Keeping your edginess within bounds in a boundless digital anxiety dump

EDITOR'S NOTEBOOK

BY ART CULLEN

People are getting edgy. I know I am. We’re penned up and worried about catching a virus we don’t understand. Then there’s the constant heat without illumination that we call political discourse that puts blinders on so many of us. What is a person to do but log on to Facebook or Twitter and vent?

Others vent back at you or yours, and then a circle of venting erupts into vulgarity. People lob insults at their friends and neighbors that they would not over the back fence or in ink. The devious magic of social media is that it inspires us to hit the send button when we should probably have another gulp of whiskey and fall asleep. Rash thinking does well enough on its own without amplification.

There used to be editors who controlled the discourse. Old white men like me, we edited out the stupid and profane, and let just enough crazy get through in the letters to remind you that the Trilateralist Commission is out there operating somewhere in the deep state. We directed the racist stuff to file 13.

The gatekeeper also suppressed minority voices. But most of the time most of us tried to represent all points of view in a civil context. The Fourth Estate moderated the debate. We do not any longer. Nobody does. Facebook is its own reality beyond the stodgy bounds of decorum.

It rips the façade off Iowa Nice.

Last week the Iowa Falls Times Citizen was faced with cleaning up a mess of 450 comments that included racist taunts over a Facebook post reporting that a Black Lives Matter rally would take place in Iowa Falls. The editor says she is reconsidering how, or even whether, the newspaper should participate.

Lyz Lenz of The Gazette in Cedar Rapids lamented also last week how a well-intentioned Marion community posting site on Facebook was rife with passive-aggressive Midwestern hostility over race.

Brother John, our Fearless Leader, is disgusted by it and has been complaining that we put too much stuff on Facebook. He especially doesn’t like the idea that news is free — you get what you pay for, and the Russians are sponsoring your Facebook news feed. He has always wondered. I respond by saying that we have to be there to drive eyeballs to our website (www.stormlake. com). But I am losing the argument with myself.

Facebook, and to a lesser extent Twitter, invites neurosis into my household when Dolores is shaken over the latest stupid thing somebody she knows posted. We both wonder what happened to Iowa. I tell her to ignore it, it is a cancer on democracy, and they are a minority. She tells me, rightly, that it can’t just be ignored because that leads to ignorance. This is what people are saying — that climate change is a hoax, or that not wearing a mask is the patriotic thing to do because you are a sacred, self-determinate individual — have been mesmerized into believing it because everyone you know keeps repeating it.

And, she reminds me, there are a lot of good things on Facebook. My sister has funny Irish jokes. I found a college buddy. I post my column and people hit “like.” It’s as addictive as nicotine to an ego as large as mine. I have to do it. I hype my book and try to promote the newspaper. But then I come to learn that people who I have known for most of my life, who maybe I danced with once, say that I am some sort of pinko or I am ugly or stupid because I posted a commentary on how chemical companies are screwing rural America by design. And then we get away from the fact that Roundup is responsible for thousands of cancer claims that recently were settled for $11 billion. I said nothing about your mother or your appearance (although I do make fun of The Donald’s orange Fonzie hairstyle — who couldn’t?).

Facebook takes a bad time and makes it worse.

We can’t go back to the moderated debate of printed newspapers and We Like Ike, I suppose. It certainly has its appeal from the vantage point of hindsight. Today, ignored voices find an audience that they did not before. Some of those voices were better left ignored. Like the Iowa Falls paper, we will look for alternatives to promote journalism. But we’re stuck with Facebook, unfortunately, where disinformation is allowed to flow freely, and resentment is empowered without check.

I have so few friends I can scarcely afford to lose one, but because of Facebook I am. It is interfering with my lifelong friendships that I cannot maintain in person anymore. Some will say it’s all my fault — the ad hominem attack is the preferred weapon in the Age of Trump.

The Republic can survive if we can maintain the center, Chief Justice John Roberts clearly demonstrated in a series of rulings this term. But our anxieties are pulling that center apart, driven by social media. It will only get worse as the campaign now kicks in to high gear. It falls on each of us to check our edginess barometer before hitting the post button. Not only might you lose a friend, but also the freedoms you think you are exercising by destroying the public forum.A

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