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October 13, 2004

Bearding Daniel In His Den

Steve Schwenk has posted an open letter to NYT Public Editor Daniel Okrent on his website.

In Sunday's New York Times, you quoted an angry sentence from a private e-mail I wrote to political reporter Adam Nagourney to make the point of “just how debased the level of discourse has become." Fair enough. That sentence was indeed shocking and uncivil. And you are right, civil discourse is important, if not vital, in a democracy. And I also agree with you that if the public editor of the nation's most important newspaper discerns a dramatic decline in the level of political discourse, it is incumbent upon him to bring it to the nation's attention and to lead the way toward restoring civility.

Unfortunately, you did nothing of the sort in your column. Instead of leading your readers down the path of civility, you the led them down the path of hatred, calling me a "coward," implying that I am a despicable person and holding me up for public ridicule and scorn. Not only that, you identified me both by name and by city of residence, even after I pleaded with your assistant and Mr. Nagourney not to.

I pleaded with them because, in this age of internets, I knew what the result would be, and obviously you did too, given the topic of your column. As expected, the angry, hateful e-mails came pouring in. But they were the least of it. The angry and hateful phone calls were worse, much worse, mostly because they frightened my children, who now jump whenever the phone rings. But at least the phone calls will go away.

Read the whole thing.

Colby Cosh and others have made the argument that Steve got what he deserved for his intemperate missive to the NYT--which I could accept, if Steve were the only one affected by Okrent's equally intemperate response. The problem is that the worst Steve could do to anyone at the NYT is piss them off for a bit. What the NYT can do to Steve--or you or me or anyone else who raises the ire of the All-Seeing Daniel Okrent--is much, much worse, and the effects extend beyond Steve--to his family and his children, who did nothing to deserve what Okrent wrought.

No matter how unforgivable Steve's spur of the moment sentiments were, Daniel Okrent's actions were much, much worse. Suppose George Bush had said something similar in a speech, something like "That's what a coward named Steve Schwenk, from San Francisco, wrote," would that been acceptable?

No, it would not, because it would be an abuse of power, just as Daniel Okrent's was. Okrent responded to a popgun attack with an atomic bomb, and he should be held accountable for it.

Update: Other takes--Complete Tosh, BuzzMachine, Politics From Left To Right, Atrios

Posted by Bigwig at October 13, 2004 01:38 PM | TrackBack
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Agreed. This was even worse than Focus on the Family giving out Michael Moore's home contact info -- Schwenk, so far as I know, is a private citizen.

Posted by: Lex at October 13, 2004 03:05 PM

..."private citizens" apparently being those lucky people who aren't required to remain silent in the face of abusive correspondence. I think the distinction between giving a home address and mentioning someone's metropolitan area is pretty important, actually. And if printing "So-and-so from such-and-such wrote these words to Adam Nagourney" is an "abuse of power" then it is hard to see how a newspaper could ever exercise its power without facing accusations of "abuse". Any correspondent mentioned in any Times column might receive consequent harassment--although Schwenk's chief complaint seems to be, simply, that his own actions have made him a national laughingstock.

I do certainly pity any child raised in a household whose persons in charge cannot connect actions with consequences. It's a rough world in that respect.

Posted by: Colby Cosh at October 13, 2004 05:33 PM

I think the distinction between giving a home address and mentioning someone's metropolitan area is pretty important, actually.

Not really. All it took to get my phone number was to do a google search. And from that it was another quick search to get my home address. Maybe 90 seconds total time. I don't like to have my phone number out there and did it only because i am the leader of a volunteer youth group, kids 1st to 5th grades (don't want to name it), and the website is important for recruiting. I live a pretty quiet life and did not think it would be a problem either.

Schwenk's chief complaint seems to be, simply, that his own actions have made him a national laughingstock.

I think that's just a mean spirited dig and that you don't like me based on what they "reported" I said." They quoted 13 words out of an e-mail containing 165 words. And there were 1/2 dozen other e-mails continuing the conversation. Another 250 words easily.

And actually, I am not a laughing stock. People don't think it's funny. What I said is shocking. It strikes a lot of cords. To tell you the truth, though, all but the rabid partisans have been pretty understanding. I have tried to answer as amny of the hate calls as time permits. And in the clear majority, the conversation has ended on positive terms, with people not endorsing what I said, but understanding it was in anger in an e-mail, we've all hit the send button when maybe we should not have, and also these are indeed extraordinary times with lots of emotion and tension in the air with the war going so poorly (our goals in going there, and the number killed/wounded, not our ability to respond militarily or the job the troops are doing) and with the hard fought election.

And they nearly all think what Okrent did was plain over the top. Some think that because I SAID something "wrong" or foolish, it's ok for a huge corporate media power to take retalitory actions and do anything and everything they want in response no matter how out of scale or how damaging, so long as it does not break the law. But I did not break the law either. Why am I held to a moralistic standard ("What a 'bad' thing to say") and they are only held to the standards set by criminal or civil law?

It's a morality I find somewhat bankrupt, really. Someone else's bad act should not grant license to others to act immorally themselves. It's not an uncommon moral outlook, though.

Posted by: Steve Schwenk at October 13, 2004 06:20 PM

Okrent also violated copyright by using words that were not his to publish.

The Times has sunk well below the level of its estwhile reputation.

Posted by: Scorpio at October 13, 2004 11:18 PM

The "immorality" of what the Times did remains to be demonstrated to my satisfaction, I'm afraid. Quoting people's words--I realize this is awfully hard to understand--is what newspapers do. They can sometimes do so with the intention of making people's lives uncomfortable, but it is hard to know what else a person who writes "I hope your kid gets his head blown off" meant to accomplish. Has it occurred to Mr. Schwenk, at any point in his casuistic moral analysis of his own humiliation, that if Nagourney and Okrent are more "powerful" than he is in the arena of free speech, they also receive very much more abuse from his like? Has that quivering conscience stopped to consider that the pains they must take to protect their families and deal patiently with irate callers are many times greater and more enduring than his (now admittedly not too onerous) temporary difficulties?

If there is a difference between the power of the Times and the power of Steve Schwenk, there is also a difference in moral status between the initiator of a pissing-match and the retaliator; Silflay's metaphor about popguns and nukes ignores this, aside from being totally over-the-top on its own merit. "Scorpio"'s addendum, possibly the single most ignorant statement about copyright yet placed on record, can pass without further comment.

Posted by: Colby Cosh at October 14, 2004 07:13 AM

Atrios is full of shit. His commenters post emails, phone numbers and addresses all the time. He posts identifying info as well, caveats it with comments like "now don't be irresponsible" knowing full well his rabid commenters will heap shite upon the heads of those so identified. For him to attack Okrent for this, if not the height of hypocrisy, is at least ambling up its foothills.

Posted by: Blackavar at October 14, 2004 02:26 PM

there is also a difference in moral status between the initiator of a pissing-match and the retaliator;

Perhaps. But I never sent Mr. Okrent an e-mail or anything else. I did no wrong to him. He has no right to retalitation.

Under your logic and ethical standard, there are any number of horrible, damaging and ugly things I, as "retaliator," could now legitimately have a third party do to Mr. Okrent. Given the scale of escalation you tacitly approve, it's frightening to contemplate the terrible, normally wrong and reprehensible things I would be (morally) permitted to do to him or have done to him by someone else. Where does it end?

Posted by: Steve Schwenk at October 15, 2004 11:55 AM

I don't know, where does it end? You've continued to call Okrent a bankrupt, immoral, power-abusing "bastard" in every venue you can find, despite your professed awareness of your own culpability. So have fun raging against the machine; no one has anything to lose by it, really, except you.

Posted by: Colby Cosh at October 15, 2004 06:14 PM

This discussion with you ends here and now. I'm sorry you are so full of hatred.
Get some help.

Posted by: Steve Schwenk at October 15, 2004 08:09 PM

Quite the pair of brass balls you've got there, Mr. Hope-Your-Child-Dies. I'll leave the question of which of us is a hate-crazed fool as an exercise for the reader.

Posted by: Colby Cosh at October 18, 2004 02:06 AM

"Under your logic and ethical standard, there are any number of horrible, damaging and ugly things I, as "retaliator," could now legitimately have a third party do to Mr. Okrent."

Such as?...

I think your legitimate responses at this point are still limited to identifying statements he has made, either publicly or privately to you (or others who are willing to allow you to quote from them), that give the lie to any other statements he is making on this or any other issue. That's really all he has done to you, isn't it?

If, as well as posting this message I send you an angry, hate-filled, vile threat (or an equally charming note expressing my hope that you or your children die a horrible death) I have no legitimate expectation that I can rely on this well-tempered and civil exchange to prove to a third party that I am a reasonable and temperate man. Sure - we have all sent e-mails too fast; but I don't know that we have all sent e-mails expressing that sort of emotion.

Once sent, the hope that an e-mail is somehow private is laughable, particularly when sent to someone whom we are at odds with on any issue. They owe us no duty of care, nor are they obliged to respect our privacy - we have intruded on them, and forced our views into their lives, and violated their right to peaceful enjoyment of their world. In most cases, that is fine - the message goes no farther, or perhaps sparks an exchange, in varying degrees of civility or rancour. On what basis do we claim offense if they use the message in ways we did not intend or foresee? Other than falsely claiming the ideas as their own (obviously not the case here), we simply have no case against them.

You have commented that they excerpted some small portion of your words from that particular e-mail, which in itself was part of a series of messages and responses. Why not release more of them, to show how you were goaded into an intemperate response? Why not illustrate how you were rational, well-thought, and sanguine, except for one unfortunate outburst? If those areguments are not open to you, perhaps because you were not goaded into your response, or you cannot demonstrate your calm, civil approach to the discussion, you might try taking responsibility for your own words, whatever they are.



Posted by: Deaner at October 18, 2004 03:22 AM
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