Refreshing defense of idiots

Dateline: Wed 20 Jan 2010

Writer Daniel Lee -- his blog is -- has a fine piece in this morning's Indianapolis Star, "Free speech at the price of civility." The predictable headline doesn't do the essay justice, because Lee's style and message are full of thoughtful and sometimes hilarious zingers. Here's his opening salvo:

"When annoyed, which was often, Mark Twain preferred to 'talk back in print.' And he could do it with bite. In his essay 'The Literary Offenses of Fenimore Cooper,' he left 'The Deerslayer' author in particles too small for any Mohican to track, last, first, or any in between.

"These days," Lee continues, "most of us can do the same thing -- with equal vigor if not equal ability -- by way of the online comment forums offered by many publications, including The Star."

Hot topic. All the more timely because, as Lee notes, exec editor Dennis Ryerson on Jan. 10 addressed (again) the issue in his weekly column. His typically tepid solution was that comments are welcome if they are civil.

Well, shucks; where's the fun in that? As Lee observes, this is "perfectly reasonable"...since the Star has "the responsibility and the right to manage the forums, including the right to refuse inappropraite comments." But is it vigorous? Or even democratic?

Here's Lee's perspective again:

",,,Fair enough, but it's an odd disconnect, in public relations terms, at least, because from the published stats -- half a million posts and about 600,000 page views a month -- it seems that the community, or at least the news-viewing, engaged part of it that seeks out, is endorsing the forums, knuckle-draggers and all. They can't all be collecting ammunition for complaint letters.

I'd argue," Lee concludes, "for restraint on the restraints...we live in troubled times, and that's reflected in the vigorous tail-whacking in the posts."

Ditto that.

Years ago, the playwright William Saroyan in "The Time of Your Life," which opened on Broadway in 1939, noted through one of his characters that having lots of little magazines was the best way to keep despots at bay -- get rid of your Hitlers and Mussolinis, the argument went, by letting them be published; let them think they are more important than they really are, via the heady tonic of print.

I thought at the time it was brilliant -- this was 1965 or so, freshman year in college -- and the Internet has mercifully provided the kook forum. Also, gone forever, mercifully, are the days when only one person -- the trusted "journalist" or "reporter" -- spoke with authority. Now we know there are many perspectives, and it's the American way to "give everyone eat," as another favorite novelist, Joseph Heller, noted in "Catch 22."

I am well aware that readers of this blog have often complained, justifiably, about the "knuckle-draggers" and may I add "mouth breathers" who lurk on the Star's website. Sometimes the comments really do go too far -- as when one fellow/commenter threatened to close his restaurant to black patrons, just cuz he was sick of black people.  My source was interested in outing this guy -- that would have been the Star's responsibility, he argued -- and getting him OFF THE SITE if not on some sort of federal watch list for hate crimes.

I can't defend that particular moron, and it's always dicey to put a human being in charge of censorship -- but what else have we got? Like the Star's "Let It Out" column (which I introduced, for better or worse) some of the comments are outrageous and dumb, really really dumb. I will always remember a liberal business reporter who complained to me, "You can't print THAT in Let It Out." Yes, someone could -- it so happened that the political view expressed was different from hers, but that's life in the big city.

Lee gets that, and he gets it with grace and humor and brains. As they probably shouted when Saroyan's play debuted, "Author, author!"




WEAllen [Member] said:

I've seen death threats posted on the Star's comment threads. I had to Email both Tully and Ryerson about the death threats but even so it took several hours for the Star to remove it.

A bathroom wall has greater relevance & quality than the Stars comment threads...

Old man Pulliam was a hateful bigot on so many issues but he would be horrified at the horrible comments published under the Star's banner on those comment threads!

2010-01-20 19:52:22

George Stuteville [unverified] said:

Though some of the comments make me cringe, I'm in the Let-It-All-Hang-Out crowd. I used to think that the discourse in this nation became course sometime in the early 1980s, but the more history I read, the more I realize that we are and have always been a mouthy public -- right/wrong, ignorant/wise, loud/quiet, verbose/terse, eloquent/profane.

2010-01-21 08:59:06

Seneca [unverified] said:

". . . lots of little magazines was the best way to keep despots at bay -- get rid of your Hitlers and Mussolinis, . . ."

Prenazi Germany had lots of "little" magazines; not much help in keeping their dictator at bay.

2010-01-21 09:41:15

Startle the press! [unverified] said:

From Dan Lee's column in the "Star": "WTF" -- which the uninitiated will have to figure out on their own.

It is an absurd notion by Mr. Lee and Mr. Ryerson to pretend this "culture" and the "Star" isn't engaged in the active promotion of vile, sarcastic, vulgar, Uncivil War.

Any name calling in support of the "Star's" opinions is allowed in the printed version of the "Star" and is endlessly promoted as acceptable and justifiable.

Racists in favor of people of color racism are seemingly immune from being name called. What color is created by melding all the colors of the rainbow? What color is no color of the rainbow? Who then should logically be omitted from the current definition of "people of color"? Nearly all of the people who meet the current definition of "people of color" and those curiously alligned with them demonstrate no problem with Barack Obama's defense of Jerimiah Wright with the argument, "I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community". When racist arguments are not recognized and denounced everywhere, incivility is threatened anywhere. People of color racist supremacists and their defenders endlessly engage in the smug, self-righteous opinion that they are somehow immune from being racists. They are not. There is no forum whatsoever in the "Star" in which the issue of racism will be fairly and honestly dealt with.

Nor will sexism, nor abortion, nor illegal immigration, nor vulgarity, nor name calling, nor anything else that the "Star" is in favor of - but claims that they are not.

2010-01-21 17:01:27

hendy [Member] said:

Startle-- I like your style. Welcome.

2010-01-21 18:56:16

Ellen McKinney [unverified] said:

having been born in 1944, i've witnessed a lot of change in what's been considered polite speech in this country. when i was a child, racial and ethnic slurs filled the world around me -- sometimes with no particular malice intended; they were simply routine. "jap" and "gook" were carryovers from the war. "negro" was polite, "black" was not, and if i'd used the n-word, my mother would have scoured my mouth with soap.

"polack jokes" were staple currency of my early college years, but other than that, slurs and even jokes about the purported thriftiness of scots were considered rude. "negroes" became "blacks," though "afro-americans" was also used by more militant sorts. but routine use of words like "kike" and "hunkie" and "spic" seemed to disappear from not only my acquaintances' and friends' speech but from comments overheard at work, on the bus, in the bars.

fast-forward to "all in the family," the great british joke that the u.s. never got. though the original show and the u.s. versions were intended to lampoon bigots of all stripes, many viewers in the u.s. seemed to think that if archie bunker could use slurs, they were ok again.

"political correctness" was a reaction to that, but itself was ridiculed by many -- and, admittedly, was easy to satirize.

for a generation or more, there was a theory that letting out one's rage, prejudice, etc., was psychologically healthier than bottling it up. (ruth, if you'd known what you were unleashing with "let it out," would you do it all over again?) i think most of us saw the fallacy of that even before the psychs repudiated it and switched to trying to teach anger management. but the genie was out of the bottle.

so here we are, with the tea-baggers' hate-filled signs (far worse than anything lbj or nixon faced in vietnam war protests); with people openly carrying firearms at hate rallies outside speeches by the president; and with open sewers like the star's online comments (anything for the "hits").

i seldom praise gary varvel, but at least his "caption this" cartoons require that readers either keep it clean or keep it to themselves.

i'll never totally take my mother's advice that if i can't say something nice i should say nothing at all. but i can, and do, avoid the online comments. granted, they can raise my low blood pressure without medication, but i'd rather take a pill than read that poison.

2010-01-22 08:32:51

Amy [unverified] said:

YOU are responsible for "Let it Out?" Love it!

2010-01-23 15:36:44

Startle the press! (and Ellen a bit) [unverified] said:

To Ellen McKinney,

Other than you and your mother, who else do you exclude from your malicious general accusation of other people of the post-WWII years? Do Chevy Chase, Richard Pryor, and their mothers get a pass? Was the culture of the Nelsons, Clearvers, Cramdems, Petries, Douglases, and Disneys bigoted, back in the day?

Heard any good “blond” jokes, or “ginger” jokes, or “pope” jokes lately? Has anybody been called a “nazi” recently? Some insults just never go out of style.

Today, the “n-word” appears in a local university’s “art” exhibit, in an on-air reference to Colin Powel, in the departing words of a young black female who is fed up with her young black male dinner companion, in various hip-hop lyrics, and as a compliment by one “Say it loud! Say it proud!” practitioner to another.

The word “negro” is but one of the many slurs used by racially-aligned blacks against other blacks, who are truly opposed to racial politics, in an attempt to get them all on the Democratic voting plantation. Birch Evans Bayh III uses the tactic of repeating the suggestion than someone might be a racist as reason for him voting against a nominee to a federal position, unless of course that person happens to utter a “wise Latina” phrase. Ruefully, no Democrat with political power will speak against this politics. More ruefully, most Republicans keep shut in order not to be publicly attacked, and to play the same race politics a bit more covertly.

In regard to your assertion - “tea-baggers' hate-filled signs (far worse than anything lbj or nixon faced in vietnam war protests); with people openly carrying firearms at hate rallies” – what are you misremembering? The incessant chant of “Hey, hey, L. B. J. ! How many kids did you kill today!” at White House ant-war rallies? The “peace”-niks taunting of soldiers in uniform, and spitting on them, and calling them “baby killers!”? The destruction of ROTC buildings as a demonstration to their adherence to anti-violence? How many schools, universities, and public buildings have armed guards today? Do you object to firearms there? Surely, you don’t think that any woman should ever carry any weapon.

If a psychiatric Muslim kills 12 soldiers, 1 civilian, and wounds 30 on an Army base, do you object to soldiers packing heat or not packing? If a mosque in Iran has a sign in plain view stating “Death to Israel.”, do you object? Has the media dutifully repeated Osama Bin Laden’s most recent threat? Oh, that’s right - no Muslim is a hater, they’re just practicing their international First Amendment Rights. At least they aren’t “tea-baggers”, right?

I’m not in favor of racism and bigotry for anyone; I would like others to oppose it too.

2010-01-29 11:55:28

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