What Do I Owe You?


I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about society, specifically an individual’s place in it and what we owe to society as a whole. I’m not speaking about taxes and such per se, but rather the social conventions that make up the social mores of society, and the point at which those social mores conflict with our belief in the spirit of the individual and individual expression. With Miley Cirus quickly tanking her musical career with twerking, Anthony Weiner destroying his political career with his… Twitter account, and President Obama rapidly, well, for the sake of civil discussion let’s say “adjusting” America’s reputation in the world on a daily if not hourly basis with the Syrian situation, clearly we hold public individuals accountable. But at what level do we hold private individuals accountable? And should we?

Obviously there are some actions that, while not necessarily physically assaulting others, we believe to be beyond the boundaries of appropriateness. Screaming profanities at a child is not acceptable. Public nudity is (generally) considered outside the lines. Even the unauthorized use of someone else’s property, and no it doesn’t matter if you return it with a full tank of gas, is completely out of the question, whether they were inconvenienced or not. But is that all? Or is there something more?

In our personal relationships we set boundaries, and those boundaries can be somewhat flexible. As we get to know others better we adjust those boundaries, although some things will always be off limits (although what and to whom varies from individual to individual). The difference between standards that we set amongst ourselves and for ourselves can occasionally cause conflict, the most common of which is people judging others or feeling judged. Personally I have no problem with either one; feel free to judge me, because lord knows I’m judging you. Anyone who says otherwise is either lying, has a different word for what they are doing, or has no standards for behavior at all.

But that doesn’t mean we have a right to restrict each other’s behavior. Should we call each other out on it? Depends on the relationship. In a work environment, there are (hopefully) guidelines for what is and is not acceptable, and ways to address unacceptable behavior. Outside of those narrowly defined terms, you either need to find a nice way to address it or live with it. For example, maybe the person in the next office talks on their phone really loud. Not so loud that it justifies a complaint to HR, but still. Either you need to find a way to talk to them about it, or get some headphones. And that’s the way life goes.

Personal lives are the same way. If you know someone who engages in what you consider to be obnoxious (but not illegal) behavior, you either need to find a nice way to approach them about it or let it go. Of course they may not listen, or they may be unwilling or unable to change. Then you either have to live with it or stop spending time with them. Life’s full of tough choices like that.

Which kind of brings me back to where I started. There are no guidelines about public behavior, but there is this: if you put it out there for everyone to see, you’re inviting comment from everyone who sees it. Right or wrong, good or bad, fair or not. Public figures accept this as part of the package (or at least they should, because they’re gonna get it anyway), but private individuals need to accept it too, on the small scale. Being a private person doesn’t mean everything you do is private, and we all need to accept that, as well as accepting the consequences of our actions. Even twerking (which I promise to never do).


An Experiment in Found Poetry


I decided to try something very different, a new poetry style I’ve never worked with before. For artistic reasons I may explain another time (I believe art should stand on its own), the result is rather dark and explores some disturbing territory. Reader discretion is advised, as this may serve as a trigger event for victims of abuse.

A Clear Violation

Oh Virginia gubernatorial candidate and state attorney general Ken Cuccinelli. You are so damn cray. You just launched a website whose sole purpose is to promote the enforcement of Virginia’s unconstitutional ban on oral and anal sex. Double down, indeed. “It’s for the children!” You say . Well, technically you say ”Keep Virginia Children Safe!” But all the law has done is keep 90 people on the sex offender registry, which is pretty useless in terms of safety and extremely problematic in terms of who gets included and residency restrictions. So good job.
Some libertarians want us to look beyond Cuccinelli’s backwards
and unconstitutional legislative maneuverings because his intentions there are good and because he says he’ll lower taxes. But that’s kind of the difference between a libertarian and a Republican, isn’t it?
A Republican says it’s okay to grow government when a Republican is president.
It’s okay to grant vast new powers of surveillance and detainment if it’s for national security. It’s okay to start wars in foreign countries if it’s to spread democracy. It’s okay to violate individual liberty and discard the principles of limited government if you’ve got a good reason.
But the libertarian says, “Well, no, not really.” The libertarian points out that the point of limited government is that government can’t be trusted do
just do what you want it to with the powers you give it. The libertarian points out that as soon as you give government vast surveillance powers, it will use it to spy on enemies not of the people, but of government itself.
Laws are serious violations of liberty. It’s beyond ridiculous to
sit back and trust government, as some even “libertarians” have done, to only use sodomy laws to punish child molesters. We KNOW FOR A FACT that sex offender laws are currently being used by racist parents to punish 18-year-old black boys who date their white high school daughters, or homophobic parents to punish their kids’ queer girlfriends.
So no, it
does not matter to me that Cuccinelli might have good intentions. Which terrible, terrible laws aren’t justified that way? This law is wrong. A judge has already ruled it unconstitutional. It will not survive further judicial scrutiny. It’s a clear violation of individual liberty. All such laws end up being used to screw vulnerable people.
Every time Republicans and libertarians sit back and say it’s just fine, you still have my vote, when our politicians do stuff like that, we’re wrong.
Besides, as soon as you make blowjobs illegal, only criminals will give blowjobs.
Or something.

Based on “Why Ken Cuccinelli’s Oral Sex Law Means No Libertarian Should Ever Vote for Him” by Cathy Reisenwitz, posted at Sex and the State July 19, 2013. Used with permission.


Two Kinds of Problems


My Not So Humble Wife and I recently moved into a new house, and I discovered that moving when you are middle class and in your late 30s is a lot different from moving when you are poor and in your middle 20s. My past experience with moving involved a lot of grunting, lifting, swearing, sweating, and general disorganization. This time there was far less of all of that, mostly because my wife was there to organize things, but there was also another very notable difference: money.

You see, when you’re in your 20s and poor, you lack the resources to do much besides rent or borrow a truck, call a bunch of friends and offer them beer and pizza in exchange for their labor (the barter system at work), and then bust your hump as hard as you can to get the job done. It may take all day, it may even take all night, but you do what needs doing because there are no other options. Money changes things. Specifically, it enables you to pay someone else to do the heavy lifting. When you’re in your late 30s and it’s a lot harder to get a bunch of friends together (especially friends who are capable of doing hard labor), that makes a huge difference.

There were also all the little things that can go wrong that went so much more easily this time around. Lost something in the move? Sure, we can go digging around for it, but do we have the time? There are fifteen other things we need to do. Just buy another one. Something got broke? Not to worry, we can replace it. The old place needs to be cleaned before we move out? Why spend three days doing it ourselves when we can hire a cleaning service?

This may sound profligate and wasteful, but there was a method to the madness. The philosophy here (as I explained it to my wife, and she was kind enough to quote back to me in a moment of panic) was that there are two kinds of problems in this world: the kind you can throw money at and make them go away, and the kind you can’t. The former are the easy ones. I know that’s a bit reductive, but it’s true. What I discovered in this latest round of madness… excuse me, moving is that there are any number of difficulties we face, and we are both at a point in our lives with multiple competing priorities for our time. If there is a way to “buy off” one or more of those priorities, or just to make a problem not be a problem by spending money on it, it’s well worth the cost to do so.

Of course, being me I couldn’t just leave that thought alone, so I had to chase it down a bit. I followed that line of logic and realized that it sounded an awful lot like the sort of thing I have for so long accused politicians of doing: mindlessly throwing money at problems rather than considering whether or not the money is actually fixing anything or improving the situation. I am well aware that applying lessons from microeconomic situations to the macroeconomic is a dangerous game that tends to lead to faulty conclusions, but it did lead me to some interesting realizations.

Politicians, little as I think of them as a class, don’t just throw money around for the fun of it. They have to have some reason, if only because there are so many competing priorities for the money and they want to support the best of them (defining “best” as you see fit and as your view of politicians demands).  Only there are so very many problems, and it’s so hard to stay on top of them all. Drugs, childhood obesity, unrest in the Middle East, civil rights, gun control, education reform, energy policy, foreign intelligence, minimum wage, income inequity, NSA spying… the list goes on and on. It’s not like when our country was young and could just call up a couple of friends, rent a truck, and move out West. How do you know which are the problems that can be solved by throwing money at them and which ones need more complicated solutions?

There has to be some problem, some issue that someone has brought to their attention, and that someone has convinced them can be made to go away by throwing money at it. This makes it an easy problem. And solving problems is what we send politicians to Washington for, right? Those people are called “lobbyists”, and they’re very good at what they do. It’s not that they don’t care, or that they don’t believe, it’s that they do care, and they do believe, and that’s why they need the money: because they have a problem to fix.

So I think I understand a little better now. It’s seductive to try to solve problems by throwing money at them. There are just a couple issues with that approach, as we’re finding: you can’t solve every problem just by throwing money at it, and no matter how easy it is with someone else’s money, sooner or later you run out.


Wait a Minute, WHAT?!?


Okay, I have to get this off my chest, because I simply can’t believe this exists. Not that I believe the women who are talking about it are lying, but I simply wish that the humans who share my gender and my interests weren’t such complete asshats. It’s pretty well established by now that I’m not exactly a feminist (as a friend said recently, “I’m not a misogynist, I’m a misanthrope, there’s a difference”), but this shit is beyond the pale.

Lately I’ve seen some (lots of) stories about women being called fake geeks and being chased out of the community of gaming/comics/sci-fi/whatever for not being “real nerds”. Really? And this is happening because… why? I’d ask if the guys who are doing this are twelve, except that I remember being a twelve year old geekling, and if a girl ever showed any interest in the sort of things I cared about I’d be more likely to chase her away by falling all over myself showering her with attention and praise (you know, being creepy) than by challenging her right to be there (you know, being an asshole).

The weird part of this to me is that I’ve walked into a game store and comic shops with my wife and I’ve seen the reaction. First I walk in, and nothing changes. A few guys might look up, they notice one of their own, and then they go back to whatever it was they were doing. Then SHE walks in. (You can even see the capital letters running through their minds when it happens.) A girl. It’s always a girl, never a woman. There’s a sudden pause, like deer caught in the headlights, or possibly roaches caught in the kitchen light. All heads turn towards her to see what she’s going to do, and more importantly if she’s with someone (free range is fair game after all). Then their eyes surreptitiously follow her around the store until we leave. After seeing this happen a few times I could totally understand why neither she nor any woman would want to go into any of those kinds of stores (the weird funk of basement boys aside).

But that at least evidences, albeit in a crude and creepy sort of way, that geek men at least crave the presence of women. And having spent far too much time around geeks, I can say with some authority the only thing they love more than their hobbies is talking about their hobbies. So when a woman comes along who is ready, willing, able, and in fact eager to do just that, what is their response? To chase her away by calling her a “fake geek”.

Mr. Spock, your analysis?

“Highly illogical, Captain.”

That’s what I thought. I’ve heard the (bullshit) argument that at one point in time there were a few media outlets that hired models to pretend to like video games or other things to appeal to geeks and somehow that means all females who ever exhibit any interest in anything geek are forever tainted. Wow, that might be the first time in history anyone has ever used sex appeal to sell anything to anyone ever! </sarcasm> The worst part of that argument is that video game trade shows had been using booth babes for YEARS before that, and these same guys were eating it up with a spoon.

So what happened? Did a girl come along and ask you to engage her in conversation about the relative merits of Star Wars versus Star Trek instead of expecting her to wear both a Princess Leia costume and an original series Trek uniform?

Guys, there are women out there, real women, who share our passions, who care about the same things we care about, love them with the same intensity we do, dive in with the same ferocity and joy, and best of all they want to share it with us. It’s everything we ever dreamed of, and you want to shut them out.

Grow the fuck up.


A Long, Strange Trip


My latest guilty pleasure has been watching Hercules: The Legendary Journeys on Netflix. Yes, that Hercules. The one Xena: Warrior Princess is a spin-off from. What can I say? I’ve developed a taste for camp. Not to mention I didn’t appreciate the series when it first came out, although the pretentiousness I displayed in my twenties may have had something (everything) to do with that.

I’ve realized two things as I watch this series. First, they did a remarkably good job of staying true to the source material, considering that it was a pretty campy, not-for-primetime “filler” show that was the modern answer to Land of the Lost. The second thing I realized right after that is there was no way they could stay anywhere close to the source material and still get on network TV. Even HBO might have a problem with it. I mean think about it. You think Game of Thrones is hardcore? How many episodes of maidens getting raped by swans, bulls, and golden showers (insert your own joke here) do you think they’d get away with before they get the show pulled? And those were just some of Zeus’ hijinks.

Between all the rape, murder, and general awfulness of Greek mythology, it’s hard to remember that this is supposed to be some of the best culture in history. I’ve written before about how 90% of everything is crap, and that only the good stuff survives. So what does that say about us? What does that say about our forebears? It’s not like someone is still writing Greek mythology, although clearly we’re still reinterpreting it. But throughout history, when there was a horrible fire and only one book could be saved, this was the one. When scribes painstakingly copied crumbling scrolls by candlelight, this is what they copied.

It’s easy to say that we love these myths for their cultural value, and I’m more than familiar with the analysis of them as explanations of natural phenomenon, nor do I deny that side of them. But I also think there’s some element of Stephen King’s “feeding the alligators” going on here. Civilization is a thin veneer we pull over the savage, and sooner or later he’s going to want blood. Even in the cleaned up version there’s a fight in every episode, damsels in distress abound, betrayal is common, sex is not infrequent (although it’s the punch line of a joke as often as not), and people die. Let’s not forget that the series begins with Hercules’ family being killed by Hera (although directly this time, rather than indirectly through the tool of Hercules himself as in the original myth). And we want that. We want the gore, the horror, the betrayal and the sex and the cruelty of the gods and all the rest (“Red Wedding” anyone?). I’m not sure what that says about us, except perhaps the more things change…

If you want some good, campy fun that is remarkably witty and has held up surprisingly well over the years, I highly recommend Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. If you want “Oh, dear God, don’t do that, she’s your mother!” I highly recommend the original myths the series is based on.

 


Political Fallacy


We’re going to have an off-off-year election this year. That’s kind of like an off-off-Broadway show, except with more money, more crying, more divas, and more losers (if you can believe it). The results of these elections will be indicative of roughly nothing, but the great and mighty political prognosticators in our country will take it as gospel that it portends Mighty Things. What things, exactly, depends on which side of the aisle you’re on and who wins at the end of the night (and not necessarily in that order).

The problem with any election, and particularly off-year elections, is that they only tell us what did happen, but they are seen as signs and portents of Things To Come. Never mind that each race is determined as much, if not more so, by the individuals involved and the special circumstances of that race and the events that happened along the way as by the mood or beliefs of the “average voter”. This insistence on reading the tea leaves is what I have dubbed the Political Fallacy. It’s going to be even worse this year because there are so few races to be had.

Here’s how it’s going to go: assume that the person speaking roots for Team Edward, and Team Edward had a strong night. Lots of wins across the country, and resounding wins to boot. This will be seen as “a clear mandate for change/to stay on course”, depending on whether or not Team Edward is seen as in control of the government generally. On the other hand, if the speaker happened to be supporting Team Jacob, they will point out things like how this is a very off-year election, low voter turn-out (because voter turn-out is historically so high in the U.S. anyway), how this was the only game in town so all the big money players were all over this, and how these are all basically local races and don’t really reflect on the “true” feelings of the nation as a whole.

The only way it could be worse is if it turns out to be a mixed night all around. Then we get the joys of both sides declaring victory and trying to spin the facts to show how the races they lost were “unimportant” or “not competitive” but their guy “made a strong showing” anyway. And all of this is just the warm-up act for the mid-term elections, which themselves are just the prequel to the quite possibly years long presidential campaigns. (No, that wasn’t a typo, I did intend for that to be plural. Not that I want it to be, but even I have to face reality at some point.)

Am I going to vote? Of course I am. Because I’ve fallen victim to the greatest political fallacy of them all: the notion that one vote can make a difference. I even know it doesn’t, except that if the guy I hate wins on election night and I didn’t vote, I’m going to hate myself for not voting no matter how wide his margin, and so will everyone else who didn’t vote.

And isn’t that what America is all about anymore?


A Little Slice of the American Dream


In about a month My Not So Humble Wife and I will be taking a big step and moving into our own place. I know this doesn’t sound like much, but we’ve been living with our current roommates (who are fantastic guys) for the better part of a decade now, and we have never lived on our own together (does that make any sense?). At any rate, it will be a big change for us, but a good one, and one I feel ready for, despite the fact that I’ve never lived without a roommate and/or fewer than three family members at once.

While I was talking about it with a friend at lunch the other day, I realized why I’m so excited about this move. What it really comes down to is that we’re finally going to capture a little slice of the American Dream. Sure we won’t own our own home, but I think the American Dream is more basic than that, more primal. I think it all comes down to autonomy.

When you go all the way back to the beginning, the American Dream was about owning land. Even if it was just a small piece of land, it was still yours, to do with as you please, and no lord or master to tell you otherwise. Coming out of an age of feudalism and many countries that still operated along socioeconomic systems that were barely removed from feudalism despite the Black Death, this was no small thing; it was everything. It was, quite literally, the American Dream.

As the country became more urbanized and people moved into the cities, owning your own business became the new aspiration. But why? More often than not you would have to work the same long hours for little money, and the only difference from being a laborer was that you couldn’t just pick up in the middle of the night and leave if things went sideways. But what you did have was self-determination. You were your own boss. In an age when the bosses made all the rules, this was no small thing; it was everything. It was, quite literally, the American Dream.

Fast forward a ways to when the cities started pushing out into the suburbs. The single family home, the fenced yard, the 2.5 kids and a car in the garage (the car, not the kids), all of this was what people longed for. Even if it meant you had to be away from home longer because you had a commute, and there was always the terrible traffic to consider, and maybe you didn’t get to know your neighbors as well, it was all worth it in the end. Why? Because your space was yours. Every house a castle, and every man a king. In a time when radio and television were bringing the world into your living room, this was no small thing; it was everything. It was, quite literally, the American Dream.

And so it goes. America has always been a culture that values the individual. There are other countries, like Japan, that have cultures prioritizing the community over the individual, and those are fine cultures, but they are not ours. The American Dream is and always has been about self-reliance, self-ownership, and self-discovery. Autonomy is at the heart of who we are, what we believe, and what we desire, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Even when we form, join, or participate in communities, it is as individuals coming together, not communities deigning to acknowledge the individual from time to time.

And so at last we will be starting down the road of that American Dream, together.


Step Up to the Plate


Once again it seems that Major League Baseball is facing a doping scandal, although hopefully this time it will be a minor one. I would say I’m surprised, but then even I wouldn’t believe me. Doping scandals in professional sports have become more common than paternity tests, and I for one don’t really understand why when there seems to be a simple solution. Let ‘em dope.

Here’s how I see it. The great myth of professional sports these days is that these players are at the height of physical perfection, having worked for years to hone their bodies, their skills, and their natural talent all for love of the game. Does anyone even begin to believe that line of bullshit anymore? Even a little? That was the same line they sued to feed us about the Olympics, and that was back when people barely even watched them (as opposed to now, when people… oh, wait.) Then the Olympic Committee finally admitted that the Olympic athletes really were basically professional athletes (and some of them were professionals in fact as well as in theory) and finally changed the rules of the game. Maybe it’s time professional sports had a similar moment of self-realization.

Most people don’t watch professional sports because they want to see a well-executed play handled with grace and skill. They watch because they want to see a 100-MPH fastball or an out of the park homerun. Passing is passé; they thrill to see the perfect three-point shot or awesome slam dunk. Even golf isn’t immune. Talk all day about a great short game if you want, it’s the guy with the 425 yard drive who gets people excited. So why not give the people what they want?

I’m not suggesting that dopers should be let off the hook. They knew the rules going in, and they decided not to abide by them. For every doper in professional sports (whether or not they’ve been caught), there’s somebody who played fair that never got to go to the Big Show. But does it really make that much of a difference to kick them out for a half a season, or even an entire season, if they just get to come back? Does that really send the message “don’t do it”, or does it send the message “don’t get caught, and if you do make sure you have a good lawyer”?

Instead, how about having two separate leagues? One league can be just like the leagues we have now, where any sort of doping is forbidden, only in my vision of things if you get caught you get bounced. No suspensions, no probation, just one and done, you’re out, no exceptions. In the other league you can do any sort of artificial enhancement you and your conscience can agree to, as long as it’s legal in the country you had it done, and you also have to register with the league all the enhancements you’ve had done (and no, I don’t care if you think it’s not relevant to your performance. We’ll decide that.)

In this vision of sports, we’ll be able to sort out what the people really want. Do they truly care about “the height of physical perfection” and players’ “love of the game”? Or is it all just about the biggest, wildest spectacle possible? We might learn as much about ourselves as we do about our athletes.


I Don’t Belong to the City


I know there are people out there who love the feel of living in a city. They love the pulse and rhythm of the urban environment, they enjoy all the wonderful cultural benefits that a city provides, and they just thrive in being a part of that tapestry of humanity.

 

I am diametrically opposed to those people.

I’ve tried living in cities before. I’ve lived in Richmond, VA, and I’ve lived in Indianapolis, IN, as well as being close enough to Washington, DC most of my life to be able to make a go of it any time I want. The fact is I can’t stand city life, not even for a visit, and I would despise living there. The handful of cities that I have visited have almost universally been a disappointment, and I truly cannot comprehend why people rave about them (either individually or the urban landscape as a concept).

My reasons for hating on cities are many and varied. The first is the people. Not just the seething mass of humanity that presses in on you constantly from all angles like the worst version of a zombie film ever (although clearly that’s an issue for me), but the sheer fact that the human capacity for politeness seems to be directly proportional to the amount of square footage they have available to them. The more people you pack into a given area the less polite they tend to be, and cities generally allow 2 square inches per person. I grew up in the suburbs, where getting within arm’s length of someone else was either an invitation to make-out or initiating a fight, so this is more than a little disturbing to me (I understand that if you grow up in rural areas being within shouting distance of another person makes you claustrophobic, but I could be misinformed).

The second reason I hate cities is the traffic. Talk to me all day about public transit, but I’ve taken public transit before and I’ll never make that mistake again. Not only does it expose me to other people in close proximity (see above), but it’s inconvenient and occasionally dangerous… on a good day. Traffic in most cities is frustrating, maddening, and in some cases life-threatening, but at least I have my own vehicle for it. The pedestrians and bike riders are even worse, being the most dangerous hazard on the road right after the other cars, but at least they bounce off. Of course this leads to the issue of parking, of which there is none, unless you’re willing to pay more to park your car than you did to go to college.

The next thing I hate about cities is the atrocious service you get practically everywhere. Granted this isn’t universal but it comes pretty close. I’ve gotten bad service in the ‘burbs, but it seems like cities make an art form out of it. Something about the knowledge there’ll be another one right behind you (and usually they are, in fact, right behind you – it’s called “personal space” folks) seems to lead these companies to think they can get away with murder. Except the hit men; they don’t even bother. The worst part is they’re usually right, because I see these companies staying open well past the point I would expect even a Mafia front to shut down due to lack of business.

Even worse than the service is the prices. Now I get supply and demand as well as the next guy. I just don’t get the demand. When apartments the size of my walk-in closet are going for as much as my entire house I have to start questioning the sanity of all parties involved. Do I love my commute? Of course not! I have to deal with people who are even worse drivers than I am, and that’s a distinction that takes some serious effort to achieve. But I do enjoy eating something other than ramen noodles every day of my life.

With all that in mind, here’s my top five list of cities I would never live in on a bet:

5. Richmond, VA: Been there, done that, just barely got out alive. And I mean that literally. There are some parts that aren’t as bad as others, but on the whole there’s so little to recommend it it’s not worth the effort to even drive through.

4. Arlington, VA: Everything I hate about Washington, DC with none of the redeeming features. Even worse, it forces me to acknowledge that DC has redeeming features. I hate that.

3. Washington, DC: What’s not to hate about DC? The politicians, the government (local and federal), the street layout, the pretentiousness… and that’s just the nice parts of the city.

2. New York City, NY: I despise NYC. Sorry, had to get it out there. This is a town so very full of itself that rides way too high on way too little. I’ve been there and frankly I just don’t get what the hubbub is all about. At least LA is warm.

1. Chicago, IL: Here’s another one that’s riding on the past and has nothing to show for it. Seriously, unless you like sports… I take that back, even if you like sports there are better towns. This place is a dirty, smelly, rundown dump, and that’s if you DON’T include Gary, IN.

So there you have it, one man’s ode to urban existence. Feel free to add your own favorites to the hate parade in the comments below.


Calling Off the Fall of Civilization


There is an ingrained and pernicious belief that the birth of modern communication, and particularly the World Wide Web, has created the ability to form microcosms of communities based around interests, ideas, ideologies and beliefs rather than around the necessity of geography or shared experiences (such as high school). This in turn creates communities that are more extremist in their belief systems, less inclusive and perhaps even xenophobic, and certainly less open to shared experiences than what we used to have “back in the good old days”.

Let’s unpack that a bit and see if there might be some rose tint in those glasses.

Has anyone ever heard the term “northern liberal”? How about “southern conservative”? “Dixiecrat”? Then there’s the notion that “out west is where the weirdoes live”, and we all know about the Left Coast. Then if you really want to get into it there’s the ugly fact of “the black side of town” and other ethnic ghettos (which every wave of immigrants has experienced, including the Irish, Italians, Jews, Polish, Russians, Koreans… and that’s just in New York City), where people would move just to be close to others who were like them (or were “encouraged” to).

It’s not that the internet and other forms of mass communication have insulated us from people like us; it’s only that it’s insulated us from the people we don’t like. It’s enabled us to connect with people that we do share interests and ideas and beliefs with. For example, people would (and still do) go to church…or synagogue, or the place of worship most appropriate to their form of worship… but that only emphasizes my point. You went to the place most like your belief system. Your worldview wasn’t being challenged, it was being reinforced (and if it wasn’t you were being made to conform). In a similar fashion, most sites people visit on the internet will conform to and agree with 90% of their worldview, and the 10% that is being challenged will be a modest challenge at best… just like your place of worship. The difference is that the internet untethers you from physical space; if there is no place you feel comfortable close to you it doesn’t matter, because you can find what you need electronically. Anyone who doesn’t think that’s valuable, or who thinks that what we gain is outweighed by what we have lost, has never been the outsider.

More than that, when people did gather in these geographical or experiential groups of necessity, what was gained in comity and politeness was done so at the expense of real connection. Here’s another older phrase some of you might recognize: “There are certain topics you don’t bring up in polite conversation; religion and politics are at the top of the list.” You didn’t discuss these things (and still don’t at family gatherings) because the neighbors may not and probably don’t agree with you, and unless your intention is to make sure they never invite themselves over again you stick to certain safe topics (usually weather and sports, unless your neighbor is a Browns fan). Usually the goal was polite conversation, for everyone to have a good time and to come back again for more empty conversation and good times and high balls.

The internet has none of these things. There are no high balls, there aren’t many good times, there’s an absolute dearth of polite conversation (although empty conversation still abounds), and trolls lurk under every comments section. But there is at least a chance of having a real conversation, of engaging with another person while everyone else is busy talking past each other, and that chance is better than another night at the Rotary Club knocking back drinks and mouthing empty nothings. Sure, most people just go to places where they know everyone already agrees with them and takes their turn preaching to the choir, but how is that any different than what used to happen in clubs and meeting halls across America before the advent of the internet? Again, the difference is less about the effect and more about the scope; more people talking to each other, mouthing the same words at each other, and a few loners finally finding each other.

Is it paradise? No. But it’s not the end of civilization either.