In my previous post about Silliman's effacement of his Comment Stream archive, I reviewed what I take to be some of the issues regarding censorship--both in the public, and in the private, realms--of internet content. Obviously (or perhaps not) the liability for what any blog administrator posts does involve the issue of free speech, because service providers have to meet the same standards which are applied to all media, though just as obviously, the issues in play in Silliman's literary blog comment stream don't fall under the categories historically targeted for censorship. In other words, the decision to pass through comments for publication online is a legal responsibility each blog administrator takes on, whether s/he realizes it or not. But, again, individual blog owners do have the freedom to pick and choose, and edit out whole comments as they see fit.
The decision about what to pass through, however, and what to block, involves both the potentially actionable content issues on the one hand, and on the other hand, those private criteria which each administrator uses as personal guide. A blog administrator could be sued for something by the government, or by any party alleging any kind of injury, just as any other media authority could be. Thus, defending something on a private blog site, would involve the invocation of the free speech principle, just as it would for any other media outlet. But there is no legal redress for the censure of privately administered comment.
What should the criteria for censure be in the private realm--that is, for issues that don't stray into the area of specific, legal injury--but involve other principles, such as "fairness" or "balanced presentation" or the simple courtesies of privacy and decency? In my previous post, I discussed the issue of private standards of publication practice. In a free press, discussion of political and social issues carries an implied commitment to doctrines which are associated with purely ideal concepts, like free speech, freedom of assembly, and so forth. The San Francisco Chronicle, for instance, is under no obligation to present a fair and balanced version of an issue, but it does have an implied responsibility not to present biased and prejudiced views. Every responsible editor of any newspaper or periodical would likely subscribe to this view, even in cases where the content is radically biased. I realize, too, that there is no such thing as unbiased news, and that fairness and balance are not precise terms when discussing the psychological or philosophical bases for perfected debate. News is a kind of contest in which truth is defined in process: It may change from day to day, and how we think about actual events may change just as quickly. But the principle of the commitment to the aspects of a free press (and a free society), as applied to private discussion and comment, is as compelling as it would be, say, in any large, or widely disseminated medium.
Silliman has periodically noted the wide exposure his blog has received over the years, with visitor counts in the hundreds of thousands annually. Not all of these are separate human instances, but the numbers are still impressive, for the broadcast content of a single individual. You could even say it rises to the level of a major news organ or figure, such as that of a major daily columnist's. Silliman himself has even croaked confidently about how the internet has led to a democratization of public opinion, how opinion is no longer under the whim and sway of major news services and corporate sponsors. Certainly, this much influence and command within the internet medium implies a greater sense of responsibility than a sewing circle. That responsibility isn't a trivial thing, and should not be regarded or treated with condescension or dismissal.
Literary politics can be a messy, combative, business, as Ron pointed out himself in the blog in which he announced the closing of his comment stream. Moreover, the elevated place he puts literature, as an expression of political and social forces, implies that what we say and believe about literature, is as important as anything we do in the public realm. For him, literature is a political act, carrying the same consequences and responsibility as carrying a rifle in combat, setting a bomb on the road, or attempting to assassinate a dictator. In Leftist politics, poetry is regarded as an arm of propaganda, as a tool in the revolution to free mankind from the evils of capital. At least in the theoretical sense, Silliman believes that the historical progress of literature is a dialectic in which the struggle for truth (and power) is a short-hand for the class war, and that in the aesthetic sense this means the struggle between the forces of an establishment, against the disenfranchised, the neglected, or excluded. He has repeatedly expressed a desire to see "excluded" minorities achieve recognition. This identification of political and aesthetic, is nothing new. But Silliman has brought a new conviction to the literary-aesthetic componant: The Quietist Tradition criticism.
Marx thought that, given an open debate, given the revealed conflict of classes and interests, the so-called "proletariat" would win out, eventually, allowing the world to pass through into its next phase(s). There are many historical developments which Marx could not have foreseen, but later theorists, such as Adorno, and Benjamin, did identify the progress of the breakdown (and transformation) of traditional tropes, in the arts, as expressions of political change and struggle. In my view, Silliman sees himself, and his blog (and his editorial and critical work), as being an active participant in this struggle, though the specific terms of that historical debate have changed incrementally over time.
It's my position that political blogs, and literary blogs which are designed to engage issues that have political--as well as "merely" aesthetic consequences (as Silliman's does)--carry a high degree of obligation to the principles of fairness and balance. One of the hallmarks of fascistic and monolithic political practice, is the absolute control of information. This has been graphically demonstrated during the Nazi era in Germany, in the Soviet period under Stalin and after, in Communist China and North Korea, and in present-day Iran. Information manipulated for the purpose of pure propaganda has a long and infamous history, and not just in oppressive regimes. Manipulation of the media has been going on for as long as news has existed. Much of what Silliman has asserted regarding the history of literature (as well as, to a lesser degree, politics) is highly controversial; it's very partisan, describing a deep schism in American art and literature, and representing himself (setting a specific standard) as a potent advocate for a different, radical conception of form, function and meaning in artistic product(s).
The existence of the so-called Comment Stream (or Comment Box) as an adjunct to the generic Blog Site, implies, and is inevitably an expression of, disagreement--of adversarial positions and comments and remarks of all kinds. If everyone agreed about Silliman's Theory of the Quietist Tradition, there would be no need to argue on its behalf, and there would be no disagreement to address. But Silliman's literary and political opinions are not widely accepted, and there is no pretext for claiming that they are. If blogs are political animals, and if blog administrators have a responsibility which parallels that of traditional media--with their implied obligations to fairness and balance--then bloggers, especially serious, politically committed blog sites advocating big, controversial agendas, have a responsibility to present their case in such a way at least to anticipate differences of opinion, or--through comment facilities (such as Comment Boxes)--to entertain, to welcome, indeed to solicit differences of opinion as a duty inherent in the medium.
End of Part II