Voice

An obligatory fisking of Maureen Dowd

Maureen Dowd has a column today entitled "Stung by the Perfect Sting."  We're going to run much of this column through a little MoDo translator, partially inspired by Josh Chafetz's still-relevant discussion of the Immutable Laws of Maureen Dowd, and helped by a few other bloggers. 

Here we go....

If I read all the vile stuff about me on the Internet, I’d never come to work. I’d scamper off and live my dream of being a cocktail waitress in a militia bar in Wyoming.

If you’re written about in a nasty way, it looms much larger for you than for anyone else. Gossip goes in one ear and out the other unless you’re the subject. Then, nobody’s skin is thick enough.

Translation:  "I read everything about me on the Interwebs.  Everything.  And despite my bravado act, it hurts me sometimes.  I'm brave for putting up with it, though.  Ah, the first graf and I've already checked off the Fourth Immutable Law of Dowd:  'The particulars of my consumer-driven, self-involved life are of universal interest and reveal universal truths.' 

Say, the militia crack was pretty funny, right?  Right?"

“The velocity and volume on the Web are so great that nothing is forgotten and nothing is remembered,” says Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic. “The Internet is like closing time at a blue-collar bar in Boston. Everyone’s drunk and ugly and they’re going to pass out in a few minutes.”

Translation: "You know how, later on in this essay, I say that insulting individuals on the Internet is rude? That's only if you do it badly. If you insult broad swathes of people in a charming manner, that's just witty banter." 

Those are my people, I protested, but I knew what he meant. That’s why I was interested in the Case of the Blond Model and the Malicious Blogger.

Translation: "Hah!  Less than a third of the way through, and I've already checked off the First Immutable Law of Dowd: 'All political phenomena can be reduced to caricatures of the personalities involved.' Suck on that, Tom Friedman!!" 

It began eight months ago when Liskula Cohen, a 37-year-old model and Australian Vogue cover girl, was surprised to find herself winning a “Skankiest in NYC” award from an anonymous blogger. The online tormentor put up noxious commentary on Google’s blogger.com, calling Cohen a “skank,” a “ho” and an “old hag” who “may have been hot 10 years ago.”

Cohen says she’s “a lover, not a fighter.” But the model had stood up for herself before. In 2007, at a New York club, she tried to stop a man named Samir Dervisevic who wanted to drink from the vodka bottle on her table. He hit her in the face with the bottle and gouged a hole “the size of a quarter,” as she put it, requiring plastic surgery.

Translation: "Did you like how I subtly compared the physical attacker to the blogger? That was pretty deft of me, right?" 

This time, she punched the virtual bully in the face, filing a defamation suit to force Google to give up the blogger’s e-mail. And she won.

“The words ‘skank,’ ‘skanky’ and ‘ho’ carry a negative implication of sexual promiscuity,” wrote Justice Joan Madden of State Supreme Court in Manhattan, rejecting the Anonymous Blogger’s assertion that blogs are a modern soapbox designed for opinions, rants and invective.

The judge cited a Virginia court decision that the Internet’s “virtually unlimited, inexpensive and almost immediate means of communication” with the masses means “the dangers of its misuse cannot be ignored. The protection of the right to communicate anonymously must be balanced against the need to assure that those persons who choose to abuse the opportunities presented by this medium can be made to answer for such transgressions.”

Cyberbullies, she wrote, cannot hide “behind an illusory shield of purported First Amendment rights.”

Translation: "A judge is on my side!  I'm going to quote her at length!"

[Side note here:  will individuals also be able to sue those who write anonymously about them on bathroom walls soon?--DD]

The Internet was supposed to be the prolix paradise where there would be no more gatekeepers and everyone would finally have their say. We would express ourselves freely at any level, high or low, with no inhibitions.

Yet in this infinite realm of truth-telling, many want to hide. Who are these people prepared to tell you what they think, but not who they are? What is the mentality that lets them get in our face while wearing a mask? Shredding somebody’s character before the entire world and not being held accountable seems like the perfect sting.

Pseudonyms have a noble history. Revolutionaries in France, founding fathers and Soviet dissidents used them. The great poet Fernando Pessoa used heteronyms to write in different styles and even to review the work composed under his other names.

As Hugo Black wrote in 1960, “It is plain that anonymity has sometimes been assumed for the most constructive purposes.”

But on the Internet, it’s often less about being constructive and more about being cowardly.

Translation:  "I bet no one knew about this phenomenon before I discovered it today.  God, my insights into this -- some anonymous blogging is good, some bad -- are really stunning." 

Dowd conveniently ignores a few important facts. First, there are power disparities going on here. If, say, the New York Times published a story calling Cohen a "skank," I can see the need for a lawsuit. Same thing if the Huffington Post had done it. But who the hell read this post before the lawsuit commanded everyon'es attention? As Laura McKenna puts it:

This just feels like a lot of whining to me. If you're on the opinion page of the New York Times, you have to be able to take the heat. It's part of the game. If you're not up for it, then I've got a waitress job for you.

Second, in Dowd's closing grafs she manages to conflate and tar all anonymous commentary because some act rudely on the Internet. This is the functional equivalent of me saying that because George Will is occasionally shoddy with his fact-checking, the entire op-ed profession is worthless and slanderous. Attacking an entire medium because of what some individuals are doing seems logically incoherent to me -- and yet far too many media commentators do this when talking about the blogosphere. 

In my experience, anonymous or not, the quality of one's insights and shrewdness of one's observations are the things that tend to push a blogger up through the ranks. 

If only that were still true of New York Times columnists. 

UPDATE: For more on the legal intricacies of the motivating case, see this Dan Solove post

Daniel W. Drezner

Theory of International Politics and Zombies

[NOTE TO 2011 AND BEYOND READERS OF THIS POST:  If you like what you read here, then trust me, you'll love the book that came from it:  Theories of International Politics and Zombies, (Princeton University Press, 2011).  This post is where it all began!!]

Alex Massie alerts us to this BBC story about modeling who would win if the dead actually did rise from the grave

If zombies actually existed, an attack by them would lead to the collapse of civilisation unless dealt with quickly and aggressively.

That is the conclusion of a mathematical exercise carried out by researchers in Canada.

They say only frequent counter-attacks with increasing force would eradicate the fictional creatures....

To give the living a fighting chance, the researchers chose "classic" slow-moving zombies as our opponents rather than the nimble, intelligent creatures portrayed in some recent films....

[T]heir analysis revealed that a strategy of capturing or curing the zombies would only put off the inevitable.

In their scientific paper, the authors conclude that humanity's only hope is to "hit them [the undead] hard and hit them often".

They added: "It's imperative that zombies are dealt with quickly or else... we are all in a great deal of trouble."  

Now, one could argue that this finding represents a Blinding Glimpse of the Obvious. On the other hand, the report has clear freaked out Alex Massie:

[The researchers] are cheating. It's like something out of Dad's Army: You can't fight like that, it's not in the rules... Then again, if we can be destroyed by Zombie 1.0, just think how powerless we'd be when confronted by Next Generation Zombies...

To try to make Massie feel better let's have some fun with this and ask a different question -- what would different systemic international relations theories* predict regarding the effects of a zombie outbreak? Would the result be inconsequential -- or World War Z

A structural realist would argue that, because of the uneven distribution of capabilities, some governments will be better placed to repulse the zombies than others. Furthermore, anyone who has seen Land of the Dead knows that zombies are not deterred by the stopping power of water. So that's the bad news. 

The good news is that these same realists would argue that there is no inherent difference between human states and zombie states.  Regardless of individual traits or domestic instiutions, human and zombie actors alike are subject to the same powerful constraint of anarchy. Therefore, the fundamental character of world politics would not be changed. Indeed, it might even be tactically wise to fashion temporary alliances with certain zonbie states as a way to balance against human states that try to exploit the situation with some kind of idealistic power grab made under the guise of "anti-zombieism." So, according to realism, the introduction of zombies would not fundamentally alter the character of world politics. 

A liberal institutionalist would argue that zombies represent a classic externality problem of... dying and then existing in an undead state and trying to cause others to do the same. Clearly, the zombie issue would cross borders and affect all states -- so the benefits from policy coordination would be pretty massive.

This would give states a great opportunity to cooperate on the issue by quickly fashioning a World Zombie Organization (WZO) that would codify and promnulgate rules on how to deal with zombies. Alas, the effectiveness of the WZO would be uncertain. If the zombies had standing and appealed any WZO decision to wipe them out, we could be talking about an 18-month window when zombies could run amok without any effective regulation whatsoever. 

Fortunately, the United States would likely respond by creating the North American F*** Zombies Agreement -- or NAFZA -- to handle the problem regionally. Similarly, one would expect the European Union to issue one mother of a EU Directive to cope with the issue, and handle questions of zombie comitology. Indeed, given that zombies would likely be covered under genetically modified organisms, the EU would trumpet the Catragena Protocol on Biosafety in an "I told you so" kind of way. Inevitably, Andrew Moravcsik would author an essay about the inherent superiority of the EU approach to zombie regulation, and why so many countries in Africa prefer the EU approach over the American approach of "die, motherf***ers, die!!"  Oh, and British beef would once again be banned as a matter of principle. 

Now, avid followers of social constructivism might think that Wendt and Duvall (2008) have developed a model that would be useful for this kind of event... but you would be wrong. Back when this paper was in draft stage, I specifically queried them about wther their argument about UFOs could be generalized to zombies, vampires, ghosts, the Loch Ness monster, Elvis, etc.  Their answer was an emphatic "no":  aliens would be possessors of superior technology, while our classic sci-fi canon tells us that the zombies, while resistant to dying, are not technologically superior to humans. So that's a dead end.

Instead, constructivists would posit that the zombie problem is what we make of it.  That is to say, there are a number of possible emergent norms in response to zombies. Sure, there's the Hobbesian "kill or be killed" end game that does seem to be quite popular in the movies.  But there could be a Kantian "pluralistic anti-Zombie" community that bands together and breaks down nationalist divides in an effort to establish a world state. Another way of thinking about this is that the introduction of zombies creates a stronger feeling of ontological security among remaining humans -- i.e., they are not flesh-eaters (alas, those bitten by zombies are now both physically and ontologically screwed). 

Unfortunately, I fear that constructivists would predict a norm cascade from the rise of zombies. As more and more people embrace the zombie way of undead life, as it were, the remaining humans would feel social pressure to conform and eventually internalize the norms and practices of zombies -- kind of like the early-to-middle section of Shaun of the Dead. In the end, even humans would adopt zombie-constructed perceptions of right and wrong, and when it's apprpriate to grunt in a menacing manner. 

Now, some would dispute whether neoconservatism is a systemic argument, but let's posit that it's a coherent IR theory.  To its credit, the neoconservatives would recognize the zombie threat as an existential threat to the human way of life.  Humans are from Earth, whereas zombies are from Hades -- clearly, neoconservatives would argue, zombies hate us for our freedom not to eat other humans' brains.   

While the threat might be existential, accommodation or recognition are not options.  Instead, neocons would quickly gear up an aggressive response to ensure human hegemony.  However, the response would likely be to invade and occupy the central state in the zombie-affected area.  After creating a human outpost in that place, humans in neighboring zombie-affected countries would be inspired to rise up and overthrow their own zombie overlords.  Alas, while this could happen, a more likely outcone would be that, after the initial "Mission Accomplished" banner had been raised, a fresh wave of zombies would rise up, enmeshing the initial landing force -- which went in too light and was drawn down too quickly -- in a protracted, bloody stalemate. 

Readers are hereby encouraged in the comments to posit other IR theoretical prediction of the response to a zombie uprising. For example, would the zombie uprising confirm Marxist predictions about the revolt of the proletariat? 

*Alas, your humble blogger does not have the time to puzzle out the zombie effect on two-level games. 

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images