John Derbyshire Says If There Is Hope, It Lies In The Comment Threads


(With apologies to George Orwell)

As depressing as most of the blogging on the Jason Richwine affair has been, the comment threads have been more so. Discussions of race, of IQ, and, by some kind of multiplicative principle, even more so of race-and-IQ tap into a deep vein of willful ignorance and moralistic posturing.

Godwin’s Law applies of course; but we really need a whole sheaf of such laws for these comment threads. Merely as an example, I hereby propose Derbyshire’s Law Of Race And/Or IQ Comment Threads:

Derbyshire’s Law: As the comment thread following an online article relating to race and/or IQ grows longer, the probability of a commenter declaring that Stephen Jay Gould’s book The Mismeasure of Man is the last word on the subject approaches 1.

In this Gawker.com thread, for example, the third commenter (out of 123 at the time of writing) is a Gould groupie—apparently unaware, as are the rest of them, that Gould is now dispositively known to have cooked at least some of his data. [Study Debunks Stephen Jay Gould’s Claim of Racism on Morton Skulls, By Nicholas Wade, June 13, 2011]

Similar laws govern the inevitability of appearance by other pet race-and-IQ-denialist talking points: Henry Goddard’s 1913 studies of immigrants (perhaps VDARE.com should organize some kind of centenary celebration?), Lewontin’s Fallacy, epigenetics, cultural bias in tests, poverty-not-race, zzzzzzz . . .

On the glass-half-full side, there are an encouraging number of informed comments scattered among the dross. Even at frankly Leninist websites like Daily Kos, the comment threads contain contributions like this and this. (Reading through that site I notice yet again the great fondness Leftists have for dirty words. The heritage here goes back beyond Lenin to Marx himself.)

So it hasn’t been all depressing. In fact, there may in these comment threads be a counter to the despair one often hears from Dissident Right figures.

At last month’s American Renaissance conference, for example, Jared Taylor said that when he’d started the group 23 years ago, he’d assumed he would gradually be able to get race-realist ideas out into the public forum for reasoned discussion.

And yet, said Jared, such discussion is more difficult now than ever, as the shutting-down of AmRen’s conferences in 2010 and 2011 showed. I think the Jason Richwine business also illustrates Jared’s point. Hence the note of despair. (I hear it in Pat Buchanan’s recent writings, too.)

Why this narrowing of the zone of permissible debate? Well, an entirely new generation has been born and come to adulthood since 1990, while at the same time the last generation that matured before the Great Disruption of the 1960s has retired from key positions in law, education, and the media.

Thus the working population of the U.S.A. is now composed of people who grew up being expected, by those who instructed and entertained them, to internalize the feel-good utopian-egalitarian fantasies about human nature that dominated the late-20th-century West—Cultural Marxism.

That some fair portion of these later generations resisted the relentless propaganda is a tribute to human orneriness. And that portion has survived, with their reasoning faculties intact, into an era of deepening understanding in the human sciences.

For we now know more than we did 23 years ago. Of the 176 references I counted at the end of Jason Richwine’s dissertation, 132—precisely three-quarters—are from later than 1990. The longest chapter in The Mismeasure of Man, by contrast, is devoted to a fanatically detailed (but debateable) debunking of Cyril Burt, who retired from academic work in 1951.

Hence the push-back you see against Cultural Marxism in these comment threads—although since these are essentially scientific topics, “Cultural Lysenkoism” might be a more apt term.

If there are grains of hope to be found in the Jason Richwine comment threads, there are great boulders of the stuff in comment threads on the Rubio-Schumer immigration bill. Conservatism, Inc. may be Open Borders enthusiasts in obedience to their big donors, but people who post comments on conservative websites want none of it. Here are the first four comments on a random immigration story at a conservative website:

  • No more 1986 amnesty. It was a failure then, it will be a failure now . . .
  • We don’t need any new laws. Just secure the border and enforce current immigration laws . . .
  • All the points made by so many of the citizens on this blog are correct when it comes to the Senate’s GROSS BETRAYAL OF AMERICANS . . .
  • Anything short of a mass exodus of illegals and a really tall wall at the boarder isn’t gonna do . . .

[Crumbling coalition? First cracks in immigration deal emerge, By Stephen Dinan, Washington Times, May 12, 2013.]

Nor is it only at conservative outlets that the comment threads lean to immigration patriotism. Try this news story: 1 in 3 adults in parts of L.A. are in U.S. illegally, study finds, By Cindy Chang, Los Angeles Times, May 8, 2013] or this opinion column: Immigration exclusionists out of touch, [By Jennifer Rubin; Washington Post, April 25, 2013], or this left-liberal website: Deportation Without Representation: Immigrants who are detained should have a right to a lawyer [By Mark Noferi, Slate.com, May 15, 2013].

Sometimes at liberal outlets the skepticism comes from the Left, as with the comment thread to this New York Times story. Sample comments:

This should cause even the most liberal among us to pause giving their support to this bill. If so many wealthy people want this it can`t be good for the rest of us…

Corporate profits do not outweigh the health of the U.S. and the proper employment of U.S. citizens…

Instead of listening to well qualified but unemployed U.S. workers the politicians are listening to billionaires who could care less about the U.S. workers…

[Latest Product From Tech Firms: An Immigration Bill, By Eric Lipton And Somini Sengupta, May 4, 2013.]

All very hopeful. How seriously should we take comment threads, though? Do they in any degree represent the voice of the people? Or are they only the voices of cranks, neurotics, and monomaniacs?

Or something even worse than that, perhaps. In communist China it has for years been an open secret that the Party recruits legions of college students to post blogs, comments, Amazon reviews, and the like giving the Party’s line on issues of the day. The going rate is 50 Chinese cents—wu mao in Chinese—per posting. The commenters are known in aggregate as the Wu Mao Dang, the Fifty Cent Party.

I am told the Israeli government does something similar. If so, that means that other nations keen to influence public discussions in directions favorable to themselves—the Saudis, the Russians—are also in the game.

It doesn’t seem very likely that the Chinese or Israeli game would include immigration-patriotic postings on U.S. websites, but who knows?

 Even assuming that commenters are human beings of normal psychology and not in anyone’s pay, can they be taken as representative of a readership? It seems intuitive that some sort of power law is in play: a handful of compulsive commentators contributing hundreds of comments per week, a larger number of merely-keen commenters contributing dozens each, then a much larger number of the not-easily-stirred sending in the occasional one or two comments.

(Our own Steve Sailer is hovering on the edge of compulsivity, at least in regard to topics that particularly interest him. A few days ago a friend emailed me with: “Go to here and type Ctrl-F ‘sailer’…” I did so. Steve had contributed fifty-four comments to a single blog post at Marginal Revolution. [Which athletes and entertainers choose to come out of the closet? by Tyler Cowen, May 6, 2013.] How does he find the time? And suffer so many fools so gladly?)

There are other considerations to weigh when judging the usefulness of comment threads as a guide to opinion: the vexed question of thread moderation, for example.

There is, in fact, probably a Ph.D. dissertation to be written on comment threads. Probably some sociology major is already at work on one. What kind of thing might he come up with?

To try to get some kind of a handle on this, a few days ago I ran a quick’n’dirty analysis of the comment thread to an opinion column on the immigration topic. For comparison I then did the same analysis for a different, but equally controversial topic from the same columnist. As this comparison topic I chose gun control.

For my columnist to be analyzed I wanted a straight-ticket, check-all-boxes, unimaginative, both-knees-jerking-in-unison Left-liberal. I settled on Eleanor Clift.

Ms. Clift posts articles at Daily Beast. Her April 25th column praised the co-operation between Senators McCain and Schumer on the immigration bill, which she takes for granted is a Good Thing with widespread public support:

Polls show that 70 percent of the American people favor immigration reform, and a poll released Thursday taken by Americans for Tax Reform found two-thirds of Republicans support the Senate bill as it’s been described.

At the time I checked there were 21 original comments—i.e. not counting replies to comments, replies to replies, and so on, which tend to wander away in off-topic directions, mainly directions of petty bickering and personal vituperation.

The 21 broke 6-15 for-against Ms. Clift. To put it differently, original commenters were 2.5 to 1 against the lady. Call that the “hostility ratio.”

Those 21 comments came from 17 persons, or at any rate handles. One person might, of course, have several handles; but since I have no way to investigate this, I’ll assume that one handle is one person. Let’s call this a “persistence ratio”—the persistence, that is, of particular persons in posting more than one original comment—of 21 to 17, or 1.24.

For comparison, let’s consider Ms. Clift’s column on gun control, which she posted on May 1st.

At the time I checked, half an hour after the previous analysis, there were 151 original comments posted from 121 persons, breaking 69-82 for-against the author. That’s a hostility ratio of 1.2, a persistence ratio of 1.25.

From this very sketchy analysis I shall boldly draw the following conclusions:

  • Ms. Clift’s Beltway-wonkish opinion on the prospects for federal gun-control legislation was unpopular with her readers, but . . .
  • Her left-utopian position on immigration was twice as unpopular.
  • The persistence ratio was essentially identical for the two columns, with ninety percent of readers contributing just one or two comments each.

In case you’re wondering, the Godwin Quotient—percentage length into the comment thread at which one of the words “Nazi” or “Hitler” appears—was 0.43 for the gun-control column, zero for the shorter immigration piece.

However, as you will know if you clicked on the links for either of those two columns, Daily Beast no longer shows comments. This is a development of just the past few days; I gathered my numbers on May 8th.

That is probably the most significant thing of all. It’s a chore to maintain and moderate comment blogs. (VDARE.com, as we have to keep explaining, simply doesn’t have the resources.) If Eleanor Clift’s comment threads are typical, for leftist web sites with those high hostility ratios it is a dispiriting chore.

It is therefore a pretty safe prediction that more and more websites will, like Daily Beast, shut down comments. They will excuse themselves by arguing that the same discussions can take place on social media like Twitter or on internet communities like Reddit and Slashdot.

Perhaps that’s right. Not having a clue how any of those things work, I can’t pass judgment.

My advice to the guy doing his Ph.D. dissertation on comment threads: get a move on and get the darn thing approved before everyone’s forgotten what a comment thread is.

 

John Derbyshire [email him] writes an incredible amount on all sorts of subjects for all kinds of outlets. (This no longer includes National Review, whose editors had some kind of tantrum and fired him. He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism and several other books. His latest book is From The Dissident Right.  His writings are archived at JohnDerbyshire.com.

 

Readers who wish to donate (tax deductible) funds specifically earmarked for John Derbyshire`s writings at VDARE.com can do so here.