Thursday, October 18, 2007

The anthropology of blogging (1)

Kate McMillan has sent off her rabid pack again, this time to savage Maclean's Magazine writer Kady O'Malley. O'Malley's sin was to write an article decrying Stephen Harper's plans to establish a media centre in a renovated shoestore on Sparks Street, where the Dear Leader could dole out access to his hagiographers. (Cost to the taxpayer: around $2 million. Thanks to premature publicity afforded us through the Access to Information Act, this plan now appears to be on hold.)

The comments on this post, charmingly entitled "A kitten spits," are genuinely worth looking at, as a window onto a certain political subculture that forms much of Harper's original base. That subculture was not slow to respond.

As usual, McMillan frames the discussion and sets the tone: "You seem to be suffering some confusion as to your professional role. Allow me to clarify - you work on behalf of the media. Before you may claim 'behalf of the people' status, you'll need our permission. Run for office." As in a previous post about Native people ("
Mark my words - the moment is approaching when a bandana [sic] prowling these police protected barricades will end up in the crosshairs of someone's high powered rifle"), McMillan pushes the buttons and the machine warms up.

Here the buttons are "kitten," "media" and "our permission." The first is a means of mobilizing the abundant sexism of the subculture. The second is a favourite construction of McMillan's clientele, and signifies "the Other's narratives." The third is an empowering phrase: "our," while ostensibly referring to all of the people of Canada, or at least all of the people in one riding, is assumed as a synechdoche, precisely as intended, referring instead to regular readers of her blog.

The comments bear very little relation to the actual issue that O'Malley introduces. The notion of "permission" establishes a prior power relationship between commenters and O'Malley that short-circuits discussion and moves directly to admonishment, almost entirely of a personal nature. Hence O'Malley is described, sometimes in the second person, as a prostitute, a drunk suffering from a personal relationship gone wrong, an idiot, an "asshat" who is a product of privilege, a nobody, unattractive, a propagandist, a "little kitten," an "Eyes-Wide-Shut" reporter who can't write and whose real job is "sales hack," a "
pretentious, brainwashed twenty-something kid," an "affirmative action hired" woman who probably sleeps with her boss, a person without a real job, for whom a "Want fries with that" McJob would be an appropriate lateral move, a person who prefers sounding clever to making sense, a "reporter" (in shudder quotes), a "gossip columnist...posing as a 'reporter,'" an "ego-tripping gasbag" with a "bloated head," a reporter who "cherry-pick[s] facts" to promote "Stalinist policies," a "fifth columnist" whose work amounts to "small scribblings," "unprofessional," "Buffoonette Kady," someone with a "puffed up sense of self-importance," "Kady, dear," "dear Kady," a "leftard," a "teenybopper," a "bleached blonde" who lives in "Mommy's basement," who writes "untalented but stylized drivel," a "drama queen," a "champagne clinker who could care less how many white males lose jobs each year because of affirmative action," and a "useful idiot" who "appeared to have a runny nose the first time I saw her and ...appeared very low maintenance."

Sometimes commenters run into serious contradiction:

If I had my way, those MSM idiots would have zero access, and I would force them to go do their job. You know, investigate and report.

Infantilizing the opposition often goes hand in hand with sexism:

Someone should axe her some hard questions.

Kady's just so damn cute when she's pretending to be all righteous.

Just what do you do with teenaqers [sic] these days?

In some venues, of course, much of this would appear as delirious, psychotic raving. Within the frame that McMillan establishes, however, the comments do possess a consistent logic of their own. It should be remembered that political engagement is not the purpose, either of McMillan's award-winning blog, or of the majority of commenters who post on it. Nor, to any great extent, is analysis the aim. Rather, the blog exists (to use McMillan's own words) to allow "ordinary" Canadians to "[yell] back at the radio." It is a virtual place, in other words, where largely anonymous commentators can react, can vent, can literally make a scene. For the commenters, with McMillan artfully directing, do perform their emotional reaction to the Other in an almost choreographed fashion.

The virtual space provided by McMillan for the performance becomes a place of refuge from the discourses of the "mainstream media," or "MSM." Although it is obvious that, without "MSM" sources, McMillan would have little to blog about and her commenters have little to react to, we have observations such as the following:

Kady is the reason why we go to the blogs, because the msm DOESN'T speak for us!

[There is a] mass exodus away from MSM to blogs.

Long live the blogosphere - an ecosystem of information and opinion.

The problem articulated in one way or another by most commenters is that the media mediate; they believe that they can read between the lines, but their reading is so at odds with the "lines" that they feel and express immense frustration. Yet this "correct" reading against the bias of the "MSM" arrives bundled, as it were, with the mediated message. And the commenters just above would prefer that a further mediation take place, by McMillan and other like-minded bloggers. Any reflection of "reality" would thus pass through two distorting lenses instead of one. But because the expressed values of the bloggers are consistent with those of the commenters, the bloggers' messages are seen as a decoding of the bias, instead of a further recoding of information that originally derives almost entirely from the "MSM" themselves.

It will not be lost on readers that there are cultish elements in the subculture being described here. It is, for one thing, a closed system. Occasional commenters with opposing points of view are inevitably harassed and insulted until they go away. Those who remain serve as an on-going negative reference group for the regulars. The formation of this group around McMillan herself is not in itself surprising, of course, since she provides the space for them, but the fierce loyalty to her that her commenters express, their intolerance of dissent, their evident sense of mission, and the expressed wish (seen above) that she and other like-minded bloggers should become their sole source of information, is characteristic of the classic cult group.

Kady O'Malley, I think it's fair to say, sees herself as having a role, not simply
a job. I am not in agreement, let me stress, with her declaration that "We are not typists. We work on behalf of the people, not government." I think that's naive, given the role that the corporate media have in manufacturing assent. A quick glance at their lock-step positioning on the recent Mixed Member Proportional referendum in Ontario should send that one to the compost forthwith. But I cannot challenge her commitment, and that of many other reporters, to digging up information and being personally honest about presenting it to the public. A few head-bangings from editors may harden her, make her more cynical and less forthright, but until then we hear something like a real voice and point of view.

Standing up to cyber-bullies is easy, Ms. O'Malley.
Don't sweat the small stuff. Standing up to the relentless groupthink of the corporate media machine is far more challenging and, I suspect, ultimately soul-destroying--for anyone with a soul. Until that day comes, though, I for one wish you well.

No comments: