Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that hell is other people. That statement should have been inspired by high school. Navigating adolescence is hard enough without being trapped in a zoo with all Creation's animals. They're not all bad, of course, but you encounter people-as-wolves, people-as-snakes, practicing atavistic adult identities. In such situations, you quickly discover that (a) the human being is a predator like any other, (b) despite its position contradictory with basic biology, "Thou shalt not kill" has gotten around pretty well to all but a frightening few, but (c) "Thou shalt not hurt" -- which is to say thou shalt have empathy -- not only failed to achieve commandment status back in the desert days, it has been given almost a complete pass ever since.
The same lack of empathy extends to adulthood. Free to be who you want to be with whomever you choose to associate with, it should be relatively easy to avoid those un-evolved misanthropes whose idea of relating to others is to sit in their cages and fling filth at passersby. That is not true, though, if you or your work appears before the public for a living. You're right back in the land of being judged, ostracized, stigmatized; no longer 16 years old, but bottled up back in high school just the same. We call it social media. I call it Twitter.
If you are a writer, singer, actor, or painter, or aspire to any field in which your work must be on exhibition, you have to be prepared for boos as well as cheers, for both bouquets and brickbats; sometimes, there are a lot more of the latter than the former. Even with that understanding comes the hope that while some may take exception to your work, they will not deny you your humanity. For 95 percent of readers, this is a low bar easily met. The remaining five percent were perfectly described by Harlan Ellison almost 30 years ago in his essay "Xenogenesis:"
What we deal with in this tract are the ones known to us all ... the rude, the vicious, the stunted and the insensitive. And they don't know who they are, because the very mean-spiritedness and playground bully cruelty that marks them also poisons them with an arrogance that prevents their perceiving how vile they are to the rest of us, how embarrassing they are to the preponderance of decent and gracious men and women who make up the literary support-group we call fandom.
In other words, these anonymous snipers are numb to everything except their self-satisfaction.
Last week, a friend wrote a piece for publication on the Internet. The piece was about a controversial subject, and took a strong position. Was it perfect? No; nothing ever is. Could you argue with its premise? Sure, and many did, in terms that were fair, respectful, and aimed at furthering discussion rather than scoring points. There was, however, a small cadre of trolls who went beyond that, who made their reaction not only one of mockery, but of abuse, shouting names and insults from their dank burrows, and Twitter stank with the odor of their masturbatory pleasure. Incapable of touching the writer's ideas, they tried to touch the writer, and I use the word "touch" in the same way that reports of child molestation use the word "touch."
I was furious, and I was reminded of this:
American schools, at least out here in suburbia, didn't track kids when I was a student, by which I mean that the serious kids commingled with the un-serious, the safe with the dangerous, the I-know-it-sounds-pretentious-but-hell-it's-true good with the evil. Everyone deserves a chance at education, but not at the expense of those who want an education. That should have been a priority, but it rarely was.
Given this uneasy mixture, it was inevitable that I would have a few run-ins with those who used school as a way of acting out whatever violence, verbal or physical, that had been acted out on them. Actually, that's too generous an assumption. Some of them were surely acting out whatever violence had not been acted out on them, but that they had nevertheless become aware of and simply liked.
Some of these things happened at lunch, when all the inmates were put together regardless of their status, future president or present thug. My freshman year, I sat at what must have been perceived as the Nerds Table. Many of us had glasses. Some of us had kissed a girl; many more had not. We talked about baseball -- I saw my first copy of Baseball America at that table -- along with science-fiction films and comic books. The best and worst Beatles songs. We didn't bother anybody and generally had a good time.
The kids in black sat at the next table over. I don't mean Goths, I mean kids who wouldn't have known what "moral nihilism" meant, but acted like they did. They wore chains and heavy boots and carried themselves with real menace. Their prince was a tall, heavy tough who I swear must have been 25 when I was 16. It was as if he had been socially promoted to the point of being a high-school senior, at which point the authorities realized they couldn't graduate him and started holding him back, year after year. I don't think he went to classes. I never saw him anywhere but in the lunch room or out behind the building, smoking. Something about him conveyed danger, like maybe he had figured out he was caged here and the only thing that was going to get him sprung was an act of violence.
One day, with no provocation, he directed his acolytes to throw things at our table. Food. Books they had torn in half. Rusty metal objects of unclear origin. A guy couldn't eat his tater tots with trash raining down on him, let alone talk about whether the worst Beatles cover was "Mr. Moonlight" or "Mr. Moonlight." (The answer, as you might have guessed, is "Mr. Moonlight.") We also couldn't retaliate. We weren't fighters, and we knew they actually hurt people.
We appealed to the authorities. They wouldn't do anything, nor would they let us move our table. Once, thinking that maybe smarts would suffice where there was no other alternative, I got up from our table and walked to theirs. I approached their prince.
I tried to talk to him, to make some kind of truce. It's harder to abuse someone who you know, right? "I don't like you," he said, affectless. It was clearly a threat. I retreated. The flinging of stuff went on and on. It must have ended at some point, or maybe the year just ended. It's all a blur after "I don't like you."
Flash forward two years: I was a freshman in college, driving through my hometown on a cold November night. I stopped at a gas station. We don't have self-service in New Jersey. I lowered my window. The attendant approached, and though he was bundled against the gusting wind, I recognized him at once: it was the prince of the cafeteria Neanderthals.
I slouched, not wholly out of fear, but also because the whole thing seemed painfully awkward. I mumbled that he should fill up the tank. He didn't seem to recognize me. When I handed him a $20, he went to make change, pulling out that big roll of bills that gas-station attendants always used to carry. As he was peeling off singles, his fingers, probably numb from the cold, slipped off the roll, and money went flying everywhere -- but primarily into the open window of my car. I was showered in greenbacks. "Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!" he shouted. I frantically picked up the bills, no thought in my mind except to get them out of the car. I didn't want him reaching in after them, didn't want him any nearer than he was already. I shoved the wadded-up paper at him, every dollar, and drove away.
It was only later that I was able to reflect on the encounter. I sat with the nerds, I probably was a nerd, but I didn't get good grades. Didn't even bother to apply to colleges before graduation, a secret I kept from everyone I knew, including my parents. It was only after a few adventures in the real world that I realized where I belonged and what I needed to do to get there, so I cleaned myself up and got to school. And while all of that was happening, the erstwhile prince was pumping gas, and he might still be pumping gas.
In the movie Patton, George C. Scott speaks these words:
For over a thousand years, Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of a triumph - a tumultuous parade. In the procession came trumpeters and musicians and strange animals from the conquered territories, together with carts laden with treasure and captured armaments. The conqueror rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. Sometimes his children, robed in white, stood with him in the chariot, or rode the trace horses. A slave stood behind the conqueror, holding a golden crown, and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting.
He could have added: especially if your peak moment came in a school cafeteria. Or in social media.
Back at the beginning of the 20th century there was a first baseman named Hal Chase. He was the first star of the New York Highlanders/Yankees, which is to say he was also the first Yankee to be highly overrated. "A more brilliant player does not wear a uniform," it was said, but all these years later, it's hard to see why anyone felt that way. For most of his Yankees career he was a very average hitter, marked by impatience. He had a reputation as a tremendous fielder, and in the age of the bunt that must have meant more than it does today, but the evidence of his fielding ability has been lost to time. Think about it: Chase played during a period when the average ball club might draw about 5,000 fans a game, and those below average (which the Yankees often were) far less. Most of his career went unseen by anyone, so even his defensive reputation rests on scant eyewitness testimony.
Nonetheless, Chase was a celebrity insofar as early 1900s America went, "a swaggering boulevardier and Broadway dandy," as his biographer Martin Donell Kohout described him, "the black-slapping, cigar-chomping habitué of saloons and pool halls, seldom seen without a chorus girl on his arm."
Of course, Chase was a crook, a gambler who either threw games himself or convinced others to do so. As The Sporting News said in 1913, "That he can play first base as it never was and perhaps never will be played is the known truth. That he will is a different matter." To vastly simplify a long and complicated narrative, Frank Chance chased him out of New York, Christy Mathewson chased him out of Cincinnati, and later he was even chased out of the California League. His life after 1919 was one long downward spiral of poverty and alienation. Among his many health problems was malnutrition. In a deathbed interview, Chase mourned his choices. "I'd give anything if I could start all over again. What a change there would be in the life of Hal Chase. I was all wrong, at least in most things, and my best proof is that I am flat on my back, without a dime."
"Prince Hal," the toast of New York, was a pauper. He is little remembered today, except by those who want to recall the corruption inherent in progressive-era baseball. It's no coincidence that Chase disappeared with the arrival of the 1920s. It wasn't just the fall of the Black Sox, it was the arrival of Babe Ruth, mass media, and a revision on both the part of the game's masters and the public as to what was tolerable behavior. Chase was a big fish in the small pond that was baseball at that time. The pond got so large that a self-made non-entity got lost in it. Sic transit gloria mundi.
Chase never mocked anyone beyond the typical infield chatter, as far as I can tell, but he sure was self-satisfied for awhile.
"What rage for fame attends great and small/ Better be damn'd than not named at all."
Thoreau said that most men lead lives of quiet desperation. The trolls of social media are the loudly desperate, those who seek to command attention because they can. They offer no substance, only red meat for their snickering sycophants. Those with the bravery to perch atop a soapbox might not always be good, their ideas might not always be smart, but at least they are up there. Today, when anyone can start a blog, the barriers to entry are gone. Anyone can put their ideas forward and let the marketplace determine their worth. That takes courage, far more courage than simply hurling invective at those same people. There is an implicit challenge there, one the trolls will never take, because they have nothing to say, their only purpose being, as Bob Dylan sang, "Not to come up any higher, but rather get you down in the hole that he's in."
The barriers to being a social media troll are even lower than for the blogger. All you need is one follower to start a fire. Suddenly, you're a celebrity with the ability to ruin the day of someone who actually took the time to compose a complex thought or two. We're supposed to be thick-skinned about this stuff, I realize, but we're also human beings, and no matter how good it is to have your work talked about (as Oscar Wilde said, the only thing worse is not being talked about), the more personal attacks can penetrate the thickest of armor. It's not that name-calling really matters -- everyone knows about stick and stones -- but what we're really talking about is someone trying to invalidate you, to dismiss the small but critical things on which you hang your identity. They attack your work, then they attack you, and if you do the only rational thing and block them, they mock you for blocking them. There is no winning.
But you know what? These cuts are are only flesh wounds. None of us is more than an outpatient. You waste our time, and a writer never has enough of that, but you don't break us. And whereas I don't fool myself into thinking that daily doodads about baseball are going to be any kind of lasting legacy for my name, I know that random bleatings and insults on Facebook or Twitter will leave even less of a mark.
You think this is going to last? You think you have a reputation? It's all going to be gone. Even books are not a promise. Look at the most acclaimed authors of 20, 30, 60 years ago. For 95 percent of them, it's as if they never lived. There are heroes, venerated while alive, whose graves at Arlington no one thinks to visit, Hall of Famers in Cooperstown whose plaques elicit shrugs. Blog entries? Flotsam. Tweets? Are you kidding? Still, when it comes to picking a side, I know which I'm on: those who are making an effort to elevate the conversation.
And here is a warning to my fellow writers: those of you who traffic with these imbeciles, who disappear when they libel or persecute a writer whose only crime was to propose a thought that was somehow unacceptable to them in their limited thinking, who then treat them with the respect due legitimate fans and readers, you are letting down the community that has nurtured and supported you. You become accessories after the fact.
A last word to the trolls: Hal Chase had more followers than you do. "Hell is other people" didn't say half of it, because it wasn't about social media, which enables those other "people." Like Chase, they will die unloved, unmourned, finally and utterly alone ... and without anything at all attached to their names except, perhaps, the ignominy of trying to pull down those who attempted more than they ever could. Congratulations: You're just the prince of the cafeteria, that's all.