The following takes on the admittedly delicate topic of what is and is not seen as fit for publication on those internet outlets which most would recognize as being on the left of the political spectrum. I will do so by relating some of my own experiences following my having drafted (along with Josh Frank and Paul Street) the “Open Letter to the Left Establishment”.
I should mention here that the open letter was only the latest in a series of numerous letters to the editor, blog comments, and long and short articles submitted for publication in internet and print outlets going back three years or more, all of which attempt to raise awareness about the essentially reactionary nature of the Democratic Party generally and the Obama campaign and presidency specifically.
In the course of these efforts, certain websites moved to eliminate my participation either as a front page poster or in their comment sections where I had previously been a frequent contributor.
Before I describe some of these instances I will make two introductory qualifications. First, I am by no means the only one who has been subjected to similar treatment, and I hope this piece will encourage others to document their experiences; our coming forward could, I believe, address some of the underlying causes of what is now a rather dysfunctional climate for discourse on the left. Second, as I have pointed out elsewhere, there is a need for editorial gatekeeping. Indeed, I have argued that there should be more, not less, than there is. Rather, the following should be seen as an argument for this gatekeeping function to be exercised responsibly to promote, rather than undermine, the left’s agenda.
With those qualifications out of the way, here is the thumbnail history.
As of this writing, I have been banned from the comment sections of two websites, OpenLeft.org and Commondreams.org. In the first of these cases, there was at least a superficial justification for their having done so. In a posting I made a description (of Open Left founder and Obama’s transition team member Mike Lux) which could be characterized as ad hominem — understood to be a “capital” offense on blogs.
In retrospect the posting in question seems more likely to have served an excuse for management’s enacting a broader agenda which was to rid their site of a group of skeptics of the Democratic Party centric organizing model taken as a given by management. The trajectory of Open Left manager, Chris Bowers, to Daily Kos where purges of so-called “Naderites” are routine would seem to lend credence to this explanation, though I should say that, in fairness, I could possibly have escaped banning by couching my objections more diplomatically, and probably should have done so in any case.
My other banning was from commondreams, both from the comment section and, it would seem now likely, also from their front page which had run some of my articles in the past. While the cause was unstated, as is typical of the internet at its most Kafkaesque, it seems that it was provoked by my attempting to use the site for lining up signatories for the open letter. Both I (and, I suspect, they) knew that commondreams was a natural place to do so. This was because the comment section routinely demonstrates that the readership, as opposed to the management, is sympathetic with the basic goal of the open letter — to protest left establishment apologetics for the Obama administration and the imposed silence about it on outlets like Commondreams.
All this came to a head in the following postings which appeared on the site in reaction to one of my comments mentioning www.protestobama.org. I’m copying one thread in its entirety as it provides an indication of the kind of virtual paranoia the imposition of arbitrary censorship results in.
Aquifer December 20th, 2010 11:44 am.
GW, have you noticed how my response to your comment and your response to it, in which i commented on the removal of another poster’s, John Halle’s, response, have been removed. Since then, John Halle’s original comment, the first posted on this thread, and my responses to him, including one pointing out how his response had been removed, have, in turn, also been removed. When i tried to respond again to your response, I got a message “you are responding to a comment which doesn’t exist.
i guess my days on CD are numbered – that’s OK, cause this whole area of censorship is really getting to me …..
RV December 20th, 2010 11:46 am
You and I may disagree on some things, but you are absolutely correct about that!
Aquifer December 20th, 2010 11:59 am<
So, RV, I am correct about my days being numbered, or about censorship, or both?
In any case, here’s a simple suggestion for the first step in solidarity – how about all of us here protesting the censorship of posters? Good grief, if we can’t do that, what’s the point of even posting? i stand in support of “teddy” who was banned, for god knows what, and in protest of all these posts that have been removed for CONTENT reasons only – no cuss words, no insults, just pointing out either censorship, or, in the case of john Halle, a “protestobama” petition, apparently …..
One wonders how many other posts have been removed for similar reasons, either our “fellows” here don’t know or don’t care. I think this needs to be a theme mentioned and pursued on every thread here ……
L:et’s (sic) see how long this comment lasts …..
The answer to “Aquifer’s” question was quickly provided. Commondreams’ reaction to the above (and similar reader uprisings which have periodically taken place) was to disappear these and other postings and ban those participating in the discussion, myself included. The postings can no longer be found on the site and were copied by me in anticipation that the commondreams staff would do exactly as they did.
Counterpoised to these brute force tactics, a more traditional and effective means of information management is to prevent positions judged unacceptable from finding their way into print in the first place. In its internet variant, this takes the form of editorial decisions with respect to the content of front page postings at the major left websites. Central among these was the topic of the open letter; namely, the maintenance of “critical support” with respect to the Obama campaign and subsequent administration. Those who viewed the Obama phenomenon with grave suspicion both for its stated policies and for its likely effect in undermining opposition movements, almost never found their positions represented on the front pages of any but the most marginal internet outlets, and, for that matter, in left print publications.
It is true that the far left spectrum of the internet represented by Counterpunch allowed challenges to this conventional wisdom. But even here, leftists such as Norman Solomon, David Michael Green and others could be found making the case for “critical support” and in some cases expressing unbridled enthusiasm at the prospect of the nation’s first African American president. In the months after the election, as predictions of even Obama’s most unenthusiastic supporters collided with the hard right reality of the Obama administration, pieces stating the obvious fact of the matter — that virtually the entirety of the mainstream left and much of the so called “radical left” — got it wrong remained hard to place. Again, speaking from my own experience, what I regard as one of my better pieces “Who Got it Right” was consigned to the far fringes of the web, having been rejected for publication from the all of the major left sites I sent it to.
It is obvious that no single rejection by itself, or, for that matter, a boxful of them, constitutes censorship. As stated earlier, articles can, and should, be rejected based the quality of the expression, factual accuracy, logical consistency and relevance among other factors. Proving censorship requires demonstrating that a piece meeting normal standards for publication was rejected purely on the grounds of its content having been considered as outside the bounds of acceptable discourse, which meant in this specific case challenging what had become a widespread left conventional wisdom with respect to the Democratic Party and the Obama campaign.
Circulating the open letter was a useful exercise in that it demonstrated conclusively through some of the responses it received that the leading left wing sites engaged in censorship in the service of this agenda. That there is a paper trail attesting to this was due to a unique circumstance. Had the letter been merely an over the transom submission by a relative unknown such as myself it would have been summarily rejected without any acknowledgment of its existence. As it was, however, the letter was signed by a rather large cross section of leading left intellectuals and activists forcing some of those sites which ignored it to to reveal their grounds for doing so. Or, insofar as they lacked such grounds, they were required to invent them.
The latter was the case for Znet which found its proprietor Michael Albert accusing the authors of “deliberately misleading” himself and other potential signatories, “fooling” them into believing that those receiving the letter (and criticized by it) were, in fact, endorsing it. Albert would evidently use this canard as a justification for removing the open letter from the site after having ran it on the site for a less than a day, replacing it with a rebuttal by Bill Fletcher which was front paged for a full three days. The original piece was subsequently purged from the Znet website — a google search bringing up a link to a blank document.
While Counterpunch ran the open letter, that it did so grudgingly was revealed in a note rejecting a follow up piece from editor Alexander Cockburn who described the “bleats out to progressive leaders” as “uninteresting.”
A more peculiar response came from the somewhat marginal website Portside which, while failing to run the letter, published both Fletcher’s rebuttal and a subsequent one by Meredith Tax which had initially appeared in the Guardian.
Perhaps the most revealing reaction came from Truthout which, to its credit, ran the original letter, though it appears that they did so, like Znet, having mistakenly assumed that the recipients of the letter were supporting the letter. Suspicions along these lines were reinforced by their also having rejected a follow-up piece on the grounds that a ”sense of fairness has compelled us to allow (only) a single articulate response to such letters. . . (and) not to publish any further rebuttals.”
The rejection contained the suggestion that the submission could be ”rewritten as an op-ed without reference to the open letter and its response” (my italics) and that this would be considered for publication. While on the one hand gracious, it would be hard to find a more transparent example of censorship directed at the issues raised in the open letter. They also, it should be noted, rejected the submission which they had previously indicated they would consider publishing.
By way of conclusion, a couple of remarks are in order. The first is to note that the left has routinely made much of its own censorship at the hands of the mainstream news media acting in service to an elite agenda. In this instance, it has shown that it has no compunction about using the same tools to squelch legitimate questions with respect to its own de facto elites. Being on the receiving end of it, along with more than a few derogatory and condescending remarks from left luminaries, who were, it should be noted, addressed respectfully and politely in the open letter, has been eye-opening though not altogether pleasant.
No doubt some will dismiss the above as a combination of small potatoes and sour grapes. Why worry about censorship when the internet provides an unlimited medium for disseminating one’s views — which will surely be provided exposure if they are seen as having merit. Of course, the view of the internet assumed by many as an uncontrolled forum of ideas is a fantasy. The reality is that a small number of major left sites are hugely influential in conferring legitimacy on the range of acceptable discourse through those submissions which they choose to publish. Those which they reject are not only marginalized but for practical purposes might as well not exist: the readership of the top sites Counterpunch, Commondreams, Alternet and a few others will be seen to exceed that of small sites which are the eventual resting place of rejected submissions by two orders of magnitude.
The result is when these major sites unify around a particular agenda and exclude dissenting voices a herd mentality becomes established which becomes very difficult to dislodge, no matter how ill-founded and counterproductive its premises. This occurred during the Obama campaign with the consequences we are living with now: Obama’s right wing agenda is being undertaken with near total impunity as the left rank and file attempt to rebuild a mass protest movement from scratch, largely without direction or anything more than token support from the left establishment.
Perhaps, as some have argued, the criticisms made above and in previous pieces are counterproductive and are more likely to generate animosity than the unity necessary for a functional protest movement to emerge. In deference to this possibility, I’ll simply note here my intention that this will be my last piece addressing this topic-which is not to say that I have any illusions that what I have written or am likely to write is likely to exert much influence.
Aside from their own inertia and small mindedness, nothing is preventing the left establishment to committing themselves fully and passionately to making 2011 a year defined by the return of the protest movement: where consideration of cuts to Social Security trigger massive work stoppages, where a demand for action on the impending global environmental catastrophe is accompanied by sit-ins at congressional and oil industry executive offices, where further cuts in medicare are met with blockades of the internet highway system, where bonuses doled out to finance industry parasites are met with millions on Wall Street attempting to shut down all trading and deal making and other forms of economic terrorism.
It is not Polyannish to recognize that a unified commitment call out from the left establishment to their numerous followers could accomplish this, one indication of which is the stunning total of 360,000 “friends” on Michael Moore’s Facebook page. A 10% rate of participation among Michael Moore’s core followers would constitute the largest anti-war demonstration in Washington since Obama took office.
But, frankly, I’m not optimistic that this is in the cards; for example, an announcement of an April 9 New York anti war protest includes a substantial list of endorsers from which all of the high profile leftists addressed in the letter were conspicuously absent.
If it has accomplished nothing else, the open letter and the response to it has demonstrated that the left establishment, mirroring the Democratic Party establishment whose lock on the progressive left it has enabled, does not take kindly to being pressured from below.
And so I will join the majority of the left rank and file which has no choice other than to passively wait on the sidelines to see whether they will do the right thing.