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When I first moved to New York, the locals, it seemed, were more than ready to offer advice on anything, whether you asked or not: where to shop, where to eat, which subway to take, who to vote for, who to root for, or the best way to get where you wanted to go, even if they had not a clue. It was kind of cute, if at times a little overwhelming and maybe even a little iconic: the opinionated New York local.   

 These days, we’re all New Yorkers.   

What might be a passing impulse to have and render an opinion has been “legitimized” and encouraged by the availability of multiple outlets from which we can make ourselves heard. No longer must we stand on a corner shouting about the End of Times or write endless letters to the editor in hopes of getting the word out there. The level playing field provided by the blogosphere means that we can all weigh in almost anywhere on almost any subject, day or night. The opportunity to reach hundreds, even thousand, any time, day or night, is intoxicating, like crack or Red Bull for the opinionated and even the marginally opinionated. Who can resist commenting?

Attention, everyone: do resist, please…at least some of the time. 

I’m not against opinions and I’m certainly not against comments, especially those that are amusing or instructive, supportive or even contrary and most importantly, considered. Sometimes we all have something to add to the conversation. 

But let’s face it, all opinions are not created equal. And not all opinions need to be expressed.

Virginia Heffernan, New York Times television critic and columnist on all thing media, noted in an article last year that commenters often responded to stories with comments that “are hardly models of astuteness.” Scanning the online comments that follow pieces by respected journalist Anne Applebaum of the Washington Post, Heffernan observed the commenters feel  free to criticize, make assumptions, or cast aspersions about the author but didn’t “… provide a sustained or inventive analysis.” Instead they posted illogical arguments or poorly researched rebuttals apparently so that they could go on record as having joined the discussion.

Most of us might have qualms about making public statements without having our facts straight but these things appeared not to matter to the commenters, Heffernan concluded.  And these noise-makers, she wrote, swamp the occasional “rare, bright voices” who might contribute to a meaningful dialogue.

The tone of so many online comments, inspired perhaps by talk radio and the idea of “freedom to be one’s own person” often veers between petulant and outraged. Commenters, it seems, come looking for a fight and stand ready to argue, even if it’s on, say, Salon’s food page (“You don’t hard boil an egg for fourteen minutes, you dimwit!”). They are simultaneously ready to hand out insults and take offense. They take pride in speaking “the truth” in voices that are often shrill, mean-spirited, or semi-literate. Too many are there to provoke, to hector, to lecture, or to rant. Of course, sometimes even the benign commenters (“I really like what you said.”) don’t seem to know when to let well enough alone, rambling on and derailing any chance of a meaningful discussion. 

 I’ve had comments on my opinion pieces that were tough but fair, that pointed to holes in my reasoning and flaws in my construct or that disagreed with the substance of my position. I appreciate seeing an issue through “new” eyes; alternate points of view and reasonable opposition are welcome. Of course, I don’t like to be lectured (who does?) and I’m not a fan of public humiliation, whether my own and someone else’s. If there were guidelines for commenters (oh, what a glorious thought!), they might begin with admonitions to stow the snark and bury the urge to bloviate.

Or maybe we’d paraphrase little Thumper’s mother (with apologies and full attribution, of course) and render this advice: If you don’t have anything to say, don’t say anything.          

image: Seattle Weekly blog

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When it appeared that there were now two presumptive nominees for President, I went trolling the Internet for reaction. I sought not the reputable sites or or quasi-reputable bloggers, but instead the chat rooms on places like MSN, Yahoo and AOL. I wanted to read what “regular” people were thinking. I mean, these are voters, right, so how are they engaging their thought processes?

Disappointing news from that front, I’d have to report. There do seem to be an awful lot of people with axes to grind and time on their hands. I guess the crap that passes for dialogue in some of these so-called political forums represents democracy’s ugly underbelly. I tripped upon lots of stale theories about Obama’s “Muslim” agenda, naturally. There are some wacko things being written about McCain as well, by the way; the paranoia that drives these respondents isn’t left or right, liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican.

It would be laughable if it weren’t so disturbing to imagine that many people may place value on this kind of “information” or that they might use it as a basis for making decisions. The beauty of Internet news and Internet reporting and Internet information is supposed to be that it uncovers anything and everything. There has been no whispered aside, no private conversation, no intemperate moment possible in the Presidential race thus far, nor will there be. It’s all up for discussion, dissection and subsequent distribution. Great, no more secrets. But no filter either. It’s all so IMPORTANT (caps deliberate).

The filter is supposed to be ours. It’s our job to sort through what’s important and what’s not, where we have to focus and what we have to dismiss when evaluating the candidates. We’re supposed to know that what the candidates think about or plan to do about issues such as health care, the economy or our country’s foreign policy conduct is more pressing than what their spouses might have said privately. Maybe it’s fun to catch people in unguarded moments or to read personal letters they wrote twenty years ago and then obsess endlessly about them. It’s the ultimate Facebook-type gossip session, at least until the obsession or the rumor or the half-truth becomes cruel or dangerous or much more relevant than it deserves to be.

More of us than ever seem to know that this upcoming election is an important one, which means that perhaps more of us than ever will vote. That’s a big plus. We have more access to information on which to base our decision than ever before and that’s an even bigger plus. But not all information is equal, not to mention true.

Okay, so here’s your assignment in terms of preparing yourself to vote. There are no excuses (“They’re all the same”) and no passes (“I’ve already chosen a candidate”). This is what you do: Listen, read, think, ask, listen, read and do some more thinking. Access your own experience, your own common sense, your own conscience and your own moral compass. Weed out the excess, focus on the big picture, keep yourself informed, keep the gossip to a minimum and keep the rumors off the table. Feel free to yell, scream or flood your local stations with e-mails if you see any nasty, negative, fear-based or generally bottom-feeding commericals directed against any candidate, including local or Congressional representatives we’ll also be voting for. Be prepared, if you so choose, to discuss your choice with others. You don’t have to, of course; I just happen to be a big fan of dialogue, as long as it’s reasoned and reasonable and we need more of it to counteract the nastiness around us.

No slacking off now. The information (and misinfomration and disinformation) is coming at you fast and furious Get ready, get set and…FILTER!

 

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The House Foreign Relations Committee voted yesterday to condemn the mass killings of Armenians in Turkey in 1915. The resolution, in particular the use of the word “genocide” infuriated the Turkish government, whose president strongly condemned the resolution and warned that Turkish support for US activities in Iraq could be seriously jeopardized. Turkey is already angry with the US for its perceived lack of support for Turkey’s incursions into Iraq to fight Kurdish rebels, a move which has been strongly condemned by a Kurdish lawmaker in the Iraqi Parliament.

Rather than condemn you to further reading about angry politicians in global hot-spots, I thought it would be interesting to consider resolutions like this most recent one. Today’s open question on Yahoo’s answer board was “Why does the US Congress Pass Resolutions Condeming Other Countries?” Bloggers noted that Congress had recently passed a resolution urging Japan to apologize for tricking South Korean women into sexual slavery during WWW II. One poster noted that the U.S. is loathe to condemn its own actions, which would seem to be borne out by a search for resolutions about slavery or the treatment of Native Americans. A resolution was passed in 2005 in the Senate apologizing for its failure to enact anti-lynching legislation (a rather roundabout way of approaching the subject of slavery and the government’s complicity). That same year, the Senate considered legislation introduced by Senator Sam Brownback (Republican of Kansas and a candidate for President in ’08) apologizing to Native Americans; the resolution was apparently never passed. There was, however, a Congressional resolution passed in 1993 apologizing for the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1893.

Actually, many governments around the world issue resolutions as a way to make symbolic gestures for particular political constituencies. It’s tougher than ever for the U.S. to make such gestures in a community that views us as morally suspect. Still, resolutions have their place, if for no other reason than to prevent history from being rewritten. Where it gets a little silly is when Congress starts making resolutions condemning private organizations or citizens whose views, whether we like them or not, represent exactly that – private views. Instead of the intemperate rush to condemn, I’d urge Congress to move on. There’s work to be done.

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