Slate, the Industry Standard, and washingtonpost.com join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000.
In the online world, Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman has been called everything from the Seinfeld of politicians to a religious trash can. The first Jewish candidate to run on a major-party presidential ticket has been the target of anti-Semitic comments in chat rooms and the subject of essays by political pundits and rabbis alike.
During the past two weeks, the Net—for better or worse—has become a vehicle for American citizens to talk to one another about Lieberman in a way they might not have had the nerve to do face-to-face with a friend or neighbor. No matter how ugly the commentary, though, Lieberman’s online treatment shows that the Web remains one of the last true unfettered forums for political expression.
Yahoo! counted a whopping 30,000 messages on Lieberman in chat rooms and on message boards in the two weeks after presidential candidate Al Gore named Lieberman his running mate. Just slightly more than 22,000 comments about Lieberman have been posted in Usenet discussions, according to Deja.com, which archives such discussions. That number, however, still pales in comparison to the approximately 82,500 uncovered by a search for Gore.
As the news of Lieberman’s nomination settled, discussion on mainstream sites waned. But more extremist sites were just getting warmed up. An Aug. 19 broadcast of William Pierce, chairman of the National Alliance, which calls itself the world’s foremost organization working for the future of white Americans, was archived on the alliance’s Web site. He declared: “The Democratic Party has been so thoroughly in the hands of the Jews for decades now that I believe it’s a good thing for them to be out front where they can be seen instead of continuing to pull the strings backstage.”
Such messages came as little surprise to the Anti-Defamation League. What was surprising and unusual, said ADL National Director Abraham Foxman, was the reaction they incited from other people in chat rooms and discussions.
Usually the hate is just ignored, Foxman said.
But “it came in a heavy barrage, and it was very ugly. Both these factors triggered a positive response,” Foxman says. “The dialogue, the hate stuff, was challenged by a lot of people. They wouldn’t just take it; they would challenge the comments.”
The problem is, there is no way to determine the degree to which Internet hate speech infects the mainstream, Foxman said. Free speech, he acknowledges, is the price of democracy.
Interestingly, Lieberman also provided a platform for a forthright discussion and education about Jewish culture. One self-proclaimed “poor, ignorant Gentile” went to the soc.culture.jewish forum to clear up a misunderstanding about Orthodox Jews being “the ones who kept all the old customs, e.g. always wearing beards and hats.” Another person on the forum responded, “In actual fact, having no beard (except for Rabbis) is a centuries-old Jewish European custom. There are many religious discussions on how to remove the beard hairs without a straight razor, which is not permitted.”
Finally, Lieberman offered Jewish Internet surfers the chance to revisit the perennial debate over the role of Orthodox and reform Judaism in the United States, as well as the position of Jewish culture in greater U.S. culture. On Jewhoo!, a Yahoo! parody site that features a directory of Jewish celebrities and links, Editor Nate Tiebloom offered long-winded but entertaining, “somewhat random thoughts,” on the first Jewish major party vice presidential candidate in U.S. history. While studios might convert Jewish characters into Gentiles before a TV show reaches the airwaves, Tiebloom writes, “The success of Seinfeld proved that a good portion of the public would warm up to four Jewish whiny New Yorkers (really one Jew and three ‘sort of’ Jewish whiny New Yorkers).”
“Lieberman is the Seinfeld of politicians,” Tiebloom continues. “We shall see if the American public likes him for what he is upfront (sic) about.”