Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Eye Wanders Off Into the Sunset

Posted By on Sun, Dec 26, 2010 at 8:15 PM

I’m really sorry to break the bad news to them during this season of peace and goodwill, but after this week the right-wingers in Bend and vicinity won’t have The Wandering Eye to kick around anymore.

The decision to stop writing this blog was my own, and it was prompted by several factors. One of them is that I’m just tired of being a punching bag.

I’ve been writing editorials, columns and blogs for newspapers and the Web for more than 40 years. I never shied away from controversy, and I drew my share of criticism and angry comments. I thought I’d grown a pretty thick skin.

But the Internet has changed the whole dynamic of the relationship between an opinion writer and his or her readers. Back in the day, if somebody wanted to attack a columnist he or she generally had to write a letter and sign it. The only other options were to call the writer on the phone or confront him in person and chew him out, which took even more guts.

You knew who your critic was, and you could take him on one-on-one. And the absence of anonymity tended to make even the worst crackpots tone down their rhetoric a little.

Now, thanks to our marvelous modern communications technologies, any ding-dong with access to a computer can be as vicious as he wants in complete anonymity and without the slightest fear of any personal consequences.

Being on the receiving end of this stuff week after week feels sort of like standing under a continuous drip of toxic waste. It corrodes the body, mind and soul. At this stage of my life I don’t need it.

The toxic tone of Internet dialogue has a further unwanted side-effect: It repels rational, well-mannered people. I believe there’s a kind of Gresham’s Law at work here – bad posts tend to drive out good ones.

To make things worse, the progressives and moderates seem more easily driven out than the right-wingers. Most of them don’t appear to have much taste for rough-and-tumble debate; they’re barely able to express even polite disagreement for fear of sounding “rude” or (heaven forbid!) “negative.” In Yeats’s words, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

The result is that dialogue becomes more and more degraded, more and more an exchange of snarky and/or crude comments and less and less a worthwhile exchange of ideas.

But is a worthwhile exchange of ideas even possible in today’s political and technological environment? More and more, I wonder.

Decades ago Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan said people were entitled to their own opinions but they weren’t entitled to their own facts. These days, though, a lot of people seem to think they are entitled to their own facts. And thanks to the Internet, at any given moment they’re only a few mouse clicks away from being able to locate “facts” to support whatever crack-brained idea they’ve decided to embrace.

Do you want to “prove” that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim who was born in Kenya? A few minutes with Google will find half a dozen or more sites to fulfill your requirements. Do you seek “evidence” that the CIA – or Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Wall Street or whoever – secretly planted explosives in the World Trade Center towers to bring them crashing down on 9/11? No sooner said than done. Do you want to establish that George Soros is plotting to make himself czar of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics of America? Piece of cake.

And thanks to the proliferation of such Internet “news” sources, not to mention TV and radio programming specifically dedicated to particular political viewpoints, you can live your whole life inside an information bubble where you hear nothing but your own opinions endlessly echoed and amplified.

America today is more deeply divided politically and ideologically than certainly at any time in my memory – maybe even since before the Civil War. But at least back in those days people could more or less agree on what they were divided about – slavery vs. abolition.

If the argument over slavery was being played out today, the advocates for slavery would have their own websites, their own news channel and their own talk radio shows, and they probably wouldn’t even concede that the slaves were slaves. They’d call them “volunteer agricultural workers” or some such claptrap.

How can you have any rational debate when you can’t even agree on what you disagree on and each of the two sides has its own separate reality? I don’t know what the answer to that question is. I don’t know if there even is any answer.

All I know is that I don’t want to be part of this non-dialogue dialogue anymore. It’s pointless, it’s unproductive, it’s frustrating, and it’s worn me out.

So this is The Wandering Eye’s last post. To my friends, thanks for your support; I wish I’d had a little more of it. To my foes, goodbye – and good luck living in the kind of country you’re making.

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