Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Professor Crabby and the Ugliness of Internet Anonymity

It began innocently enough. Towleroad, a national gay news blog, posted a story about the marriage equality bill in Vermont: Lawmakers: Marriage Equality Will Pass in Vermont This Session. I'd heard the news, but it was exciting to see a positive marriage story alongside pessimistic stories about the fading hopes of overturning Prop 8 in California via the CA Supreme Court. Not only was it a positive news story, but it was coming from my home state, where my legislators were forging ahead to give gay couples full equality within the state (alas, nothing will change at the federal level) despite calls from several quarters, and Governor Douglas, that now--a time of economic hardship--is not the time to worry about the civil rights of a small minority with a, gasp, gay rights "agenda." Anyway, I read the story and added this comment:

I am SO proud of my VT legislators. It would have been easy for them to use the dismal economy as an excuse not to take on this bill this session, but they are doing the right thing. I'm also proud of Vermont Freedom to Marry for their smart grassroots efforts over the past 8 years to educate people why marriage (as opposed to just CUs) makes a difference. The VT Freedom to Marry ads are simple and direct--unlike the recent CA ad, they even mention the word marriage! Beth Robinson, the spokesperson for our side in the WCAX clip, is probably one of the most articulate people on the planet. Now, it looks like it will come down to whether the governor will veto or not. His main argument against the bill has been that it's a divisive distraction for the legislature, but once it's passed that argument evaporates, and vetoing it means it will only return next year, which would be a distraction. So, fingers crossed here.

On a side note, I've always found the WCAX reporter, Darren Perron, cute as a button.

Since Vermont isn't the center of most people's universe, I didn't expect there would be many comments on the thread. But there were a couple of positive ones, then came a response by Professor Crabby Ph.D. He (presumably, he) was more skeptical that the bill will escape Gov. Douglas's veto and be enacted into law, in part because he believes that Vermont is a "center right state," less progressive than New Hampshire.

I agreed with him that Governor Douglas is not our friend, and that it's mysterious why Vermont can elect a relatively conservative Republican governor at the same time we elect liberal Democrats like Peter Welch and Patrick Leahy, not to mention the out and proud Socialist, Bernie Sanders. Yep, we're a bit schizo when it comes to our elected officials. But I took exception, a bit cattily, to the idea that New Hampshire is more progressive than Vermont, since the joke has always been that NH is upside down and to the right of VT (thanks, Drew, xo). NH has consistently been behind VT when it comes to gay rights and, unlike VT, it's always been the New England state where Republican presidential candidates think it's worth their while to visit. In other words, the idea that NH is more progressive than VT is ludicrous, and, trivial as the distinction is in the scheme of things, I felt obliged to defend my home turf.

That's when the comments took an ugly turn. Instead of debating the issue at hand, suddenly my life was open to debate:

Ernie, I do live in Vermont, just not in the rarified world of Middlebury. You may have been born in this northern outpost of Appalachia -- let me guess, Chittenden County—and therefore, like a lot of native Vermonters, you think this gives you some sort of special right to interpret all things Vermont. Despite your Vermont pedigree, I don’t think you know too much about this state and the people who live here- otherwise you wouldn’t be spouting that absurd Vermont PR malarkey—. It occurs to me you might actually believe all that Ben and Jerry’s ad campaign business, either that or the Vermont you see out of your window as you and your boyfriend tool up route 7 through Ferrisburg to Burlington and on up to Montreal (such a fabulous life you live Ernie M with your Boyfriend on the faculty of Middlebury—so impressive, yawn). You know nothing about the people that matter to Douglas and have (re)elected him four times, he does not care about you because your idea of Vermont is Burlington, Brattleboro, Middlebury and Montpelier. When was the last time you were in Orange or Caledonia County? Have you ever been there? That Vermont thinks we have plenty too many rights as it is and they are Douglas’s voters not you and me. They matter to him. He’ll have them in mind when he vetoes this bill. I’ve lived here for ten years –and I bet you are wrong about Douglas and this veto—as wrong as you are about New Hampshire—which has more democrats elected (and fewer hillbilly residents) than Vermont --

It took me aback, not only because the presumptions were all wrong, but because there was such venom directed not at homophobes and Governor Douglas, our true opposition in the fight for equality, but at me. Of course, this is the Internet, where vitriol is as ubiquitous as fast food. I've made my share of snarky comments on Internet blogs, but I try to refrain from personal attacks, mostly because I almost always use some version of my real name and often link back to my blog in my comments. In other words, I've generally chosen not to be anonymous on the Internet, and therefore I tend not to say things that I would only say under the cover of anonymity.

I could have, and perhaps should have, resisted responding to Professor Crabby, because the exchange had gone off-topic, and there were any number of more useful things I could be doing, like writing a Letter to the Editor in favor of marriage equality, the reason behind my initial comment. Ah, but it's hard to let personal attacks slip on by, particularly when they're so off-base. So, I responded with sarcasm (unlike Prof. Crabby, I can't make personal attacks, because he has chosen to remain safely anonymous):

Whoa, I guess Professor Creepy Stalking Troll would be more appropriate. Sorry to burst your presumptuous bubble, but I didn't grow up in a "rarefied" part of VT and know Orange and Caledonia Counties and their people very well. I'm guessing my 40+ years in VT gives me more insight than your 10, but who cares? I'm not sure why you're living in a state you hate so much, or why you have such animosity towards fellow gay VTers--you are gay, right?--but that has nothing to do with the equality bill before the VT legislature, the subject of this thread. Governor Douglas (who has a lot less connection to the "real" VT than I do) may veto the bill with the Take Back VTers in mind, but they're a minority (most straight VTers don't care about this one way or the other), and he'd be foolish to do so. Meanwhile, maybe progressive NH is more your style.

Again, I could have made this comment and walked away, but the lure of the Internet squabble, particularly when it involves personal vanity, is strong, and so I checked this morning to see if Professor Crabby had anything to say for himself. He did, and this time it was even angrier and more personal:

Ernie, you sure do seem to spend a lot of time on TR— odd, you link to your pretentious, navel gazing blog for all the world to learn much too much about your trivial life –and then accuse people of being a troll for gleaning the most basic information out of the dreary, drek and poorly done derivative “art” that bloats ernie’sboringlife.com. Sorry if I hit a nerve EM –actually, probably not hard to do to a shallow self-absorbed oldish queen with way too much time on his hands –respond away with more questions and little substance I, unlike you, have better things than to respond again—instead of responding, here is an idea–go upload another one of your art photos to your blog and call yourself creative.

Hateful and silly remarks, yet they do tap into core issues about the worth of blogging or of any creative pursuit. Like most people who aren't curing cancer or saving starving children, I question whether anything I'm doing really matters. Crabby Professor wasn't telling me anything I didn't already know, he was just putting it in an especially venomous way, venom being a luxury of the anonymous. Part of me wanted to defend myself--my blog is hardly a personal diary, for instance, since I'm quite aware that the details of my life are trivial--but defending one's self from anonymous attacks becomes navel-gazing of another sort. So, I mostly stepped back:

Wow, Professor Crabby, the anonymous (i.e. cowardly) misdirected hatred and personal attacks are bizarre. There's an easy solution for anyone who doesn't like my blog--don't visit it!

I think we can agree that Gov. Douglas is bad for Vermont and being the first state to grant civil marriage equality through the legislature would be good for VT. I hope it happens this year. If it doesn't, I'll do what I can to make it happen next year, or the year after that. Can we move on?

Good, I can get back to my pretentious blogging now.

I don't know who Professor Crabby is, and I don't expect he'll emerge from the comfort of his anonymous closet. Being the target of bitterness makes me question my choice to not be anonymous on the Internet. To me, being openly yourself on the Internet is not unlike being out of the closet. It makes you vulnerable, open to bullying and attack, but the alternative is hiding, and some of us who spent too much time hiding in our youth are reluctant to retreat to a new closet. So, I'll continue to be out there, with a new awareness of the risks (a recent news story of cyber-bullying--complete with suits and countersuits--that truly got out of hand was another cautionary tale), an oldish queen sharing my navel-gazing and pretentiousness and dreary drek photographs with anyone who cares to view them. (I never quite understand people who complain about Internet content they don't like instead of simply skipping over it.) Farewell, Professor Crabby, and good luck on your anonymous life's journey.

Now, what was the original goal before the distractions flooded in? Oh, yes, marriage equality in VT. (How overly easy it is to lose sight of those original goals online--another good reason to go offline more often.) Fingers still crossed, still proud of my state's legislators for aiming to do the right thing. Forward.

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