Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Outrage as Internet Genre

For hate readers like me, it does not get much better than this story:

Over the past few days, we’ve received some rather interesting information about the good [law] professor’s love life. The reports go something like this: “Professor Bobbitt married one of his students! Over the Christmas holiday! She’s a 3L at Columbia Law! And a Turkish princess! They were married at the Supreme Court! By one of the justices!"

As is generally the case with juicy gossip, most of this is true — but some of it is not. Here’s the real story, based on my interview with Professor Bobbitt himself. And wedding photos, of course…

After reading the piece, I felt the unmistakable grip of outrage closing itself around my thoughts and emotions. Why did a wedding give me the near irresistible urge to grab a pitchfork and join the mob rampaging through the comments?  One reason is because the authors purposefully designed the piece to elicit that kind of response from the readers, despite the otherwise upbeat tone of the post.

Unsurprisingly, outrage (and controversy in general) generates attention. But given the widespread use of this particular writing device online, I thought it would be worthwhile to sketch out the basic features of the outrage genre.

I. Otherness

The author of an outrage piece must sufficiently distance the readers from the subjects of the piece in order to prevent the readers from empathizing with the subjects and their circumstances.

The article at hand proudly trumpet's Prof. Bobbitt's elite resume (degrees from Princeton, Yale and Oxford, as well as a teaching post at Columbia Law). While he and his bride could not get married in New York because of difficulties in obtaining her birth certificate, he overcame this mundane bureaucratic hurdle by asking his friend, the Supreme Court Justice, to perform a spur of the moment ceremony in her private chambers.

Likewise, the bride, an accomplished equestrian who will work in the financial industry is also presented as a jet-setting member of the global elite.

The effect is to portray the husband and wife as belonging to an element of society totally unmoored from the world the rest of us must live in.

II. Violation of a Social Norm

With the "otherness" of the subjects stifling the audience's ability to identify with or empathize with the subjects, outrage pieces move on to discuss how the subjects transgress social mores.

Three jump out immediately in the article on Above the Law:

1. Ms. Ondalikoglu was a student of Professor Bobbitt who began dating him after a long car ride to an academic conference. Given the underlying power imbalance of a student-teacher relationship, many readers will jump to the conclusion that Prof. Bobbitt inappropriately used his position to lure a much younger student. That Ms. Ondalikoglu subsequently withdrew from Prof. Bobbitt's class indicates at the minimum, a violation of at least some sort of institutional norm at Columbia.

2. The couple eschewed a long courting process and decided to get married after only four months of dating.

3. Professor Bobbitt, at age 63, is 38 years Ms. Ondalikoglu's senior. Given the couple's previous description as aloof members of the elite, their age difference hints at another transgression- their marriage is not based on love, but is a mutually beneficial arrangement that increases the social status of both Bobbitt and Ondalikoglu. The readers on Above the Law have seized on this particular point with a great deal of enthusiasm. I chalk it up to the importance of social prestige among the lawyers who read ATL. Unearned prestige is an especially gross transgression.

III. Publicity Seeking Behavior

It is not enough for an outrage piece to cover the violation of a norm and then deprive the transgressors any hope of sympathy from the audience. The key to an outrage piece is that it portrays the subjects as seeking out publicity, attention, and in some cases validation for their behavior.

Prof. Bobbitt does not shirk in embarrassment from an interview (which according to social norms, he should). Instead, he engages ATL with gusto. Bobbitt boasts during the interview that his close friend and renowned Constitutional Scholar Akhil Reed Amar sent several bottles of wine to the ceremony. Bobbitt even gives ATL pictures from inside Elena Kagan's chambers in the Supreme Court.

If elements I and II were laying down several dry sticks and dousing them with gasoline, element three is striking a match and igniting the white hot flame of outrage. Readers are primed to think poorly of Bobbitt and Ondalikoglu because of their behavior and their membership in an "other" class. Instead of seeking forgiveness, or even projecting modesty, Bobbitt proudly touts his actions. The audience has no barrier to prevent them from judging harshly. At this point, the comments section explodes with vitriol.


An outrage piece can take a few forms. The author might write approvingly about the subjects (as this ATL author does) or they can actively root against the subjects. An outrage piece can even be autobiographical. The responses to autobiographical pieces are typically more unhinged because of the perceived narcissism of the author (See for example "Did I forget my son’s birthday again?In the insane parenting scramble between Halloween and Christmas, oneperson always get short shrift: My little boy")

An outrage piece is different from summoning the great Internet Hoard to hack the FBI or defend Wikileaks. Those cyber-protests ostensibly have objectives (whether legitimate or just the desire to create Joker-like chaos) as their motivation. Outrage pieces have no goal other than to generate page views. 

Blogs are page view machines. Savvy authors have figured out these machines run best on the combustible fuel that is outrage. None of this is particularly earth shattering, but it drives a significant portion of the Internet and these pieces are increasingly common. I've found the resulting outrage often deafens any discussion of why the pieces are so effective in the first place. Hopefully this post can add a little substance. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to grab that pitch fork.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

This is the point

I'll let others discuss the morality of this incident (and there is a lot to say), but it's important to take a moment and mention that footage like this is the point of a protest movement like Occupy DC:

The goal is to toe the line close enough that you make the other side over reach.

I'm curious how this dynamic will play out in Chicago for the G8/NATO conferences. Rahm Emmanuel has three discernible goals, which the protestors are well aware of:

1) Advance his own political standing on foreign policy grounds for his inevitable presidential run.
2) Advance Barack Obama's political standing during an election year
3) Advance his own political standing on law and order grounds for his inevitable presidential run.

As to number three, the Mayor probably has conflicting impulses. On one hand, he likely thinks punching hippies is a good way to show he is tough. On the other, the ghosts of 1968 loom large. It's a delicate balancing act. How far will the protestors push? Can Emmanuel restrain himself from over reaching?

I don't know the answer, and I certainly don't want people on either side hurt. But I do think this whole affair is completely self serving on the part of Rahm Emmanuel and I hope the protestors can find a way to make it a liability for him through peaceful civil disobedience.

Friday, February 3, 2012

A (Christian) Hero for Liberty

Libertarian Christians amuse me. It's hard to think of a more incoherent marriage of belief systems.

Limit government!....so we can impose theocratic social mandates from the Old Testament.
Live your life according to the Gospels....and fight for a return to the gold standard!

I thought the point of libertarianism was to minimize collective coercion and maximize individual "liberty." How is this compatible with legislating from the Book of Deuteronomy? Won't imposing Biblical standards necessarily limit individual freedom in a way that is repugnant to the libertarian philosophy? How could a libertarian force an atheist to keep the Sabbath holy? It's nonsensical.

Likewise, if you look toward the Bible to divine answers on the value of state's rights or the constitutionality of the Federal Reserve, you are missing the point. Whether the United States, a 230 year old country in a 13 billion year old universe adopts the gold standard to back its currency is of no relevance to salvation history. Unless, that is, you hold tight to a literal interpretation of the Bible, in which case every spare sentence can lead you chasing down a pointless rabbit hole of justification.

What most draws me to this phenomenon is that fundamentalism lies at the heart of both evangelical Christianity and libertarianism (at least for the people who proudly identify as both). The rigidity of fundamentalism is compelling enough on its own, but when a person subscribes to two rigid and contradictory belief systems, the end result is more entertaining than watching two government run high speed trains full of heathens crash head long into each other. The resulting post hoc explanations come across as excessive mental gymnastics or lazy self deception.

More seriously, from a political standpoint this belief system leads to a toxic fusion of religion and politics under the guise of "liberty." Religiously, it fatally distracts from true message of the Bible- loving God and loving one another- by focusing on irrelevant details due to a literal interpretation.

I've included two videos about why Ron Paul is the most Biblically sound candidate after the jump.


How is this a surprise?:

In the end [House Republicans] took about half the cuts up front, with the other half tied to the success or failure of the Super Committee, tasked with securing $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction. The catch was that both parties needed an incentive to deal honestly — so GOP leaders and the White House agreed that if the Super Committee failed, it would result in $600 billion in automatic, across the board cuts to national security spending, and another $600 billion in domestic cuts, taken mostly from Medicare providers. With both Democratic and Republican sacred cows in line for slaughter, surely, the Super Committee members would reach a compromise. 

They didn’t. 

Immediately after the Super Committee failed in November, rank and file Republicans began a campaign to swap out only the defense cuts with other spending cuts — no tax increases.

This kind of a power play only works if the other side lets it work. An effective political party would make negotiating in bad faith a liability. But the Democrats can reliably snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. My hunch is the GOP will prevail on the basis that Democrats don't want to be seen as 1) fiscally irresponsible and 2) troop haters.

The Village

Building off this post, there's a difference between a reporter and a Very Serious Person. Just because I'm drawing a distinction between reporting and opinion writing doesn't mean I'm siding with the villagers over the DFHs.

This is all well trod territory, but it's worth repeating in my own words since this is my blog. Villagers fancy themselves reporters, but their work (consciously or unconsciously) does not illuminate in the way a real reporter's work would. Villagers reinforce the status quo out of a sense of cultural identification. Because they are Very Serious, they can pass off their ideological preferences as simply common sense or conventional wisdom.

Villagers don't explain how the world works, they are active participants in keeping the world running a certain way.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Pounding the Pavement

Over time I've developed a general rule of thumb: Reporting is far superior to opinion.

I'd take Carol Marin, Talking Points Memo or Matt Taibbi over an opinion columnist every day. The best opinion columnists occasionally make you think differently about something you already know. A reporter leaves you with something you would never have learned but for their efforts.

National reporters have their own baggage (in that they don't report so much as repeat what they are told) but the good ones tower above everyone else. Hands down.

Anyone can type, only a select few can find legitimate news.

I guess it casts doubt on this whole enterprise I'm trying here.

Update: Over Here

You can't argue with their sterling logic

But you can follow it to the inevitable conclusion:

The only male safe space left on the planet is the men's bathroom, ffs. And even then, there will be feminist-leaning men policing what is said. It's very frustrating.

And yes, it seems the more logical and reasonable and rational you are in proving a point of their dogma wrong, the more likely you are to be vilified.

It logically follows this Men's Rights Activist seeks brotherhood and fraternity in the public men's bathroom.

Everyone likes to be fiscally responsible.

Any discussion of Illinois' financial problems has to touch on the pension system. A plan passed in 1994 was supposed to establish a payment schedule to put the state on solid footing. But...

While the plan required annual contributions to the pension funds, it allowed the state to put off starting to pay down the pension debt until fiscal year 2010, 15 years after the plan took effect. It's similar to a balloon mortgage, where steep increases in payments kick in over time.
Now the bill is coming due just when the state can least afford to pay.
Meanwhile, lawmakers haven't even met the minimum payments specified in the original plan. Instead they have tinkered repeatedly with the formula
In 2003, Gov. Rod Blagojevich pushed lawmakers to issue $10 billon in pension obligation bonds...
But like several of his predecessors, Blagojevich also used the pension system to solve the state's financial problems. 
 In 2005, with an election season looming and the state running another budget shortfall, Blagojevich cut another pension deal...Rather than pay the amount required by the 1994 funding plan, the Legislature simply rewrote the pension code to lower its payment over two years...Those slight changes ended up costing the system $2.3 billion, while the long-term cost added billions more.
The state's leadership tried to keep this devil way down in the hole, but they buried the state and pension holders along the way.

Austerity seems to be all the rage these days. What's often lost is the real world consequences. Budget cuts and constitutionally questionable pension alterations will hurt people. Madigan's been at this game since the 1980's and it's clear he's calling the shots in Springfield now. Since he's had a hand on the wheel for thirty years and he's firmly in the driver's seat now, I don't get too upset when the governor presents a plan other than austerity:

Pat Quinn might strike some as out of touch or irresponsible, but Madigan will get what he wants. Including harsh cuts to Medicaid and other programs to clean up the mess from his own mismanagment. Given his political constraints and pain of the impending cuts, I don't think Pat Quinn should be faulted for saying people deserve more rather than less. Illinois will chug along regardless.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A telling difference

One of the most salient differences between Democrats and Republicans is that Republicans use every bit of power at their disposal while Democrats keep their powder dry in the hopes that people will like them.


This post rattled loose an old memory from the spring of 2004 when I was just a wide eyed high school junior visiting Washington D.C. for the first time. My trip was part of a "let's tour the government!" conference designed to inspire young people to participate in democratic institutions.

One of the last events was a panel discussion at the National Press Club with some Very Serious People. I remember summoning all my awkward high school resolve to ask the panel a question. During this particular moment in history the media was struggling to understand a strange thing called an Internet. I was an active member of the Big Orange Satan and had a hunch these internets might stick around for a while. In fact, my interest in politics (and by extension this trip to D.C.) was in large part a result of my engagement online.

Who better to ask about the internet's impact on the media landscape than some of the nation's preeminent journalists?

So there I stood at the microphone with my question

A particularly combative older man on the panel shot back that the internet was a dangerous force on the political process because it allowed the rabble the same stature as Very Serious People.

"Wow," I thought at the time, "what a crotchety and out of touch person." It was only after I became more politically aware that I realized the out of touch old man ranting about the internet was David Broder. Everything made much more sense in retrospect.

A coda to that story: A few years later I was at a convention where Atrios had set up a table. I was stunned to see the man in person. So stunned I completely forgot to tell him this story. I later realized my mistake and it remains one of my biggest regrets. Asking David Broder about the internet in front of a crowd of high schoolers who probably understood the transformation underway? Not really something I regret.

Lucky Duckies

He knows their luck always shines through in the end:
"I'm not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs a repair , I'll fix it."

Mission Statement

Eschatology is the study of end times. The title of my blog speaks to a general cynicism that shades my perspective of the world. I'm not so far gone that I view my neighbors with contempt. In fact, I think individuals contain a degree of depth and complexity that would not be possible without some spark of fundamental goodness deep within.

The source of my cynicism comes from the institutions of society- those enterprises where we engage collectively: the market, the government, the media. While we as individuals construct these institutions, the resulting creations do not seem to reflect back the fundamental goodness of their creators. Each day these structures move seemingly of their own power in ways that are increasingly at odds with dignity of their constituent members.

Eschatology is the story of what happens when the structures of society collapse in on themselves or when they are washed away in the face of divine judgment. Do I think society is falling apart at a Biblically ordained pace? Not at all. But I do believe the discrepancy between who we are as a society and who we could be is vast. My despondency comes from watching the institutions of society systemically fail in way that injures all of us, not unlike something from an eschatological prophecy.

But implicit in any discussion of the end times is the prospect of hope and a new order to follow, so I would like to hold on tight to that ray of light throughout my writing.

These are some general themes I'm planning to explore:

  • The actions and policies that elites in positions of power use to maintain their power.
  • The counter-intuitive rise of libertarianism in the wake of a financial crisis caused by an unchecked free market.
  • The role religion (specifically Catholicism) should play when addressing these problems.
  • The rise of online narcissism (as a genre of writing and more generally in terms of how people construct and present online identities).
  • The tension between fundamentalism and total moral relativism.

This is a loose collection of thoughts. Some posts will be short, others will unpack my thinking in more detail. I'm interested to see how it turns out.