Should Moderators at Progressive Blog Sites Uphold Progressive Values?
From time-to-time, moderators of various versions of FireDogLake's community blogging web site (The Oxdown Gazette, The Seminal, and now MyFDL have banned posters who have substantive disagreements with the site moderators, or with the primary thrust of FDL opinion as expressed by its leading blogger and the site owner, Jane Hamsher. We've seen that happen, most notably, in past years when community bloggers expressed support for single-payer health care reform and criticized FDL efforts in support of the public option “compromise,” which finally went down to defeat because, evidently, even the highly imperfect was the enemy of the good. Some of the community bloggers involved were banned outright, others were invited out and accepted the invitation. Still others simply stopped blogging at FDL in silent protest against the moderators and FDL leadership.
Another area of conflict has been the extent to which FDL should support third party efforts or efforts to primary the President in preparation for the 2012 election. Postings and commentary on third party efforts vs. primarying have been passionate, with FDL moderators clearly emphasizing the practical aspects of party work, its difficulty, and the need for a long-term commitment to activism within the Party, rather than a third party alternative to the two legacy parties. Recently a conflict erupted over a Diary posted by Rusty1776, one of the most popular of the community bloggers, who isn't also a moderator. Commentary on his post elicited responses from him that were repeatedly censored by the moderators. This behavior spread to threads on other posts, when Rusty tried to comment in other places to get by the moderators, and make his case to the community. Then Rusty was banned from FDL, his profile was erased, all of his blogs, many of which were quite beautiful and inspirational, were seemingly deleted. It was as if the moderators were trying to destroy evidence of his existence.
There were replies to these actions of the moderators. Michael Kwiatkowski, posted here in support of Rusty. Lengthy commentary on the issues may be found at a “watercooler”post by one of the moderators, Bill Egnor. Commentary and questions on moderator behavior and site process issues are provided for in FDL rules, in reply to “watercooler” posts. Many comments offered were in reply to Bill's post in support of Rusty's position, and some in support of the moderators, reflecting a split in the community. I posted the following comment.
Generally, I’m very much opposed to banning posters from community web sites like this. It does reek of censorship and is profoundly undemocratic. As far as I can see, Rusty1776?s original post was fairly moderate in content. It did contain statements that were critical of Jane and all of us. Here’s a quote:
We need to primary challenge Obama. Refusing to primary challenge him is immoral. I’m talking to you, Jane. I’m talking to you, Firedoglake. I’m talking to the front-pagers, I’m talking to the editors, I’m talking to the moderators, I’m talking to the diary writers and the readers, I’m talking to all of you. Morality is not irrelevant, it’s not meaningless, it matters, it matters more than anything else.
We all have the blood of the innocent on our hands, we’ve all been complicit in the crimes of that “government” in Washington, but we don’t have to be complicit any more. We can start washing that blood off our hands, we can begin atoning for our complicity and moral cowardice, we can take the first step down the road to redemption by primary challenging that pretty-word-peddling-puppet of the oligarchs.
Now, I’m not at all offended by this. It’s an opinion, and an exhortation, and a completely legitimate expression of opinion at a progressive web site. It should not have been deleted at a web site that claims to be progressive and to value democracy. You can still find it
here, and can judge for yourselves.
Following Rusty’s post, a vigorous and at times bitter discussion ensued and some hard words were said. The conflict spread to this post of Bill Egnor's and also to Michael Kwiatkowski’s post, and I guess to one of Kelly Canfield’s posts too, which I’ve not yet read. Rusty became increasingly outraged at what he thinks is unfair treatment by the moderators. To me, having read the threads, but not had access to the comments deleted by the mods, it does look unfair. Part of the unfairness is that Rusty was banned from the site, and his often magnificent posts were removed and lost to all members of this community who have admired them and found them uplifting.
Another part of the unfairness, or at least appearance of unfairness, lies in the lack of transparency of the moderation process. We do not know why, exactly, Rusty was banned. We don’t know what important rule he broke, and why breaking that rule was so unforgivable as to require the banning of one of our most valuable members.
We don’t know whether those who banned him did so from a position above the fray, or whether they were the very people he had started to call out as treating him unfairly, and who were opposing his point of view intellectually, as well as acting to silence him politically at FDL. If they were the same person or the same people, then they acted particularly reprehensibly, because, given their opposition to the content of what he was saying, they should have recused themselves from the process of evaluating him, and then sanctioning him. They should have done this in order to avoid winning the argument by using naked power, and not by offering the best argument. We all know that, and it is to their lasting shame that they have acted in this way.
Btw, if anyone wants to communicate with Rusty you can find him at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Now, turning to a comment on something Bill said:
Politics can not be about absolutes. It falls apart when it is. I have no objection to people having this own ideas about what is moral and not, but a to use them as a litmus test without out looking at the totality of a politicians actions or the consequences of their defeat is to be a bully out to shame those who disagree with you. It is bad enough when the Right does it to the Left, it is worse when the Left does it to itself.
Argue that a policy is bad because of its affects, argue that it is illegal under our system of law, hell, argue that it is wrong headed because it affects you adversely but stay away from judgments of morality. That is for philosophers and theologians.
Well, first of all, I agree that we ought to look at the totality of a person’s actions before we view him as immoral. But I see no evidence that Rusty hasn’t: done that in Obama’s case, evaluated Obama’s actions as President, concluded that many of them are immoral; and that it is therefore a reasonable inference for him that Obama is an immoral political actor. I don’t think this is an unreasonable judgment, though Bill may not share it.
Second, on looking at the possible consequences of primarying Obama, I’m sure Rusty has thought about the possibilities inherent both in Obama’s victory and his defeat, and that his moral judgment about what we ought to do in this situation takes account of his thinking about the various possibilities he sees. Rusty seems pretty rational to me, so I’m pretty sure he’s done this thinking. I doubt that his analysis is the same as Bill’s, but I also think that their differences about what to do are not due to Rusty’s failing to look at likely effects of primarying Obama.
Third, Bill says that it’s OK to argue that a policy or action has:
1) bad effects;
2) is illegal under the law; or
3) will affect oneself adversely
but that it is improper to say that a policy or action or person is immoral, and he further thinks that we should leave this to the theologians and philosophers.
Well, I’m afraid that what Bill is expressing in this argument is just another philosophy, and it is not a philosophy I agree with. The reason for that is that when we oppose something for reasons in categories 1) 2) or 3), it is very easy for anyone to say so what? Who cares about current law? Who cares if it affects you adversely? Who cares if it has effects that you say are bad? When the “so what?” question is asked, we have to be able to go beyond “so what?” and reference higher principles of value theory, or Democratic Theory, or the Theory of Justice if we want to explain our views in a way that people can understand.
I agree with Bill that our ideas on these things vary all over the place and that we have no easy way to arbitrate conflicts over value and moral judgments. Nevertheless, we have every right to our theories and judgments of these kinds. In fact, we cannot escape them. We need to make them explicit, and, in my view, we need to make decisions in concrete situations in terms of an assessment of what the right or moral thing to do is in that situation.
Rusty’s theory, which may well be wrong (I’m a moral fallibilist myself) is that the right, i.e. moral thing to do next year is to primary Barack Obama. I’d like to hear a lot more about his thinking in this area, because even though he may be wrong, he also may be right. I certainly think that we deprive ourselves of the chance to learn, if we take his views off the table by banning him from this site. Even more, we also deprive ourselves of seeing whether the view held by many here, that we ought not to primary him, can stand up to the criticism that Rusty and others would provide.
Finally, I have to say that I think Bill’s position above, that we should not use our ideas about what is moral, non-moral, and immoral as “a litmus test” in deciding whether to do something or not, goes against a central tradition in western civilization in ethics. It is a very radical and controversial claim which in an earlier age was known as sophistry or sophism. It leads to the view that “Justice is the Interest of the Stronger.” This is not, in itself a valid argument against it. After all, it is ad hominem.
But considering our current context, is Bill really saying that we wouldn’t have been a lot better off if the banksters had used that litmus test before they made the decisions that ruined the world’s economy? Is he really saying, that we wouldn’t have been better off if the Bush Administration executives had used that litmus test before they decided to lie to the American people about WMD in Iraq? Is he really saying that we wouldn’t we better off, if this Administration had asked themselves whether it was right to have imprisoned Bradley Manning and thrown away the key before they did those things? is he really saying that we wouldn’t be better off if president Obama had asked himself whether it was right to insulate the banksters and fraudsters from prosecution because we needed to look forward and not backward?
I think my point is that there are a number of aspects to any human decision. They include cognitive (perception, thinking), affective (emotional), conative (intentional, purposive), and evaluative aspects. The last, evaluative, component involves morality. None of us can do without it. The only question is what moral values, and attitudes will shape our thoughts, emotions, and decisions in the here-and-now.
I call for the immediate reinstatement of Rusty1776. An injustice has been done here. If it’s not righted, it will echo through the future history of FDL. I also call for discussion of new moderation rules, a kind of constitution for the MyFDL community. these new rules would constrain posters and commenters, but they would also constrain mods. The rules I propose are here.
Please consider them as well as other proposals for a MyFDL constitution.
Later on, after my own and other comments supporting him were posted, FDL restored access to Rusty1776's diaries, his profile and his link on FDL friendship lists. It also became apparent, that the moderator who had been continuously censoring Rusty's comments was either Bill Egnor or Ruth Calvo. If it was Bill who so vigorously censored Rusty's replies to criticisms, then his actions seem particularly inappropriate, since Bill's watercooler post expresses a very strong disagreement with Rusty about the appropriateness of making public moral judgments in politics, and so, Bill clearly had an appearance of bias in evaluating Rusty's comments. Also, later on, I added this comment to my previous one:
Once again, I propose rules to constrain the moderators. I’m well aware that there are rules now. But there’s also this one:
“Our moderators reserve the right to take down any post or ban any user.”
That right must be constrained by clear rules to prevent future arbitrary action. We must know the post takedown or member banning offenses. It cannot simply be left to moderator judgment. There’s too much chance for bias to enter into the moderation process. For example, if Dean Baker or Cenk Uygur posted here in a similar vein to Rusty1776, would they have gotten the same kind of static from the moderators? Forgive me, but somehow I doubt it. FDL needs to do all it can to take the personalities out of the moderation process, especially since the moderators are themselves posters with very strong opinions. When it comes to the expression and evaluation of opinion on something identified as a community site, some ought not to be more equal than others.
As of this writing, according to Rusty's information, he is still banned from posting at FDL. I call for his posting privileges to be restored immediately. I would post this at MyFDL raher than Correntewire, except, as far as I know, MyFDL members, other than the moderators cannot file “watercooler” posts. So, I would be breaking FDL rules if I posted this there.
The actions of FDL moderators raise the larger question of free expression rights at progressive web sites. Clearly there is no right to come to such sites and to “troll,” i.e. to hijack threads by manufacturing name-calling, labeling, and ad hominem contests with other bloggers. Everyone recognizes that “the Constitution is not a suicide pact.” For that matter since progressive blogosphere sites are private, not public, and are owned by the bloggers who established and maintained them, there is no legal obligation to provide constitution-like guarantees of free speech/press to community members.
However, in the end, to retain one's credibility, one must uphold the principles one says that one believes in. The question in the title of this post is a rhetorical one. Of course, progressive web sites must uphold progressive values in their own practices. A site that doesn't do this, and that lets “the iron law of oligarchy” work unimpeded, is just not a progressive web site, no matter how loudly and frequently it proclaims that it is, and no matter how many “progressive candidates” it supports.
The progressive and open society values at issue in the banning of Rusty1776 are free press and free expression, transparency, political inclusiveness, and the right, nay the citizenship obligation, to evaluate and criticize those in authority. Jane Hamsher and the moderators at MyFDL can determine that they will uphold these values and be the thing they espouse, or they can refuse to uphold them and give up the name “progressive.” They cannot, however, have the name and act contrary to the values in their own backyard.
Restore Rusty's posting and membership rights! Clearly specify posting and banning rules and remove the moderators' right to take down any post, or ban any user, even if a post doesn't violate any rules! Give all members of myFDL a constitution! Be the progressive site you aspire to be!
(Cross-posted at All Life Is Problem Solving).