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My words are now for all to see _ and react to

"The newspaper does ivrything f'r us . . . (it) comforts th' afflicted, afflicts the comfortable." _ Finley Peter Dunne in Observations by Mr. Dooley.

If Dunne was right, then the Internet has given us the opportunity to do both (or, I guess, neither) on a much wider basis.

Ever since the St. Petersburg Times first allowed me to have an opinion in print (30 years ago this month), I have managed occasionally _ okay, frequently _ to irritate some people more than a sweat pants wedgie on a crowded exercise track where there are too many people watching for you to pull it out.

And I have always considered that, along with pleasing a few, to be part of my job, along with fielding the occasional irate telephone call, anonymous hate letter and barroom/grocer line confrontation.

A column on a really touchy subject like gun control or welfare reform, or, for the more extreme reactions, cats, would draw 20 or so letters, a couple of telephone calls and two mothers recognizing me in the mall and pulling their small children behind them.

Now I have the capacity to tee off people in states and countries I have never even visited. I can motivate an audience of true believers on a variety of subjects to rush to their computer keyboards in a heartbeat. I can infuriate women to whom I have never even been married.

It's quite a sense of power.

What happens is that someone, usually locally (although the Times does have quite a few out-of-state Internet readers), comes across something I have written on their favorite subject (like my long-term belief that we should invade Luxembourg because the resistance would be light and the troop accommodations much better than the rat holes where we usually fight our wars) and either posts it in its entirety or creates a link to it on a Web site particular to whatever cause that person espouses.

Not surprisingly, the column is then read by a large number of people who think exactly like the person who posted it, many of whom feel obliged to react by e-mail.

So an article on gun control that might have drawn raised eyebrows and some good-natured ribbing from Pasco gun rights advocates Bill and Ann Bunting suddenly results in 100 or so missives questioning my intelligence, literacy and loyalty and accusing me of being in cahoots with the jackbooted thugs in the black helicopters who want to implant microchips in our foreheads as the Mark of the Beast forecast in Revelation.

A column lamenting the fact that Bob Dylan doesn't sing like he used to brought an equal number of angry responses from new-Dylan groupies convinced that his new musical deconstructionism is the greatest thing to happen on a stage since Enrico Caruso played Canio in Pagliacci.

I hasten to say that some of the communications were from intelligent, articulate people who disagree on obviously highly subjective social and artistic issues.

Many more of them were insulting and obscene and came from people who think my job obligates me to enter into an angry dialogue with everyone who has access to a computer keyboard.

Electronically generated reaction comes from a different part of the psyche than traditional snail-mail letters, or even phone calls.

A person on a telephone hears his or her own tone of voice, realizes it is losing effectiveness and usually either modifies the approach or slams down the phone.

Just sitting down at a keyboard and typing doesn't provide that filter, and it certainly doesn't have the effect of having to find a piece of paper and a pen (or crayon) and an envelope and a stamp and handwrite thoughts, seal them and carry them to a mailbox.

And, I learned, it isn't only readers who don't know me about whom I must worry.

I used to be able to write about far-flung family members with little fear of retribution, but a couple of years ago, after using one of my favorite sayings _ that my mother raised fat kids and not stupid ones _ I arrived the next morning to an e-mail from my sister in Spokane, Wash.

"Speak for yourself," it said, adding, "Lard-Butt."

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