Internet reaction to the death of Jerry Falwell
When I heard the news that Princess Diana died, I had just pulled a pizza out of the oven and dropped it face down on my kitchen floor. I think it's the pizza event, more than any affection for the royal family that makes the occasion stick in my mind.
But that was the first time I really observed the phenomenon of death on the Internet. That is, how the Internet reacts to the death of famous people. Today the Internet is mourning Jerry Falwell, in a distinctly irreverent way. The Internet demographic is younger, hipper, and generally more liberal than mainstream America.
That is acutely obvious today, as my inbox explodes with profanity, blasphemy and a variety of offensive cartoons. I've always felt that there were two Lubbocks. First there is Sunshine Lubbock, full of parks and churches and well-groomed parents pushing their children in strollers. Like a Norman Rockwell painting, set against a West Texas sunset.
Then there is the Other Lubbock, full of liberals, malcontents and college kids. The residents of Sunshine Lubbock put on suits and convene at the Chamber of Commerce. Other Lubbock hangs out at Denny's, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee until the sun comes up.
Other Lubbock spends a lot of time complaining about Sunshine Lubbock, but Sunshine Lubbock likes to pretend that their counterparts do not exist. Maybe they don't exist, in numbers large enough to worry about. They don't vote, they don't march, and they don't write letters to the editor.
That makes them invisible, for the most part, except to people like me. I grew up in the Other Lubbock, and I still have plenty of friends there. My Internet circle includes a dozen brilliant foul-mouthed college kids. Great writers, smart as hell, and as militant about their liberalism as Falwell was about the Christian right.
Today those kids are celebrating the death of Jerry Falwell the way the Bush administration celebrated the fall of Saddam Hussein. I can't quote most of what I read today, but I'll tell you there's more to this than a bunch of college students rebelling against their parents. And it's not the typical Internet tactic of being rude for the fun of it.
Jerry Falwell was the sworn enemy of gays, feminists and the secular left. He blamed homosexuals for 9/11 and said AIDS was God's justice. And a hidden minority of Lubbockites are quite upset about that. You may think mainstream Lubbockites have the moral high ground here, but I wonder how Sunshine Lubbock will react to the death of Bill Clinton, when the time comes.
Hopefully they will be as graceful as Larry Flynt was today. Falwell sued Flynt in 1988. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court. And yet, on the day of Falwell's death, Flynt said:
“My mother always told me that no matter how much you dislike a person, when you meet them face to face you will find characteristics about them that you like. Jerry Falwell was a perfect example of that. I hated everything he stood for, but after meeting him in person, years after the trial, Jerry Falwell and I became good friends. … I always appreciated his sincerity even though I knew what he was selling and he knew what I was selling.”
I hope my enemies will be as gracious when I die.
I'm tempted to blame this on Internet rudeness and the deterioration of public discourse, but I think there's something else going on. It's as if once a person reaches a certain level of fame and fortune, anything you want to say about them is fair game.
It's one thing to celebrate the death of a political figure like Jerry Falwell, but I saw people cracking jokes about Steve Irwin, literally minutes after his death was announced. There were plenty of reasons to ridicule Anna Nicole Smith, but I always felt she deserved pity more than anything else.
Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but I think there's an issue here that's more important than the legacy of any particular individual. We don't respect the dead because we approve of them. We respect the dead because we respect life itself. I'm so stodgy about this point, I even kept my mouth shut on the day they executed Saddam Hussein.
Most of the Internet does not share my view. And yet, for all the abuse they heap on public figures, people on the Internet generally respect the deaths of “real” people. The Internet is full of touching memorials set up for normal people: the online discussion group that loses a beloved regular, the World of Warcraft guild that loses a member, the podcast coalition that forms a charity drive around the memorial of a lost friend.
Internet denizens are capable of grace and tact when it comes to normal people, but it's as if once you hit a certain level of fame, you're not really a person anymore. That's the trend that bothers me, more than general rudeness or the denigration of political opponents.
I'm not here to praise or abuse Jerry Falwell, but I think everyone deserves a little respect on the day they die. There will come a day when it's appropriate to debate his politics and dissect his faults, but it's not today. I think respect for the dead should be a universal thing, no matter which Lubbock you live in.
UPDATE: Quick aside here, after talking to some editors. They're not sure if the letters they get match up with the demographic I'm talking about, but they think Lubbock's other side does write letters to the editor, and that they do vote. I would expect to see letters from academics at Tech or from left-leaning professionals in the community, but I don't think the college crowd spends much time interacting with the Avalanche-Journal.
I would like to see that change. So, if you're one of my friends who spends most of his time pouring out opinions on their blog, I would encourage you to take a moment and send a slightly cleaned-up version of your opinion to the A-J.
You can submit letters online by clicking here. Give old media a chance. It might surprise you.