“Ultimately each of us must decide for our ourselves what kind of world he or she wants to live in.”
— Governor Jerry Brown, vetoing a California bill which would have reinstated the death penalty, 1977.
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I watched a bit of FOX “news” last week. There was Mike Huckabee, hosting a show and then declaring he was not running for president since Jesus told him so (and maybe also told him he didn't have a snowball's chance in… never mind).
But before that momentous announcement, his guest was aging rocker Ted Nugent, “gun rights” spokesman in cowboy hat, declaring that “I am a good neighbor, but I told my neighbors that if they came on my property I would kill them.” Then he played his ancient hit “Cat Scratch Fever” with Huckabee on bass (not bad, although I wonder if “family values” guy Huckabee ever listened to the nasty words?). You can't make this stuff up — although I've always preferred Nugent's other animal hit, “Dog Eat Dog.”
The real question the show raised though was “Why is this blustery nut being given a platform on a political television show?” (and I'd say something similar about, say, Bono if I saw him on some other show, even though he just has to be smarter or at least more articulate than Nugent — although that's not saying much). Nugent has long been famous mostly for his enthusiasm for guns and killing animals, and his cheapening of the concept of “freedom” thereof. He epitomizes the term “blowhard,” and loves it; if there was to be an American remake of “Spinal Tap,” Nugent would be a prime candidate for a leading role as a clueless washed-up old rocker. On Huckabee's show, he also repeatedly said we needed to “unleash” the Navy Seal “warriors” who killed Osama bin Laden so they could kill everybody else we don't like. And why is it not surprising that Nugent never served in the military, and is just another “chicken hawk”?
Nugent and Huckabee are very rich and just shucking and jiving about being common Americans. As at least Nugent admits, they or their hired help would likely shoot you if you got too close. That's entertainment, and it's now been well-documented that FOX's honchos do not really want anybody to think much. But then I watched Elia Kazan's legendary 1950s film “A Face in the Crowd” and was astonished at how prescient it was in predicting the rise of “rabid radio” and the conning of the common crowd by phony “populists” — and at Andy Griffith's (!) portrayal of same. The film is excellent and instructive viewing even now — especially now.
So mindless yelling at one another is not new, nor is anti-intellectualism, but they do seem to be more ubiquitous nowadays. A few things have amplified the rant and snark factor — a documented decline in educational standards, the rise of “rabid radio” (and TV), and this thing we call the internet. The acceptance of anonymity is one key element as well. Until only a decade and a half ago, media such as newspapers would not, with few exceptions, publish anything without an author's name attached, as anonymous words were considered worthless. Now of course fake usernames are a norm online, with resultant steep decline in courtesy and quality of expression. As the old early-internet cartoon had it, online, nobody knows you're a dog — but I certainly don't mean to insult dogs.
I'm reminded of this each time I post something remotely controversial online. Beyond the thoughtful, even complimentary comments and courteous criticisms, all manner of anonymous cowards sling all sorts of accusations and names. It's been called the LCD or Lowest Common Denominator dynamic, and it's all too common. And it's also too tempting to get drawn in, responding to remarks that would be laughed out of any decent high school freshman class, and sometimes I do fall for it. But usually, I wind up reminded that the longer one “debates” with any sort of ideological fanatic, the farther from reality one gets. It quickly becomes pointless. Although critiques come from all directions, the most rabid and numerous seem to be from folks who take their cues from hucksters with names like Limbaugh, Beck, Savage, Palin, etc — all public figures who have debased public debate in their own pursuit of personal profit.
Thus, when I see myself called “liberal,” “leftist,” a “nanny” and so forth, I can guess where such language and sentiment originated, and it's not with the people typing them at me. I find such labels meaningless, even when not irrelevant to the topic at hand. But it's a similar, convoluted picture regarding too many other issues, from climate change, family planning/abortion — even an elected official can now say, when busted lying about Planned Parenthood, that the lie “was not intended to be factual” — secondhand smoke, vaccine issues, “911 truthers” and “birthers” and on and on. It seems that educated experts can't be trusted, because...well, just because. Layer on the massive amounts of money and time spent by corporations, other “special interests,” and their front groups aimed at undermining science on various issues, and it's no wonder many are confused. The decline in scientific literacy among Americans comes at a time when scientific knowledge is exploding. Some people find this threatening, and thus ignorance may not be bliss, but it sure can be loud.
In fact, it occurred to me recently that anonymous online ranting is very similar to graffiti — and about as meaningful. Graffiti is usually an adolescent occupation, and just an anonymous way of “shouting” that one exists — even if, or especially if, it annoys others. “I was here!” is all it denotes, unless one is in a gang and sending a warning. But even then it's still bluster.
All of which is a preamble to my new guidelines for my own writing, and for dealing with — or not dealing with — comments from cyberspace:
1. Anonymous critiques are cowardly and not worth the, er, paper they are printed on. Plus anonymity makes even some decent people nasty; as one popular formula has it, “Anonymous + Audience = Jerk” (actually, it's a ruder word than “Jerk”). So, if I have something critical to say, I won't be a coward and will put my real name on it. And expect others to do so as well, if they want to be taken seriously.
2. If I am writing something that purports to reflect expertise on an issue, I will state my credentials — education, experience, etc. Otherwise, I will begin with the new multipurpose disclaimer IKNTNATBHWIT — “I Know Next To Nothing About This But Here's What I Think” — which is not shameful, but at least honest.
3. If I use terms or slogans or perspectives from a radio or television talk show host or “news” person of any stripe, I will provide that source. It's only honest, and gives credit (or blame) where it's due — and people will know anyway.
4. If I feel I must use terms like “liberal” or “leftist” or “nanny” or “right wing” or “left wing” or fascist or…etc, I will recognize in advance that that I am thus “outing” myself as a non-thinking, non-original commenter who just likes to call people names. Like a kid on a playground.
5. If I want to know more about a topic before opining foolishly, I will spend time researching it — Wikipedia may not be best source, and in fact is banned in some newsrooms due to questionable sourcing, but it's a start. Unbiased scientific, historical, and economic information is easily accessed online now — I'll use it.
6. If I am not so sure about what I am saying, but feel the need to say it anyway, I will use another new multipurpose slogan — NITBAFS — “Not Intended to Be A Factual Statement.”
Now, I can understand somebody saying, If you can't take the heat, stay out of the kitchen — don't write anything that people can attack, cowards or not. But I can take it. It's just that I hate to see so many otherwise good — hopefully — people making jerks of themselves.