COLUMN: The Age of Sardonicism

Harry Caines contributes a weekly column to His column is a work of opinion, and does not reflect the views of Cache Valley Daily, the Cache Valley Media Group, or its employees.

Few people without an education in American history, political science or journalism know who James Callender was. And yet, in American society too many of us continue Callender’s unfortunate legacy.

James Callender was a Scotsman who gained infamy in the late 18th Century for a series of pamphlets he published in Philadelphia that had the main purpose of maligning the Federalist Party—chiefly, Presidents Washington and Adams as well as Alexander Hamilton.

Impressed with Callender’s populist positions and writing style, Thomas Jefferson funded Callender’s vicious, invective attacks. Callender would serve a jail sentence for sedition—a direct result of his writings. When released from jail he called in his marker from Jefferson. Jefferson reneged and Callender revealed evidence that the third president had carried on an affair with his own slave, Sally Hemings. The language used is too insulting for me to relay here.

Two centuries later we, as a society, have progressed and regressed back to the days when anonymous pamphleteers could pretty much publish anything they wanted regardless of fact, tact or repercussions. However, there is one big, disturbing difference between now and way back then.

Back then, you needed a printing press, funding and some talent with the written word. Today, all you need is a smartphone and a finger. And what adds to this onerous trend is that it is no longer people in high places of stature who are the targets of unnecessary criticism and bile; it is regular John and Jane Q. Publics whose actions are gaining unwanted publicity.

Our world of affordable high tech gadgetry and incessant social networking has produced a society of skewed priorities. Most of us crave information–any information–no matter how irrelevant it may be. And what do we do with these nuggets of useless data? Mostly we criticize it and those who provided it. That’s all we do. And then we move on.

This practice is perverted, cruel, self-indulgent and corrosive to the literate, civilized mind.

Example #1: On Monday, a news blurb I read announced a recently divorced owner of high profile sports team remarried. His new bride was over 20 years his junior and was of Asian origin. The owner is white. Despite information in the story that suggested this women came from a successful family with strong roots in America, the comment section of the article was filled with anonymous criticisms filled with misogynist and racist quips playing on the very worst of Asian stereotypes, as well as suggestions that the woman was only marrying this man for his money.

The next day, the news site prints a story about how the previous day’s story received so many awful replies. The comment section for the second blurb was filled with (you see it, right?) racist and awful comments!

Example #2: A young woman belonging to a sorority writes an email where she uses obnoxiously vulgar language to express her dissatisfaction with her sorority sisters. The content of the email suggests this was nothing more than an immature young lady who had a bad day and vented in a way that was crude, but hardly uncommon amongst young people.

For reasons I cannot possibly fathom, this “story” found its way on the front page of Yahoo! News. Yahoo! lifted the story from the website, whose only purpose is to provide useless videos and photographs of people in embarrassing positions.

What do these examples say about us? It says we live in a sewer. It says we no longer need to indulge in the act of schadenfreude with people who have actively sought notoriety, but with anyone who wrote an email, was caught on camera having a bad day, or informed the world they got married, divorced or bought a puppy.

Americans used to attain information about important subjects and thought out the ramifications. Now, we indulge in gutter voyeurism and type out barbed Tweets about them.

Anyone, on any day, can be in a “viral” video. Their only crime was doing something within the eye of a camera that the masses can ridicule. You once had to accomplish something of note, good or bad, to be known to the world around you. Now, you just have to get in an argument with your neighbor.

Add to this flowing cloaca of exploitation is the invention of Google Glass. This device which is worn like eyeglasses is not yet available to the masses. In use, it will eliminate the need to physically hold a phone in your hand when you film someone you find entertaining; or, to give even more immediate ridicule for things you deem worthy of your pith and whimsy on social networking sites and blogs.

This constant stream of irrelevance appears to not only have no end, it becomes faster, more potent and more intrusive on a populace that seems lethargic to its dangers and hypnotized by its entertainment value.

We no longer contemplate larger issues and importance so much as we instantly react to iconic imagery using hyperbolic language.

This is the Age of Sardonicism.

James Callender would dwarf Matt Drudge and Mark Zuckerberg if he were alive today. His scathing rebukes of powerful adversaries has manifested itself 200 years later into what passes for modern commentary. His legacy lives on in the spirit of everyone who has ever written an anonymous comment on a news site, a mean-spirited Tweet (of this I admit my own guilt) or stalked someone’s Facebook page as a means to mock them.

Public etiquette and widely accepted ethics regarding individual privacy will continue its tragic slide into obsolescence. We created this world of insincerity and thoughtlessness. We could deconstruct it anytime we want. That will never happen so long as the worst angels of our nature compel us to peer into the lives of others.

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