Thursday, March 18, 2010

Comments for this post have been disabled (no, not really)

I sometimes think fondly of that naïve time back when the InterWebs were the New Big Thing. Remember that innocent age? Bill Clinton was was a loyal and faithful husband still; Jean Chretien was set to be Prime Minister For Life; some cheerful lads from Seattle taught us about the aesthetic pleasures of secondhand flannel shirts and crushing nihilism; some people predicted that the digital economy would result in the end of work; it seemed as though any basement-dwelling slacker with a smattering of HTML could pilot a dot com startup and make millions; the words "tech" and "bubble" were never contiguous; and, most gloriously, the newly-connected world of the World Wide Web (a term people stilled used unironically in the same breath as "information superhighway") was going to lead us to a golden age of democratized information and knowledge that would free us from the constraints of our bodies and allow us to commune with the minds of others in the Digital Utopia.

Remember that time? Really, we should have paid more attention to Mike Godwin.

The Mike Godwin, that is, who formulated Godwin's Law. This brilliant insight, originally made in 1990, is as follows: "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1." Though I didn't know it at the time, this was the response I wanted to have for the various Digital New Agers and New Gnostics who saw the Internet as the Promised Land. It seemed too good to be true: whatever the democratic vistas were offered by the wired world, it was inevitable that human nature would assert itself.

Godwin saw it. What it is about comment threads that bring out the crazies? A brief perusal of YouTube comment threads is often enough to smother my faith in humanity with a pillow. I used to read the comics online, but anything more political than Ziggy would inspire ranting, ad hominem attacks, and of course the requisite comparison of one's opponent to Hitler in the comments section (a comments section for a comics web site? Why?). When I found I was reading the comments more than the comics (and therefore wasting more time than the thirty seconds it took to read Doonesbury, Non Sequitur, and Bloom County reruns), I stopped altogether.

Comment threads are however hard to avoid, and can suck you in before you even realize you've just spent twenty minutes reading the argument between DemonGirl23 and jerseyboy about Obama's birth certificate. And what's appalling is that, more often than not, what sucks you in is not the intelligence and insightfulness of the debate, but its extreme and toxic rhetoric. In other words, that twenty minutes you just wasted is not mitigated by having learned something; it is genuinely wasted time in which any optimism you might have had about the human beings' basically decent nature has been thoroughly dashed.

What did I read recently to inspire this post, you ask? The conservative blogger and pundit Michael Medved wrote a post yesterday on that calmly and carefully explained why conservatives need to back away from the conspiracy theories that the Obama Administration is deliberately trying to destroy the U.S. economy so they can impose a communist regime. Medved, it should be noted, is as right-wing as they come; his post is not a defense of the President, but rather a rebuke to the hysterical right to stop being delusional. Some figures on the right, notably David Frum, have been making similar arguments, and have largely been given grief for their attempts to be reasonable (and when Medved and Frum are the voices of reason on the right, you know we've gone down the rabbit hole).

Rather predictably, the comments thread for Medved's post was pretty virulent. I saw exactly one response that could be construed as agreeing with him. If you have the stomach for it, you should check it out, but here are some highlights:

"You ... cannot come to grips with the reality of how radical Obama is. All one must do is listen to what he says. He wants to remake this country in his image and to do that he must first destroy the old country we have known for 200+ years."

"Medved is a hack and an Obama supporter, in disguise."

"[Y]ou are deluding yourself if you think Obama is pure-of-heart and that his differences with the majority of Americans can be attributed simply to ideology. He is a radical departure from past presidents, both in his intentions and methods.

"Medved has been corrupted by his Hollywood friends. There is no logic in his argument, derived from Sean Penn like nuttiness."

"Communism got routed in the Cold War, but the Reds in the west, and there are many, didn't just crawl under a rock and die. They came up with bulldung like global warming so that they could impose things like cap and trade."

"[Obama] like every extreme socialist liberal, hates America as our founders intended to be; he thinks his failed socialistic ideas are superior, and he is doing everything he can to implement them."

"The most significant, plain, simple truth here in answer to Medved's naïve question is Obama is at best of Muslim heritage. There cannot be a sane person alive who will argue that point ... Obama is a Muslim – period."

"Whats it going to take to convince you, Medved that Obama is at least a Socialist and probably a Marxist? A hammer and sickle waving over the White House? Just remember this; the German people never thought Hitler and his cronies would do the things they did."

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaand ... there it is. It was when I got to the last one here that I snapped out of my reverie and stopped reading. Good times.

(All that being said, I do encourage comments).


WJM said...


Melissa said...

I, too, have noticed this phenomenon, and appreciate your giving it intelligent (and humorous)voice.

My theory is that the people who leave comments about most things are those with tenuous identities, seeking to reinforce their sense of Self in any way they can. Anyone who disagrees is an existential threat and MUST be annihilated.

So if I identify myself as a U2 fan and you watch a YouTube video of them and need to announce that Stevie Ray Vaughan could kick The Edge's butt, I CANNOT allow you (or Stevie Ray Vaughan) to exist. It is crucial to my self-preservation to prove you not only wrong, but Satan incarnate (though not with logic, but volume). The more nuanced and rational among us can read "Bono sucks" without feeling personally diminished.