Shocker in Gloomtown*: In defense of open, vile comment threads | Bleader

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Shocker in Gloomtown*: In defense of open, vile comment threads

Posted By on 10.13.09 at 12:58 PM

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Roger Ebert is concerned about the crazies. I'm here to help.

Ebert takes as one of his examples that people think Obama is a Muslim, and contrasts it with:

"There have always been nuts. Remember when the John Birch society thought Kennedy was a communist? In those innocent days most of the American people were reasonable. They'd shake their heads in wonder at such a weird notion."

I love Roger Ebert and his blog, but contrasting reactions to Kennedy with reactions to Obama by way of arguing Americans used to be less crazy and religiously oriented in our conspiracy theories is a poor choice to make your point. Many Americans didn't just think Kennedy was a communist, others thought he was a "papist" who would take his orders straight from the Vatican. He had to give a whole speech defusing the issue: "contrary to common newspaper usage, I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for President who happens also to be a Catholic."

As I never tire of pointing out, our own hometown Chicago Tribune more or less defined blaming the messenger when it suggested that Martin Luther King be prosecuted under anti-syndicate statutes for exposing the city's virulent racism. This wasn't the fringe - this was mainstream, establishment journalism. Contrast that with today, when the worst you can say about the Tribune's attention towards the birthers is that they've spent too much time and energy debunking them.

Consider that today, a black man, with a traditional Muslim name, the product of interracial marriage, is facing blowback from his supporters for not getting gay people married and into the military fast enough. In the realm of glacial social progress, that's not bad. If anything, I think that "fringe" ideas are now more properly the stock in trade of an actual fringe.

But what I think I'm really trying to say is:

"What about the entire climate of paranoia and hate? Have these people always been there? Are they only now becoming more visible because of the internet, cable news and talk radio?"

1. Yes. 2. Yes, and that's good. I'm unusual in this, but I'm fully in support of anonymous, open, vile comment sections on newspaper and television Web sites, something that journalists are regularly donning hairshirts about.

Give 'em enough rope, says I. Turn on the light and let the roaches run around the room. Driftglass, in reference to Ebert's post, mentions a famous quote from the brilliant, amoral Republican strategist Lee Atwater:

"You start out in 1954 by saying, 'N****r, n****r, n****r.... By 1968, you can’t say 'n****r' — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things, and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites."

And that works, as long as everyone plays along with the abstractions, which is easy to do when everyone's being "reasonable." And the "Internet" aside, you could still do that when the abstractions were in the news and the realities were on Usenet and AOL chat rooms, or even on the further reaches of the AM band.

Now Usenet has been replaced by newspaper comment threads - the effect is right next to the cause, because some moron always wants to step up and say what the powers that be just want him to think. And that makes readers and journalists uncomfortable. And that's good.

Take a recent Tribune article on this weekend's gay rights march. TOC's Kris Vire tweets: "Another reminder not to read comments on Trib stories if you want to believe in man's basic decency."

As to whether man is basically decent, I don't have an informed opinion. But I do think that there are lots of men who could be decent or not, and who, reading the comment thread, would be more inclined towards a position of decency, because of the alternative:

"Bunch of sickos marching for right to be f@#$d in the rear.What a great achievement of our society.
Fellows.we should stand up against this nonsense.This abnormal behavior should not be forced on christians, muslims and other people with believes."

You might think I'm generalizing, and I am, but I've read a lot of insane comment threads, and I can't recall one instance where I've thought "wow, those people coming down against gay rights are more thoughtful than I would have assumed, and I'm also impressed by their command of the English language, they make me really want to agree with them."

Journalists are fond of saying that the best disinfectant is sunlight. And that's what anonymous threads can be - a chance for people to stop being polite and start being real - real crazy, real dumb, real mean. It's ugly and unpleasant, but real social progress gets made when we expose the wound and drain the pus.

*Best cover ever. I still have a crush on Josephine Wiggs.

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