Of all the nefarious ways of procrastination -- and any good writer will tell you there are many of them -- I happened upon a particularly noxious one late this summer. Like most of the readers of this newspaper, I have been following this election obsessively -- to the extent that I check the latest polls at least a few times a day. This would be bad enough, but what I additionally inflicted upon my poor self is the careful scrutiny of the reams of reader's comments that now appear in response to political articles on the web. Most web-based newspaper articles about McCain or Palin or Obama now generate a few hundred such comments from partisan, if not downright crazy, readers, and I inexplicably found myself reading through them, entry by entry and page by page, in the August and early September heat.
Let me say right here that this is not a good thing to do. It is not good for one's health. Most of these comments, many from barely literate readers, are frankly insane, whether they come from the left or the right (although the ones from the right, I must say, are more insane.) One reads incessantly about "Osama Obama" or "Obama the darkie" or that McCain is a Nazi and that certain readers want to perform certain acts of a sexual nature on Palin, and on, and on. And on.
The newspapers say that they police these comments for profanity and indecency, but if they do, they are not doing a very good job. (Or, one shudders at the type of material they are editing out.) How could they? The voices of the people spin out in real time, hundreds upon hundreds per hour, on the heels of a big story. There is always one lone voice of temperance and decency in the volleys of hate, some reader in Kansas or somewhere who patiently corrects facts, calls for balance and reason, and even, God bless them, corrects grammar and spelling. But all for naught: those worthy and patient souls are usually trounced by a spiteful comment a few minutes later.
But what my nasty little habit has given me is an unprecedented window into the dark and unfettered political soul of America where thoughts and feelings and images flow without inhibition, and where there resides an honesty rarely seen in political discourse anywhere. And what all this honesty says is this: Americans, in 2008, are full of hate. The Blue hate the Red, the Bush/McCain types hate the Obamaites, the men hate the women, the women hate the men, the blacks hate the whites, and the whites hate the blacks. And we hate the rest of the world. And all of this spills out across the screen complete with bad spelling and grammar, making the sentiments read like some kidnapper's ransom message cut out of different fonts and print sizes. It is not pretty, and it does not give one hope for what will happen on November 4, 2008. But there is also this: these messages are somehow heartfelt and earnest, deeply and refreshingly real, even in their horror.
Thankfully for me, Labor Day has come, and it is time for me to get back to work. Along with wearing white, I have shrugged off my delinquent internet habits. I follow the election with the same fervor, but I have given up reading the deranged news commentaries of my fellow citizens. I am a new and better person, untainted and free of the venom that has come to characterize our political narratives. Now all I must do is await the comments that I will get to this article.
Charles Barber is the author of Comfortably Numb: How Psychiatry is Medicating a Nation and Songs from the Black Chair: A Memoir of Mental Interiors.