I see the guy sitting on Highland Avenue every day, and when I say “sitting on Highland,” I mean he’s doing practically that.
He and his laptop are hunkered down parkside next to the sidewalk, almost on the curb, and it is evident from his posture that something quite specific and possibly intense is busy being born in this unique urban setting.
Things were different in the old days, back when a bistro table in Montmartre or a rickety desk at the Chelsea Hotel conferred a delectable Bohemian cachet on one’s writing enterprise. (Interestingly, I am not aware of any writer having actually traveled to Bohemia to cut out the middleman in such cachet distribution.)
That the guy is using a computer suggests perhaps a screenplay is underway. Certainly an Underwood portable typewriter could do the job, but there are a couple of nifty software packages that take the worry out of all the tabs and spacing with which so many scripts are afflicted these days.
Then again, it could be a journal. Though the popular stereotype mandates that only girls write to themselves on a regular basis, it was a proud possessor of a Y chromosome who rendered all those volumes of Samuel Pepys’s diaries in the 17th century.
Coincidentally, all those journal entries so meticulously entered by the Clerk of the Acts now are available for perusing online. Here’s what Sam was up to on Aug. 1, 349 years ago: “Up very early, and by water to Whitehall to my Lord’s, and there up to my Lord’s lodging (Wm. Howe being now ill of the gout at Mr. Pierce’s), and there talked with him about the affairs of the Navy, and how I was now to wait today at the Privy Seal...”
Another possibility exists for our roadside typist: maybe he’s found a free wi-fi hot spot and he comes there daily to surf the web.
I like the idea that he might be canvassing for information, because it’s something we all need to be doing. A lot of us thought that once Obama got in we’d be shed of the gnawing need to keep up with stuff, but if you have seen the volume of data pouring off the screens lately, you realize there’s even more stuff to be keeping up with these days.
Let us set aside for the moment Sarah Palin and Henry Gates and Sonia Sotomayor, polarizing figures who’ll be around to gin up everybody’s rhetoric for months to come. In fact, let’s ditch all topics with surnames, because the current worrisome information overload addresses issues instead of personalities.
Take the health care debate. Even before a bill was submitted, our friends on the right were decrying any attempt at reform as tantamount to socializing medicine. Now the debate has devolved to a congressman from Texas, Louis Gohmert by name, insisting that the Obama plan would “kill senior citizens,” putting them on lists and forcing them to die by denying them treatment. Radio showmen have repeated the meme, in one instance with Neal Boortz using himself as an example to insist that, as a guy who makes his living sitting down, he would be passed over for knee surgery by government health czars who’d decree that younger people with a longer life expectancy merited the procedure more than he.
A heartbreaking tale, but true at all? No. However, by making outrageous and unsubstantiable claims, Gohmert, Boortz and others such help drive genuine debate of health care reform out of earshot. (Of course, if the Publicans were serious about debating, perhaps they would have introduced some of their own legislation for comparison. Still waiting for Senator Roy Blunt to roll out the GOP alternative to the Obama plan.)
Then there was the puzzling continuation of the “birthers” screed that Barack Obama was not born in the U.S.A. Despite evidence to the contrary available since last year’s campaigning, as recently as last week windbags like CNN’s Lou Dobbs were still blowing hard about the supposed illegitimacy of the Obama presidency.
At the Talking Points Memo website, Josh Marshall reexamined the Constitution’s prerequisites to observe that even if he had been born in Kenya as some birthers maintain, Obama would be considered qualified to serve, because “I have never seen any serious argument that the child of an American citizen, even if born abroad, isn’t him or herself a natural born American citizen.”
Monday night the House voted on a nonbinding resolution commending Hawaii’s 50th year of statehood. The resolution stated specifically that Hawaii was the birthplace of President Obama, but not one of the congresspeople on record as sympathetic to birthers would go on record opposing his authentic American birth. The final tally was Birthers 0, Rationality 378.
You see, the challenge we face with information now is not acquiring, but discerning. Thinking about Walter Cronkite last week reminded us of a time when information was funneled through comparatively few outlets whose probity was rarely challenged. Now the electronic democracy of the Internet has decentralized information, making any citizen online a potential content provider.
In our headlong rush to know things immediately, another era’s insistence on corroboration is being cast aside, to the end that now in the information marketplace, rumor assumes the same substance as fact and discredited data disseminated widely is allowed to pass for truth.
The price of freedom, once eternal vigilance, is now perpetual verification. We must learn to become our own fact-checkers, never settling for insufficiently sourced reportage and standing firmly against the circulation of falsehood.
Just as it behooves us to take 30 minutes a day to exercise our bodies, taking that same amount of time to strengthen our skepticism will go a long way toward making us what politicians fear most — an informed electorate.
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to email@example.com.