Journalist Tom Lawrence takes note of how President Obama's visit to South Dakota became an occasion for the demonstration of the vicious malice that divides our country. He recalls how once presidential visits were considered occasions of honor and pride, but how many did not take pride in Obama's visit and were moved to making malevolent and deplorable comments. The Washington Post ran a large story and photo gallery on the visit remarking that South Dakota does not like President Obama but people were anxious and excited to observe a presidential visit.
I do not know the extent of the hatred Tom Lawrence notes because I avoid the precincts of hate speech for the same reason I avoid Ebola epidemics. The malignancy is transmittable and infects the mental and spiritual environment. I subscribe to what thoughtful Democrat, Marine veteran, and farmer Nick Nemec posted on Facebook:
You almost never come away from reading comment sections on news articles feeling smarter. Well reasoned discussion is rare, character assassination and ugly stereotypes are the standard. I hate trolls.However, a good example of what Mr. Lawrence refers to came in response to a Facebook post by former school superintendent and state legislator Chuck Welke when he commented about Obama's visit, "What a great moment in SD history." That comment elicited this response:
Jerry Vance Really?????? With a less than 33% rating he is not welcome much anywhere right now. Not even a reservation. He is merely a Radical Muslim in our whte house weaking our nation so he can destroy it. Pumping or tax dollars and stimulas bail out money to rebuild america in his vision. Taking over Police Dept's all over AMerica and confiscating whats left of our wealth. No respect for this commander and SHITHEAD.The comment is typical of what Nick Nemec refers to. The first characteristic of the response is its severe illiteracy, which belies an ignorance and a dysfunction of mentality and character. The second pronounced characteristic stems from that dysfunction: the comments are contrary to any fact. While the President's approval rating moves up and down, it currently is at 45 percent, not 33. The contention that he is not welcome "even" on a reservation has no basis except as an attempt at racial denigration in its assertion that even the oppressed people on the reservations do not want him. That he is "merely a Radical Muslim," while easily proven to be untrue is a statement significant only for its denigrating racism. The comments about diverting public money to rebuild America in that radical muslim vision and taking over police departments to confiscate our wealth go beyond any rationality, as the attempt at expression dissolves into angry infantilism. If the comment has significance, it is for the medium in which it is expressed and the level of intelligence and character of which it is an expression.
While people such as me avoid the demented malice, it would be cowardly and foolish to deny that it is shaping America. As Tom Lawrence points out, the "dumb, hateful and addled comments" which once were confined .to "a barstool or couch" are now given a wide broadcast through the Internet and the social media. Comments on news stories receive the same status of display and circulation as the news stories done by professional reporters. Early in the history of comment sections, communications experts warned that comments characterize the quality and purpose of the medium to which they are posted. As studies indicate readers and viewers evaluate news and commentary according to the lowest common denominator. A superb work of journalism is contaminated and nullified by malicious and demented comments. A news story which carefully verified facts and an ordered presentation when subjected to unedited comments is merely part of the ensuing dialogue to those who read them. And this has much to do with the diminishing role of language arts and the experience of understanding the genres of exposition in out educations. Many people simply do not distinguish between facts and opinions. And when confronted with opinions, do not distinguish between carefully supported and analyzed opinions and the specious and mindless howls of hatred and rage. It boils down to a matter of literacy.
There are matters that make the Internet media a major vector of ignorance and hatred. They both involve the abandonment of rules that once operated in journalism and journalism gave up when it became "interactive." The courts have eased up on libel over the years, but the Communications Decency Act of 1996 blurred the issue.
During the time I was employed full time by the press, the word libel struck terror. At that time the publication of any defamatory material about a person that could not be proven to be true would be presumed to be damaging libel. News media were very wary about publishing any comment that could be regarded as libelous. A newspaper publisher was responsible for anything that appeared in the paper, even in letters to the editor. I have often mentioned the Friday afternoon dread time, when the editor of the newspaper I worked for distributed letters to the editor to the staff to be fact-checked and, if publishable, reviewed with the writer to bring them up a standard of clarity and grammatical usage. If a letter was too muddled or scurrilous, we had to write a letter to its author explaining why it was unusable. Consequently, few defamatory or scurrilous accusations made it into print.
Publishers lived in terror of libel suits because they were so costly they could easily put a news medium out of business. The penalties were that high.
The posting by Mr Vance quoted above would never find its way into print back then. And a letter of rejection would ask Mr. Vance to provide evidence for every claim he made if he wished to have the rejection reconsidered.
The Communications Decency Act exempted the publisher of defamation on the Internet from liability. It specifically exempted the internet service provider (ISP} from liability. That in effect eliminated recourse for defamation. A defamed person could sue a blogger or an individual, but would be informed by a lawyer that the people being sued were too poor to pay damages and the suit would cost more than could ever recovered. News media does not generally fact check comments on their sites and edits only those that are grossly obscene.
The Internet also has served to contribute to the resurgence of racism that followed the election of our first black president. The hate speech that Tom Lawrence refers to is part of raging Jim Crow attitudes that could not be contained when a black man rose to the highest office in the land. All the ploys of racial discrimination were dusted off and given applications to Obama--the charges of inherent dishonesty, conniving subversion, and all the made-up stories intended to demonstrate the inferiority of the person holding the presidency. Shortly after Obama took office, the opposition party leaders made their vows to prevent him from enacting any legislation or having a second term. For those who lived through the civil rights movement, it was impossible not to recognize the ploys as an appeal to the racial hatred harbored by many Americans. The propaganda and political pronouncements were parallels to those mounted against the Jews as Germany prepared to intensify the Holocaust. The defamations follow an old, recognizable pattern in human history.
We recognize how the social media is used by Islamic extremists to enlist jihadists and organize attacks on the west. But we tend to dismiss that same role in the way it demolishes our own culture, as illustrated by the contentions that a military exercise in the Southwest is a move by Obama for the military takeover of Texas.
While the Internet provides a new level of communication, it is also the carrier of a malignancy that demolishes the decency in our culture. The antidote to this malignancy must operate in many theaters. It begins with providing educations in literacy in our public schools. It extends to reinstating the standards of truth and accuracy in journalism. And it extends to having those who educate and communicate do so in the context of history.
Those antidotes will require a political battle. One which we may well have already lost.