Cynically Yours

Written by Bill Leebens

I won’t beat around the bush: putting Copper together is a lot of work. I don’t recall my exact response when the idea of the magazine was pitched to me by Ye Olde Publisher, but I’m pretty sure it included the phrase, “are you INSANE?” Or something close to it, anyway.

While there is a lot of effort involved, especially as we continue to add contributors and content, there isn’t the stark terror, the flying-without-a-net feeling of the early days. At this point there is a certain certainty in the process, a bit of a routine. For me, the biggest angst after the launch came from the addition of comments directly on the site…and I’ll tell you why.

This column took its name from my reputation as a snarky analyst of the passing parade. While I am rarely shocked by the human ability to screw up a good thing, I never try to hurt anyone, and only say things in print that I would say to a person’s face. I am aware of my dark side, and am strongly aware that pretty much everyone has a dark side.

Because of that, when I became active online nearly twenty years ago, I decided that I would always, always, always use my real name. It’s not like my name is ‘John Smith’; having been a field manager for the Census a couple of lifetimes ago, I can state with reasonable certainty that there is one and only one ‘Bill Leebens’ in the United States. (My son is also named William, but he doesn’t go by ‘Bill’.)

My point is that I have nowhere to hide. If I say something hurtful or hateful or irredeemably boneheaded, I am accountable, and I sure as hell will hear about it from somebody. Do I feel constrained by that? Yes, but in a positive way: it acts as an extension of my conscience. I assure you that I hesitate before hitting SEND. If that’s not evident, just imagine how much worse I would be without that constraint.

Which brings me to that big angst. I think I understand why monikers and noms de pixel are needed. The unfortunate part is that anonymity seems to liberate the aforementioned dark side of many 3 AM posters, who often mistake “I can” for “I should”. Two renowned social scientists have commented apropos of this: Ron White spoke of his infamous “Tater Salad” arrest, saying, “I had the right to remain silent, but I didn’t have the ability.” And I have often quoted Louis CK to friends who had to deal with comments on their sites: “As soon as you crack your knuckles and open up a comments page, you just canceled your subscription to being a good person.”

As it turns out, my fears were largely groundless; aside from an isolated crank or two, comments on Copper have been unfailingly civil, and largely complimentary and appreciative. Phew.

It could be that our audience is simply mature, and mostly devoid of social maladroits. Or it could be fear of The Wrath of Leebs. I don’t know why our commenters are well-behaved, but I’m grateful.

In the bigger picture, however, I’m dismayed by the rise of incivility in America. Blame has largely replaced sincere discussion in public forums, so I suppose it would be ironic to direct blame at something for this degeneration. If I were to blame something/anything, it would be the rise and dominance of “reality” TV. Anthropologists are aware that being watched changes behaviors, so can anyone believe that such staged programs genuinely represent “reality”? Mimicking the non-star stars of reality TV, we have become a nation of ranters and whiners, seeking to inflame at all costs with verbal Molotov cocktails. The immediacy of response on the internet only fans those flames.

In my pretentious teenage years I formulated a string of  “Leebens’ Laws”, one of which was “Leebens’ Law of Inverse Availability”. I’d noted that back when messages took a great while to deliver—say, from a sailor at sea for a year—the messages tended to be articulate, eloquent, and heartfelt. As communication became more rapid—think telegrams, TV news, and now the internet—there seemed to be less and less to say, less mulling over and more mugging for the camera. In Future Shock, Alvin Toffler indicated that our entire society suffered from PTSD, tied to the rapid rate of societal change. That was in 1970: the last half-century has not exactly seen things slow down in our world.

In our own  insular little world of audio discussion forums, the nastiest flames I’ve ever witnessed have been on digital audio boards. You’d think that the “bits is bits” set would be hyper-rational and careful in their discourse, but discussion sometimes devolves to the “I’m right, you’re wrong, I’m brilliant, you’re a scheisskopf” level of kindergarten-speak.

Maybe our mothers were right: if you can’t say something nice….

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