A pair of story arcs are beginning this week that promise to comment on the flavor of our times.
The major one is in Doonesbury, addressing the death of Daniel Patrick Moynihan's rule, "You're entitled to your own opinion, but you're not entitled to your own facts."
We've always had spin and interpretation and selective perception, but outright falsehoods were rare in the days of gatekeepers, with the obvious exception being the work of the Tobacco Institute, which not only concocted bogus science but was successful in getting it into the mainstream discussion, on the basis of being "fair" and "presenting the other side."
But most of it was spin, the sort of selective interpretation that allowed the "Civil War" to be recast as "The War Between the States" and sometimes went so far as to adopt the defense that slaves in the South were better off than factory workers in the North because the halting of the slave trade meant there was no longer an endless supply of them, while immigration guaranteed an endless procession of expendible factory drones.
Which, even if you were to accept that there is no difference between desperation and utter compulsion, is still a variation on "How can you criticize the war when we have air pollution?"
And, while there were a lot of nonsensical interpretations of reality floating around, it was harder for the believers to connect with each other before the Internet and even harder for them to gain any sort of credibility.
Those who claimed that Elvis was still alive or that the moon landing was a fake did a good job of finding each other, but they were not part of a national dialogue, in large part because they weren't getting exposure from Cronkite or Chancellor or Huntley/Brinkley except possibly in stories about marginal screwballs with bizarre delusions.
Today, each side to a position, no matter how settled and clear the facts might seem, has its own collection of experts immediately at hand, and an argument over what should be settled science or history quickly erupts into link wars, those endless exchanges of on-line "proof" that 9/11 was an inside job, that Obama was born in Kenya, that climate change is fake.
And, just as, on the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog, they also don't have any way to escape hearing what you've got to say for yourself. The most compulsively, aggressively delusional fanatics so dominate on-line discussion that they appear to be more numerous than they are, simply because they are so successful in stifling and driving away more sensible conversation.
They are enabled in this by the former mainstream media, so intent on attracting clicks that they are happy to let antisocial oddballs take over the comment sections of their web sites, in large part because they keep returning again and again to scream at each other and post opposing links.
Here is a brilliant discussion by a blogger who is thinking about shutting down comments. It's really must reading on the overall topic of our national discourse.
I like the comments I get here, but this is a niche blog with fairly low traffic. It's like a quiet little bistro where you can have a glass of wine and talk, rather than the glitzy, crowded Sports Bar where small groups of loud, obnoxious drunks are permitted to dominate the room and set the tone for the place.
And, speaking of loud, obnoxious sports fans, let's look at the arc starting up over at Tank McNamara:
There was, O Best Beloved, a time when sports columnists were expected to be "homers," so devoted to the local team that they would mindlessly pass along whatever nonsense about the players' devotion to kittens and orphans that the team's PR people came up with, and would turn a blind eye to the drinking and whoring and violence they actually witnessed in the course of being around those same athletes.
Sometime in the 1970s, however, newspapers began hiring edgy columnists, who not only stopped covering for the misbehavior but went the opposite direction and began reflexively attacking the coaching decisions, front office people and the athletes themselves, all in the apparent spirit of "sparking discussion."
To see what Bill Hinds is riffing on, you need only check out two shows on ESPN:
The first is "Pardon The Interruption," which is a half-hour of spirited back-and-forth between a pair of fairly knowledgeable observers, the sort of loud-but-good-spirited confrontation that you would enjoy at the local barber shop. At the end of the show, a fellow even comes on to fact-check their arguments and point out whatever errors came up.
The other is "Round the Horn," in which they collect the most mean-spirited, outrageous sports columnists in the country to fling nasty remarks back and forth, for which the host awards "points" at his own whim. It is a shout-fest that makes "The McLaughlin Group" seem like an opium den.
"PTI" is fun, and an improvement over the mindless groveling of prior years.
"Round the Horn," is a symptom of where dialogue stands these days.
And the two strips, Doonesbury and Tank, are thematically bonded in addressing that level of dialogue, which I would argue points out the folly of the idea that video games are at all central to the violence in our nation.
Video games are simply one very small element in a much, much bigger picture.
We've created a world in which screaming and insults are considered normal conversation. And it's not just that we can't talk politics without frothing at the mouth: It would be understandable if people became incensed over tax issues or environmental concerns.
But go to SI.com or CBSSports.com and see the comments that follow any story on either site, no matter how innocuous. We can't talk sensibly about anything any more.
No wonder people are running around shooting each other. We've turned normal conversation into something so completely toxic that fury has become the moderate, default mode.
Meanwhile, in other worlds:
Brewster Rockit with a gag that is so timely that noon EST today is the deadline for voting.