This is also the Age of Imbecility: Because everyone can say almost anything online, they do so - with impunity, and little or no reference to fact. As a result, we have unleashed a flood of everything from unsubstantiated opinion to raw venom.
Everglades because, after 60 years, the 105-mile East Coast Protection Levee needs repairs. Vulnerable sections of the levee appeared after Tropical Storm Fay last year. The South Florida Water Management District anticipates spending about $60 million in the next five years to strengthen the levee. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was said to be planning inspections in South Florida to improve levee standards. The article pointed out that unless our levees meet federal safety standards, homeowners' flood insurance rates could increase.
I was delighted to see the article so prominently published because it did what the best journalism does: bring to light an issue of compelling public interest. It was also reassuring because it suggested that improvements were being made.
So, imagine my shock when I read the flood of vicious reactions posted online to a factual report. One writer dismissed the article as "fear-mongering." Another compared the Army Corps of Engineers to "The Three Stooges' comedy routine." Yet another writer claimed that the levees are weak because the corps "always" awards contracts "to the minority company with the lowest bid."
I don't know what in the article could have provoked some contributors, but they were unabashedly racist. One said that if the levees breach, they would "wipe out" Hispanics, and "it will be a great thing." Another suggested that "Obama, firefighters, and ghetto blacks are destroying this country." Yet another said, "Let them flood. Most of the people living next to the Everglades are in homes they can't really afford anyway."
Nowhere in the 91 comments posted did anyone say that obviously there's a problem, and state and federal officials should do whatever it takes to fortify our levees. No one commented that everyone in South Florida would be adversely affected by wholesale flooding, not just people who live nearest the levees. Instead, as in the game of telephone, writers added their comments to bits and pieces of what they thought they heard and erupted in steadily increasing paroxysms of mean-spirited misperceptions. Because they were able to post using fake names, I believe they made comments that they would never have made if they had to sign their real names.
Anyone who writes seriously relishes hearing from readers, even those who disagree with them. I know I do. Show me the facts and information that you believe prove me wrong, and I'm more than happy to entertain them. Today, we're drowning in a tsunami of uninformed opinion that adds nothing to public debate and takes away every vestige of civil discourse. That's because of a self-inflicted breach of the levees of our rationality that only we can repair.
Stephen L. Goldstein's commentaries appear on alternate Sundays. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org