The internet brings out the worst in people. We've got nasty trolls on every site, Nazis sending death threats over social media, masses of angry nerds harassing strangers just because something didn't cater perfectly to their tastes. If this wasn't also where we keep our porn, we wouldn't stand for any of it. And yet none of these issues are unique to the internet. As much as we'd like to, we can't blame technology for stuff like ...
Marvel Comics writer Nick Spencer recently received a barrage of tweets with messages like "kill yourself" after revealing that Captain America was totally for real a Nazi. (UNNECESSARY SPOILER: He's not.)
Surely, this is a uniquely internet problem. Eighty years ago, people had better things to do than threaten somebody over comic book depictions of fascism. But of course they didn't. The details change, but the trend remains the same.
Captain America Comics #1 was published in March of 1941, back when bashing Nazis was, believe it or not, a pretty controversial subject matter. Since the U.S. wasn't involved in World War II at that point, a lot of people were very upset when they saw the literal captain of America punching the leader of Germany. Some were "America Firsters" who thought the U.S. should stay out of whatever was going on in Europe, and some were plain ol' Nazis who liked what this Hitler guy was about. Soon, the Timely Comics (later renamed Marvel) offices were "inundated" with angry letters and phone calls, a common theme of which was "death to the Jews."
Then Nazis started dropping by the building. New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia had to get involved and personally offer police protection to the Timely staff. Not that all of them needed it. Jack Kirby once answered a call from self-described "real Nazis" who dared him to come down to the lobby for an ass-kicking. Kirby said he'd be right there, but by the time he arrived, the Real Nazis had vanished. Considering that Kirby went on to kill some Nazis in the war, maybe that was a good call on their part.
There's good reason to believe that during a presidential election, the Republican candidate's camp colluded with a third party to spread vile propaganda and fake news articles about his opponent. We are, of course, referring to the 1800 election between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.
Unseating a president is never easy, and Jefferson decided he needed a little "push" in his run against Adams. So Jefferson hired James Callender, a pamphleteer and journalist with a reputation for being a "scandalmonger." Over half of all internet comments involve disparaging the size of a man's equipment, and you'll be happy to hear the same was true of presidential politics in 1800. In a 183-page anti-Adams pamphlet (the equivalent of a mid-length Twitter rant), Callender described the president as "a hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman." Since Adams' Sedition Act had recently made it illegal to diss the president, that little burn earned Callender nine months in jail.
It worked, though. Jefferson won the 1800 election, even if his victory soon became a lesson in remembering who got you where you are. Callender wanted a job in Jefferson's administration, but ol' TJ was not about to elevate a hack writer that high in society. So Callender turned his trolling back at the new president. On top of sharing letters which proved they'd colluded during the election, Callender spread the rumor that Jefferson slept with his slaves, and fathered children with one named Sally Hemings. You know, that little centuries-long scandal. Jefferson was furious, but hey, at least the ensuing controversy inspired possibly the greatest portrait in history:
From the 1840s to the 1940s, both the U.S. and the UK favored "Vinegar Valentines" -- basically Valentine's Day cards for psychopaths. They were the equivalent of today's anonymous troll messages, except they took a lot more effort. For starters, you had to leave the house, buy a Vinegar Valentine at a boutique, and mail it to someone you hate, friends you only sort of hate, or strangers you might hate in the future. This wasn't a minor fad with a few dozen people taking part. In the 1850s they represented 50 percent of all Valentine's card sales in the U.S. Waking up on February 14th, you had a 50/50 shot between a love missive and a light hate crime.
The cards ranged from mild old-timey insults, like saying your wife has you whipped ...
... to that most timeless of classics, "You got an ugly face" ...
... to this needlessly personal critique of someone's crippling alcoholism and inability to feel true love:
While some of the cards were arguably funny, the consequences weren't. In 1885, a man shot his ex-wife after figuring out a Vinegar Valentine's card was from her, and at least one recipient killed himself (as a whole category of cards suggested he do). Good thing we've moved past this sort of thing, huh?
Think critics who condemn a movie based on the trailers are being too harsh? The actors in Alfred Jarry's 1896 play Ubu Roi got ONE WORD in before the crowd erupted into fights. That word was "merdre," which is French for "shit!" but with an extra "R" added. Whether it was the vulgarity or the intentional mispronunciation, that single word threw the crowd into a frenzy that lasted for 15 minutes.
When the play resumed, audience members shouted and hissed at the actors (and each other) throughout the entire show, culminating in a full-on riot at the end. It got so bad that authorities banned Ubu Roi from the stage, and it was never performed again in Jarry's lifetime (except in puppet theaters). Imagine if everyone got so pissed off at the Justice League premiere that the government outlawed it for several decades. Actually, that sounds kinda nice...
Diogenes the Cynic's philosophy of, uh ... Cynicism, rejected society as regressive, and claimed that enlightenment could only be attained when one was free of social constructs. A fine idea to argue in theory. In practice, it meant Diogenes wandering around Greece, urinating on people who annoyed him, defecating in the theater, and masturbating in public. Today, living a "simple life" means not owning a TV and never shutting up about it, but Diogenes was essentially a crazy homeless guy with a title. He ate and drank whatever he could find lying around, and his "house" was a clay jar outside a temple.
But there was one thing differentiating Cynic from hobo: People listened to Diogenes. According to one tale, Alexander the Great admired him so much that he came down to the ol' jar to ask if the masturbating cynic needed anything. "Yes," Diogenes reportedly replied, "stand out of my sunlight." This burn has been the subject of dozens of paintings and sculptures across the ages.
Diogenes also trolled his way more famous colleague, Plato. When Plato gave the definition of a human being as a "featherless biped," Diogenes responded by taking a chicken to Plato's school, plucking its feathers, and declaring, "Here's the Platonic human." Thoroughly owned, Plato was forced to change the definition to add "with flat nails." The phrase "... you asshole" was only implied.
Jefferson beat Adams pretty handily, so read How To Fight Presidents to figure out how to knock our the rest of 'em.
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