) hat in the direction of someone who I still disagree with on 95% of things, but who has demonstrated the possibility of a conservative being a valuable addition to a group of liberals. Yes, Brett Bellmore, I'm talking about you. When I first saw you popping up on various sites, you were merely a 'drive-by troll' whose comments were easily ignored or disposed of, but seeing your name was occasion for a loud groan.

    Here, you have proven to be a valuable conributor. You actually find it is possible to discuss things with us 'awful liberals' and, in response, we have been willing to treat you as a welcomed — if usually wrong — contributor. (In fact, if you ever passed through Brooklyn — and for all I know you live here, two blocks from me — I'd invite you in for a Bushmill's or a few pipes and be sure that we'd still wind up yelling at each other, but, looking back, we'd have enjoyed the evening and each other's company.

    Since the one danger that the 'liberal Blogosphere' faces is its tendency to become too complacent behind its bubble, since we always have to remember that the people we are trying to reach are not those who already agree with us — and thus applaud our brilliant sallies and put-downs of easy right-wing idiot targets — but those who haven't made up their minds, or don't know enough, or who have been almost convinced by the FOX foolishness, but who are still open to the facts we can present, the reality behind our 'reality-based community.'

    (And, to answer one comment certan to be made, certainly we liberals have our disagreements — say 'marijuana' to Mark and I and you can get a three-page comment from me and a three line, but brilliant, response from Mark — and there is always the battle between the Romantic Idealists and the Relentless Pragmatists to keep us from breaking our arms patting each other on the back. But we still tend to talk to — and be heard by — those people who already accept our premises.)

    Anyway, keith, again, welcome aboard, and I look forward to some very interesting discussions on various topics. Just remember, when you see my name, that when my high school math teacher quoted his favorite rule 'be precise, concise, and accurate' I always responded 'two outta three ain't bad.'

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