From: (David Sewell)
Newsgroups: alt.culture.usenet,alt.culture.internet,alt.religion.kibology,
Subject: Usenet Stupidity, Talk Shows, Class, and Huck Finn [LONG]
Date: 2 Nov 1995 05:46:11 GMT
Summary: An excursion on Usenet wars, with cast by Mark Twain
A couple of years ago, when Kibo still moved upon the face of Usenet, he and his followers engaged in a guerilla campaign to ridicule the earnest habitues of I didn't follow much of the skirmishing, myself, but I sympathized with Kibological disdain for the Mensa presence on the Net: why on earth make a big deal of being measurably smarter than 98% of your fellow humans when basically *everyone* on Usenet already was, without being so insecure as to join a special club to prove it?

Whether or not they really could have qualified for Mensa entrance, most people on the Net believed in what John Erskine once called "the moral obligation to be intelligent" (title of a Phi Beta Kappa address at Amherst, collected in a book of essays that went through six editions in the 1910s and '20s). Granted, it was a sometimes skewed definition of intelligence, highly rationalist, enamored of formal systems, reflecting the technical training of many Netters. Like Kibo, I came to the Net from an English major's background, and even if I couldn't understand how so many brilliant computer geeks could take Ayn Rand seriously or consider M.C. Escher the century's greatest visual artist, I totally grokked his joy at the sheer exuberance of mind and language you found in almost every corner of Usenet. Of course there were always the lunatics and misanthropes, but they added to the fabric the way Lear's fool or Iago did to Shakespeare.

So what astounds and appalls long-time Usenetters and their spiritual allies among the newcomers is not just the invasion of stupidity, but of aggressive stupidity, stupidity that brays out its right to exist, stupidity that sees its swelling ranks as the prophecy of its ultimate victory in a war against a doomed elite, a war that it casts explicitly as class warfare.

You know what, though? The stupid people are right. This *is* class warfare, and anyone on the Net who wants to lay claim to intelligence is going to have to do some soul-searching over the fact.

What drove this home for me is the current flap, in the United States, over the state of daytime television talk shows, which have degenerated into sleaze-fest investigations of subcultural behavior with titles like "Women Who Sleep with Their Kids' Parole Officers". Walter Goodman has a piece in today's (Nov. 1) New York Times called "Daytime TV Talk: The Issue of Class". See if his descriptions of talk-show viewers and participants, and the reaction they provoke, remind you of anything else:

[The critics fail to acknowledge] that what is upsetting them is the appearance of an American underclass in all its ignorance and tastelessness. ...

Day after day, these shows ... feature people who seem to come from some contemporary version of Dickens's London. ... What they lack in grammar they make up in volume as they attack their mothers, sisters and lovers, describe their odd couplings and bare their most private miseries and peculiarities...

What can possibly draw them there? ... Where else can life's losers win so much attention?

Yep. He's talking about us. The Net Police are going to have to sue Goodman for swiping a trademarked Usenet motto in that last sentence.

And now imagine what an uproar everyone would be in if TV worked the way Usenet does: if PBS shows were interrupted every couple of minutes by Howard Stern or a blaring commercial for Spam, or if all the broadcasts on Channel Four were constantly jammed by some maniac exposing the insidious plot of John Major, as a direct descendant of the Gunpowder Plot cabal, to grant Ireland rule over England, abolish the House of Commons, and move the Vatican to Hampstead Heath, while making homosexuality compulsory for British citizenship.

The weird thing about the Usenet class war is that doesn't just follow traditional socioeconomic lines. So far as I can tell, there are as many spoiled rich kids in the Stupid Army as there are members of any conventional underclass. (True story: a professor at a private university complained to the Dean of Students about a student who every day would blare music from his dorm room right across from the professor's afternoon class; the kid protested loudly that this practice was "part of his culture" and that the professor had no right to try to suppress it. Now where have we heard *that* argument lately...?)

Still, it might help to map the current Usenet Wars onto more familiar stories of class and social conflict, to understand what's at stake. Taking a cue from Goodman's Dickens reference, I offer the American equivalent in the following scenario.

What if the Characters from "Huckleberry Finn" Were on Usenet?

[To quote Mark Twain: "Persons attempting to find a moral in this narrative will be prosecuted"--I've retained the services of the distinguished John Grubor, J.D., of Internet Law Systems.]

Judge Thatcher: the established social order. Genteel, learned, dedicated to preserving the rule of law. --The System Administrator. A David (tale) Lawrence, Chris Lewis, or Karen Lofstrom.

Pap Finn: the Judge's nemesis: what the tarnation right does the Judge have, he bawls, taking his own son Huck away from him just because he beats him and abandons him? Hates people who make laws or show off their book-larning, starting with Huck: "You're educated, too, they say--can read and write. You think you're better'n your father, now, don't you, because he can't? _I'll_ take it out of you." --The Destroyer of Netiquette. Stephen Boursy, his own self, ranting at his betters every time the whiskey kicks in.

Tom Sawyer: solidly middle-class, but with aristocratic pretensions. Theatrical, book-learned, self-dramatizing; happiest when the whole village is focused on one of his shenanigans. Just might grow up to be Mark Twain, however. --The Kibo principle, as currently reincarnated in, for example, The BOB(c).

Old Boggs: rides into down drunk and cussing like blazes, insulting the leading citizen and threatening to shoot everyone who crosses his path--but the old-timers know he's just a harmless fool. --The Newsgroup Blusterer, currently incarnated as John Grubor.

Jim: the voiceless one; others write for him, and force him into their own scripts. --The millions upon millions who are not here, and who are infinitely more oppressed than anyone who doesn't like a newsgroup charter or an ISP service contract will ever be.

Miss Watson: sticks Huck in a closet and preaches at him. Denies her own complicity in the immorality she condemns (she owns Jim). --Doctress Neutopia.

The Duke and the King: two con men with fabricated pedigrees, happy as pie to be in front of an audience of suckers, laughing up their sleeves at the rubes who take them for aristocracy and get fleeced. --The Spammers. The slightly more literate and shabby-genteel Duke, Canter & Siegel; the vulgar backwoods low-life, Jeff Slaton.

The Mob, who tar and feather the Duke and the King, and ride them out of town on a rail. --Who we'd all love to be. If we could *only* get our hands on those bastards... (But Huck gets the last word on Lynch's law: "It was a dreadful thing to see. Human beings *can* be awful cruel to one another." In the end, maybe we have Judge Thatchers for a reason.)

Huck: Yes, what of poor Huck? Naive, credulous, barely literate, yet instinctively moral, risking his freedom to preserve Jim's; flees Pap and sees through the Duke and the King for the shams they are; keeps getting trapped by "civilization", which is sure it knows what Huck needs. --The teeming throngs of Usenet newbies, constantly being told that AOL and Microsoft know best, bullied and recruited by the "adults", yet capable of seeing through corporate greed and self-serving rant in the end. Or let's hope.

Let's hope.

David Sewell  *   | "Where the earth is dry, the
RADIOCARBON, Dep't of Geosciences, U of Arizona |  soul is wisest and best."
  WWW:    |           --Heraclitus
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