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Why Would Any Non-Psychopath Dance on Deborah Howell's Grave?

5 years ago
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Among the many things I do not understand – the appeal of the Coen brothers, for instance, and the whole adventure known as mathematics – the impulse to append a "Woohoo, you're dead!" comment to an online obituary looms large today. Why? Well, since you ask, on Saturday we ran a story about the death of Deborah Howell, a retired newspaperwoman who had a great career and was killed in a traffic accident in New Zealand, where she was on a long-planned vacation with her husband.

Last night, I wandered into our comment section, as I often do, to get a sense of who is reading and what they are thinking. Bad move, though, because anger is contagious, and what I found in those comments, in response to Carl Cannon's nicely-done appreciation of Howell, made me want to spit. There were some lovely tributes, both from folks who had known her and others who had not, but had still been moved to send her family condolences – you know, the way feeling people do.

But there was also a shocking number of comments to the effect that since Howell was in the news business, she must have been a lefty, so how fabulous she'd been killed. There was joshing speculation about whether she'd been driving a hybrid, a joke about how liberals walking in lockstep really ought to be more careful, and a couple of cracks about how Republicans were sure to be blamed. "One less of those anti-US types to deal with," said one of several celebratory rejoinders from readers who by their own account had five minutes earlier never even heard of Deborah Howell.

We can't pretend this sort of thing is limited to one or other corner, either; Matt Lewis wrote here about how news of Rush Limbaugh's chest pains had similarly gladdened some tiny liberal hearts, and our obit of Irving Kristol provoked disquieting comments, too.
So, what to make of this? Assuming we are not becoming a nation of psychopaths, are we trading our humanity for a little negative attention? Do people just not think before they type? Or, even if they don't really mean such meanness, do they not worry that someone who reads it might?

Part of the problem, I think, is the way in which outrageous and hateful speech is rewarded here and now: Ann Coulter outdoes herself yet again? Well give that woman a book contract – and can we get her on the "Today" show? Or there's comedian Wanda Sykes, invited to sit by the president and first lady at the White House Correspondent's Association dinner, joking about hoping Limbaugh's kidneys fail.

The relatively small differences between Republicans and Democrats – infinitesimal compared to the differences between political parties in other countries – are not only exaggerated but made to seem catastrophic, mostly because demonizing the political other is good for business if you're a political performance artist or a fund-raiser. Because unless the other side is characterized as a threat to life as we know it, who's gonna pony up?

Howell herself wrote about just the kind of irrational and destructive political rage I'm talking about. As ombudsman for the Washington Post in '06, she erroneously wrote that convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff had donated to both political parties instead of only to Republicans. It was an honest mistake, but readers assumed she could only have written such a thing in the service of conservative ideology:

"Nothing in my 50-year career prepared me for the thousands of flaming e-mails I got last week over my last column,'' she wrote in response, "e-mails so abusive and many so obscene that part of The Post's Web site was shut down. . . . I have a tough hide and a few curse words (which I use frequently) are not going to hurt my feelings. But it is profoundly distressing if political discourse has sunk to a level where abusive name-calling and the crudest of sexual language are the norm, where facts have no place in an argument. This unbounded, unreasoning rage is not going to help this newspaper, this country or democracy.''

Amen, sister. To readers who think it is their God-given right to throw rocks on our site, under the cowardly cover of anonymity, think again; this is a business, and some modicum of civility is our version of "no shirt, no shoes, no service.'' It is also something more, and in our imperfect way, we are trying our best to give all sides their fair shake, and to make this one place where those who might not agree on the issues can at least, we hope, agree not to wish one another harm. And to those who are constantly threatening to take their clicks and go elsewhere when their more pungent, "Pls. die soon" comments are deleted, I say: Promises, promises. This is really not the site for you.

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