The dispute evolved like this: Gerson wrote a column about the vast amount of hate on the internet in which he compared the rise of the internet to the rise of talk radio in the 1920s and 30s, and described how the former led the Nazis to take power. Gerson did a vast amount of research for this column, but he managed to premise it on this unsourced wonder of a statement:
User-driven content on the Internet often consists of bullying, conspiracy theories and racial prejudice.
Like an old man at a bumpin’ club, Gerson seemed confused and disoriented by the online goings-on around him. Ezra Klein, the hip young blogger who grew up with the internet, responded a bit mockingly but without personal invective. Klein pointed out that on the internet, almost everything is “fringe” and the “hateful comments” that Gerson uses as his source are almost all anonymous comments to more mainstream articles. In other words, they are little more than scrawlings on the walls of bathroom stalls. Those with the real power to foment hate – Klein argued – in a manner more similar to the rise of the Nazis than these fringe commenters, are the pundits on talk radio and on cable news. They have a soapbox that can reach millions – rather than the audience of tens or maybe a hundred that any particular web comment has – and a number of these talking heads, especially those on right-wing talk radio, deliberately attempt to foment hate. As Klein says:
I don’t worry about jewhater429, the 97th entrant in a comment thread. I worry about Beck and Limbaugh and Savage.
Their comments are arguably as bad – if not as crude – as any scrawls on bathrooms walls.
But Gerson – who used his position as a former George W. Bush speechwriter to work his way into a gig with the Washington Post – was so irked by Klein’s response that he immediately resorted to ad hominem attacks, starting his response by attempting to undercut Klein’s objectivity, calling him a member of “Barack Obama’s unpaid policy staff.” Gerson then goes on to equate Ezra Klein – a progressive blogger who writes mainly about policy – with Rush Limbaugh, an entertainer and propagandist who specializes in being outrageous, and Arianna Huffington, a right-winger-turned-centrist-turned-populist-progressive who has a knack for riding the zeitgeist. Each of the three figures is very different – but what they all share in common is a willingness to take a side – to be a partisan. Gerson, in another life as a speechwriter, was willing to do this; but now from his perch writing for the Washington Post blog which calls itself “Post-Partisan,” he looks at those mere mortals who take sides with disdain – and suggests doing so is the equivalent of lying.
Gerson ignores the substance of Klein’s reason for seeing talk radio as a bigger fomenter of hate – and instead imagines an entirely different reason: “Because Limbaugh interferes more directly with Klein’s political agenda.” Klein didn’t actually say this – he made a different point about control of the media – but Gerson, being “post-partisan” explains that the only reason Klein could have for seeing Rush Limbaugh as a more significant fomenter of hatred than a bunch of anonymous commentors must be “an excess of ideology [which] can affect the optic nerve — leading to complete moral blindness.” It calls to mind that line from the New Testament about removing the splinter from one’s own eye first.
Gerson is smug in his conclusion, as he takes the tone of a wise elder:
Those, like Klein, who trivialize evil are actually making its advance more likely. Their cynicism and ideological manias are the allies of genuine bigotry, because they blur its distinctive shape and cover its distinctive smell.
Of course, Gerson’s column – by giving great weight to anonymous internet commentors – trivializes “evil” by equating it with awful comments. In fact, prejudice has always existed, and it is not synonymous with evil. If it was, then free speech would be mere folly. Gerson could have written a column about how the internet – in encouraging communities of the like-minded, creates dynamics of escalating moral outrage which lead to conspiracy theories and even hatred along with reformist political movements and communities of knitters. But instead, he looks on the internet like a nun at a high school dance, frowning with disapproval at the whole thing. In doing so, he himself is blinded seeing a fallen world where it is instead a fallen-redeemed one.
Postscript: Amusingly, Gerson also has this to say in defense of his column comparing the rise of the internet to the rise of Nazism, and in attacking Klein’s disagreement with his analogy:
Beck, Huffington and Klein seem comfortable with this same, lazy tactic — the reductio ad Hitlerum. They are full partners in the same calumny.
But wasn’t reductio ad Hilterum exactly what Gerson’s original column was about?