There are two almost tabloidish subjects stirring the blogosphere today, one major and one minor, though I leave the reader to determine which is which. The first, in no particular order, was a jury's decision to spare Zacarias Moussaui the death penalty. The second is what Tigerhawk calls the Cage Match between Christopher Hitchens and Juan Cole.
The Moussaui controversy needs no introduction, but some readers may not know that Christopher Hitchens, by some means known only to him, managed to obtain some of Juan Cole's postings on a private message board and worked it into an article in Slate. The entire thrust of the article was to juxtapose one of Cole's postings, which apparently asserts that Ahmadinejad did not threaten to wipe Israel off the map, with well-established facts that Hitchens proceeds to ennumerate and to exhibit the contradiction. But this was just the primer to the main charge. It was Cole's apocalyptic response, complete with 60s chants and a photo collage that really made it the stuff of the old Rikki Lake show. Here's an example of Cole's professorial response.
All the warmongers in Washington, including Hitchens, if he falls into that camp, should get this through their heads. Americans are not fighting any more wars in the Middle East against toothless third rate powers. So sit down and shut up.
One, two, three, four! We don't want your stinking war! (emphasis in the original)
We are not going to see any more US troops come home in body bags at Dover for the sake of some Cheney affiliate grabbing the petroleum in Iran's Ahvaz fields.
It was not Cole's finest moment, though he may think otherwise, but his extravagant response quite naturally catapulted Hitchens into being interviewed by Hugh Hewitt. That gave Hitchens the opportunity to demonstrate the art of ridicule on Cole to such a superlative degree that I can only link to it and urge you to read the whole thing as a specimen in literary cruelty. But what got my attention was a term in Hitchen's opening response to Hugh Hewitt's question:
HH: Now I don't even know how to raise this, because Juan Cole has written a rather disgusting post about you, and in response to a serious post you wrote, in response to an e-mail of his, which was allegedly secret...I don't know. Why don't you tell people what's going on here?
CH: It's a blog war. Well, some of your listeners may know of Professor Cole of the University of Michigan. He is acclaimed, at least by himself, expert on matters Shiia, particularly, and he also says he's fluent in Arabic, Persian and Urdu. And for all I know, he is. But he's 10th rate, and he's a sordid apologist for Islamist terrorism, and for Islamist terrorist regimes. And I've been on his case for a while. ...
A blog war.
This is the kind of duel exemplified by the ding-dong between the lawyer-blogger Patterico and LA Times Pulitzer Prize winning writer Michael Hiltzik in which the two exchanged broadsides until Patterico proved that Hiltzik was creating spurious Internet personalities to attack his enemies and praise himself using the so-called "sock puppets". That match ended when Hiltzik imploded and his career sank beneath the waves. But the blog wars go on.
Some weblogs (in the broad sense of a self-published Internet document) have reached a point on the public stage where they represent real strengths and vulnerabilities for their authors. For example, a paper arguing that US policy was unduly influenced by the Israel lobby authored by Harvard faculty members John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt became extremely controversial. To the traditional perils of trolls, Denial of Service Attacks and comment spam has been added the danger of public pillorying when you are caught out.
Fortunately the smaller bloggers on the Internet are largely immune to these threats. But the better known authors are vulnerable in proportion to the fragility of their egos. Although it is normal for everyone to make a mistake it is apparently impossible for certain individuals to admit it. In nearly every case where blog wars reach a hysterical pitch the original dispute becomes secondary to the necessity of not giving the opponent the satisfaction of the admission of a mistake.
There's now a movement in the blogosphere to discourage pseudonymous blogging; the argument being that people will write more responsibly when signing under their own names. Let me play Devil's Advocate and assert that bylined blogging may in fact lead to the very opposite: a condition of shrill, polemical writing where the ad hominem attacks will become commonplace. When I used to write anonymously only my arguments mattered. If they were persuasive they persuaded; if they were ridiculous they were held up to contempt. But there were no hard feelings because it was the arguments themselves that bore the weight of both praise and opprobrium. There was no ego to puff up or to be bruised. If an argument achieved fame it did so on its own terms and took wing of its own into the wide world. Nor was there much incentive, even among the ideologically hostile, in heaping abuse upon a pseudonym. It was too faceless to hate.
All that changes with bylined blogging. All of a sudden Cole has a vision of Hitchens -- the actual Hitchens -- swilling liquor from a bottle when he defends himself. And Hitchens, with or without the bottle, has a vision of Professor Cole's face before him, and all it represents, as he crafts his reply. And there is something feral in the resulting spectacle. It were better they were X and Y arguing over whether Ahmadinejad actually threatened to wipe Israel off the map. But it's too late now. The innocent days of blogging are over. With popularity comes talk of ad revenues, syndication, appearances and reputation. It used to be that no one on the Internet knew if you were a dog. Sadly, no longer. And now, as the Bruce Willis character said in Die Hard, "welcome to the party pal".