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Digital Lynch Mob

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, May 9, 2006

Two weeks ago I wrote about Al Gore's new movie on global warming. I liked the film. In response, I instantly got more than 1,000 e-mails, most of them praising Gore, some calling him the usual names and some concluding there was no such thing as global warming, if only because Gore said there was. I put the messages aside for a slow day, when I would answer them. Then I wrote about Stephen Colbert and his unfunny performance at the White House correspondents' dinner.

Kapow! Within a day, I got more than 2,000 e-mails. A day later, I got 1,000 more. By the fourth day, the number had reached 3,499 -- a figure that does not include the usual offers of nubile Russian women or loot from African dictators. The Colbert messages began with Patrick Manley ("You wouldn't know funny if it slapped you in the face") and ended with Ron ("Colbert ROCKS, you MURDER") who was so proud of his thought that he copied countless others. Ron, you're a genius.

Truth to tell, I peeked into only a few of the e-mails. I did this because I would sometimes recognize a name I thought I knew, which was almost always a mistake. When I guilelessly clicked on the name, I would get a bucket of raw, untreated and disease-laden verbal sewage right in the face.

Usually, the subject line said it all. Some were friendly and agreed that Colbert had not been funny. Most, though, were in what we shall call disagreement. Fine. I said the man wasn't funny and not funny has a bullying quality to it; others (including some of my friends) said he was funny. But because I held such a view, my attentive critics were convinced I had a political agenda. I was -- as was most of the press, I found out -- George W. Bush's lap dog. If this is the case, Bush had better check his lap.

It seemed that most of my correspondents had been egged on to write me by various blogs. In response, they smartly assembled into a digital lynch mob and went roaring after me. If I did not like Colbert, I must like Bush. If I write for The Post, I must be a mainstream media warmonger. If I was over a certain age -- which I am -- I am simply out of it, wherever "it" may be. All in all, I was -- I am, and I guess I remain -- the worthy object of ignorant, false and downright idiotic vituperation.

What to make of all this? First, it's not about Colbert. His show has an audience of about 1 million -- not exactly "American Idol" numbers. Second, it marks the end of a silly pretense about interactive media: We give you our e-mail addresses and then, in theory, we have this nice chat. Forget about it. Not only is e-mail too often a kind of epistolary spitball, but there's no way I can even read the 3,506 e-mails now backed up in my queue -- seven more since I started writing this column.

But the message in this case truly is the medium. The e-mails pulse in my queue, emanating raw hatred. This spells trouble -- not for Bush or, in 2008, the next GOP presidential candidate, but for Democrats. The anger festering on the Democratic left will be taken out on the Democratic middle. (Watch out, Hillary!) I have seen this anger before -- back in the Vietnam War era. That's when the antiwar wing of the Democratic Party helped elect Richard Nixon. In this way, they managed to prolong the very war they so hated.

The hatred is back. I know it's only words now appearing on my computer screen, but the words are so angry, so roiled with rage, that they are the functional equivalent of rocks once so furiously hurled during antiwar demonstrations. I can appreciate some of it. Institution after institution failed America -- the presidency, Congress and the press. They all endorsed a war to rid Iraq of what it did not have. Now, though, that gullibility is being matched by war critics who are so hyped on their own sanctimony that they will obliterate distinctions, punishing their friends for apostasy and, by so doing, aiding their enemies. If that's going to be the case, then Iraq is a war its critics will lose twice -- once because they couldn't stop it and once more at the polls.

cohenr@washpost.com


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