Saturday, March 20, 2010

Commies and Commentators

This from a foreign Estonian in Los Angeles calling herself Kairus: “…the only people in Soviet Estonia who spent their summers touring the Soviet Union in Volgas were high ranking KGB and Communist Party leaders, the very same people who kept the country imprisoned behind the Iron Curtain, and directly or indirectly participated in the deportations, executions…”

The quote is from Kairus’ consumer review of my book on, and her conclusions about my wife Liina’s family from a story called “Spoiled Little Soviet Girl.” In the story, I compared the lazy summertime life of Liina in Soviet Estonia versus mine spent on a factory floor in Canada. According to Kairus, Liina’s Volga-driving family is a bunch of commies and murderers. So tell me, Liina. What other secrets are you hiding?

I of course understand that when you publish something, it is only natural to suffer some abuse. Anyone who submits something to the public sphere invites criticism and, for the most part, writers should shut up and not complain. (That’s why we’re paid the big bucks.) As the sometime object of abuse, however, I perhaps pay more attention than most to international dialogue about the responsibility of publications for the comments associated with the stories they publish.

For the Estonian side of the issue, I was intrigued by an interview with Kristjan Tamme published last year in Eesti Ekspress. Tamme is one of the men responsible for reading some ten thousand comments per day on the web portal Delfi and removing anything potentially libelous or offensive. He seemed to handle his job with good humor, but I couldn’t help but wonder how long he could endure the work of reading hundreds of thousands of hateful words on a daily basis. Will he go postal? And when?

The law in Estonia, as Rein Lang would like to have it, would be that newspapers are responsible for what comments their readers write. If the Postimees automotive section happened to run a feature story on the roadworthiness of the GAZ-21 Volga, I personally think it would be rather shameful to hold Merit Kopli responsible for a reader who tries to establish a causal link between Volgas and murderers. And on the US-based, I’d feel equally bad if Amazon were held liable for Kairus’ insult, even though the absoluteness of her statement is factually baseless, and, one might argue, could potentially damage the image of Liina and other Estonians with histories of Volga ownership.

In the United States the debate still rages about whether newspapers are “publishers” or “innocent distributors.” Courts have determined fairly clearly that Google, AOL and the like are "innocent distributors" who are simply conduits and not liable. Although the issue in the States remains muddy and unresolved, many of my American friends in the newspaper business surprisingly tend to support the Rein Langian view. As one of them remarked: “In theory the public square sounds great, but in practice it's a cesspool of hate speech, vulgarity and functional illiteracy. There's just so much noise that real conversation is rare. And virtually every discussion, no matter the subject of the story, eventually turns to race or college football.” Or Nazis.

Godwin’s law posits that "as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one." While the law is popularly used to describe the inevitable deterioration of online commentary, the original version referred to Usenet newsgroup discussions, the academic precursor of the modern-day internet.

My American journalist friends cite a recurring pattern in the comments sections: intelligent, educated, thoughtful people will try to debate an issue. “Then,” a journalist friend writes, “they will be torn down and assaulted viciously by ignorant, ill-mannered rubes. Soon the entire discussion becomes a race to the bottom, and the intelligent, thoughtful participants either give up, or are shouted down. Those who dominate the discussions hold opinions that are based not on knowledge but on faith (not necessarily the religious kind), and so they cannot be swayed. Imagine George Will arguing with a dog. Will would certainly win the argument, but the dog will never understand that it lost. So why bother?”

My French writer friend Guillaume was visiting last summer and posed this question to a table surrounded by international readers: Have you ever posted a comment online? And, if no, do you know anyone who has ever posted a comment online?

Interestingly, if we set aside hobby forums like fishing or photography, no one at the table had ever posted a comment after an online story published by a respected newspaper or magazine. Many testified to regularly using Facebook, but no one would admit to having ever posted a comment on the websites of the New York Times, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, or Le Monde. Who then are these who post vitriolic remarks and vent their spleens online? It’s tempting to conclude they are uneducated, lower class brutes, but given the original version of Godwin’s law, I fear we have seen the enemy and he is us. While I’d like to think of Kairus as a drive by shooter from Compton, there is a reasonable chance she is a community college librarian from West L.A.

Theodore Dalrymple—real name Anthony Daniels; father was a Communist, in case Kairus is reading—recently remarked in an essay that the atheist Richard Dawkins has suffered great abuse in the comment sections of places he publishes. He was recently called, for example, “a suppurating rat’s rectum.” I don’t know about the Estonian language, but an English-language reader who uses “suppurating” and “rat’s rectum” in the same sentence is probably no idiot and very likely someone I would want to hang out with.

Dalrymple advances his theory that “…the balance of the evidence suggests that children who grow up with a mental diet of violence on electronic media are more likely themselves to become violent than those who do not…” which leads him to conclude that “…it seems to me at least possible that easy access to public self-expression tends to make people more bad-tempered and ill-mannered than they would otherwise have been.” Seems quite possible to me. Although I don’t post comments online, I do admit that there was a period in my life that after I’d had a bad day, I would have gladly fired a pistol around in the dark, if there were a guarantee that I could not be held responsible for where the bullets landed.

So I am still left with what to do about Kairus. Going online and posting a book defense—arguing that Liina’s father is not a KGB murderer and that while the USSR was not one big Tivoli, the lives of Estonians weren’t all “utterly miserable,” either—would insult intelligent readers who are capable of making that determination for themselves. Respect for the reader is, after all, perhaps the key characteristic which separates good writers and good publications from the bad.

While I hope he remains unsuccessful in his bid to declare internet martial law, I do have some sympathy for Rein Lang. I tend to think of newspaper editors like party hosts. When I have friends over, I want to promote lively discussion but at the same time keep my guests from fist fighting and breaking things. And so with my blog I delete comments when someone calls me a fuckwit or turdburglar. Pretty much anything else, including Nazi, goes. I’m pleased that I self-police by choice and not because of a law. And while it may be tempting to respond to Kairus’ generalization about Volga drivers with another generalization that all foreign Estonians from Los Angeles are porn actresses, that probably wouldn’t be prudent, either. Amazon’s solution is quite fair, actually: every poster is linked to a real human being via a credit card number, which actually solves America’s debate of the public square. When in history could you walk into a public square, shout epithets repeatedly, and remain anonymous? And so why should we allow it now just because we have the internet? Why do I still allow anonymous posters on my blog? Not a bad question, actually. Maybe my practice should change.


Illustration by Hilde Kokk De Keizer.
Click here to join the mudslinging in Estonian.