Friday, October 28, 2005

Pundits, bloggers, sharks, and feeding frenzi

I've referred to the swirl of criticism around the Miers nomination as a "feeding frenzy" a number of times (for example, here). Like many other metaphors, it's become less colorful through overuse: "feeding frenzy" has come to be a sort of cliche meaning "intense attack by a group."

But, in an attempt to give the phrase back some of its original force, I offer you the following, from Melville's Moby Dick, the best description I've ever read of how a feeding frenzy actually works in nature among its prime practitioners, sharks:

...when, accordingly Queequeg and a forecastle seaman came on deck, no small excitement was created among the sharks; for immediately suspending the cutting stages over the side, and lowering three lanterns, so that they cast long gleams of light over the turbid sea, these two mariners, darting their long whaling-spades, kept up an incessant murdering of the sharks, by striking the keen steel deep into their skulls, seemingly their only vital part. But in the foamy confusion of their mixed and struggling hosts, the marksmen could not always hit their mark; and this brought about new revelations of the incredible ferocity of the foe. They viciously snapped, not only at each other's disembowelments, but like flexible bows, bent round, and bit their own; till those entrails seemed swallowed over and over again by the same mouth, to be oppositely voided by the gaping wound.

So, that's a feeding frenzy, folks: sharks, excited beyond measure by the smell of blood, bite and bite and bite until they rip each other--and even themselves--to shreds.

A cautionary tale, no? Pundits and bloggers, known for the sharpness of their opinions--and, as with sharks' teeth, such sharpness is often a necessary part of the arsenal of such creatures--need to be careful that, in the group excitement of the fray, they don't end up destroying more than they intended.

First, a caveat (always have to try my best to head the critics off at the pass): when I say the Miers nomination response has resembled a feeding frenzy, I'm not for a moment saying people have no right to criticize her, or that there weren't some very excellent grounds for criticism. They do, and there were. No, I'm talking about the nature of the criticism, which was in many cases more degrading and personal than necessary, amounted virtually to mockery of the intelligence of a woman who had done nothing to deserve it, and had a sort of synergistic quality.

One of the commenters here, John Moulder, wrote the following about blogs:

For every 2 Memogates & Condi Rice photo corrections there will be 1 Miers assassination. Nope, the blogs ain't no panacea, that's for sure,'cause their medicine sometimes causes nausea. And doc, these 2-edged swords are killing my neck.

So, what's going on with bloggers and pundits? To simplify, I'd say the whole thing comes down to ego.

By "ego" I do not mean something mostly bad. Notice that there are multiple definitions of the word: (1) self-importance (an inflated feeling of pride in your superiority to others); (2) your consciousness of your own identity; and (3) a technical Freudian term meaning the part of the personality responsible for reality-testing, defense, synthesis of information, intellectual functioning, and memory.

So yes, bloggers and pundits tend to have ego in all senses of the word--lots of it, plenty to spare. In order to put one's opinions out there as though they matter, a person must have the courage of his/her convictions. But that can sometimes spin out of control due to a number of factors, including but not limited to definition #1.

For example, there's the actual activity of blogging or writing a column. Doing this day after day and week after week tends to sharpen and hone the ability to define and have strong opinions, to express them, and to feel they have value. It's almost like developing a muscle through exercise, and it usually happens whether or not the pundit/blogger/columnist realizes it or not or wants it to happen or not.

Personally, I think that realizing it is half the battle. I'm not saying that pundits or bloggers should be shy and retiring, with an attitude of "well, I don't really know, but maybe perhaps it might possibly be the case that..." But I think they (we) do need to be careful not to get carried away with the sheer brilliance of their (our) rapier wit and trenchant opinions.

Alone in front of the computer (or, increasingly less often, a pad of paper), the pundit/blogger sits. Inspiration strikes, and the need to be wittier, sharper (there's that word again!), more opinionated--to be noticed--rises up in folks who tend to be pretty witty and sharp to begin with. "The pen is mightier than the sword" is a cliche because it has some truth to it--and the sharper the words the mightier they sometimes sound, especially in the solitude of the act of composition. And once put down and published, they can't be recalled.

Then there's the group aspect. Bloggers and pundits write in isolation, but they're not really in isolation at all, except physically. Mentally and emotionally they are part of one huge mass shouting out at each other and at everybody else, the sounds of the exchange echoing and ricocheting and reverberating all over the country--and in some cases the world. As such, we influence each other greatly. It's not even a case of following the herd, it's more a case of being influenced by the opinions of others, a process we are all susceptible to no matter how independent we may think we are. We influence each other directly by our words, and also indirectly by the sense of competition that's inherent in this pundit/blogger game--the need, for some at least, to try to outdo each other.

So what's the result? Sometimes it's wonderful--in fact, since I'm a fan of blogs, I'd say it's often wonderful--a liveliness of writing and thinking and interacting that you just can't get in the staid old MSM. There's an energy here, and part of it is the energy that comes with a bunch of sharp (in several senses of the word) and verbal people mixing it up and trying to say intelligent things in a way that's interesting to read. Sometimes it segues into a group of people trying to say outrageous things, either to amuse or to stir up or out of anger or the desire to call attention to themselves, or some of the above or all of the above.

When is the line crossed and it becomes a feeding frenzy? I don't have the answer; each person has to decide that for him/herself. But when there's a lot of blood in the water and people find that their own entrails, and those of their allies, are hanging out--that could be a sign.

[ADDENDUM: To those of you who may have thought I misspelled the word "frenzy" in the title of this post ("frenzi") in order to show solidarity with Ms. Miers--oh, would that you were right! Actually, my solidarity with her seems to be deeper than just a show; it was a bona fide typo, and one that spellcheck didn't catch because apparently spellcheck doesn't do titles.

That said, I'm leaving it in to demonstrate solidarity with Ms. Miers (actually, in truth, I'm leaving it in because I fear that, were I to change it now, the link wouldn't work). Anyway, the perfect is the enemy of the good, right?]


At 3:23 PM, October 28, 2005, Anonymous thedragonflies said...

Great post. I stopped blogging a week ago because I got tired of having to come up with opinions about everything. Plus, I felt like I was locking myself into positions that I wasn't sure I wanted to stay with. (I don't seem to be able to stop commenting though!)

Harriet was hurt by the anti-harriet momentum. I feel sorry for the lady. Her moment in the sun ended up burning her.

At 3:29 PM, October 28, 2005, Blogger Sissy Willis said...

A tour de force. I imagined cutting and pasting whole swathes of your post as I read, for weaving into a post of my own . . . The Melville reference is brilliant. Thank you, thank, you, thank you.

At 3:33 PM, October 28, 2005, Blogger Sissy Willis said...

Cutting and pasting . . . reminds me of those "flexible bows, bent round" that "bit their own" . . . But in this case, it's a good thing.

At 3:34 PM, October 28, 2005, Blogger Sissy Willis said...

Charles Krauthammer on Fox News just made a Captain Ahab reference . . . I think it's in the air . . .

At 4:30 PM, October 28, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your selection of the Melville piece is genius. Henry James does the same thing . You don't have to hear any heavy breathing -- or blow-hole spouting -- to know that there's a great passion involved.

Tuck Willis

At 5:32 PM, October 28, 2005, Blogger AcademicElephant said...

You know, all this reminds me of the hue and cry in the 19th century over the proliferation of newspapers--especially the dailies and then the bi-dailies. People kept complaining that there wouldn't be any news in them--just rumor and scandal. Then the papers found they had power and abused it to pursue political agenda, then TV news anchors did the same thing--now it's bloggers. Perhaps that's the reason the Melville quote is so spot-on--it addresses a timeless aspect of human nature in shark garb. Hopefully after a frenzy or two the this new world will shake out its own code of behavior that will promote responsible growth rather than self-consumption.

At 5:32 PM, October 28, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd like to see some examples from reasonably credible bloggers, nnc, of that "degrading and personal" criticism to which you refer. What I remember is *critics* being called, among other things, sexist and elitist; Hewitt's still on a tirade, for crying out loud. Those same critics - who were demanding nothing more than evidence of *any* sort of judicial philosophy on Miers's part (and evidence she could coherently express that philosophy - that is what SCOTUS justices are supposed to do) are now referred to as a cabal of Bible-thumpers....even though if there were any "Bible-thumpers" in the equation, it was various parties who *supported* the nomination.

I get the feeling you still just don't get it. Unlike the ends-justify-means Left, conservatism really does care about the *process* - which is why suggestions that "she'll vote 'our' way" simply did not fly.

Quite frankly, the White House misunderestimated the complexity of conservative thought. It's not about Roe, but about how Roe was arrived at - by the same mindset that Miers demonstrated in the information *that the WH provided in support of her nomination*.

At 5:36 PM, October 28, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a test; only a test.

At 5:57 PM, October 28, 2005, Blogger neo-neocon said...

anonymous 6:32: I wrote about Miers many times, and have made it clear I am not talking about valid criticisms of her, of which there were many, including the fact that there wasn't enough evidence that she was qualified to be a Supreme Court Justice. I happen to concur with those objections, although my opinion was that we needed to listen to what she had to say at her hearings and then make a judgment.

I could spend countless hours going back and rereading everything I originally read about her and finding quotes for you, but it's not how I choose to spend my time at this moment. If you haven't noticed
evidence of what I'm referring to, I doubt you would believe me even if I amassed it. Suffice to say I am talking about the many posts and columns (because I'm not just talking about bloggers here) which read as though Ms. Miers's nomination was a travesty, and that she was functionally illiterate. Picking apart a few typos and treating it as though it's evidence of a low intellect (I posted about that, too) is an example of what I mean. Many people acted as though the essay she wrote in her questionnaire was also illiterate, incomprehensible, and unworthy of a lawyer, much less a Supreme Court Justice. This is the sort of over-the-top thing I mean. I forget who said it--and, once again, I'm not going to spend hours looking--but I recall a blogger saying that this essay was something that was so bad that if an entry-level job-seeker came into his office with that essay, he'd turn them away. This was, once again, an example of a need to ridicule and belittle far beyond what was necessary to make a point about Miers's lack of qualifications for the Supreme Court.

This has nothing to do with your point about "process," vs. results in Roe v. Wade, for example. Those objections are not the sort of objections I am objecting to here at all--far from it.

At 6:01 PM, October 28, 2005, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

It is a good thing that when I write, whether that is on debate forums, emails, or my personal blog, it is primarily for myself. Not to be noticed.

I skip most of that "competition" stuff, early on.

And I think, the people who practice the long essay form, also tend to use their writing primarily to help themselves, and not espouse an opinion for another. Helping themselves form, extrapolate, debug, conclude, extenuate, clarify, and abbreviate their own thoughts and opinions into some cohesive whole.

This takes a lot more time than the witty reparte, Neo Neo is refering to in her post here.

Instead of sharpness, the long essay form emphasizes magnitude, weight, gravitas, and enduring value.

It is sort of like agility vs strength vs endurance.

You can shout them down, you can repeat your accusations ala the Big Lie.

Or you can weave in and out of people's thoughts, with a raptor's perception and a snake's speed, bypassing all their defenses and striking at the heart and the brain.

And in the end, you could just outwait the opponent, and tire them out through sheer concentration of thought and preponderance of evidence, judgment, and wisdom.

As you see. Strength, Agility, and Endurance.

I'm in the peculiar position that I actually hold the core values of Mier's critics. I myself would have prefered a fighter, a trail blazer, someone like John Bolton. Stepping over idiots, is my style. But, my expertise, natural affinity, and interest lies in the military aspects, not the judicial/lawyerly meandering clap trap of paperocracy.

But I also recognize that becoming emotion over the issue, does not a victory make. It only takes a small break in an army's discipline to shatter it, so obviously don't let your emotions be seen by the enemy, or even your friends for that matter.

Like a liberal that agrees with basic liberal "slogans", but not with the tactics. Although in this case, it is not as if I really cared about the judicial nominations. The American people care, because they now fear the Judges. But that's a bad thing for the Judges, not for America. The Judges aren't the ones with the power, the power comes from the people and only the people.

The people should remember who really pulls the strings, and not jump the gun.

Bush is only one person, worry about the Senators, they are the danger. As they were in ancient Roman Empire.

At 6:01 PM, October 28, 2005, Blogger Sigmund, Carl and Alfred said...

The feeding frenzy question is a good one.

That said, sometimes we dine, sometimes we eat.

Whenever there is rush to the buffet table, you cab be pretty sure it isn't a bout fine dining- it is just about caloric intake, empty calories and all.

At 6:50 PM, October 28, 2005, Blogger roman said...

I'm afraid that this is not going to be the last "feeding frenzy".
Bush's next pick will launch an immediate outcry from both the far left and far right. Once the objections from the extremes are out there, the moderates from both sides will assuredly get sucked into the fray.
Does this mean that from now on only moderates/centrists will be considered for SCOTUS?
Maybe the process is working just fine.

At 9:13 PM, October 28, 2005, Blogger reliapundit said...

u say thje miers thing was a feeding frenzy - which is OBVIOUSLY an analogy.

i say that is fuzzy thinking.

i say it wuz merely democracy in action - literally.

the people speaking out, and being heard.

nobody slandered harriet, not once.

for conservatives - a MAJOR, if not THE MAJOR political force in the nation and certainly in the GOP - to be questioning whether she was politically conservative enough is not a bad thing or a wrong thing. it is DEMOCRACY. we voted in bush to do certain things and he is accountable to us to do them.

that is what representational government is SUPPOSED 2 b all about: ACCOUNTABILITY.

it doesn't just have to come during elections. it's NOT only permissable during elections.

i trust that bush will make a better pick, jnow. and that it will be MORE POPULAR as a result. with his SUPPORTERS, especially.

heck: he got 50% of the dems to vote for roberts. he should at least do as well with miers' replacement.
while keeping his base happy.

that's a good thing. a good result.

At 9:26 PM, October 28, 2005, Blogger Goesh said...

As one blogger, somewhere and recently, said, it is time for Bush to brawl with the Democrats, the very folks who have tacitly endorsed him being called hitler, a nazi, a liar and murderer. Nominate Janice Brown and let the sh** hit the fan. Take the gloves off and put on the brass knuckles, take off the loafers and put on the steel toed boots and tell them to bring it on. Let's see if you really have a pair of balls, George Bush.

At 10:48 PM, October 28, 2005, Blogger TmjUtah said...

Ymarsakar (in the best part of a great comment) said:

The people should remember who really pulls the strings, and not jump the gun.

Shortly after the last election, I had exactly the same thought - but it wasn't senators who I thought of at the time.

WE pull the strings. The effects are on display in everything from what TV shows last past October to what products appear on grocery shelves to, yes, which school of political thought manages the store.

Performance gets rewarded and failure usually means oblivion. Usually, that is, unless vested interests are willing to return to the drawing board or, as in the case of the other political party currently in a state of implosion, attempt to repackage old product as new.

We've got two major brands on the political shelf at the moment.

The one occupying most of the top shelf launched a promotion and the market rejected it.

Instead of spending a lot of time in meetings deciding who they needed to smear, sic the IRS on, or sabotage in future campaigns, or even worse pushing blindly ahead until the market corrected them harshly (say, November 2006), they returned to R&D and we'll all know the result in a few days.

And the process will begin again.

I'll go out on a limb and predict that the caterwauling will be coming from the bottom shelf next time around. Doesn't matter who gets put up for the seat next; if the conservative MAJORITY declines to object, the minority opposition will use their media and celebrity advantage as best they are able to make the contentiousness of the last few weeks look like a tea party.

Any nominee thought well of by the likes of Harry Reid or Barbara Boxer BEFORE the first hearing should never have been nominated in the first place. Not in this market. I think that five years in DC has had an effect, and not all that good, on the political thinking of this administration. The fundamental strength within it has come through, and the next nominee will reflect the reality of who actually makes the calls here...

Conservatives - not the fundie/ theocrat/warmonger /racist/ homophobe/ voodoo charicature the minority has created to rationalize away its disconnect with the polity - but the actual living, breathing core of the country that actually believes that they are who government exists to serve have worked for thirty years to restore the judiciary to its role as an equal branch of government, a check and balance, vice the current situation where it has become a defacto unelected and unrestrained legislature.

The more laws that pass unfettered by the will of the electorate, the weaker democracy becomes.

We, who make the final call, are simply being heard. If the process seems to be a frenzy it is mainly because the holders of the loudest megaphones (but the smaller market share) have gone out of their way for most of the last generation to make mere volume appear much more relevant than it really is.

I, like thedragonflies, don't do much opinion blogging any more, either. What need? My side is winning, most of the daily debate is essentially disconnected from actual points of decision - elections.

I await the rise of coherent alternative policy proposals from the minority. None have yet made it past the yammerheads seeking a return to failed pet causes c.1975 or thereabouts, so I don't see any profit in pretending interest in debate. I'll just wait my turn to vote, again, for the brand that seems to at least understand what the role of government in a democratic republic should be.

At 11:56 PM, October 28, 2005, Anonymous strcpy said...

Another issue I have seen in the blogosphere is that this type of thing is the eventual outcome. The system itself dictates these are the types you will easily find.

There are two basic reasons I say this. First is that if something has a chance greater thn 0 it will occur. Second is that in some systems once that state occurs it dominates the system. It should be obvious what this means.

IMO bloggers are like this. The likelyhood of someone being, well, over the top is prety high. It's fairly anonymous and fairly consequence free. That's not *entirely* true, but it's nothing like the MSM (they have thier own problems which I think are actually much worse). Second, add in that the system itself is totally voluntary who to read, is massive in choices (meaning only the top few interesting sites are read), bias is not frowned upon as long as it is open, and finally that type of thing is entertaining to many you have our current case.

The other group that dominates is the high quality people. On the right (or center) we have people like Instapundit and Bill Whittle - they are very good, informative, and interesting. Then you have the WWF (or whatever the World Wrestling Federation is called now - I guess I'm somewhat dating myself there :) ) bloggers. It's pretty much all you are going to see unless you look at the myriad not very interesting blogs, though this will make up the majority of political thought.

It's a similar problem I think liberals and leftist are suffering from. Thier system of beliefes is such that those type of people tend to dominate the thought of that group.

At 1:29 PM, October 29, 2005, Blogger M. Simon said...


It wasn't blogers who originally said the Miers questionare needed a do over. It was a number of US Senators.

Spelling errors? Spell checkers do fine for most words. A law clerk could handle the rest. Getting the spelling right is important. The ability to express your self clearly in common words is important (that Thomas is my hero - I loved his Kelo and Raich opinions).

Most of the personal attacks started with the White House.

And what's with the religion bit being the first qualification touted? It doesn't sell well in America even among those of similar religious persuation.

Of the 25 Senators who interviewed her all (it has been rumored) came away with a less favorable impression than before the interview. If bloggers did that, then we have secret powers that I was not formerly aware of. I'll have to look into that. There could be money to be made. LOL

At 4:18 PM, October 29, 2005, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

A lot of people seem to assume Bush can pick another Roberts out of a cat.

Well, guess what, my fellow disgruntled Americans, the whole reason why a good Judicial appointee is important is because of the state of the Judiciary AND the Congress.

Which also means, nobody with the right qualities in their right mind would subject themselves to the Senate and the Judiciary anymore.

Not after seeing Miers being roasted, and not even by her expected enemies, the Democrats.

Not after Bork, not after Thomas, not after ANYTHING.

It's already too late. Which is the whole point.

It's too late.

Now go away and do something else, like stock up with guns or something. Learn martial arts, befriend more Marines and Army, read up on war and psychology.

Trying to change the judiciary, will only push away good candidates.

We can keep trying, but Roberts was almost too good to be true. Unlikely there will be anyone "as good" as him.

At 5:03 PM, October 29, 2005, Blogger Michael B said...

At what point does concern about a feeding frenzy, or perceived feeding frenzy, become something of a feeding frenzy itself? Given the number of commentators on the Miers nomination, professional pundits, journalists and otherwise, it's hardly surprising some excesses occurred. On the other hand the number of times the pro-Miers and anti-anti-Miers crowd resorted to typifying opponents of this pick as extremists (using a variety of colorful and less inspired phrasings) was no less prolific, arguably it was more so.

The comments of Anonymous (6:32 PM) and likeminded others are far more temperate and measured than the notion a "feeding frenzy" mentality was exercised by one side in this debate while our betters, standing over and above us, divined the good, the true and the more worthy and articulated their position in an infinitely more civil, less presumptive manner. Please.

Democracy in action is not always immediately agreeable and this is especially so during a time of ideological ferment and what can even be thought of as a civil war, albeit within a limited sphere to this point. There were notable exceptions (e.g., Beldar), but the notion the pro-Miers and anti-anti-Miers camp, in general, trumpeted (and continues to trumpet, e.g., Hewitt) their opinions from a higher or more stable or more vaunted platform is - by no means whatsoever - apparent.

At 10:34 PM, October 29, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought that "frenzi" was plural of frenzy...

At 10:35 PM, October 29, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought that "frenzi" was plural for frenzy...

At 12:01 AM, October 30, 2005, Blogger Holmes said...

Just check out Daily Kos or Democratic Underground after the recent indictments for a real demonstration of "feeding frenzy."

At 9:33 AM, October 30, 2005, Blogger TmjUtah said...

Shucks, just register to one of those forums, put up a post entitled "Bush", "Rove", or "Haliburton".

That's all you need to see a real frenzy.

Hand flapping, spittle spraying, foam flecked losers, the lot of them.

The only things they are missing are a chair to stand on and an apron to wring their hands in.

At 4:30 AM, October 31, 2005, Blogger Tom Grey said...

I can barely tolerate Marc Cooper for Leftism with some reason; his over the top critiques against Bush also include some critiques against Kerry, Dems, and power politics in general.

I liked Harriet, but especially because she was NOT an NT/NF abstract iNtuitive type. "Not one of us."

We need more SC concurrence, not brilliant alternative opinions.

She was certainly "good enough" -- but David Frum was certain she wasn't, given other possibilities.

I felt that if Miers got into a hearing, she would be confirmed. With this feeling, I must agree with the anti-Miers strategy of over-the-top excessive frenzi (plural!) to make her withdraw before a hearing.

Hugh Hewitt says there was lies, denials, and damnation by the frenzied anti-Miers folk. I don't like the lies or denials, but fully support democratic damnation by anybody for any reason -- with the audience to decide on whether the reasons were worth it.

Now, let's see a rematch on Bork type questions. Will McCain and the Gang (of 14, 7 Reps) support a real paper-trail anti-Roe conservative?

I think we'll see. Bush's recent "defeat" with Miers might, Hugh notwithstanding, actually make him stronger. Luttig, McConnell -- I like ConfirmThem's choice ... Brown!

At 11:27 AM, March 06, 2006, Anonymous sidra javed said...

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