Monday, December 10, 2012

The three tier attack

In internet discourse at the present time, one of the time honored patterns is the three tier attack on a discourse system. It takes advantage of peonism – the pathos connection of ordinary seeming people to other ordinary seeming people – and to the sub-pop illusion, namely that there is another different world which we could have right now, but is being kept from us by a conspiracy of elites. It also takes advantage of the breakdown of disinterested gatekeeping. All gatekeepers now are self-interest, and there for weed the discussion of the best, because these people reduce the size of conversation, and therefore the number of ad impressions, this is a descendant of the social reality of the baby boom, where there were far more children than adults.

The first step are the screamers. The screamer loudly asserts some patent untruth, for example, African Americans are stupid genetically, or that Albert Gore was secretly taking in unknown billions for the Democrats, that Saddam had working nuclear weapons or was close to acquiring them. The screamers point is to end all other discussion, and make it focus on the screamer. The screamer will offend whatever the smartest people left are, who will know the screamer is uttering unspeakable nonsense.

The second step is the spammer, while the screamer can spam links or repeat talking points, having others creates the illusion that a large body of social opinion exists, and that it is backed up by some independent body of research. Of course it doesn't, all the links are mirrors of a few original pieces of propaganda, where the screamer and spammer are primed with their screams, and links. The Free Republic is like an infection reservoir for crazy. These are replaced as the old ones decay.

This hovers for a while, until everyone with the ability to disable the attack has been outed as "uncivil." If need be some version of Godwin's Law is invoked: I can't be a Nazi, I am a peon like you. The logical result is that Nazis win all arguments, because Godwin's Law forbids telling the truth about Nazis.

However, at some point the last of the three tiers comes in, the suit. The suit does not scream, he will confess to agreeing to some of the points the other side makes. He will drop words that betray he has a viewpoint, but it is such a moderate view, he has to be reasonable, and look the people against him are so unreasonable, what's wrong with a little discussion of the Jewish Question?

Until social mechanisms are in place that overturns this, the discourse system is screwed. One was created, but that was crashed. Where only a few people are writers, and most are in the soup of facebooking and tweeting and commenting, it is easy to capsize the discourse with the time honored three tier attack.


  1. It seems to me that the three-tier attack is an epiphenomenon of the dearth of mass membership organization in the baby boomer generation, which has made political solidarity an alien concept on left and a mere toy of public relations propagandists on the right. (War on Xmas? Really?)

    Calling it an attack seems to imply coordination, and I suppose there is a kind of emergent self-organization out-of-chaos aspect to it, as well as the effect of deliberate intention from the well-funded pseudo-academic net of conservative libertarian opinion mills. But, it seems to me that it is the shallow roots of our political "tribalism" and opinions, which makes our discourse prone to such opportunistic infections, and unable to generate an effective immune response.

    As you observed in the subsequent post, most people on the left don't recognize the extent to which Paul Krugman is intellectually committed to neoliberalism, a set of ideas arguably hostile to the desiderata and even sentiments widely shared on the Left. He's hardly an isolated instance. Much of the soi disant liberal blogosphere is led by the likes of Brad DeLong, Scott Lemieux, Mark Thoma, and paid journalists are shaped by economic forces into neoliberal trolls (Matthew Yglesias, Kevin Drum, Jonathan Chait, Ezra Klein). That speaks to a remarkable superficiality, which runs in both directions, on different dimensions: the followers do not have a framework of critical thought sufficient to make what are not fine distinctions, and the leaders cannot reliably command resources (paychecks), which pursuing something other than a neoliberal line.

    Neoliberalism arose, quite self-consciously, from exhaustion on the left, with the sustained conflict, which was assumed by the structured balance of power in the New Deal "ideal" political economy cum international order, that emerged from WWII. And, it rationalized dismantling and disinvesting from that structure of sustained conflict, as mass membership organizations and other, somewhat-related local and liberal institutions faded.

    This doesn't seem like a technical issue of how to manage a discussion or even a discourse. It is a deep problem of how to bring back membership organization and political solidarity to politics. That's what is necessary to the higher order organization, which might "raise political consciousness" as a previous generation might have said, and create a political discourse, which was more than the most superficial generation of moral narratives identifying who is wearing the white hat and who is wearing the black hat.

  2. I think you are right in describing it as an epi- the neoization of discourse being the driver, and the social membership being the means. Not surprisingly "like a technical issue of how to manage a discussion or even a discourse. It is a deep problem of how to bring back membership organization and political solidarity to politics." is an issue that is cropping up over and over again in how to change the direction of politics, I will submit that since the problem is at the pathos, rather than ethos or logos levels, the necessity is for an aesthetic change.