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July 2 2008 4:55 PM

Insults, Hopes, and the Future

Searching for the good in humanity.

Any day now we're going to make  list of the words and phrases that strike dread into the heart of a Fray editor. A personal favorite would be "causation and correlation—don't you realize they're different?" Yes, we do, everyone does, could we start from that and move on? (This week it was the article on movie critics.) And how can we describe the Fray on the Catholic Church? Un-Christian, that's it. Mean-spirited is another phrase that came to mind. But we liked TheStranger's theory, here, that the Fray is like the Bardo from the Tibetan Book of the Dead—a place, apparently, where you fight demons, under the impression they are from outside. In fact, they are your own personal demons: "you cannot fight them but negotiate with them until you find the right light to follow to non-birth. Maybe this forum is the Bardo and we are all dead. Let's negotiate."

Good luck with that. In the meantime we may as well stay on the dark side and go with a list of some of the prize insults offered in the Fray in the recent past:

"No one has ever questioned my abilities in quite your patronizing manner. Hats off to your level of condescension."—Aizmap

[To a poster calling for lower speed limits] "Get off the road Granny"—tjcerveza

"I've seen Fray arguments using four-letter words that were better reasoned [than this article]."—Pryoslice

[On Tolstoy's Anna Karenina] "That the reviewers were so eager to accept [Anna's] narcissism and wrong behavior shows only that … they find her to be like their friends and acquaintances: morbidly self-obsessed."—Tresor

[Addressing the argument that the childless will need others' children to look after them] "What makes you think I want your insipid childcare-raised kids diapering me when I am old? I'd sooner euthanize myself than be forcibly tranquilized by the autocratic zealots in aged care that call mass forced tranquilization 'nursing'."—billodowd

None of them seemed to be in the Fray to make friends. Any of their comments might have been a candidate for Fray post of the week. But that prize, if it existed, would certainly go to Zuko—to a post with the unlikely name "The Fray grows up." In a touching and bravura performance, he told us:

The little blond haired girl I loved in the front row married the wrong guy, twice, and now she sells real estate; a few years later, another one, a little brown-haired girl, broke my heart completely in two. We didn't get flying cars, OJ did it, Britney got fat and went nuts. I don't live in a thatched hut in Polynesia attended by sloe-eyed, pastel-lipped, beauties of Gaugin, the Red Sox finally won one. I didn't get what I expected and I have more than deserve. No mysteries left to solve.

But still, cheerfulness broke out, and he had good predictions for the Fray. The post should really be read in full, here. And as TheSranger said, "Let's negotiate." –MR ... 9.30 p.m. GMT

Friday, June 27,  2008

Either everyone in the Fray went to the same school, or else those pesky English professors have a lot to answer for—a surprising number of posters say their teacher told them not to use the semi-colon, the punctuation mark fighting for its life in Paul Collins "Culturebox" article here. Karlilfishnu's professor said that three semi-colons was a lifetime's supply. John123 wasn't having any nonsense after hearing about similar views: "I think what your professor really meant was, that semi-colons promote a clear grasp of logic and complex thinking; which should be avoided at all costs."

Anyone worried that no-one cares about correct punctuation any more would be greatly cheered by reading the Fray—this was a popular subject, and very few people were arguing for more laxity. There were plenty of jokes about colons: our favorite was Arlington's "What about Condi Rice? Isn't she a kind of semi-Colin Powell?" In the important view of the Fray Editor, a colon appears in the previous sentence because the second part exemplifies the first. If the second part had been a contrast, something like "but others thought the subject far too serious for jokes" then a semi-colon would have been necessary. Many others wanted to discuss correct usage—Nemesis was short and to the point:

The nearest explanation I can articulate is that the semicolon puts related ideas together in the same sentence when a comma wouldn't do and a period would require repetition in the next sentence.

and Earlybird gives an excellent full explanation here, with examples.

There was a curious quality of found poetry in this entry from Kemper—it doesn't follow the rules but it's vivid and you know what it means:

I was taught not to use the semicolon unless the boat was sinking and you had no other way to; for god sake save the sentence or as a continue of the same sentence but why would you do that for goodness sake. I am not great at writing but find it useful yet; hold up every time tempted; yes so tempted, to continue a thought yet finish one, giving pause to the forementioned thought.

And perhaps more intended poetry here, from Chroniccommentator:

Semi-colons hang in a sentence like the scent of jasmine you inhale before you walk on to another part of the garden. They let you linger for a moment, and then you move to another flower--but still in the same garden.

Demilune had other things on his/her mind, and clear views:

Love the little buggers [semi-colons]. Don't use them a lot. Matter of respect, you know. Now, on the subject of which/that, isn't there a nice philanthropist out there who will donate a copy of Strunk & White['s Elements of Style] to all writers everywhere?

Which (that?) brought a sigh to this particular writer, whose former editor at Slate used to complain about her which/that usage, and wasn't convinced by the wild claim that British rules are different. Still, there were never any complaints about the semi-colons, and we even managed to get one into a "Best of Fray" headline once... "Tolerance, yes; respect, no."  The subject matter that time was actually eating dogs, but the phrase does  describe perfectly the attitude of the punctuation mavens to those who misuse or ignore the semi-colon. MR3:30 p.m. GMT

Monday, June 23,  2008

You try to write about the candidates and their policies, and what do you get from the readers? Those readers who are always asking for more straight talk and less gossip? Well, you get the candidates' wives.

John Dickerson's "Politics" article on "The Flip-Flop Brothers" dealt with Barack Obama's campaign finance decision and John McCain's views on oil-drilling. Really, one can only admire NightSwimmer's ability to bring in other matters.

So [Obama] changed his mind. It was a smart move. I hope it won't make John McCain cry—like his first wife did when he dumped her for a young heiress. That's an important vow. Agreeing to negotiate campaign financing is not on that level.

Scoot'r-d, too, moved smoothly from Obama—politics as usual—to "Michelle Obama is being remade into a perky combination of Donna Reed and Lucille Ball to soften her intemperate gaffes." Nope, said middleview, it's Cindy McCain who is Donna Reed. And back cameScoot'r-d: At least McCain wasn't having an "Angela Davis to Mary Tyler Moore makeover."

The political issues got a good (and long) hammering out in a thread called "McCain the Victim":

He is too level-headed to be a committed Democrat, and he is too intelligent to be a fanatical Republican. The man is exactly what the United States needs: a rational, experienced, patriotic centrist who has America's best interests at heart. … Is John McCain the best all around candidate? Yes. Does John McCain have the best chance of winning? No. Democrats are ready to back Obama 100%, many Republicans will not back McCain. The unfortunate thing is that for the same reasons he is the best choice he is also the worst candidate.

That was msuumo, attracting a lot of interest—more than 40 entries in the thread.

Genevieve01 had a reasonable argument:

Why is it when a candidate or representative adjusts their position to fit the desires of the people or the circumstances everyone wants to jump up and say they flip-flop? ... Everyone … knows that our lives and this country are not static and what a candidate said 5, 10, 20 years ago does not mean it has to be the same today. I am sure we can all come up with situations in which our stance or views have altered in a month or year's time.

—although she seemed to think this applied only to McCain, not Obama.

Morty Causa wanted to distinguish among different kinds of promises—"This was not a death-bed promise. … A promise doesn't have to be a suicide pact"—and had a rather splendid line about "moral tinhorns [who] insist on playing one-upmanship."

We don't think Thrasymachus is the first person to come up with "Barackiavellian"—plenty of chances to look for it here in Slate's new book of Obamamania!—but he did a great job on it:

Adj. Displaying or implying any willingness, on the part of Senator Obama, to engage in the kind of ruthless, unscrupulous, deceptive political conduct that we expect from almost everyone else seeking national office, but which Obama is ostensibly supposed to be running against.

Then he discussed Machiavelli at some length with artandsoul—an argument that may be unique in bulletin board history because both posters actually seem to have read and even studied The Prince. Arguing from facts and knowledge? Whatever next?—MR ...4 p.m. GMT

Wednesday, June 18,  2008

Where do Slate readers stand on obituaries? As of today, in two camps, snarling across the Potomac at each other about Tim Russert. One tendency dislikes the way the magazine's admittedly irreverent tone will not be toned down for a death, and the fact that Slate will highlight—in "Recycled"—older and often deeply uncomplimentary articles on the dead person. Recently this happened with Sydney Pollack—an archived and rather grumpy "Assessment" was paired with a more respectful "Obit," and some readers were unimpressed. When the inventor of Dungeons & Dragons, Gary Gygax, died, and Slate published an unfavorable commentary, we had to devote a whole "Fraywatch," to reader reaction ("don't mess with the game people" we concluded). But then, there's another whole army of readers who say that that's what they come to Slate for—a contrarian view, a refreshing and unsentimental look at what's happening. That's not how the other side describes it, of course.

So, to Tim Russert. First there was a "Recycled" item linking to past articles on him: Several readers said how inappropriate they found that. Then, Jack Shafer wrote a "Press Box" about the eulogies on Tim Russert. Too much, he said. Readers responded—boy did they respond.  More than 200 posts on the topic, proving at the very least that Russert's death touched a nerve—though also proving the second rule of Fray responses: Get featured on the MSN home page and a lot of non-Slate regulars will read the article, and comment.

A few careful readers appreciated the observation made by Right By Choice: "I didn't see an unkind word in the whole article about Russert himself"—but for most people this was neither noticed nor relevant. More to the point was Lucabrasi's phrase "Canonization, backlash, backlash-backlash," which summed up the situation so well that we're using it to define the responses.

Canonization: An outside observer (like your foreign Fray Editor) might be surprised by the number of readers saying how much they identified with Russert—"My entire family reacted to Tim's death as though we had lost a member of our family" as JoAnn put it, a thought repeated by many others. He was "someone of blue collar roots who used his position as the moderator of Meet the Press to engage in a dialog with prominent politicians and get straight answers for mainstream America" according to Slate1234.

There were tributes from those likeRithorn, who admits to "Potomac fever" and says "We out here in the hinterland came to look forward to his observations and commentary." JTully was firm: "I am the common man ... [the coverage] was for all of us, I frankly, didn't miss a minute of it … Tim Russert was fair … brilliant, and yet a common man from a common background." Many, like AberdeenJessica, wanted to mention their own working-class roots while praising "his ability to keep a foot proudly in two worlds."

The Backlash community—Shafer's supporters—comes with this bracing comment from mdfine: "I have been a Slate reader and occasional poster for some time now and I can honestly say that I have never agreed with a single thing that Jack Shafer has written until now." HebrewHammer says his piece with grace: "I don't want to seem cold, but it seems to me that we used to embrace a tragedy with quiet grace and self-reflection. Now we flaunt it by showing the people around us how much we can mourn." WhiteCamry was sharper: "Tim Russert's middle name wasn't Diana, was it?"

There were other comments on Russert: TheRealRML said "He was the Elvis of political commentators: He was everywhere and even his competitors wanted to capture his qualities"; GregLDixon went with the "he was everywhere" theme too: "Russert, champion of time management." And we (respectfully) laughed at TheMexican's comment: "He was a great guy, let's name a potato after him!"

Then there was the Backlash-Backlash: people who saw the point of the article but had another take. The question of what the Russert coverage displaced on the news channels was much mulled over, and Dbguy asked "You really missed folks pontificating as to how Obama would do with Hillary women in November that much? We'll know that soon enough." Another reader, nancyacramer, said that "on some level, for many of us, actors, broadcasters, and personalities of every sort find their way into the fabric of our lives more deeply than we realize" and went on to tell us that some friends who'd felt Russert's loss deeply had then been glad to be able to watch Tiger Woods in the U.S. Open golf tournament. Esteban had a peace-making suggestion: "How about an 'in the ground' rule in which all would be fair in love, war, and media criticism after the funeral?"

There's one more post we really want to feature: from Schoolie, who says he liked Russert, but "I've never seen a bigger celebration of banality in my life than last weekend on the TV news. Dad! Football! Jesus! I generally hope for more secret perversity in my public figures." We've said it before: It's hard to define our ideal Slate/Fray reader, but we know him when we find him.—MR ... 4 p.m. GMT

Saturday, June 07,  2008

With the long nomination fight finally over and the long-knives dulled from months of overuse, attention now turns to uniting a Democratic Party that has been at war within itself through this long and fiercely contested campaign. Later today, Hillary Clinton is scheduled to formally concede the race to Barack Obama. In The Fray, an environment where polarization is a state of nature, partisans of Obama and Clinton have been bellowing at one another for months. Like the candidates they've supported, many Democratic Fraysters have already begun the awkward negotiations necessary to come back together on the same team. The liveliest and most fruitful discussion has been occurring in the XX Factor Fray, where readers have been sorting through the host of sore feelings and broken hopes that this historic campaign has left in its wake.

In one thread, Ann Newton asks "Why do Hillary supporters hate Obama?" To which female engineer offers this compelling response:

Obama is not the candidate they are looking for. In fact he is their recurring nightmare; Obama represents the guy who was promoted over them because he was smooth, cool, etc. not because he did the hard work, paid his dues, and yes, waited his turn.

A lot of women had to live through that and, rightly or wrongly, they actually empathize with Clinton and feel what she is going through. These women did the work for their daughters, they don't need Obama to do it for them.

John Heartfield, not exactly a Clinton supporter, offers another perspective on Obama-skepticism:

Perhaps what disturbs me about Mr. Obama's campaign is what disturbs women, working class white men, and others who have chosen to vote for a candidate they were told had no chance of winning the nomination rather than vote for Obama. It speaks volumes that Obama supporters still don't understand that their candidate lost the popular vote of their own party, and only won the nomination by the grace of the very super delegates they had previously said should not be the ones to determine the winner. The media was so focused on the idea that Hillary Clinton acted as if the nomination was hers by right, that they failed to see the arrogance and obnoxiousness of her opponent's campaign. That elitism (for lack of a better word) was not lost on the rest of us.

In the 40 years I have followed American politics, never have I seen a candidate (and her supporters) treated with such disrespect by the media. I found one spokesperson for the Obama campaign saying on the Larry King Show that, yes, the two candidates agree on most issues, but, for example, Mr. Obama's position on the Iraq War is deeper, more complex, more significant than Mrs. Clinton's. The spokesperson actually said, "You don't understand," and threw in a quote from Carl Jung.

Mr. Obama will probably win the election because John McCain is simply unacceptable. But this elitism, the idea that the people who support Obama are in a superior class and the rest of us ordinary mortals cannot possibly understand the complexities of his policies, will stifle and eventually bring down his presidency.

Despite their candidate's victory, many Obama supporters are still nursing their own share of grievances over the course of the long campaign. Davelias12 feels genuinely insulted by the way Clinton spoke of her opponent's supporters:

What steams a lot of Obama supporters is the fact that Hillary constantly derided them as being delusional, and Obama as being "elitist" and inexperienced. When in fact, she embodies those adjectives so much more than him, and her supporters demonstrate the same "cultish" enthusiasm for her that they levy against Obama supporters.

Somehow Clinton has convinced so many people that she has all of this viable toughness and experience, except her record points to the contrary. She's the underdog? She had a double-digit lead at the outset and the media was calling it her coronation. She fought the dirty campaign, but Obama's the sexist.

It's the double-speak and the "up-is-down" that frustrates so many.

Woolley, a relative late-comer to commitment, describes how praising the speech on race backed him into Obama's corner:

I was undecided until the race speech. When that speech was completed, I wrote a piece here on it that was checkmarked and got at least 15 thumbs up. I did not bash her at all, it was a piece on how remarkable that speech was and how I felt about Obama.

That single post was on the first page of "The Fray" for about 2 weeks and it drew attention. I got vicious attacks for even suggesting that the speech was a great one. It was a shock to me to find out just how much some folks did not want Obama to be given his due.

That opened up my eyes to the insane passion that was just under the surface of this race. Up until then, I just wanted a Democrat. By the time I had been insulted many times over, I was pissed. To be honest, I have been over the top and I know it. But none of this started with the Obama camp or supporters. Its been a defensive reaction all along and that is why now that the race is over, you are seeing Obama supporters lashing out.

It will end. Its time to call it over. Obama has been gracious and above it all. I think Hillary has come to grips with it too. Democrats need to do the same, soon. The alternative is McCain.

NJ Gal has been working valiantly to find the common ground in all this acrimony:

It's called values and life experiences. They don't see the same big negatives you do in Clinton - but they see big negatives in Obama that we don't. I have read some pretty awful words about [Clinton] supporters written by Obama supporters in XX, other blogs and the MSM - her supporters must be extremely ignorant, stupid or racist to support her. Or they must be bitter old hags. Please, how is that constructive? I dont want someone to talk about my mother that way! [...]

I know more Clinton supporters than Obama supporters. They don't need us to validate what they feel. They don't want us to judge their choices. Clinton's loss is not the biggest tragedy in their lives. They are very disappointed, but they've seen presidents and other leaders assassinated, and buried their parents, kids and husbands. They know they will be able to move on in a few days.

Do they like Obama. No. Will they vote for Obama? Maybe.

If mainstream press accounts leave you wondering which rank-and-file Democrats need reconciliation and why, The Fray abounds with insightful examples. Notable entries include this defense of Obama's accomplishments by thdcnx; Adrasteia's account of the moment she turned away from Clinton; and this conversation between eric2500be and Munich about Obama's off-putting elitism.

Today, the closing credits are set to roll on one of the most exciting primary campaigns in American history. As the heat gradually dies down, the time has come for cool reflection on what these extraordinary elections have been and what they have meant. We'd love to hear your thoughts in The Fray. --GA11:15 pm PDT

Geoffrey Andersen, co-editor of the Fray, is a law student based in California.

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