the age of the troll

Checking my Disqus profile just now, I see that I joined on July 28, 2013 and have made a grand total of 3031 posts, an average of about 2 1/3 posts per day. This is somewhat astounding! I remember the original motivation: I had simply come across a comment somewhere I either wanted to praise or add to, and that was it. I’d never planned or dreamed I would make any kind of habit of it, but before very long I was regularly contributing thoughts within a couple of different online communities (not mainstream political ones but sites focusing more on ideas, where longer and more considered posts are far more common). There were a few periods along the way where I stepped out of regular writing, and then others where conversations became quite extended, where I would be responding to one or several people many times a day.

This is one of the main reasons my contributions to this blog became so sporadic: my online writing time had already been spoken for. And looking back I do understand how I got hooked. When you reply to another contributor you know that at least that one person, and usually many others, will be reading and (to varying degrees of course) considering what you have spent time and energy putting down on (virtual) paper. In my case the time and energy were generally quite extensive — a large proportion of my posts were substantive, many very long for an internet “comment,” mini-essays. Often there would be a reply awaiting you later that day, or even within the hour. So comment threads are much more akin to an ongoing conversation than posting within a website such as this one.

(It might be asked why I have disallowed comments here in that case. The answer is simply that I would feel too great a sense of responsibility to respond to more or less all replies, positive and negative both, and this could easily end in swallowing up too much of the time I have for writing here in the first place.)

For the past couple of years I have limited myself to one particular site, one that attracts a number of thoughtful, widely-read contributors. Many have academic posts. Some, inevitably, even there (since it is a public site) are trolls.

The phenomenon of the troll is of course a product of the internet age. I found it (and still find it) infuriating having to deal with them, but the experience has taught me a lot about online communication in general, about the state of our culture and world, about what constitutes “skillful (and unskillful) means” — to use the buddhist term. I’ll say something more about all this at some future point. But it seems clear to me that we have reached the apotheosis of this development, as we now have a supreme troll occupying the highest and most powerful office of the land.

taking courage

On this inauguration eve, like so very many in this country and around the world, I am feeling an overwhelming, inarticulable sadness. Often it does feel as if we learn nothing whatsoever as a people — ever — that we have to continually reinvent the wheel.

But I am trying to remind myself tonight of what is in fact the truth: that so many, many millions know there is a vaster, more reverent and celebratory and sublime way to live, beyond the prison of tribalism and fear. We have, in fact, grown up in many respects as a people. As Mr. Charlie Chaplin reminds us:

We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness – not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone, and the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful.

But we have lost the way. Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost.

The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men – cries out for universal brotherhood – for the unity of us all. Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world – millions of despairing men, women, and little children – victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people.

To those who can hear me I say – do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed – the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men which will pass, and dictators die. And the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish.

So a deep bow to all those who had a hand in producing the bottle of junmai daiginjo I am drinking, and a bow to Mr. Sibelius, whose 7th symphony — one of the greatest pieces of music there is or could ever be, in my view — I am listening to right now. And a reminder that the times call upon us to be the very best we can be.