Bloggers Offer Unusual Take On Raging Conflict: Silence

By Jennifer Siegel

Published July 21, 2006, issue of July 21, 2006.
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Bloggers — as the feisty class of Internet pundits are known — love to paint themselves as free-speech warriors who bravely tackle the hard truths that mainstream media outlets either ignore or distort. But as the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah raged on and conventional media outlets covered the news from the ground, major players in the liberal blogosphere were keeping, by their own admission, decidedly quiet.

The most prominent liberal blogger, Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, briefly addressed the topic Monday on his eponymous Web site DailyKos.com, in a post titled “Why I won’t write about the Israel/ Lebanon/ Palestine fighting.”

This is “a morass of a mess of a disaster of a quagmire of a sinkhole,” Kos wrote. “It doesn’t matter what the President of the United States says. Or the United Nations. Or the usual bloviating gasbag pundits.”

In progressive circles, Kos is known as both a commentator and an organizer — readers of his donated roughly $500,000 to Democrats in 2004 and his Yearly Kos convention in Las Vegas last month drew senators and celebrities, along with young activists.

Other leading liberal bloggers — including Josh Marshall of TalkingPointsMemo.com, Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly and Matt Stollar of MyDD.com — acknowledged that they also were reticent to weigh in, for reasons that included both the vehemence of rhetoric from readers on both sides, and the difficulty of commenting on the rare issue that truly divides liberals.

The “venom… is just, from my personal experience, just a whole order of magnitude greater than with garden variety political topics,” Marshall told the Forward. His Web site, Marshall said, typically receives 100,000 visitors a day, and as many as 300 to 500 emails from readers. In the past week, most of the vitriolic responses have come from critics of Israel.

I “touched off the fireworks” in saying that “Israel has a right to respond strongly when they have a border incursion over the Lebanese border,” Marshall said. “Some readers think that because I’m critical of our policy in Iraq… I’m going to be reflexively critical of what’s going on now, which I’m not.”

Marshall — who was raised in a secular Jewish home and considers himself “in some ways a critic of Israel, but still a Zionist and a supporter of Israel” — said he is uncomfortable with the strange bedfellows he sometimes wins by raising concerns about Israel’s conduct.

“I understand the Palestinians’ rage,” Marshall wrote in a July 15 post on his blog. But for “Americans who seem only to see Jewish evil in the midst of this protracted conflict I can’t have anything but contempt. And it puts me on my guard.”

While Marshall — a journalist who studied for a doctorate in history and writes a weekly column for the Washington weekly The Hill — considers himself an independent agent, albeit a liberal-leaning one, he acknowledged that it may be particularly hard for some of his blogger peers to stake out nuanced positions on a complex issue that does not cleave along a liberal-conservative axis.

I think they “do see themselves as part of a movement… [and] there is sort of ‘you’re with us or against us’ thing,” Marshall said. “What motivates a lot of bloggers is they find issues that are clear cut and they feel strongly about and they say it, and here the issue is not very clear cut.”

He added: “I doubt that it’s too consciously thought out, that there’s a decision not to touch it because there’s not a unified perspective.”

On his blog for the Washington Monthly, Drum offered a number of reasons to explain his own tight-lipped response to the fighting, a list that included: the “unusually vicious comment threads” it inspires; the seemingly “intractable” nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — “a plausible excuse for inaction coming from a pundit or a blogger… [but] not a plausible excuse for a president of the United States”— and the fact that the complex is “fantastically complex.”

“Most conservatives simply take the uncomplicated stance that Palestinians are terrorists and that Israel should always respond to provocation in the maximal possible way,” Drum wrote. “Liberals don’t really have a similarly undemanding position for the quick-hit nature of blogging.”

Matt Stollar echoed the thought on MyDD.

“I’ve noticed some clucking in the right-wing wrongosphere about silence from the major left-wing blogs on the situation in the Middle East,” Stollar wrote on Saturday. “There hasn’t been silence, but there has been humility in the face of a fast-moving situation that is difficult to understand.”

Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the The New Republic and a general critic of bloggers, rejected the “complexity” explanation.

“Why would you expect complexity from bloggers, left, right, or Martian?” Wieseltier wrote in an email to the Forward. “They are not in the complexity business on any issue. Maybe the problem is not complexity but complication — the way in which sympathy with Israel’s campaign against Hezbollah, and therefore with the use of force, might complicate their lives in progressiveland, where they live.”






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