It is painful to admit, because no one likes to trash his own neighborhood.
But when it comes to political discussion, there are times when you have to wonder whether the Internet has become the world’s largest bathroom stall.
At 2:39 p.m. on an otherwise quiet Tuesday last week, Republicans in the Senate turned away an attempt to permit homosexuals to serve openly in the U.S. military.
Forty-six minutes and 50 seconds later, on a blog dedicated to gay and lesbian issues and bearing the odd name of “Joe.My.God,” an untoward comment popped up in the middle of a discussion of the vote on “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
“All [gays] must die,” wrote the author who called himself “Jimmy.”
The deleted word was a common vulgarity not permitted in most newspapers, but neither the word nor the sentiment was unusual. We have some very angry people sitting at keyboards. Joe Jervis, the New Yorker behind the blog, says he gets dozens of that kind every day.
So Jervis says he can’t explain why he decided to look up the digitized fingerprint left by Jimmy and that particular message. But look it up he did.
The Internet Protocol address, a series of numbers assigned to all devices that link to the Web, indicated that the computer Jimmy used was registered to the U.S. Senate.
Jervis loosed his readers on a kind of treasure hunt. Cross-referencing the IP address with global positioning coordinates, Jervis and his friends linked the offending computer to “the neighborhood” of U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss’ office, perhaps in Atlanta — but not necessarily.
Though Chambliss can’t be called a friend to gays when it comes to open military service or marriage, he handled the threatening slur with the appropriate degree of urgency.
“This office has not and will not tolerate any activity of the sort alleged,” a Chambliss spokeswoman declared within hours. The next day, Georgia’s senior senator confirmed that the slur originated within his office — and handed the matter over to the Senate sergeant-at-arms, a fellow named Terrance Gainer.
Aside from his duties as the chamber’s official doorkeeper, Gainer is the Senate’s top administrator. And chief law enforcement officer.
What no one is saying is that, by handing the investigation over to the sergeant-at-arms, Chambliss has tacitly admitted that Jimmy probably isn’t some empty-headed intern who can be silently packed off to his red-faced parents.
Jimmy is very likely an empty-headed, full-blown adult who is on Chambliss’ payroll or otherwise under the supervision of the U.S. senator. A person with responsibility.
Through the Internet, we have created a generation of young Americans who equate political speech with anonymity. I say that with the understanding that the Political Insider — and countless other blogs — accept nameless comments online.
Is anonymous speech protected? Of course. Does it have a firm place in American history? Yes. But even Thomas Jefferson was embarrassed when he was caught out.
One of the more discouraging moments in free speech occurred earlier this year, when a young YouTube videographer approached U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge, D-N.C., on a Washington sidewalk to ask the congressman whether he supported President Barack Obama’s agenda. It was a fair question — but it was unfairly posed in anonymity.
“Who are you? Who are you? Who are you?” Etheridge demanded before — very wrongly — accosting the young fellow. But a part of me understood Etheridge’s frustration. We were both raised to believe that an honest man put his own name behind his words.
One of the better moments in free speech occurred last year when thousands of Americans turned out to argue about health care reform at town hall meetings across the country. Messages with faces and names behind them will always mean more than anonymous shots in the dark.
Albert L. May, an associate professor of journalism and public affairs at George Washington University, says concerns that the Internet will become a black hole of political libel are overblown. Mine included.
“The new media is more transparent than most people know,” May said. Internet anonymity is shrinking, not growing. Consider Facebook, he said, which has become the largest village on the Internet because it demands accountability from “friends.”
Corrosive speech on the Internet won’t disappear — but it will become more limited as the Jimmys of the world realize that the anonymity of the computer screen is an illusion, May said. Those darned IP addresses.
You can help speed things along. The next time you have the opportunity, resist the temptation to hide. Put your own name behind your own thought.
Personal responsibility can be quite liberating. Try it.