Reading the comment section in online news

Here’s my Holland Sentinel column for November. If you do not live near the Great Lakes, you may not know that lake levels are near or at record highs. The Army Corps of Engineers is predicting that lake levels will continue to increase into next year. Together with powerful storms, lake levels have caused dramatic erosion along the coast line, with many lakefront homes now in danger of falling into the lake. My column reflects on readers’ reactions to newspaper articles about this situation.

I avoid reading the comment sections in most online news, but sometimes I can’t help myself.

Last week I saw some startling comments in response to stories about Lake Michigan beach erosion and spent a few miserable minutes remembering what a toxic brew of racism, misogyny, and other bile these things can be. (The Sentinel manages its reader feedback carefully, for which we can all be grateful.)

The comment that got my attention was this one: “If you are stupid enough to build a massive house on sand next [to] one of the biggest bodies of water in the world you should expect this messy [sic]. Zero sympathy here.”

People who leave comments at this particular news site are anonymous. They may have to register their names and email addresses in order to post, but their comments appear without names attached. And with this veil of anonymity, all sorts of venom appears. It’s hard to imagine that people would say these things in person, but I could be wrong.

You might think that Christians would avoid this battleground of the depraved, but no. Beach erosion, as it turns out, is a good excuse to demonstrate their knowledge of the Bible and to scold those who fail to heed its admonitions. As one commenter put it: “Here’s what Jesus has to say on where to build a house: ‘But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.’”

After signing himself “Dude,” which I liked, the commenter added: “The son of G*d TOLD you not to build on sand.” So, there.

I think Jesus had something more in mind than house construction when he said those words, but I would never dare to post that thought. On the other hand, I can understand how good it must feel to slap someone in the face with a Bible verse.

But Christians aren’t the only ones who spend time in the muck. Plenty of commenters who have no use for Christian faith also had their say. One of the lake front homeowners happened to mention the need for prayer as he thought about losing his home, and predictably this led to a dozen comments about the worthlessness of prayer.

I did have some sympathy for one comment: “I’ll save my prayers for people without food, victims of violence, and so forth … not people with means who decided to live too close to a lake.”

What most commenters seemed to focus on, however, was not Christian faith, but the wealth of those who chose to build close to the water. This one was typical: “God have mercy on the vacation homes of the wealthy.” Here’s another: “For some reason I just don’t have much compassion for the lake owners. Most of them have do not trespass on their beach front.”

Small point, maybe, but those who build close to the lake are not “lake owners.” That would require a different order of wealth altogether. But I get it. Most people can’t afford to live there, so why feel sympathy for those who can? Rich people are definitely not feeling the love these days from those who don’t have as much.

But it’s not just sympathy that’s in short supply. Several commenters were worried that the rich would soon be asking for government assistance: “Next thing they will want [is] a bail out from the state. Gawd here we go again. I think this happened 40 years ago.” I’m not sure what happened 40 years ago, but I understand the fear.

Which brought the next commenter to the topic of socialism: “They will be once Sanders, Warren and AOC are elected next November. Get used to it. All your property will become ours. Enjoy!”

Speaking of government assistance, one issue I hadn’t considered was cleanup. Several commenters expressed concern that taxpayers will be on the hook for taking care of the mess created by lakefront homes and other debris falling into the lake. Here’s one: “Are the property owners, be they private or commercial or municipal, who’s decks and stairways and demolished seawalls or whatever else is being washed into and thus polluting and fouling the lakes and lakeshore going to held responsible and accountable for cleaning up all this garbage that is currently being washed into and the lakes and piling up along the lakeshore?”

I don’t know the answer to that question (which could have used more punctuation), but I plan to bring it up at the next Park Township board meeting and demand an answer.

And then, finally, although there’s a great deal more, what conversation these days would be complete without a conspiracy theory? “Anyone interested in this problem should read the Chicago Tribune article published last year about the Great Lakes levels and how they are artificially manipulated. It confirms what was passed on to me by long time residents of western Michigan regarding diversion of rivers by Canada into Lake Superior to generate hydroelectric power and other artificial manipulations to benefit the shipping industry.”

What has been “passed on to me” is that Canada probably couldn’t set lake levels, even if it wanted to. Still, I would love to blame Canada for what’s happening, wouldn’t you? This commenter, by the way, uses the online name “Real Truth,” which I found too delicious not to mention.

I promise not to read the comment section next time.

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.

7 Responses to Reading the comment section in online news

  1. Carel November 1, 2019 at 8:52 am #

    I have no comment on this fine blog post. You wouldn’t read it anyway I understand. Stay dry! Carel

    • Doug November 3, 2019 at 7:24 am #

      I didn’t know you were a reader, Carel. Welcome!

  2. Andrew Gifford November 1, 2019 at 10:32 am #

    I’ve been wrestling with an understanding of Divine Forgiveness verses Divine Judgement lately. This seems to fit well into our greater understanding.

    • Doug November 3, 2019 at 7:23 am #

      I’d love to catch up with you one day and hear about your ministry, Andrew. Am grateful for the work you do.

  3. Sharon Steinmann-Layton November 1, 2019 at 10:58 am #

    such a good blog!

  4. Michael Putt November 1, 2019 at 9:47 pm #

    Well, you know, free speech. Funny, none of these comments will change the views of those on the other side.

    • Doug November 2, 2019 at 6:58 am #

      Hi Mike, before the digital era, letters to the editor were quite an important part of a newspaper. Editorial teams sorted them, used the best or most representative ones, and tossed the obscene or barely coherent ones. With today’s comment section, well, you know what I think. Thanks for reading!