Political Schooling Via The Usenet Newsgroup

As my post yesterday should have indicated, we are educated by a variety of modalities. A powerfully formative one for me was my exposure to Usenet newsgroups.

I discovered newsgroups in 1988, shortly after I began work as a research assistant with the Computerized Conferencing and Communications Center at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. I ‘worked’ long hours in our laboratory; email and newsgroups occupied much of that time (in between writing code, debugging code, and stepping out for coffee and cigarette breaks). I had arrived in the US from India in 1987,  a bachelor’s degree in hand; I considered myself well-read, but this inflated estimation of my edification was soon to be revised.

In the late eighties and the early nineties, Usenet newsgroups were largely populated by those with some form of university affiliation: faculty, students, staff, post-doctoral fellows. (Commercial affiliations were not unknown, but these were outnumbered by academic ones; the .edu address was most commonly visible.)  That demographic, unsurprisingly, voluble and prolific in its writing. (It is to the credit of the hacker community that so many of its members wrote often, and well, on newsgroups.)

The following hierarchy of newsgroups captures their eclectic and comprehensive nature:

  • comp.* — Discussion of computer-related topics
  • news.* — Discussion of Usenet itself
  • sci.* — Discussion of scientific subjects
  • rec.* — Discussion of recreational activities (e.g. games and hobbies)
  • soc.* — Socialising and discussion of social issues.
  • talk. * — Discussion of contentious issues such as religion and politics.
  • misc.* — Miscellaneous discussion—anything which does not fit in the other hierarchies.

I read a few of the .sci, .soc, .talk, and .rec groups on a daily basis. These were the time-sucks of their day; you could spend hours and hours, reading, responding, and engaging in flame wars. They were how you filled lunch and coffee breaks; they could make you stay up late at night, and log in frequently to see if new articles had shown up, to see if anyone had responded to your post.

It was here, in Usenet newsgroups, that I read many, many well-written, articulate, clearly argued and defended, points of view that I had never read before: free speech absolutism, the legalization of drugs, Palestinian self-determination, women’s reproductive rights, privacy rights, gay and lesbian rights, free software versus proprietary software, feminism, interpretations of the American constitution.  And many more. (I also spent a great deal of time reading and discussing cricket in the cricket newsgroup and the Grateful Dead in rec.music.gdead; ) When world-shaking events like the fall of Berlin Wall or Tiananmen  Square occurred on the world stage, they provoked corresponding discussions in the relevant groups. I read furious debates; refutations and counter-refutations; angry tirades; racist and xenophobic rants; calm, reasoned, erudite quasi-dissertations.

I had often entertained conventional views on or all some of these topics before I encountered newsgroups; very few of them survived their encounter with newsgroup discussions.  I read a great deal of revisionist history; I was offered many perspectives on world historical events that I had glibly thought I had understood  well. I had been complacent; I was no longer so. The sense of instability in my beliefs was alarming, but it was also exhilarating. I learned that seemingly air-tight arguments and refutations often contained fatal fallacies and weaknesses that could be exposed by close reading and careful attention to their logical and rhetorical form.

Some discussions were tedious, and many were repetitive, and later in the mid-nineties as the Internet bloomed and blossomed, I found the newsgroups less useful. I stopped reading them soon thereafter. But I never forgot those early readings–which produced in me a kind of ‘shock of the new.’

Many, many thanks are due to all those unnamed teachers of mine.

Leave the Sports Fans Alone, Go Get the Protesters

In writing on Quebec’s heavy-handed crackdown on the continuing student protests (“Our Not So Friendly Northern Neighbor”, International Herald Tribune, May 23 2012), Laurence Bherer and Pascale Dufour note the generally well-behaved demeanor of the protesters:

Since the beginning of the student strike, leaders have told protesters to avoid violence. Protesters even condemned the small minority of troublemakers who had infiltrated the demonstrations. During the past four months of protests, there has never been the kind of rioting the city has seen when the local National Hockey League team, the Canadiens, wins or loses during the Stanley Cup playoffs. [link in original]

The invocation of the behavior of Canadiens fans is a particular instance of a familiar trope: the comparison between the law-and-order response to the behavior of sports fans–drunken or sober, celebrating or mourning–and that of another group, in this case, political protesters. (A classic instance, from a time long past, may be found in Deadheads’ pleas for tolerance as the Grateful Dead were banned in many cities from performing live. As Deadheads noted, Pittsburgh Police had suggested they would much rather work a Grateful Dead concert than a Steelers game; the latter event involved dealing with drunk fans, the former with stoned Deadheads; no prizes for guessing which group was better behaved.)

Now, presumably, when Canadiens fans rioted, the local police must have sought to restore order, perhaps by arresting drunken sports fans that might have damaged private property. But no amount of sports fan misbehavior will, I think, provoke the passage of legislation like Bill 78:

The bill threatens to impose steep fines of 25,000 to 125,000 Canadian dollars against student associations and unions…student associations will be found guilty if they do not stop their members from protesting within university and college grounds. During a street demonstration, the organization that plans the protest will be penalized if individual protesters stray from the police-approved route or exceed the time limit imposed by authorities. Student associations and unions are also liable for any damage caused by a third party during a demonstration….student organizations and unions will be held responsible for behavior they cannot possibly control.

The comparison above with the behavior of sports fans is significant because of a larger culture of  ‘boys-will-be-boys’ tolerance of sports fans behavior. (Have the Canadiens been held liable for their fans’ behavior?)  The same folks who would be mildly irritated by sports fans pissing on their lawns after a big game would be positively apoplectic if they were mildly inconvenienced by a political rally, action or demonstration of any sort. (Campus towns seem pretty mellow about the wake of devastation left after a big college football game.)  And the police response to the rowdiness of drunken sports fans, spilling into the streets from sidewalks, is more often than not, far more tolerant than it would be of a small group of sober protesters, perhaps chanting the odd slogan or two. The likelihood of a violent encounter is far greater in the first instance but the heavy-handed crackdown always takes place in the latter.

The problem, of course, is that drunken sports fans rioting sends one kind of message, the protest sends another. The former lets us know the massive narcotizing effect of professional sports is, shall we say, ‘in full effect’; the latter lets us know the medication is wearing off. The clubs and batons are required, therefore, to knock those protesting back into submission. The former assure us they are drunk, in the thrall of corporate fantasy entertainment; the latter, that they are done changing channels and would like to take over the production facilities. Small wonder that the latter evokes alarm, while the former merely bemused worry that someone’s storefront or car might be damaged. The dollar value of the damage caused by the rioting sports fan might cause more damage than the political protester but the protester is likely to generate far more pernicious instability; sports fan riots leave broken windows and bleeding noses in their wake, the political rally invariably disrupts far more.

It’s a no-brainer, really, for those charged with ‘keeping the peace’: leave the sports fans alone, go get the protesters.