Fast forward: Pushing 'send' instead of thinking

Here we go again: another forwarded e-mail that makes me want to bash my head against the keyboard. My Republican neighbor has sent me one of those inflammatory us-versus-them missives that ricochet around the country at the speed of light.

How have we come to this? Why are Americans so polarized? Red states, blue states– but even that doesn't say it all, because within each state-­ hell, within households-­ Americans are sharply divided, sorted into left and right, like cars in opposite lanes speeding away from one another.

The message on my screen is a rant against the Democratic Party, one cloaked in a faux-academic analysis of the downfalls of great civilizations. The rant concludes that, thanks to Democratic largesse, the US is on the path to extinction.

A professor Olson from Minnesota (the name of a for-real professor who has disavowed any connection to this persistent e-mail hoax) is quoted as saying, "In aggregate, the map of the territory Bush won was mostly the land owned by the tax-paying citizens of this great country. Gore's territory encompassed those citizens living in government-owned tenements and living off government welfare...."

As Charlie Brown would say, "Aarrgghh!"

Do I respond to this? Should I go into the outrage of Bush's tax cuts for the rich? Or how middle- and working-class people (including staunch Bush-supporters) are getting screwed by bearing a disproportionately heavy tax burden, due to loopholes created for the rich?

After a mind-clearing moment in which I bury my face in my hands, I return my fingers to the keyboard and tell my friend that if only (oh Lord, if only) the poor and disenfranchised actually voted in significant numbers, then Gore would now be occupying the Oval Office.

I don't blame my neighbor for passing along this spurious e-mail. I've been known to do the same thing, forwarding some message that embodies what I see as political truth without turning to an urban-legends site such as­ or to a political site such as– to determine the veracity of the document.

It's easy to find truth in what someone else has written and then pass it on as an expression of our own opinion. The trouble is, one click on "forward" at a time, shades of gray tend to fall away, and pretty soon the opinions of other people­ those who craft these apparently irresistible nuggets of propaganda­ become my own.

I fear that those of us who spend our days entranced by a glowing computer screen are becoming "ditto heads." There are both Democratic ditto heads and GOP ditto heads, and– like the Rush Limbaugh fans who inspired the nickname– we swallow these epistles hook, line, and sinker, and pass them along to the like-minded.

The only time we're called upon to think at all is when we get an e-mail from the other side­ a warning shot launched like a flaming arrow from behind enemy lines.

Rather than engage in any kind of meaningful give and take, it's easier to respond by forwarding someone else's e-mail rant, whether or not it has any basis in reality. In terms of brainpower, this is a cheap and easy way to communicate.

The philosophies of just two political parties have become, for many of us, the prism through which we see the world. And my hunch is that the rapid-fire forwarding of political e-mails is shaping our opinions, calcifying our opposition, and spinning us into separate camps with all the deliberation and subtlety of a centrifuge.

I forward; therefore, I am.

This is veteran essayist Janis Jaquith's first essay in the Hook.