Some of you guys are jerks.
No, I'm not talking about you, dear reader, whose erudition and class I've always admired. And you smell good, too.
But some of you other guys are some seriously pre-literate knuckle draggers. Exhibit A would be the relatively new message boards on the Web site of that great metropolitan newspaper, The Miami Herald. Or at least it would have been, before management stepped in a few weeks back, began policing the boards more closely and put up a notice asking people to keep their comments on-point.
Before that, the message boards, theoretically a place where readers engage in robust debate on articles and commentaries in the paper, were a sewer of sexist, racist, pornographic crudity. For instance, a story on Shaquille O'Neal's divorce engendered an exchange on the basketball star's probable penis size. A story on Cubans brought the "I Hate Hispanics" crowd out in force. A story about the search for a black suspected cop-killer begat a call for lynching. Which, in turn, inspired someone to respond, "Bleep the police and all of you white racist folk." Yadda yadda yadda.
Frankly, the only robust debate was the internal one among reporters and editors appalled at what one called "vandalism." I even received e-mails from readers asking me to ask my bosses to clean up our message boards because they were stinking up the whole Internet.
Not that Mother Herald's experience is unique. Other papers that provide online message boards - the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, for example - have reported the same problems. There's something depressing about watching how this ideal, so noble in the abstract, unfolds in reality. You start out hoping to provide a forum wherein citizens can engage in discussion - frank, spirited, even rude, mind you - of the day's news. You end up policing a debate over Shaq O'Neal's jockstrap.
Is this what we have an Internet for? Does this latest and greatest medium of mass communication really exist only so that some of us can vent our ids?
Yes, I know. I protest too much.
This is nothing new. These same issues surfaced 200-odd years ago, when print was the latest and greatest (and for that matter, the first and only) medium of mass communication. In "Infamous Scribblers," his book about journalism in the colonial era, Eric Burns takes us to a time when it was common for writers, using pseudonyms, to engage in vicious, ad hominem attacks against political opponents.
Facts were often optional. They loved to wallow in the gutter. And anonymity made people brave.
For a devotee of the First Amendment, it's a sobering history lesson. We tend to think of free speech in lofty terms, to regard it as a means of liberating the human intellect, spirit and body. And why shouldn't we? We are the nation of Thomas Paine and John Steinbeck, of Betty Friedan and Cesar Chavez, of Bob Dylan and Stevie Wonder. What further proof do you need that when people are allowed to say whatever they want, sometimes they will say great things?
Problem is, we are also the nation of Larry Flynt and Don Imus, of Charles Coughlin and David Duke, of 50 Cent and Luther Campbell. What further proof do you need that when people are allowed to say whatever they want, sometimes they will just tell fart jokes?
To put it another way: not everyone has something to say. This will not stop them from saying it. For some people, freedom and anonymity are always an invitation to sink like an anchor to the lowest common denominator. Which is distressing until you consider the alternative.
After all, they don't have this problem in Cuba.