Warning: This Commentary Does Contain…hold on…three potty words!
Somewhere late in Obama’s first term—and certainly by the time he was on the docket for his 2012 reelection—I did something on Facebook that I never thought was possible.
I shut up.
Okay…before all of my friends start throwing “BS” flags about that claim, I should clarify. I still post many comments, whims, and observations—and by “many” I mean…a mountain of them. I still vent too often about traffic: people who insist on making a left turn at one of Greencastle’s impossible intersections; drivers who camp in the middle lane on I-465; and the disproportionate number of diminutive, white-haired motorists who seem to wait all day for me to come along so they can pull out in front of me only to cruise eight miles-per-hour under the speed limit. And I’m sure some friends have had their fill of the Facebook links to magazine and blog pieces such as this column. But if you were to time travel back through my Facebook universe: rush through the recent family photos and musings about my dog; fly past the two-year comic strip phase (please do that as quickly as possible); and settle in about five or six years ago, you’d see a very different collection of thoughts on that wall.
When I wasn’t sharing an inappropriate “Jersey Shore moment” with an ex-friend or estranged family member, I was launching myself Mark Spitz style into as many political fights as I could find. Be it a debate about Al Gore’s global warming documentary, the conditions on the ground in Iraq, or the source of blame for the economic implosion, I was lashing out at everyone who didn’t agree with me. And since I’m a FDR, New Deal Democrat in a very red part of the country, I ended up fighting with everyone…nightly. The low point politically (there were far worse low points in non-political threads) happened in 2009 when I tossed out an old Andy Rooney quote about combat soldiers.
Rooney long ago said one dark Sunday night on 60 Minutes that “…soldiers didn’t give their lives. Their lives were taken.” I had thought Rooney had offered one of those Dali Lama-esque nuggets of wisdom; consequently, I was stunned when the backlash erupted almost instantly. Current and former service people lectured me in that “if you had ever worn a uniform” tone of voice, and bystanders jumped in with variations of “what I think Wheeler is trying to say is…” While I still get what Rooney was trying to say, I now understand why many Americans didn’t, especially men and women in uniform in a time of war. Rooney had his reasons for making that comment, and by virtue of his service, often in the thick of combat as a writer for the Stars and Stripes, he’d earned the credibility to say whatever he wanted (you should read what he has to say about George S. Patton). I, however, had not.
The singular turning point happened about two years later. I stepped into it again, when a gentleman (let’s call him Charlie) from my old hometown chastised me for a string of acidic posts lamenting the plight of the school teacher following the wave of reforms Mitch Daniels had passed in this second term. When Charlie called me out, he was looking for a fight, one I should have walked away from. Instead I wrote a long, smartass retort with a cheap insult about “getting himself a girlfriend.” Ten minutes later, an all caps, multi-exclamation point explosion followed. As it turned out, his girlfriend had recently and unexpectedly passed away. If only I’d make a crack about his car or the Cubs instead. Before the night ended, he’d threatened to “beat the shit” out of me the next time he saw me. I blocked him in return and then spent the next few days off the Facebook grid. When my blood was still rushing a week later, I knew I needed to disengage from the online brawling.
The first handful of times I pulled away from the keyboard, I had to consciously tell myself, “No! Don’t say anything!” It didn’t take me long to get comfortable with my new role in the outfield bleachers, but occasionally I would still read a post or comment which begged for a put down. Blatant logical fallacies were the hardest to ignore. All the “either/or” claims (“either you support the free markets or else you’re a socialist”), the “red herrings” (“if you like Americans having jobs then you shouldn’t like Mexicans jumping the fence”), and the “straw men” (“you’re just a stupid lib-tard”)… Those desperately needed a good, old fashioned, verbal woodshed session.
Still I abstained. Why bother? I wasn’t going to change anyone’s mind, and most sociological research conclusively shows that the political orientation we develop in early adulthood sticks with us until the end. As a result, we bend the facts to fit our world views: righties think homeless people don’t have houses because they’re lazy, and lefties assume that rich people in big houses must have stolen from their employees’ retirement fund.
Since then, except for an occasional drunken meme on a Saturday night, I’ve been the proverbial good boy. Better yet, instead of reading comments which used to bait me with steaming indignation I actually found the humor in them. When a good friend of mine on Obama’s reelection night angrily said, “Well, goodnight everyone. I have to go work tomorrow. The bums are all counting on me,” I laughed…I still do…like…right now, even.
Then, two days ago, I took the bait.
I told myself not to take the bait.
“Don’t take the bait,” I said to myself.
But I took the goddamn bait.
Another good friend of mine made a comment about Obamacare: a legitimate anecdotal observation about people caught in the middle who were too poor to pay for either the ACA options nor pay the tax for non-compliance. It’s a problem. I nodded my head and was getting ready to move on with my day.
Then I glanced at the comments, and there the logical fallacies flew: People without health insurance are lazy; people on food stamps buy Starbucks and cigarettes; I hate my government… Not all of them were so “sound-bite-shallow.” One lady “Mary” chimed in with an honest depiction of her own insurance catch-22, “Kate” offered a fairly matter-of-fact breakdown of the history of health reform in the country, and “Bill” told everyone to relax. In the spirit of my recently deceased mother, I followed the lead these three people gave me and concentrated on the facts. I turned to my “inner-Spock,” pleaded reason, and argued that Obamacare is complicated. I suggested that the commenters turn to the recent work of Steven Brill, who wrote a pretty compelling set of long-form pieces for Time Magazine laying out not only the problems Obamacare will create but also arguing why the old market-based form of health care never did, and never would work.
Then…below my comment: People without health insurance are lazy; people who can’t pay shouldn’t get any care; liberalism is destroying this country.
I (along with “Mary” and “Kate”) tried again, suggesting that we all have a vested interest in keeping each other healthy. As an example I referred to the lassiez-faire market system’s non-role in the spread of influenza in 1918 and the recent spread of Ebola in Africa; however, I poisoned my comment with an embarrassing, horribly misspelled butchering of “Lazier Fare.”
Right away it came: “Lazier Fare? English teacher?”
Suddenly it was 2011 again, and here I was facing a new Charlie. Frustrated, I gritted my teeth, grunted hard, and hung onto that high road as if I’d get sucked into space otherwise. Taking slow—very, very slow breaths—I put away all those things I wanted to say to this new Charlie: What he could do with himself…what he could also do with the horse he rode in on… Instead, I owned my error, thanked the dude, read a few more follow-up comments, and left the thread. Then came the circumspection: Had I changed the world? Nope. Did I at least change one person’s opinion? Probably not. All I did was open the door for a cheap shot and waste a half hour of my day calming myself down over a meaningless insult from a total stranger who wasn’t even standing in the room with me.
When I originally disengaged from political threads, I did it to avoid further embarrassing myself. Now I’m staying out because cooling off after a recess-level ad hominem requires too much work. But somewhere in the midst of that, I did experience some meaningful discussion with sincere folks who care about the future. And I think I’m realizing that if you discuss the ways of the world over some bratwursts on the grill with your buddies or over the keyboard at your desk with your friends, you’re probably not going to avoid that huckster lobbing cracks about millionaires or welfare recipients. But if the rest of us can mentally shove those simple-sentence schoolyard bullies onto the merry-go-round and spin them into the white noise that they are, then maybe Facebook’s power to enhance our civic debates might actually change the world after all.