Through the past year of tilling this plot called “Words,” I’ve spent most of my labors on books, as befits my bias and, bitter truth be told, my age. But I couldn’t ignore other, newer media and befit OUR age, the one with “Roll Over, Gutenberg” playing on a continuous loop in the background.
Digital reality cast a continuous shadow over the stories I wrote about traditional literature in 2015. The relevance of digital media made its way in everything from my piece about the online component added to the public library’s used book sales to my agonized choice of Amazon over a brick-and-mortar bookstore, because the latter wanted $18 for a novel the former listed for just a penny, plus shipping.
When I profiled Shari Wagner, the new state poet laureate who will steep us in old times during this Bicentennial celebration, I made sure to include a hyperlink to her website. That's standard stuff these days. Page clicks matter more and more.
But standards are changing fast; and in some crucial areas, standards are fading even faster.
During this Bicentennial year, we’ll see the culmination of a process – let’s call it ordeal – that’s been well under way for a year already. And that brings me to a sobering reflection on burgeoning new media as they affect the most important verbal exchanges we conduct.
Regardless of my political views, I am a wordsmith. Written and spoken words matter. So please permit me a political rant that will sound more partisan than I mean it to be. Mostly it is pining –- for a day when public speaking, in general, was better than common chatter. When it pulled policy upward along with it. I'm wishing for an orator the likes of Lincoln, or at least a Candidate Obama, who's capable of delivering a little poetry as the yeast of any positive message he or she delivers.
What a difference a decade makes. If Barack Obama’s two elections were all about the "Good Internet" –- diffusion and democratization of fund-raising and networking with the younger generation –- then the ascent of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz and their ilk might be dubbed the apotheosis of "Bad Internet" with its proliferation and legitimization of the braying voices of scattershot resentment and know-nothingism.
“Trump is devoted to anti-rhetoric,” New Yorker commentator David Denby says. “Boasts and fears and menacing attacks are followed by instant ‘solutions’ ... punctuated by war whoops and cries of adoration from the crowd.”
Compare the Trump style (slavishly emulated by his rivals) with the classic lines that got Barry Goldwater branded a fascist in 1964: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
In today’s climate, Denby submits, “Goldwater’s statement, with its balanced clauses, its formality, seems merely rhetorical, a flourish more than a threat.”
Which speaks to what critics of the Trump phenomenon in the Republican establishment don’t grasp; but Andrew Keen does.
The digital-industry insider asserts in his latest book, The Internet Is Not the Answer, that one of the worst unforeseen consequences of this free, global, anonymous soapbox [the Internet] is its convergence with a long-seething, inchoate heat source that’s heretofore been vented in kitchens and taverns.
“Today’s network didn’t invent hatred,” Keen writes. “And much of the rage articulated on the Internet would have existed whether or not Tim Berners-Lee had invented the Web. But the Internet has nonetheless become a platform for amplifying the views of what media critic Jeff Jarvis calls the ‘plague of trolls, abusers, harassers, lunatics, imposters and a—holes online.’ And things are only getting worse.”
Worse, because of speed. Keen cites Nazi and racist forums that draw up to 400,000 Americans a month. Several such fringe outfits have credited Trump himself with boosting traffic to the point where “fringe” may no longer apply.
It’s not just him. He is a symptom. He leads a chorus of inelegance and invective, misinformation and misanthropy, the likes of which did not stand up to the light of mass communication until the most populist form of mass communication -- social media -- moved it from the peanut gallery to center stage.
Now, barroom bombast drives and shapes mainstream discourse, at least on the rampant Republican right. And a national candidate not only dares to spew “what people are thinking” -- he thrives on the anti-rhetoric. Where Richard Nixon had to couch his anti-black strategy in “law and order” terms and George W. Bush had to stress his "War on Terror" meant no disrespect to Islam, Donald Trump can call for pogroms against Muslims and brand Mexican immigrants as "criminals" with neither nuance nor flair, and do just fine. His followers are the newly empowered information generators. And they’ve had all they want of nuance, flair and being told they’re wrong.
Will the communal language –- English and otherwise -– absorb and survive this movement, this digital deluge? Maybe; but it won’t escape the shadow.