Saturday, May 04, 2013


Facebook Friends: Drop the Rock

Dear Facebook Friends: Drop the Rock
by Wayne Robins

Last week in the class I teach at St. John's University called The Journalist as Critic, the discussion turned to social media, whether on blogs, Twitter or Facebook. My message to the students was to choose their words and express their opinions as carefully as if they were writing for the New York Times.
The reason for choosing this discussion is my recent chagrin at the declining level of civility, courtesy, and discipline among my own cohort of Facebook "friends." Most of them are journalists, music critics, public relations folks or entertainment and publishing industry professionals, the kind of people one collects over the course of a lifetime. Few of them are close friends. In fact, my "real life" relationships tend to be exclusive of Facebook. But it is one of the sweeter qualities of Facebook that one can resume or continue acquaintance with people who have passed through our lives in a favorable or collegial way.
But a few recent postings and threads have been irritating and at times offensive to read. They all begin with someone I know and respect writing bilious, sometimes obscene screeds about musical artists who have established themselves with permanence over the last few years. The artists are Creedence Clearwater Revival (CCR), Paul Simon, Patti Smith, and the band Rush. The posters are musicians and writers who I have had some exposure to over the years, whom I like and in most ways respect. Their postings lead me to question that respect.
The CCR posting was especially bewildering, since it seemed based on nothing but long suppressed fury. It was a simple statement of "fact," according to the Facebook post, that CCR was... a sequential series of violent vulgarity and excretory excess, in that writer's opinion.
I like Creedence Clearwater Revival and John Fogerty. Many people who enjoy rock music also like CCR, to a greater or lesser degree. What I found so peculiar about the posting was the intensity of the hateful language, the degree of disturbance expressed by a person with whom I am familiar.
So I wrote the person a private message and asked if everything in his life was going OK, maybe he needed someone to talk to, or to vent with. He replied everything was fine...his marriage was on the rocks, but really, everything was same old, same old. He just really didn't like the music, and repeated some of the abusive verbiage. He appreciated my friendly concern.
Then he sent me a message reassuring me that this over-the-top cursing and citations related to the bowel movements of canines was really an "act," the words of a character he created, using his real name, on Facebook. That really rattled me: If you are going to create a persona to share with (his) thousands of Facebook friends, why make that persona a raving asshole? I decided to block updates from him, but accidentally deleted him as a friend. My bad.
There was a similar attack from the same source on Paul Simon. Apparently, this person had once had an interaction with Paul Simon, thought the anecdote portraying Simon in a negative light was amusing, and in some way purposeful. Fair enough, I guess. Most people like to hear real life celebrity stories. What was troublesome was the dozens of subsequent thread comments piling on Simon, decades old anecdotes, rumors and tales assaulting Simon's honor, dignity, ethics, morals and humanity. Some members of this virtual mob had the idiotic insolence to suggest Simon's "real" behavior was the result of his being short.
I have met Paul Simon numerous times. He is not Mr. Warmth. But he has always been a cooperative interview subject. It is true that having done a series of interviews with him over the span of a few short years during the late 1980s/early 1990s for New York Newsday, that Simon did not seem to remember me from the last get together. I took no offense. I have come to understand that in addition to talent and luck, the way one reaches the pinnacle of pop music, or any profession, is a single-minded focus that sometimes strikes others as excessively self-absorbed. I doubt if Paul Simon has spent five minutes of the last 60 years thinking, "you know, if I wasn't so short, I might have really accomplished something in my life." Yeah, that's what's been holding him back.
There was also the person who posted a photo of Patti Smith with a broad smile and happily wrinkled nose, shaking hands of recently elected Pope Francis during a public meeting in St. Peter's Square. The haters were ready. There were those who thought it a contradiction that the woman who nearly 40 years ago sang, "Jesus died for someone's sins but not mine," that it was a kind of betrayal of punk rock orthodoxy. Or that Smith was somehow giving aid and comfort to an institution enmeshed for decades in a heinous sexual abuse scandal. Few seemed to imagine the profound affinity one who pursues a spiritual path, such as Smith, must feel when meeting one further along on that path. I think of a talk given by the spiritual seeker Sandy Beach of Tampa upon simply seeing the Dalai Lama. In essence, Sandy said, you don't need to be Buddhist to discern that there is something very special, some powerful, benign spiritual vibes—that makes the Dalai Lama an exceptional human being.
Besides, Patti Smith's spiritual beliefs are none of your, or my, business.
Finally, there is the old and tired "Rush sucks" card, played by an old friend when he posted on Facebook his impressions of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame initiation ceremony he attended in Los Angeles. He began his short appraisal with the phrase, and then ended the posting with the words, "did I mention that Rush sucks?" Cute if you're a six year old; pushing 60, not so cute.
"Rush sucks" was the concise opinion of many of my colleagues in the 1970s and 1980s. It was an opinion I shared until I realized I had never listened to enough Rush to form an independent opinion. Being fortunate enough to be required to cover a wide range of music for Newsday for 20 years, I had numerous opportunities to review Rush concerts over the years. The first one I hated, but I realized I wasn't familiar enough with the music to even distinguish the songs in the hockey arena in which they played, except for "Tom Sawyer." So the next time they were coming to town, I took a few days to listen to their catalog, get to know the songs, tried to understand why millions of people liked their concerts and albums, and why so many critics disliked them. It's not that they're bad musicians; they are excellent musicians. Geddy Lee's high-pitched vocals are an acquired taste that most critics don't acquire. They'll never be my favorite band; I didn't rush to my Rush albums when I bought an excellent new turntable a few months ago.
But some people like Rush, some people don't. For someone who has been a reputable critic, writer, and historian to spout "Rush sucks" nonsense seemed cheap and undignified; it was exposing a degree of snobbery and condescension that was unpalatable in 1988, and is just sort of sad 25 years later. It's like the Republicans who in 2013 are staking everything on repealing Roe v. Wade. Forget about it; it's settled law. Let's move on to discuss, with civility and humility, the problems that daunt us today.
So many of us enter the glass house that is Facebook, fists clenched and a rock in each hand. My suggestion: it is probably time to drop the rock.
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