Thursday, May 04, 2006

Bitch Slapping on the 'Net

There's a full-on web war raging between journalist Christopher Hitchens and blogger and history professor Juan Cole. I'll spare you all the minutiae (which you can read about on Andrew Sullivan's blog), but here's a thumbnail sketch.

Hitchens wrote an article for Slate in which he accuses Cole of sanitizing threats made by Iran's President Ahmadinejad against the state of Israel. What's at issue here, at the risk of oversimplifying, is whether a line in an Ahmadinejad speech calls for Israel to be "wiped off the map" or that it "should vanish from the page of time." Big. Freaking. Deal. It still sounds pretty bad, no?

Cole went ballistic and used his forum at Informed Comment to savage Hitchens for crimes, against humanity and otherwise.

What really blew Cole's gasket was the fact that the evidence Hitchens used to make his case was from an email he wrote in a private email forum that has a no-forwarding, no-publishing rule. Definitely a faux pas for Hitchens to have printed it, although it is not entirely clear that he was aware of the rule (Sullivan was not). Rather than entertain this possibility, Cole alleges that Hitchens "somehow hacked into the site, or joined and lurked, or had a crony pass him things" and later refers to his email as having been "stolen."

A bit heated, but, especially if Hitchens knew the rules, essentially true. What's worse, and Hitchens is certainly on the hook for this, he didn't do the basic journalistic thing and consult Cole for comment or clarification before going to press. Bad on Hitchens. Even worse for Hitch, his article accuses Cole of being something of an apologist for Ahmadinejad, but he failed to quote a passage from the same "purloined letter" that casts doubt on this assertion:
I should again underline that I personally despise everything Ahmadinejad stands for, not to mention the odious Khomeini, who had personal friends of mine killed so thoroughly that we have never recovered their bodies. Nor do I agree that the Israelis have no legitimate claim on any part of Jerusalem. And, I am not exactly a pacifist...
It doesn't get much more clear cut than that. Unfortunately, Cole let his anger do the talking and ended up sullying his own name in the process.

Here is what Cole stooped to:
How to explain this peculiar behavior on the part of someone who was at one time one of our great men of letters? Well, I don't think it is any secret that Hitchens has for some time had a very serious and debilitating drinking problem. He once showed up drunk to a talk I gave and heckled me. I can only imagine that he was deep in his cups when he wrote, or had some far Rightwing think tank write, his current piece of yellow journalism. I am sorry to witness the ruin of a once-fine journalistic mind. But the other reason for Hitchens's piece may be that he has become a warmonger, and it is possible that he wants a US war against Iran.
Ah, the old ad hominem attack, so familiar when it comes to opponents of Hitchens. By taking the low road, Cole cuts his own argument off at the knees and comes off now looking something worse than Hitchens. And in a fight where he seemed to hold all the cards.

To make things worse, Andrew Sullivan can provide a first-hand alibi for Hitchens' sobriety when the article was written and filed since he happened to be with him at the time. The assertion that Hitchens wants war with Iran can easily be disproved by another Slate article by Hitchens from less than two months ago that explicitly calls for a diplomatic solution to the impasse with Iran.

So, in the end, Cole is undone by his own anger. But that's not at all how it's playing on left coast of Weblogistan. Take a moment to read the comments section that follows Cole's screed. It's a combination of readers gleefully piling on the ad hominem attacks against Hitchens and the most unbearable fawning over Cole and his mighty genius and wit. (I have an obvious bias toward Hitchens, but I've never called him a "national treasure" with saliva running down my chin.) AlterNet has joined the fray as well.

There was a time—a distant memory, perhaps—when political discussion was more than mud wrestling and cheerleading. Wasn't there?
Listed on BlogShares