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.
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 is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.