Wednesday, February 14, 2007

backwards, into the muck

Shakespeare’s Sister is one of my favorite blogs. It’s unapologetically progressive, exceptionally well-written, and quite often the graphics are hilarious. It’s a group blog, but the site is owned and maintained by Melissa McEwan, otherwise affectionately known as Shakes.

A few weeks ago she shared some fantastic news – she had been hired by the John Edwards campaign as a technical assistant for the blog section of the campaign website.

Yesterday she resigned.

A certain member of a right-wing religious group (I’m not going to give him the honor of a link here) took issue with a blog post or two she had written before she joined the campaign, saying that it was profane, bigoted and intolerant of his religion. Honestly, I have no problem with this guy voicing his opinion. Free country, right? But this guy has a very loud mouth and apparently much more money than sense. He demanded quite publicly that she be fired from Edwards’ campaign. (There is another blogger also involved, but I am not familiar with Marcotte’s Pandagon, so I don’t feel remotely qualified to comment about her involvement. Although the end result was the same in both cases.)

Edwards waited a day or two to respond. He said that he’d spoken to the two bloggers, they had expressed their remorse that anyone had been offended, and that he did not support and would not allow rude and profane language connected to his campaign. He’d give the two bloggers a fair shake, though, and they stayed on for a few more days.

They received all manner of comments on their blogs – both positive and negative. The negative ones were mostly rude, mostly disgusting, and almost never thoughtful or relevant to the discussions at hand. I caught a piece of the sickening insults and threats that were aimed at Pandagon before Marcotte had to temporarily shut down the site.

The trolls, as they’re called, invaded the comment sections of Shakes’ place soon enough. For the most part, their comments were moronic and hurtful, but rarely anything to worry about beyond a brief rise in one’s blood pressure. What we weren’t seeing was the private correspondence that was happening via Shakes’ email. Mostly she kept that to herself.

She wasn’t just dealing with insults and profanity. She was getting death threats.

Now, we all know that death threats have been aimed at both liberal and conservative bloggers and talking heads, celebrities, politicians, sports figures, writers. Living as a public figure in today’s warped society can open up the floodgates to all sorts of nasty lowlifes. I can’t imagine that anyone who receives a death threat would be completely blasé about it, even though they might pretend to be.

So what’s the diff? Maybe I’m taking this too personally. Maybe I’m mad because it’s a writer I really love, who’s taught me how to recognize intolerance in many of its sad and hurtful guises.

But there’s one thing that most public figures have that Shakes doesn’t: money.

Comparatively speaking, talking heads make tons of money. Plenty of dough to spend on security systems for their houses, a big guy to drive them to and from work, and probably this stuff is part of their contract anyway. And I’ll bet when they get serious death threats they can call in the FB-effing-I.

Somehow I doubt the FBI would respond if Shakes called them in. They won’t do anything if she turns in the IP addresses of all the people who made those threats. And she can’t afford to set herself and her entire family up in a secluded house somewhere with alarm systems on all the doors and windows and a bunch of farting, drooling, grumpy Rottweillers patrolling the property.

Shakes was gutting out a long period of unemployment before the Edwards campaign snatched her up as a technical advisor. She was understandably elated when she got the job, not only because she was finally drawing a paycheck again, but that she was doing something demonstrably positive for a cause she believed in – Edwards has been a favorite of hers for a long time.

It has upset me deeply, although my worries can’t remotely compare to Melissa’s. And it’s not just PMS. I had the same sinking, weepy feeling last week when this first came out. I was happy to see that Edwards hadn’t fired her, but I thought, “It’s only going to get worse from here.” Yeah, Democrats won the last election. Yeah, Pelosi’s Speaker of the House. Yeah, all that’s pretty cool.

But things are going to get a lot worse, and a lot uglier, before they get better. The level of discourse about this issue has at times dropped to the level of rabid monkeys slinging shit-stained knives. Graphic, terrifying obscenities that don’t attack the blog or an ideology or an issue, but are directly aimed at a brilliant writer.

To be sure, Shakes chooses to use profanity in her posts as well – I can hardly blame her, given that I myself have to keep a mighty tight rein on the keyboard here sometimes. But as furious as she can get in her invective against the wrongs she sees in the world, she has never threatened another person with bodily harm. Impeachment, yes, certainly, and often. Jail time? Absolutely. But even the commenters at Shakespeare’s Sister don’t usually call for mutilation, rape and death. (Although there have been one or two calls for castration.) We’re a thoughtful bunch for the most part.

I don’t know where I read this comment, but it made sense to me, that blogs are more like conversations than literature. They’re dialogues. The best ones remind me of what the ancient Greek universities might have been like, when classes were held outside, and anyone who strolled by could join the conversation. I’m sure some of those discussions became pretty heated and impassioned, and I’m sure violence erupted sometimes. But I doubt it was the norm.

So, yeah, I know the Internet is a scary place to be sometimes. But I love Shakespeare’s Sister not because I always agree with her (for the record, I don’t) but because it’s generally above the fearmongering and hate-slinging you see on so many other sites. It’s a useful, respectful discussion for the most part. Safe, even if it challenges me intellectually and emotionally.

Now I feel like someone’s broken into the place. And I feel like online political discourse has just taken a huge step back into the muck of mindless brutality. Because I know it’s hard to have intelligent, relevant, respectful, but still impassioned discussions. It’s easier just to throw shit – and believe me, I know whereof I speak.

One step forward, twenty thousand steps back. The trolls will eventually get bored and go away, I hope. Hopefully this will open up another opportunity for Melissa – personally, I think she’d make a great writer for the Daily Show. The guy who started this idiocy has come out of the woodworks as the worst kind of bigot himself, one who doesn’t have a remote clue about the fundamental nature of a democratic society – that you have to be free to express your opinion without getting clubbed over the head, no matter how much or how little money you make.

But it absolutely fucking sucks.

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