Twice in recent days, I’ve gotten into little back-and-forths with Joe Scarborough on Twitter, and my current argument probably needs more than 140 characters.
First, a couple of nice things about Scarborough: He’s a nice guy. His show is near-ideal for political junkies, a lot of great inside baseball and much less fluff than a lot of other shows. He is a gracious and well-informed host. Often he’s surprisingly blunt about what he thinks about other programs and hosts on MSNBC, and let’s face it, we find that awesome. His goal of a more polite and respectful public dialogue is completely worthwhile.
Having said that . . .
It seems like at least once per day on Twitter, Scarborough expresses some variation of surprise, irritation, and incredulity that he’s been criticized by left-wing folks and right-wing folks in the same day.
Now, I know where he’s coming from. Hate mail used to drive me bonkers. Every once in a while, it still does. But the Internet has changed our culture; when I started in journalism, critics used to have to use a stamp, envelope, pen, or crayons and the occasional bit of DNA evidence to tell you what a terrible job you were doing.* Now you can wish a painful death upon me or any other voice in the public square with the touch of a button. This, we are constantly assured, is progress.
I don’t like this state of affairs, but it is what it is. The folks who practice this the most are well beyond our ability to change their behavior. Once, after writing an op-ed that mentioned a particularly infamous figure who had sent death threats to a blogger, the figure sent me a note thanking me for helping keep her in the news. Some folks who write harshly are just caught up in the moment, but others actually think and speak this way all the time, and feel no shame, remorse, or regret about how they choose to treat people. If we could somehow undo the technological revolution that enabled these people to communicate beyond earshot, the U.S. postal system, and their cats, our public discourse would probably be nicer, healthier, and more productive and civil. But nobody’s turning off the Internet anytime soon, and there doesn’t appear to be a way to put the genie back in the bottle. I think ignoring them is probably the best approach, but I’m open to suggestions.
The end result is that Scarborough seems perpetually taken aback by vicious denunciations that are now sadly standard in our discourse, and many of his Tweets amount to a plea for us all to be nicer to each other and treat each other with respect. Now, Jesus Christ and Rodney King would agree with that message, but it’s hard to see what those pleas accomplish. Those who are already respectful don’t need to hear it, and those who aren’t respectful don’t seem inclined to change their behavior because Joe Scarborough is disappointed in them.
(Search for #JoeNBCWisdom on Twitter to find folks parodying the host’s well-meaning but obvious and often preachy messages.)
Finally, when you’re being criticized by both the Right and the Left, sometimes it’s because you’ve found a sweet spot of compromise that irritates the fringes of both sides. Then again, sometimes it just means you’re really, really wrong.
* “Bah! You call this hate mail? Why, back in the day, cranks used to send bits of dried-up flowers! These kids today, they have no idea what it used to take to tell a writer he stinks. Why, they used to have to take the letter to the mailbox, in the snow, uphill both ways . . .”