Great America

Know Comment

Guidance for writers in the “Age of the Troll.”

With no apology to Tom Cruise, writing is also a risky business of voluntary exposure. The writer puts something out there and any associate professor of sociology, politician, or unemployed carnival worker can have at you. Before the internet, when print was dominant, these folks were bound by certain rules.

Back in the day, newspapers typically didn’t publish feature articles or op-ed pieces by “Anonymous,” (I mean deep state operatives writing in the “newspaper of record” to justify undermining a duly elected president, not Hamilton, Madison, and Jay making the case for the Constitution as “Publius” in the 1780s). People who wrote letters to the editor also had to be identified, otherwise no deal. Serious magazines would run article-length letters, and the original author would get a rejoinder. Writers such as Sidney Hook (Out of Step), a man Millennials should get to know, would often weigh in. 

These were written debates conducted with civility, but that spirit no longer prevails. As the late, great Mose Allison said in “Ever Since the World Ended,” the rules have been amended and no one’s keeping score. Enter the “Age of the Troll.”

The writer puts something out there and the comments flow in from all over the world. Sometimes the commenter will identify herself or himself and leave a compliment. Others may in good spirit identify something the writer missed, or perhaps make a legitimate criticism based on facts. Less often, those willing to identify themselves launch a strident but baseless attack. In many cases, this confirms that the writer hit the bull’s-eye.

For example, a relative of Frank Marshall Davis—the beloved “Frank” in Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father—left a caustic comment on one of this writer’s articles involving the Dreams author his own self. I pointed out that the Schaumburg Center for Research in Black Culture has the written communications of the Kenyan Barack Obama from 1958-1964. As the New York Times noted, nothing in this trove of material, including the many letters, mentions Obama’s American wife and Hawaiian-born son, so no surprise that the 44th president never once showed up to have a look. 

That is what they call a “fact,” and Frank’s kin had no comeback. For material on Frank Marshall Davis, see Paul Kengor’s The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis: the Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor. As I note in Yes I Con: United Fakes of America, Pulitzer Prize winner David Garrow also touches on Frank in the massive Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama, a magisterial biography that proclaims Dreams from My Father a novel and its author a “composite character.” 

Commenters who style themselves “PookieTune,” “RedRover,” “Agent00$6.98” and such seldom raise a legitimate point and are usually professional trolls on a trashing mission. Sometimes opposing commenters will throw down with the trolls, saving the author time and trouble and occasionally providing entertainment. The original writer can add to his collection of gaffes, malaprops, and general nonsense. 

Sometimes there is no argument only, “what a terribly written article,” or “you need to proof-read better,” things like that. These, too, indicate that the writer of the original piece hit the target, and troll droppings seldom if ever merit a response. On the other hand, certain phrases will come to mind. 

“I hate people who vent their loquacity through extraneous bombastic circumlocution,” as Eric Idle of Monty Python put it. And don’t forget the famous scene in “Casablanca” when Peter Lorre accuses Humphrey Bogart of despising him. As Bogart’s Rick explains, “If I gave you any thought, I probably would.” That’s a good attitude to take with trolls, who would never show up for a face-to-face confrontation, even in pay-per-view. 

“Meet me at no special place,” Nat King Cole said, “and I’ll be there at no particular time.” 

Or as the Beatles put it, best to simply let it be. The trolls haven’t hit bottom, but better venues await. 

The trolls need to stop at 7-Eleven for a six-pack of Pepsi and a bag of jellybeans. Then hop over to Home Depot for a can or two of black spray paint. That done, go find a retaining wall and confirm Marshall McLuhan’s thesis that the medium is the message.