The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Narcissism, Isolation and Trolls

Posted on | December 3, 2010 | 35 Comments

“The 19th-century cult of success . . . measured achievement not against the achievements of others but against  an abstract ideal of discipline and self-denial. At the turn of the century, however, preachments on success began to stress the will to win. The bureaucratization of the corporate career changed the conditions of self-advancement; ambitious young men now had to compete with their peers for the attention and approval of their superiors. . . . ‘By the end of the 19th century,’ writes John Cawelti [in his 1965 book, Apostles of the Self-Made Man], ‘self-help books were dominated by the ethos of salesmanship and boosterism. Personal magnetism, a quality which supposedly enabled a man to influence and dominate others, became one of the major keys to success.’ . . . The management of interpersonal relations came to be seen as the essence of self-advancement. The captains of industry gave way to the confidence men, the masters of impressions. Young men were told that they had to sell themselves in order to succeed.”
Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (1979)

The progressive site Mahablog awarded its “even dumber than Jim Hoft” award to Donald Douglas at American Power and, when Professor Douglas attempted to defend himself, he drew this trollish response:

I figured the cops finally had you on moral’s charges when you exposed your thimble-sized member to the JH School boys gym class. I guess there wasn’t enough evidence, huh?

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot? What kind of person resorts to such abusive insults over an entirely moot political discussion about WikiLeaks? (Moot, I say, because the public-policy response to WikiLeaks is not going to be influenced by blogs.) Well, it would be simple enough to say that the kind of person who does this is the kind of person who can’t distinguish between plural and possessive, so as to write “moral’s charge” (wrong) instead of “morals charge” (correct).

Wednesday, Donald linked to an American Thinker column by blogger Robin of Berkeley, a psychotherapist who wondered about the trolls who plagued her own blog:

Where do these trolls come from? Where do they live and breed?
Do they write in dank basement rooms while their bedraggled girlfriends (or moms) pick up their dirty shorts? Do they intermix trolling with downloading internet porn?  (I’m not being snarky here; I’d bet good money that violent smut gives them endless inspiration.)

Leaving aside such speculation, Robin proceeds:

The creepy thing is that in the minds of trolls, and other extreme Progressives, their behavior is as normal as apple pie. This is because their worldview is amoral and asocial. Therefore, the merit of hurling insults at a complete stranger is a no-brainer.
Many leftists are positively clueless about how to conduct themselves in a civilized manner.  Believe me, I have tried over and over to engage some – any – in a respectful discussion.
Although I rarely give up on people, I have had to conclude that many extreme progressives are not simply choosing to be vicious. They do not know how to restrain themselves.

Which is exactly right: These trolls are asocial and incapable of restraint. And Robin of Berkeley lays her finger on an important point in suggesting trolls “intermix trolling with downloading internet porn.”

Like online porn, trolling is a secretive, solitary, anti-social vice, pursued in anonymity. Julie Zhuo of the New York Times emphasized anonymity as the decisive factor in the behavior of trolls. It is fun to imagine a sort of “To Catch a Predator” sting operation on trolls, with Chris Hansen confronting these people with their comments: “Did you write this?”

Anonymity is clearly a factor in the anti-social behavior of trolls, but what about isolation? In The Culture of Narcissism, Christopher Lasch analyzed how changes in social structures, including the family and the workplace, created different behavioral incentives and a shift of values. Whereas for most of the 19th century, the literature of success had emphasized values of discipline and self-denial, the rise of the large bureaucratic corporation resulted in a greater emphasis on the “management of interpersonal relations” and conveying the impression of “personal magnetism.” This progressed over the decades until, by the 1970s, everyone nodded in recognition at Lasch’s description:

“The upwardly mobile corporate executive . . . advances through the corporate ranks not by serving the organization but by convincing his associates that he possesses the attributes of a ‘winner.’”

The flinging apart of giant corporation – downsizing, outsourcing, telecommuting, etc. — has radically changed the typical work environment in the 30 years since Lasch made that observation. “Interpersonal relations” have little or no meaning in such careers as software programming. For many others, career communications occur far more frequently through text messages and e-mails than through face-to-face conversations. And for many, ”virtual” relationships — whether personal or professional – with faraway strangers are more meaningful than relationships with the people they actually meet daily in real life. (My wife: “How was your day?” Me: “Great. I just got Instalanched.”)

What does this dynamic mean to the progressive troll? In his virtual world, he feels the need to “represent” as a loyal member of the online tribe. So when a hostile target comes into view – e.g., the self-proclaimed neocon Donald Douglas — there is a competition among the trolls to make the most vicious attack possible. Through these attacks, the troll who excels others in obxnoxious thereby enhances both his self-esteem and his status within the virtual community.

A narcissistic quest for admiration — if only self-admiration — is therefore deeply implicated in the behavior of trolls. Their comments are neither informative nor entertaining, because that is not their purpose. They are engaged in destructive activity and expect to be admired for it by others who share their opinion that the target is worthy of destruction.

Their relevant peer-group (whose admiration they seek) are not people they actually know in real-life, but rather their fellow members of the ideologically organized virtual community. And this sort of behavior is not limited to blog trolls.

This past summer, during the uproar over the Michael Hastings Rolling Stone article about Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Barrett Brown wrote an article for Vanity Fair‘s Web site criticizing National Review editor Rich Lowry for his dismissive attitude toward Hastings’ article. And then something weird happened. Three weeks later, Brown posted this video “challenging” Lowry to respond:

What Brown has dramatized here is his sense of his own importance, and his frustration at the refusal of the world to recognize that importance. There is a yawning chasm of cognitive dissonance between Brown’s grandiose self-concept and the feedback he is receiving from the indifferent world.

Notice, however, that Brown speaks of “my colleague Michael Hastings,” expressing a collegiality that probably exists mainly in Brown’s mind. Brown and Hastings both had blogs at True/Slant, the now-defunct site which, despite funding from Forbes Media and Fuse Capital, flamed out in 15 months after publishing such memorable works as Rick Ungar’s “Send the Body to Glenn Beck.” But while Brown and Hastings were both True/Slant contributors, it wasn’t like they were hanging out around the office coffee machine, swapping stories.

So here is Brown, staring into the camera and addressing “Rich” as if he were talking to a buddy, while referring to Hastings as his colleague, in a video recorded July 15 — three weeks after the June 23 publication of the Vanity Fair piece that Brown references, and two weeks before True/Slant’s July 29 shutdown. The timing seems significant, as if this were a cry for help.

You might get the idea that Barrett Brown is kind of a moody loner, isolated and alienated, attempting to invent a social context for himself where none exists. And if that’s your impression of Brown, you might find it highly significant that the primary subject of Barrett Brown’s online videos is . . . Barrett Brown.

You might also find it significant that Brown has described himself as being “raised by a New Age single mother who suggested that I was an Indigo Child with an alien soul, required that I meditate with her daily, prompted me to learn the more potentially significant quatrains of Nostradamus, and had me keep a dream journal next to my bed in order to better divine the future by way of my eternal connection to the collective unconscious.”

Sarcastic? Tongue-in-cheek? With the idea of cross-checking this biographical datum, I Googled and found another piece in which Brown said he was “raised by a single mother and a series of female cats.” And in that column, Brown describes discovering at age 13 — circa 1995 — how to use online chatrooms to get sex. It was not in that column, but in an entirely different column, in a different magazine, on a different topic, that Brown wrote:

To the extent that one uses the Internet, then, one is subjected to a different array of stimuli than if one did not use the Internet.

Indeed – as Brown so clearly demonstrated at age 13. Given his precocious mastery of online seduction, one might be tempted to wonder what effect this “different array of stimuli” had on young Barrett’s subsequent social development. But rather than engaging in such untoward speculation, let us contemplate the influence of that “New Age single mother” of whom Brown writes. We can consult a familiar source to explain the significance of this.

“Even our deeply rooted, misguided faith in technology does not fully describe modern culture. What remains to be explained is how an exaggerated respect for technology can coexist with a revival of ancient superstition, a belief in reincarnation, a growing fascination with the occult, and the bizarre forms of spirtuality associated with the New Age movement. A widespread revolt against reason is as much a feature of our world as our faith in science and technology.”
– — Christopher Lasch, “The Culture of Narcissism Revisited” (appended as afterword to 1991 Norton paperback edition of the book)

Lasch explained this cultural paradox — a society that simultaneously embraced both “ancient superstition” and a “faith in science and technology” — by reference to gnosticism, and concluded: “More than anything else, it is this coexistence of hyper-rationality and a widespread revolt against rationality that justifies the characterization of our 20th-century way of life as a culture of narcissism.” Lasch saw both phenomena as rooted in “feelings of homelessness and displacement . . . and in the contradiction between the promises that they can ‘have it all’ and the reality of their limitations.”

At this point, the reader can be excused for asking, “So what? Where is this rambling discourse leading? What is the relationship between trolls and narcissism and New Age and Barrett Brown?” Your impatience is understandable, and now let me refer you to my March 16 essay, “Whatever Happened to Crazy?”

In that post about the madness of Pentagon gunman Patrick Bedell, I featured the laughably pathetic video in which Bedell explained his theory of “information currency”:

You probably won’t be able to watch more than a few minutes of that creepy video, but you get the general idea. Having slipped slowly into chronic schizophrenia, Bedell conceived a weird idea that he believed would provide him with a vindicating success — “Look, I’m right! I win! I’ll get rich!” As I wrote of Bedell:

Consider his evident aimlessness, his retreat into a marijuana-induced fog, and his fantasy of marketing “information currency” software when he couldn’t even find and keep a meaningful job. Now consider his appetite for conspiracy theories, his rantings against powerful forces that secretly control the world – paranoia.
Paranoia is rooted in the narcissist’s need to rationalize failure, to find scapegoats for his own shortcomings. Bedell had been mired in hopeless failure for years, and his scapegoats had to be large enough to psychologically compensate that failure.

Bedell recorded that video in October 2006. Less than four years later, he died at the Pentagon in what appeared to be a “suicide by cop” incident.

With that in mind, watch this video Barrett Brown posted Wednesday on YouTube:

“So this reader widget, it works off a human filter of these very erudite people, all together, and provides what should be the best means of obtaining information in existence. The alternatives, of course, right now, are editorial-page editors, you know, newspaper editors who have had a very, very mixed track record, over the past few years in particular, of deciding what’s important. You have Memeorandum, which operates its own algorithm that displays what everything’s linked to the most. You know, there’s no way of determining how good it is. So you go to Memeorandum and you see Jim Hoft has a big post, you know, and that’s what you see, and Jim Hoft’s obviously an idiot, so — but you also see good stuff like Glenn Greenwald there, you know, but it’s all — it’s very, very haphazard.”

Has Barrett Brown slipped a cog? Is he zany, daft, wacko, loony, bonkers, Froot Loops, and cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs?

Well, would you be surprised to learn that Barrett Brown began a July column about Sarah Palin by (a) recounting an incident in which he flipped off a female motorist, and (b) describing his gun collection?

Just coincidental, I’m sure. Far be it from me to play armchair psychotherapist, but speaking of psychotherapy, let’s conclude by returning to Robin of Berkeley’s column:

Many militants are devoid of an essential ingredient of being human: empathy. While they exude endless compassion for an endangered snail, they are contemptuous of living, feeling human beings. This is why they can cavalierly imagine snuffing out Granny, a late-term fetus, or, in fact, anyone who gets in their way. . . .
It’s no coincidence that God has also been shunned, because God is the thread that weaves together the rich tapestry of life. With Judeo-Christian values missing in action, the left engages in a manic free-fall-all. They afford themselves free rein to act out their basest of impulses.

Significant? Barrett Brown is communications director of “Enlighten the Vote,” which began its existence as the Godless Americans Political Action Committee.

NTTAWWT.

UPDATE: From the Forbes-funded True/Slant, Brown has descended to the League of Ordinary Gentlemen (non-commerical group blog averaging some 2,000 visits daily) where he posted his “Project PM schematic” yesterday — and the LoOGers actually treated it as a serious idea.

UPDATE II: Speaking of narcissism and trolls, the putrid cesspool at LGF has become even more toxic, with some of the commenters at LGF evidently threatening to “out” a former Lizard and get him fired from his job. I don’t know the backstory, but we’ll see what happens.

UPDATE III: Thanks to the commenter who linked the backstory of Chen’s total pwnage of LGF, with a post about Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer (being officially blocked from VA computers) that got updinged and which CJ promoted via Digg and Twitter.

BTW, the commenter (see below) representing himself as “Marvin Olasky” is almost certainly not the Marvin Olasky, according to a source of mine who knows Professor Olasky and assures me that slang like ”if anyone wants any dirt on the dude, just axe me” is extremely un-Olaskyesque.

UPDATE IV: Sam Foster at Left Coast Rebel:

For throngs of those that make up the tech-savvy Nintendo generation that has taken to the internet like an Egyptian plague, social media like blogs are the new normal for social interaction.

Indeed, 28-year-old Barrett Brown was scoring nookie at age 13 via the Internet, a medium to which I didn’t have access until 1996, when I was 36, a married father of three. So I was older than Brown is now before I ever surfed the ‘net, a medium that was part of his formative experience.

So it’s not the “new normal” to Brown, it’s just normal — he probably cannot imagine what it was like to do archival research when that meant scrolling microfilm or thumbing through dusty old documents. The online experience of total access and immediate feedback has shaped Brown’s worldview and sensibilities in ways that he can’t really comprehend, because he can scarely remember the pre-Internet information environment.

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