I have been feeling overwhelmed by the flaming pools of stupid around me. and the amazingly poor job, it seems, of the media and the blogosphere in keeping the whackadoodle nutters out of polite company.
Yeah, there's something of the "back when I was a boy" to all of this.
When I took Journalism 101, there was a hard limit on the amount of nonsense that could go into a publication.
Speech was free, but printing that speech was expensive. Someone (not the writer, for the best one could hope for then was a basic comprehension of grammar and construction) had to proofread, edit and typeset the speech, and then someone had to decide which was more important, the fifth paragraph, or the paid ad from a neighbourhood sandwich shoppe. That paid ad is what made it all possible, so one did not run the risk of offending an advertiser - at least, not the important ones, and certainly not without cause.
I've done all of those. On a small community paper, I often did all of those on the same story - and all the time knowing that my work and my words were most likely to be consigned to line the bottom of a birdcage before reading.
My job was to somehow fill the spaces between the ads in a way that seemed as if it were being informative, without in any way disturbing the fond prejudices and presumptions of the readership, in the sure and certain knowledge that if they thought they were being informed by my newspaper, there was no hope for them in any case. I tried to not simply retype press-releases too often, but if it was good, and it was free... Hell, anything that didn't make the typesetter weep was likely to make the final cut. And I mean this in general, across the board. It's amazing what school-board presidents and community association leaders will put on paper, thinking that it is English.
It's rather touching to see how sincerely such people believe that anyone cares, when in fact, most people, most of the time, wish such people to do their damn job as silently as possible, as competently as can be managed, in a way that bears no expectation of them thinking difficult thoughts about complicated issues. But if anyone actually believed that such a bleak appreciation of human nature applied to them, personally - we'd all book a flight to Gyana and party like it was 1978.
So let me reprise - under ideal circumstances, when everything functions as it should, when commerce flows, leaders lead, followers follow and comedians have to make shit up rather than just opening a newspaper - well, that makes for uninteresting times. Trust me when I tell you - the best sort of news is a bold headline that says, "Life as Usual." Remember that "May you live in interesting times" is a Chinese curse, and that an "Adventure" is someone else, far away, surviving circumstances you'd not wish on most enemies.
So when a community newspaper has anything of genuine interest - that's not really a good thing. But interesting times tend to sweep away the complacent assumption that things are working well due to good faith and good design, when in fact, inertia has far more to do with it.
This is when the role of the community newspaper (back in the day) and the Local Blogger (now) becomes important.
When I was wielding wax and knife, it was a given that when a story mattered enough for anyone to comment you would get a few sane responses and a raft of letters that ranged from the sincerely uninformed to outright lunacy. It was standard practice for the editor to pick the responses in this order:
1: The most articulate and informative response(s) to the story, pro and con.
2: The responses from whatever official or buisiness found themselves to be suddenly and unfortunately newsworthy.
3: The comic relief.By "comic relief," I mean the capering, giggling morons that would type in all caps - and yes, they did it then, too. Single spaced. With quarter-inch margins.
They were terribly sure that they were expressing "common sense" and of course, we were more than happy to let them do so. Which ass-clown got the privileged of being a public example of stupidity was a function of editorial bias. There was, after all, little else to base a decision on, and there's only SO much room for the stupid.
Anyway, it struck me as I was wading through the conspicuous idiocy, trying to find a hook to hang a post upon, that nothing had really changed. What has changed was the price of public speech and the barriers to access.
These days, we make them type it themselves, and there's no serious costs associated with publication.
And it occurred to me that I was speaking from a set of assumptions that don't apply at all, and indeed, didn't even then. Elites were the gatekeepers because, well, what other option was there? Gaining, sorting, indexing and maintaining information was breathtakingly expensive. Every trade, every profession, every course of study required some form of standard reference, and each of those was instantly obsolete when published - and the fair price for a good reference was in the hundreds of dollars.
Not any more. There is no practical barrier at the moment to anyone with Internet access learning anything they wish about anything that is on the net - and you'd have to be an idiot to bear the cost of publishing and distributing your information any other way.
Strangely, we are entering a time rather like the Enlightenment, when suddenly access to information explodes, with consequences that are unforeseen and indeed, unforeseeable. This fact alone is more than enough to make a certain portion of the population lose their water and cling to traditional approaches even when those approaches are clearly not working at all well.
No doubt there were those such as myself at the time, bitching and whining aloud at the insults to enlightenment and assaults upon reason that Gutenberg's demonic tool had made possible, clearly making the downfall of all that is good and holy inevitable.
Indeed, that's pretty close to what happened, and looking back, it hasn't been such a bad thing as all of that.
Now, any fool can say whatever they wish and gain wide public exposure. And they do.
They may even find a wide and willing claque for their species of wishful thinking, but with a rapidity that would amaze people back in my salad days, the idiocy is exposed and the stupidity addressed with a forthright contempt that would make my teachers of criticism blanch. A consensus is emerging that there is little point to treating the wilfully stupid with public respect, at least on the Internet, when the barrier to gaining an informed opinion on anything is so low.
And then there's another factor, not often said aloud, but one that no free-thinker can leave unconsidered; on the Internet, it's difficult to respond to an unwelcome truth with a Molotov Cocktail. And so we see a great difference between what people are willing to say in public, when an honest view, informed or otherwise, may put livelihood or life at risk, and what people really think,
It is at once inspiring and appalling, for it's dreadfully clear that mostly they don't.
But nobody is forced to undergo the indignity of recasting the words of some flaming moron into something that can be printed without getting the paper into legal difficulty - or worse yet, make the typesetter stomp out to explore a career in dental hygiene.
There have always been idiots and creeps among us. Mostly, they didn't find themselves in public office, because they were discreetly cut off at the knees as a matter of policy, a policy that was pervasive, smug, elitist and dismissive of the views of the uneducated, and unwashed.
How do I know this? I'm an Episcopalian who spent some time in a Jesuit Prep School. I qualified for an Honours society in college. I was, to all appearances, well prepared to become another cultural gatekeeper, not unlike the bouncer at the door of a hot club, picking the pretty people from the mass of schlubs and losers.
The fact, I was told and accepted as uncritically as young people do, was that the "top ten" are destined to lead and the rest will benefit from following. Now, it's not quite such a cynical observation as it sounds, for it was articulated by Jesuits. Therefore it was presented as much as a duty and a fate as a ticket to hot chicks and fast cars.
It was the classic, Burkian conservative view, that there were patterns in society that may arguably be unfair, but it would be far, far worse to pretend that these very real distinctions do not matter, particularly if one one is inclined to lift the poor from poverty or strive for a wider acceptance of Social Justice. Being Jesuits, they tended to think that a wider application of the principles of Christ might well be something worth contemplating, so long as it did not conflict with the authority of the Church.
These were the seventies, and it was not a time of innocence. There were airline hijackings, there were ecological catastrophes, terrorism was a fact of life for much of Europe and the situation in the Middle East was... much as it is now, save the excuses given for the reasons that it could be no other way still seemed somewhat original. There was widespread unemployment and everyone disagreed as to what should be done about it.
But the presentation of all these unpalatable, and horrifying things was the responsibility of people such as me, or rather, the me I would have become, had I been capable of living up to my promise.
"Fails to live up to potential" could well be my given name. Nor am I particularly embarrassed by that, for my "potential," and yours, is not judged in this culture by what you would be best at doing, and what would best fulfil your personal needs, but rather, what utility you might bring to your various cultural "owners;" your class, your family, the people who's calls you feel obligated to answer, regardless of your true feelings.
Did you know that the single best predictor of popularity (and therefore success) is the ability to conceal your reactions? That is to say, if someone says something horrifyingly racist, appallingly idiotic or simply, tragically, smugly ignorant, you never, ever contradict them in a way that they will notice.
This is still true. I suspect it's something that's wired into us at a very, very deep level. But at the same time, no leader making good, informed decisions can in fact believe the crap he pretends to accept as "common sense" for the sake of getting elected. There are unavoidable complexities that must be dealt with, in private, by people who ideally have both some sort of convictions, and at the same time, a pragmatic sense of what is possible today.
When someone appeals to "common sense" - well, I refer them to my own personal hero, and evidence that nothing happening today is much different than what happened nearly a century ago.
"For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat and wrong." - H.L. Menken
We have seen the price paid when an ideologue is put in a position of leadership. It ain't pretty. An ideologue is a species of idealist, and an idealist is always ready to sacrifice the lives and fortunes of others to preserve the things they hold to be self evident, trusting in a Higher Providence to Ensure that Blessings will Trickle Down upon us all.
With that nitrogen-enhanced watering, how does your garden grow?