Welcome to Public Discourse, Where Ninnies Hate You and Tell You So Constantly
A Morning Jolt reader wrote in yesterday, mentioning that his wife is a freelance writer, and recently had a column appear in a major newspaper.
He describes the reaction:
You can probably imagine what the comments and emails and tweets are like. A few people even looked up our phone number and called to say hi. How thoughtful.
This stings! And I have a thick skin. I wish people had read the piece more carefully. Some of the complaints are groundless. Some are valid, to a point, although I see some nuances that make a difference. Maybe, maybe not. But people can be pretty cruel.
I told the reader he and his wife may want to get an unlisted number. It’s unfortunate, but we live in a world where people feel entitled to share their disdain for you in almost any way possible. And instead of reading something or watching something and exclaiming, “boy, that guy’s nuts!” and moving on — the way I feel when somebody insists I read the latest by Michael Tomasky or Andrew Sullivan — they feel the need to find that person and let them know how much they disapprove.
Being active in the public debate increasingly means sealing off the rest of your life from it, and having two hermetically-sealed spheres of public and private. The public debate is the Wild West; decency, respect, self-control and class are whispered as mythical attributes of a bygone age. (Maybe this starts at the top.) Hopefully your private life is quite different in its tone and mood.
In fact, if you express your views in public on a regular basis, chances are high that at some point you’ll get a death threat. Here are some of the folks who have received death threats in the past month or so:
· Comedian Jon Lovitz.
· A Spanish field hockey player.
· A Somali comedian – who was actually murdered.
· Actress Ellen Page.
· Bank Employees in Cyprus.
· Drew Peterson’s defense attorneys.
· The guy who wrote the first negative review of “the Dark Knight Rises.”
“I want to kill you” is the new “I disagree.”
I don’t want to be cynical when I hear someone complaining about getting death threats, because it’s almost always frightening and surreal to receive one. Normal people don’t express a desire to kill each other over mundane disputes. (They reserve it for appropriate occasions, such as an insult to their loved ones, someone cutting them off in traffic, or when a referee makes an awful call.) But the ubiquitousness of death threats, and the ever-lowering bar to trigger an expression of allegedly murderous rage in some numbskull with access to an e-mail account, have rapidly devalued them on the scale of the Weimar Republic’s Papiermark.
I increasingly find myself rolling my eyes when a public figure cites e-mails threatening as a claim to a particular status of victimhood, or ipso facto evidence of the extremism and rage of those who disagree with them. Your critics may indeed be extreme and enraged… but the rise of e-mail has permitted people to express a lot more extreme and enraged views. (I like Amelia Hamilton’s method of handling it all.)
Anyway, back to the “double life” of those in the public debate – like superheroes, we wear our masks and do (rhetorical) battle with our foes, and then, hopefully, we step away from the computer, the telephone, the television or web camera and resume a home life as mundane as Peter Parker’s or Clark Kent’s.
Some may bristle and believe that the “double life” concept is dishonest (and for some, it may be). But an advocate, commentator, pundit, writer or activist is not a reality television star. The product is what you say and the arguments you seek to advance, not you. If your personality brings people to share your passions and brings them to support the causes you believe in, wonderful. But our politics shouldn’t be competing cults of personality.
As for when the split between private and public becomes dishonest… my following little anecdote of “life as a pundit” is based upon actual interactions:
When you show up to do television punditry, they first stick you in the green room, the waiting room with coffee, and you’ll meet some famous or semi-famous other Washington figure. And you’ll talk to them. And nine times out of ten, they’re really nice people. You start talking politics with them, and you find they’re nothing like what you pictured. They’re cracking jokes, they’re laughing at their own allies, they’re admitting their own side screws up or your side has a good point, and you think… oh! I’ve completely misjudged this person! We’re going to go on and have a great conversation!
And then the cameras go on, and there’s this Jeckyl-and-Hyde transformation, and suddenly you’re on opposite the Talking Point-o-matic 2000. And they’re pounding the table and full of righteous indignation that you know is phony, because they didn’t have it five minutes ago when there were no cameras on. In fact, seven minutes ago they were laughing at their own side for clinging to such implausible and unpersuasive talking points. And now you feel like you’re going to get steamrolled because he just called your side a bunch of child-molesting war criminals, so you’ve got to call his side a bunch of glue-sniffing communists, but you didn’t really set out to do that.
Off-camera political consultant: “I keep telling my clients to not do X!” On-camera political consultant: “X rocks!”