Behind the Headlines
by Justin Raimondo
A Warning to My Readers This column could be archived at any time to make way for my analysis of breaking news in the Balkans. The whole world is watching the election process unfold in the former Yugoslavia with growing dismay at the obvious fact that Milosevic is stealing the election. Whether this gives the NATO-crats the excuse they have been waiting for to commence the second phase of their war against the Serbian people is less obvious. What is clear is that we stand on the brink of war: if and when it does break out, you can bet we'll be among the first to report it, and give you the best links to the real news rather than recycled government press releases. What is also clear is that Slobodan Milosevic would rather pull down Serbia along with him and his wacko wife, rather than bow to the obvious will of the electorate and at least agree to go to a second round. I won't know how this all comes out until far too late to make my deadline, so I've written a rather lighthearted piece about the politics of the Internet. Perhaps this will take your mind off the rather more serious matters facing us, if only for a few carefree minutes. . . .
It has become a bromide to declaim that the Internet has forever changed the way we play politics. It's true, of course, but not for the reasons usually given. Oh, it's supposed to be all about raising money, or sending email, or organizing seemingly spontaneous demonstrations. But compared to the soft money being ladled out by the special interests, the total amount that piddled in through cyberspace amounts to no more than a drop in a bottomless ocean. Spamming voters with unsolicited email may be the fastest way ever devised to alienate voters not exactly a clever cutting-edge ploy. As for spontaneous demonstrations the British anti-tax blockaders claimed that they couldn't have done it without email and the Internet, but I'll wait for the protests to spread to this side of the Atlantic (not counting Guatemala!) before I weigh in on the subject. No, the story of how such a phenomenon as "cyber-politics" is evolving is a lot more interesting than that.
What really gave rise to the growth of a political sensibility in cyberspace was the appearance of the first independent posting board i.e., one not inside one of the self-enclosed systems like AOL and Compuserve. FreeRepublic.com is a freewheeling forum in which people post articles from just about anywhere and discuss the piece on the resulting "thread." I have written about FreeRepublic often in this column, and by now it has become a veritable institution of the political side of the Internet. Everything finds its way to FreeRepublic, in time: the good, the bad, the ugly, and the sublime this last astonishingly often. What has come into being on this site, over the years, is a true virtual community, a cybernetic replication of the town hall meeting, or, more accurately, a kind of Hyde Park in cyberspace, in which often conflicting voices compete for attention. It is also a hangout, a place where friendships are formed, and sundered, opinions are expressed, and refuted, and the largely unregulated and unmoderated discussion did what the carefully monitored "chat rooms" and posting boards of old could never do, and that is give birth to the cybernetic wing of the conservative movement.
For all its alleged hipness and edginess, the great paradox of politics on the Internet is that it's almost an exclusively right-wing phenomenon. The Left has nothing comparable to the cyber-institutions that have grown up on the Right: Z magazine has (or had) some kind of plonky, self-enclosed members-only system almost impossible to navigate, but that is about it, as far as I know. With the left albeit "triangulated" in power, it was only natural that the insurgent forces of the Internet, with its radical libertarian cachet, would come out on the Right end of the political spectrum. The circumstances that led to the founding of FreeRepublic were the result of Draconian measures taken against conservatives by "politically correct" hall monitors on the AOL-Compuserve posting boards. Censorship, reprimands, and bannings directed against virtually any expression of conservative dissent drove Jim Robinson, the founder of FreeRepublic.com, to set up his own site. By the time it gained some notoriety (the good kind) as the locus of anti-Clinton sentiment in cyberspace, FreeRepublic.com already had many thousands of registered members and it is still growing.
FreeRepublic has long since reached the point of self-generating renewal, and that is the goal that every e-business startup (with far more cash than Jim Robinson will probably ever see) seeks to achieve. With very little capital, and a lot of determination, Robinson has succeeded in making his site indispensable to large numbers of people: If Drudge, whose original audience was largely confined to the FreeRepublic community, is the Walter Winchell of the new cyber-Right, then Robinson is its William Randolph Hearst. As long as Robinson maintains the machinery and fights off the liberal media conglomerates using every legal trick in the book to close him down his site will attract new people, and, like a true community, continuously reproduce itself and evolve.
The generally laissez-faire policy that has always characterized FreeRepublic is the key to its success. The site is undoubtedly oriented to conservatives, but all are welcome provided they realize that everyone is a guest and the basic rules of decorum are observed. These rules, however, are interpreted rather loosely, if only because the site has become so popular that any kind of extensive policing is practically impossible. Known disrupters the few people who come to antagonize, with perhaps not a few dot-gov's among them usually disappear before attracting a sufficient amount of attention to require disciplinary action. Oh, there have been a few such incidents, but mostly the disputes were personal in nature, and had to do with the behavior rather than the politics of the offender. But the free-style nature, and tolerance for differing opinions, that makes FreeRepublic such an interesting place was not appreciated by everyone, and therein lies a tale. . . . .
Robinson's laid-back California attitude he hails from Modesto was resented by a few of the more prominent Freepers (as the FreeRepublic crowd proudly call themselves), particularly the New York wing led by the voluble Lucianne Goldberg, literary agent-turned-right-wing-Hedda Hopper. They didn't like what they considered to be Jim Robinson's undue hostility to George Bush (the elder), and they didn't like it how every right-wing splinter group, from the paleoconservatives to the libertarians, got to put their two cents in. Goldberg, and her ambitious son Jonah bit players in the Monica Lewinsky affair were determined to extend their fifteen minutes of fame into the indefinite future, and so Lucianne.com was born. . . .
This new site was smaller, but far slicker than FreeRepublic: it came equipped not only with a chat room, where Goldberg and her fans could hold court, but also with plenty of hall monitors who policed the discussions and assiduously weeded out anyone who didn't follow the party line. And there was never any doubt as to which party, either any conservative who strayed from the idea that the Republican party is the fountainhead of political wisdom was immediately purged. Under the iron thumb of Goldberg's webmaster and Grand Inquisitor-in-chief, known for the purposes of this article as the "Navigator," a version of right-wing Stalinism ruled the roost at Lucianne.com, with Luci as Stalin, and the Navigator as her right-hand man and chief executioner. While liberal dissent was tolerated, to some extent, anyone who criticized the GOP from the right was immediately targeted, baited, and unceremoniously deleted particularly if they admitted to being supporters of Pat Buchanan. After a while, the purges became so constant, the intolerance of any dissent so all-pervasive, that postings on Ldot (as its habitués came to call it) consisted mostly of mindless banter, one-liners and cocktail party chat without substance or interest to any but the posters themselves. Ldot was sealed up tighter than a drum. Given the freewheeling nature of the medium, this couldn't last and it didn't. . . .
As news of the split between Luci and the Navigator spread through the ranks of the Ldotters with the speed of electrons hurtling through cyberspace, it was as if Stalin had suddenly announced that his secret police chief had been taken out before a firing squad and summarily shot. While rumors about financial and other personal disagreements made the origins of the dispute seem somewhat murky, there was also clearly a political basis for the split. The real Bush loyalists, centered around the Navigator and his friends, were mortally offended by the defection of the Goldbergs to the McCain camp. Son Jonah wrote a piece for National Review Online endorsing Mad John, and Luci soon followed suit in some brief remarks dropped in amid the gossipy tidbits that make up her "Shortcuts" column.
The chat room known as the "Alley," always the center of interactivity at Ldot was shut down. The spirit of glasnost set in: purged posters were reinstated. Suddenly the narrow parameters of the permissible were somewhat widened, and almost immediately there was a noticeable uptick in the variety of articles posted and the quality (and length) of the ensuing threads. A few people even dared to post articles that had appeared in Antiwar.com a site banned by the Navigator. But it wasn't long before the Navigator struck back. . . .
Within days, if not hours, the virtual community of the Right was roiled by the appearance of yet another posting site VastRightWing.com. Repeating the tactic carried out by Luci against FreeRepublic, Navigator set up shop under his own domain name up and created an even slicker and more "professional" looking site than Lucianne.com. The graphics were glitzy, and the number of extra features including original articles on the front page, the announcement of a VastRightWing Writers Guild, a VastRightWing Artists Guild, a Voice-chat-enabled "Alley," etc. etc. was truly awe-inspiring. It was a virtual amusement park in cyberspace: too bad nobody showed up to play. . . .
In spite of all the extra added attractions and shiny graphics to say nothing of the strangely pretentious hierarchical titles given to various levels of posters, including "furor scribendi," "bien pesant," etc. the vast echoing halls of VastRightWing.com remained largely empty. Only a few dozen Ldotters, at most, followed their Great Leader, the Navigator, into the turgid waters of the new site. It seemed as if every day the Navigator came up with some new feature, some smooth new graphic, to attract visitors to the site, but the registration of VastRightWing.com probably never exceeded a hundred. Certainly only a very few threads of more than two or three posts were ever started: since the old methods of purging anyone who disagreed with the Great Navigator's politics were continued, and even more strictly enforced, the site rather quickly degenerated into near total inactivity.
After months of this, the VastRightWingers seemed to realize that simply adding new features every week did nothing to improve their failing fortunes: reconciling themselves to their near complete isolation, the site was cleaned up, unused features were eliminated or downgraded, and matters were considerably simplified. Today, VastRightWing.com stands in lonely isolation, a monument to the rule that heavy-handedness can kill a posting site as quickly and effectively as being down half the time.
Lucianne.com continued to chug along, without the variety and sheer size of FreeRepublic, yet obviously prospering under the new regime. Threads were longer, and far more interesting, if a bit on the combative side. The Buchananites who posted were emboldened by the new openness, and this provoked a reaction from the more militant Bushies, most of whom returned after McCain crashed and burned in the primaries. But the "let a hundred flowers bloom" period came to an abrupt end, one day, when news of fresh purges hit the rumor mill, and several threads were summarily pulled, one after the other. Glasnost was over. I had been largely unaware of all this until someone brought a curious development to my attention: The "Rules" posted for the edification of those who wanted to register at Goldberg's site were rewritten to include the following clause:
"Articles from hate group sites such as KKK, Aryan Nation, American Nazi Party, etc. are not allowed. Articles from AntiWar.com and Spotlight are not welcome on Lucianne.com. Anyone posting articles from any of these sites will be banned without notice."
A more senseless and artlessly malicious assertion would be hard to make: Antiwar.com in bed with the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party? Antiwar.com a "hate group"? Since we deal with international affairs to the virtual exclusion of all else, and post no articles dealing with race, such radical cognitive dissonance suggests that Lucianne Goldberg's problem may be medical rather than ideological: this kind of oddly inappropriate behavior seems more like an early warning sign of Alzheimer's than any kind of political analysis. Aside from a diagnosis of hardened arteries in the brain, however, is it possible to explain this kind of mindless vindictiveness?
This columnist had a minor dustup with son Jonah over his proposal that the US invade and annex the African continent or, at least, a great chunk of it which I found amusing enough to write about, but this hardly merits such an unfair and even vicious trashing. Those who wish to send Luci a get well card via email can do so by sending it to Lucianne@lucianne.com. You might also let her know what you think of people who don't even know who and what they are slandering. . . . .
The new crackdown on Goldberg's site led to some real dissatisfaction in the ranks of longtime posters and their friends, and this resulted, once again, in yet another split-off and the birth of a new site: Pipebombnews.com. Set up by two longtime Ldotters, the pipebombers may not have the glitzy graphics, and their site may be a bit confusing at first, but they make up for it in spirit. Here is a return to the freewheeling spirit of FreeRepublic, with anyone and everyone welcome (so far as I can see), and they seem to be growing. This place is well worth a visit.
While the numbers of people engaged in cyber-political activity are still not large enough to be a decisive or even important factor, by any measure, the phenomenon may have some predictive value as a harbinger of how politics will come to be played in the future. The growing centrality of the Internet impacts how political activists are recruited, and organized, how votes of key constituencies are mobilized, how campaigns are conducted and, most importantly, how political ideas are disseminated. It will be interesting to see how the virtual communities I have described grow, and mutate, in the future: I'll be chronicling what I find to be a fascinating process, from time to time, in this column, so stay tuned.
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