300 Comments and Not a Word to Read

I love writing for the Atlantic, but I have learned to hate the comments section.  My last post on changing attitudes surrounding the public display of the Confederate flag is now pushing 300 comments, but I would venture that 98% of them are worthless.  It should come as no surprise that the post has been co-opted by a few select voices, who clearly have way too much time on their hands.  One woman apparently spent a sleepless night and the better part of a day writing and monitoring the post.  The level of vitriol and pettiness now being expressed is quite impressive and I have no doubt that they will get at least another 100 comments out of it. I did my best to respond to the few comments that actually touched on points in the post, but they are now lost in a sea of narcissism.  The comments thread is a perfect example of why I moderate discussion here.

The comments included the standard litany of accusations that I am anti-Southern/Confederate and that I am part of a broader conspiracy that wants to remove all reminders of the Confederacy, including the flag.  This is silly.  In fact, the post in question was an attempt to challenge the standard narrative that paints Southerners as one-dimensional and makes a few descriptive claims that may or may not be true.

  • Southerners (white and black) do not speak with one voice on what is acceptable surrounding the display of the Confederate flag.
  • A growing number of Southerners (white and black) acknowledge the complex history of the flag from its use as a battle flag to its role in the resistance to desegregation.
  • Over the past few years the flag’s visibility on high-profile public and private sites has waned.
  • Organizations that have challenged the removal or absence of the flag from such places have met with little success.

Those are four descriptive claims that, like I said above, may or may not be accurate.

I do believe that the visibility of the Confederate flag will continue to suffer owing, in part, to the people who claim to be its staunchest defenders.  This all or nothing attitude is simply not a workable strategy if the points I made above are accurate.  Despite what my detractors say, I do not want to see the Confederate flag completely removed from our historical landscapes because it is part of our history.  It has an important story to tell.  The only question remaining is whether moderate voices will emerge from various constituencies to lead a discussion about what is and is not acceptable.

What is clear is that the status quo is untenable and even the most creative insults that you can hurl in my direction is not going to change that.

21 comments… add one
  • Dudley Bokoski Aug 19, 2012 @ 8:05

    What was the line in Casablanca, “Round up the usual suspects.” Surely you didn’t think the reaction to a post on the flag wouldn’t elicit pretty much these responses? Besides, who actually believes Charlotte is a part of the South, anyway? It’s just miles of concrete and asphalt surrounded by the obligatory overpriced two story houses with brick on the front and siding round back. And maybe, to a degree, that’s the point. You go anywhere in this country and it’s the same stores, the same restaurants, the same just about everything. Throw in the cultural singularity from media and pop culture and it’s not just the accents that are going away. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter where the coventions are held, it’s all the same soulless modernity.

    I noticed reading the article there was a link nearby to a story on the five most violent cities in America. If the political parties really wanted to make a statement they would go to Flint or Memphis or one of the other cities and talk seriously abut things which might actually make life better. Instead, they’ll go to Charlotte and Tampa and make snide comments about the other side. The Confederate flag issue is a flea on the back of a very big dog compared to the dysfunction of our political parties.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 19, 2012 @ 8:10

      Surely you didn’t think the reaction to a post on the flag wouldn’t elicit pretty much these responses?

      Like I said in the post, I expected that the discussion would deteriorate quickly.

      If the political parties really wanted to make a statement they would go to Flint or Memphis or one of the other cities and talk seriously abut things which might actually make life better. Instead, they’ll go to Charlotte and Tampa and make snide comments about the other side.

      I completely agree.

  • Michael Rodgers Aug 18, 2012 @ 10:31

    1) I think that your four points are indeed accurate. Here’s why, I think: Significant time has passed since the flag flap heyday, and also significant events have occurred in that time period. 9/11 happened, encouraging patriotism by flying the Stars and Stripes. The GWOT (Afghanistan, Iraq) was launched, encouraging patriotism. Barack Obama was elected president, encouraging modernization of racial attitudes in our country. The TEA Party formed and gained attention; they adopted the Gadsden flag, not the Confederate flag.
    2) Ta-Nehisi Coates does moderate his comment section afterwards, not before. Anyone can post anything, but then he stays around and catches up with flagged comments and deletes or modifies them. If a comment is a flame-bait or a thread-jack or a personal attack or an outrageous falsehood, Mr. Coates might, in addition to deleting the comment (and any/all parts of the subthread) ban the commenter from commenting again. This action by Mr. Coates is known as wielding the “banhammer”, which I think is a reference to using Thor’s hammer to ban a person.
    3) Too many of those commenters to your post at the Atlantic were heaping taint onto the Stars and Stripes. It’s difficult for me to see how they’re going to win anyone to their side that way. Frankly I don’t even understand what their side is, because all their accusations and vitriol get in the way, and they seem to insist on extreme positions. Alas.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 18, 2012 @ 12:31

      I chalk much of it up to a generational shift. The post-Civil War Centennial generation may now be sufficiently far removed from the Civil War and a direct connection to it that a more detached perspective is possible.

      You are right that the extremists are convincing no one of their position on the Confederate flag by attacking the United States and the flag. To say that the U.S. flag reflects a nation that, at time, has engaged in questionable policies is accepted by everyone. No nation is perfect, but we believe that the principles on which the nation was founded give us some direction.

  • Jim Dick Aug 18, 2012 @ 6:27

    This just seems to be the same situation in regards to public memory and factual based history. It doesn’t matter what the subject is anymore, if you say or write anything that conflicts with some people’s memories or beliefs they argue with you. The fact that most people don’t understand the context of the time periods in question escape them.
    I’m really irked by this. We can be historians and have nice degrees on our walls showing that we studied history, have personal libraries of actual books written by actual historians, plus copies of primary sources in it or on the computer as well, and written about various things in history. We get slammed for our factual based history.
    Meanwhile scientists, medical doctors, engineers, etc. with nice shiny degrees get listened to for the most part. Of course they too get criticized when they run up against people’s beliefs.
    I know this is part of an overall backlash against academia which has always been historically present in America. I’m to the point where I just don’t want to bother with comment sections in a lot of situations because it just sucks up time that could be better spent doing something constructive. Maybe it’s just the election year, but the last several months have really brought out some extremely ridiculous comments in many places. Not here, but other open forums on various subjects. In particular the Constitution and Early Republic.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 18, 2012 @ 6:47

      You definitely hit on part of the problem. Another problem is the nature of the platform. Most people don’t spend much time on any individual website and the opportunity to voice something is incredibly tempting. If you read through the comments at the Atlantic it’s likely that most of the contributors did not give the essay a careful read.

      • Roger E Watson Aug 18, 2012 @ 8:56

        “…most of the contributors did not give the essay a careful read.” Not necessary !

        Confederate Battle Flag + Kevin Levin = “…..damned Southern-hating Yankee… ;-)”

        They “know” your position before you can put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) 🙂

        • Kevin Levin Aug 18, 2012 @ 12:26

          I have to accept that I’ve become the face of the enemy. Once that has happened rational discourse is impossible. All I can do is try to set the best example in my little corner of the blogosphere and elsewhere.

          • Brooks D. Simpson Aug 18, 2012 @ 12:39

            Now wait a moment there. You’re not the only pretty face out there targeted for attack. I have the evidence of website obsessions to prove it. 🙂

            • Kevin Levin Aug 18, 2012 @ 12:55

              I’ve come to accept that none of them, including CC, really has any loyalty. They will go anywhere to get their next fix.

      • Jim Dick Aug 18, 2012 @ 9:09

        It’s frustrating. Discussions such as this blog have been very good in my academic career. I’ve been incorporating the public memory vs. factually based history into a lot of my work this semester and it has really generated some good discussions in a few classes. I’m going to start some class development projects next month as I only have my MA thesis to do and one section is going to be the public memory vs factually based history.
        This blog has been very instrumental in helping me explore that. So comment sections can be good, but they need moderation. Dissent is good when its constructive, but the sheer lunacy of many comment sections or Facebook pages just makes some of them useless.

        • Kevin Levin Aug 18, 2012 @ 12:27

          Glad to hear this.

    • James Harrigan Aug 18, 2012 @ 8:28

      Jim said Meanwhile scientists, medical doctors, engineers, etc. with nice shiny degrees get listened to for the most part. Of course they too get criticized when they run up against people’s beliefs..
      You win understatement of the year award, Jim! Consider climate change, which in its broad outlines is not controversial among working climate scientists. Yet a denial of climate change is all but mandatory for membership in the Republican Party.

      All too many people believe what they want to believe, whether it is the existence of Black Confederates, the President’s fake birth certificate, or the various 9/11 conspiracy theories. All responsible scholars can do is tell the truth as they understand it, and try to contain their exasperation at the persistence of willful ignorance.

  • Eric Welch Aug 18, 2012 @ 5:40

    I love this line, ” but they are now lost in a sea of narcissism.” I’ve given up on reading comments. Occasionally what starts out as a serious discussion of an issue devolves quickly into trolling silliness not to mention Godwin’s Law. With that I’ll shut up and go back to reading.

  • James Harrigan Aug 18, 2012 @ 5:40

    wow, what a swamp over there at The Atlantic site!

    Ta-Nehisi Coates moderates comments on his Atlantic site, with good results, maybe you could do the same? Alternatively, maybe you could link the Atlantic comment section to your site?

    Of course, none of this would be an issue if you weren’t a damned Southern-hating Yankee… 😉

    • Kevin Levin Aug 18, 2012 @ 5:49

      Hi James,

      I don’t believe Ta-Nehisi moderates comments, which makes his site that much more impressive.

      • Michael Douglas Aug 18, 2012 @ 6:40

        Kevin, I could be wrong but, based on comments I’ve seen from him, I’ve been under the impression that Coates does moderate to some extent. I’m sure I’ve seen him speak of comments that he considered particularly offensive being removed. I don’t know if he does preemptive moderation or if that’s even possible.

        • Kevin Levin Aug 18, 2012 @ 6:45

          You are probably right, but I still think his site is a wonderful example of online discussion at its best.

          • Michael Douglas Aug 18, 2012 @ 6:59

            It *is* pretty impressive!

  • Virginia S. Wood Aug 18, 2012 @ 4:55

    I usually scan the first dozen or so comments looking for intelligent commentary that might add to my learning on the subject or expand my point of view a bit, and I am usually disappointed. I am grateful that you moderate postings here!

    Off to read “The Future of Comments”.

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