I always wanted an e-mail address to run with this column. I enjoy the immediacy of hearing from readers, without any filter. And I want to make contacting me as easy as possible — no need to find a stamp or bug those busy fellas at the “letters” page. I like knowing which topics strike a nerve, hearing other people’s stories about their kids and grandkids, sharing book and music recommendations, even getting snarled at by people who don’t agree with me. (Oy, when I said that most children’s books are vomitous, you should have heard the furious screams of the librarians.)
But occasionally I get an e-mail that brings me up short. Like this one, about my recent “Josie Bit Me” column:
Date: December 11, 2003 3:45:45 PM EST
Subject: gnashing of teeth
I read your piece about the child biting problem. At first I was thinking, as any normal parent would, that anyone who would try to rationalize with a two year old deserves to be bitten when I noticed who you were writing for…. As a Jew it is perfectly natural for your child to exhibit the behaviors of a parasite, i.e. lamprey, leech, tick. Itz her nature, after all.
To like, whatz not?
— A Gentile
Give it a B minus. Nice faux Borscht Belt rhythms, but negative marks for poor command of the English language. (Our semiliterate correspondent needs to look up “rationalize.” Though I fear he doesn’t have a dictionary — no room on the TV shelf next to “Mein Kampf” and “Hooked on Phonics.” ) To get feedback, I posted the e-mail to a professional writers’ forum online.
Very quickly, Wired magazine contributing editor Patrick Di Justo (his last name means “of justice” — nice touch!) posted a response. Conveniently for me, Patrick had just finished an article on identity theft for Wired. He’d researched how easy it is to find personal information online. And indeed, within half an hour, Patrick had found the guy’s real name, address, phone number and voter-registration number. He’d found the geographic coordinates of his house, as well as an aerial photograph of said house. He found the names and ages of his wife and child. And he found the fascinating fact that for nine days this summer, my correspondent was actually a local town councilman in New Jersey. He stepped down after the public found out that he was a member of the National Alliance — an organization that advocates “a thorough rooting out of Semitic and other non-Aryan values and customs everywhere.” (Tragically, it also advocates a boycott of Barry Manilow.) When the news of my correspondent’s affiliation broke, the gentleman first claimed he was no longer involved in Aryan organizations and insisted he wouldn’t resign, but after New Jersey Republicans and Democrats alike called for his ouster, he did.
According to PoliticsNJ.com, a respected political news site, my pen pal appeared on a local radio show during his brief tenure in office, denying being a bigot. He also denied authorship of articles bearing his byline on the Vanguard News Network, which has the charming slogan “No Jews. Just Right.” The articles are still online (gosh, you’d think that if they’d mistakenly used his byline, he’d have demanded that VNN delete them). In one, he says nobly: “I am not ashamed to put my name on what I write. I am not afraid of what others think of me or my opinions.” Then sign your e-mail, pumpkin. Unless you’re going to claim you didn’t write that, either?
I believe in freedom of speech (though I also believe people shouldn’t cower behind anonymous Hotmail accounts when sending hate speech). And this little adventure has been instructive. I’ve known for a long time that we have less anonymity than we think. But now I wonder whether this lack of online opacity isn’t a double-edged sword. Should I stop publishing my e-mail address, sacrificing the contact from readers that makes me a better columnist? On the other hand, if librarians can reach me directly, so can scum. And scum don’t play fair. When there was a petition calling for my buddy’s ouster from office, one of his white-supremacist friends stole a copy of the petition, posted the home addresses of its signers on another hate site and encouraged readers to put “political pressure” on them. Now, that’s where it gets scary. I’m a mother; I don’t want Josie to suffer for my principles. (My pen pal has a small kid too. I wonder if he feels the same way?) Haters have published online “wanted posters” with addresses of abortion providers. A federal appeals court ruled that this was not protected speech, but that’s scant consolation to the families of the murdered doctors. I hope Patrick’s forthcoming article tells us how to find a middle ground between freedom of information and freedom for potential criminals.
It all begs the question: At what point do we enforce limits on online freedom? A few weeks ago, Congress passed an anti-spam bill, establishing that many kinds of unsolicited mail violate people’s rights to privacy and protection. Basically, the new law, which took effect January 1, says commercial communication needs to be two-way; using fake e-mail addresses, as well as forging or hacking real e-mail addresses to send spam, is now illegal. But should hate speech be held to similar standards? My correspondent didn’t actually hide behind anonymity; he left an online trail, intentionally or not. (You could say he hides behind pseudonymity.) It’s nasty — but should it be illegal?
Getting back to the issues of identity and invisibility: I’ve just learned how to find people’s Social Security numbers online. Again, a double-edged sword. How scary — but in some sad way, how reassuring. If anyone tried to put “political pressure” on me and my 2-year-old, I’d definitely have some leverage. Okay, pen pal? To quote the Hebrew Hammer (as much as he can be quoted in a family newspaper): “ Shabbat Shalom….”
E-mail Marjorie at firstname.lastname@example.org.