As you read this, there is a large, full-color billboard standing at a street intersection in Caldwell, Idaho. On the left side, there’s a picture of the murderer in Aurora, Colorado, and the words “Kills 12 in a movie theater with an assault rifle and everybody freaks out.” On the right, a picture of a smiling President Obama and the words “Kills thousands with foreign policy; wins Nobel Peace Prize.”

Disgusting and abhorrent as that large advertisement is all by itself, my anger is more personal because I know the history of that billboard which, over the years, has been a source of amusement and – more than occasionally – political irritation. Some background.

Many years ago, a Libertarian named Ralph Smeed erected that sign board and, for years, plastered it with politically incorrect thoughts reflecting his own rightward views on politics, religion, marriage and just about everything else. Politics, mostly. Some of his output was considered shocking at the time. Yet nothing – NOTHING – he ever put up there was as disgusting as the image today.

Ralph and I “discussed” many a subject over many a libation over many a year. Though he often made my intellectual – and often physical – blood boil, I occasionally sought him out just to have one of our animated political discussions. The reason was one unusual trait Ralph possessed. While adamant in his Libertarianism, unlike most other zealots of any political position, Ralph would make his case – then listen. Actually listen to my points. Sometimes he would probe with a question; sometimes go tit-for-tat. But he’d always let me make my point. Then I’d listen as he made his. I learned more of debate from Ralph Smeed than in my formal education.

That brief history is to make two points. Ralph’s gone now. But I believe he would be angry and disgusted with what is on that billboard today. The intellectual jabs and humor of his often slightly outrageous postings never had anything as vile or as insulting. Those two adjectives could not be used by anyone to define the man or his public expressions.

The second point is the larger one and is something that has been deeply angering me for several years. I’ve written before of the massive amount of anonymous, hate-filled, often racist material on the Internet that has flowed into my inbox. More than that, it has flowed into our national psyche for so long it’s become commonplace and – too often – acceptable to the recipient.

Some months ago, I decided to stem that river of hate on my computer by telling friends and correspondents it was no longer welcome in my inbox and I didn’t want to see it. That caused several exchanges of “Oh, don’t really feel that way.” “It’s funny – interesting – good information.” “It’s what’s happening.” None of which is – or was – true. I said “No more.” In the end, I’ve stopped hearing from two very good friends whom I respected. Two educated, conversational, articulate friends.

While I miss their other exchanges, I’ve learned to live without the racist-tinged, intellectually fraudulent charges and baseless, too-often hate-filled missives from the Net that they passed along. Innocently enough, of course. Maybe. But wrong.

While some may think I’m overreacting to a bunch of Internet flotsam, I would strongly argue that’s not so. That billboard – that mentally pornographic billboard – standing in Idaho is exhibit “A” that we live in a nation that has either become jaded to insults directed at our political system or – if we don’t condemn it – we’ve become accomplices.

Hate – unbridled, blind, ignorant, mindless, angry, irrational, stupid anonymous, vile hate – is playing more of a role in our national life than most will admit. We’ve become a nation polarized not by issues but by hate. And anger steeped in hate. Our political system has ground to a halt because the historic congeniality of civilized partisanship has been lost. Where participants used to argue their positions fiercely, then socialize together, they now are divided politically, socially, geographically and – most of all – personally. Very, very personally.

Like nearly all national phenomena, hate is a grassroots issue. Hate does not start at the top and dribble down. It starts at the bottom – inside a few people – spreading outward and upward as more participate. It’s fed by the irrational fire underneath – a fire stroked by hate radio and the anonymity of Internet perversion. The loners who used to be unaffiliated and shut off from spreading their ignorance now have more direct access to our lives than all the commercial media in history. They’ve taken on a kind of sick “legitimacy” to poison our national thinking. Their sickness is now being exposed to people who would normally reject it but to whom it has become commonplace. And it’s being exposed to too many people who don’t know how to deal with it

No good can come from the spread of this mental cancer. None. On issues requiring common ground, we’re hopelessly divided. Politically, we couldn’t get a quorum to support motherhood. Economically, we’re losing a middle class we’ve always cherished to an oligarchy of a few billionaires with resources beyond everyone else. Narrow tenets of minority religions are being codified as law for a majority. Division replaces commonality.

Do I make too much of those anonymous Internet messages of hate speech? Do I protest too much about the hate of the broadcast talkers who keep up the incessant pounding on our sensibilities? Do I put too much emphasis on the sickness of division which has become our daily diet?

Maybe. But then there’s always that billboard in Caldwell, Idaho.

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