Regular readers of my columns know that from time to time I have expressed dismay with the online world, the hype, the commercialization, the noise, and, above all the amount of time it demands. I resist it. I curse it. But from the beginning I have been amazed. I am still online - - and from time to time I am still amazed.
My earliest days on line were on a local BBS (I still log on there every morning and play two trivia games) and after a brief disappointing introduction to Prodigy, I got an account on the GEnie network.
Around the time of operation Desert Storm a group of GEnie regulars, mostly Jewish, became concerned with the possibility of antisemitism related to the events in Iraq. This group grew and held heated e-mail and news group debates about the right way to deal with online hatred. Some of the people involved protested hate information on Prodigy. Others focused more specifically on holocaust denial. The debate over censorship versus open discourse was heated. One of the leaders in this discussion was a young lady named Stephanie Ann Brumlik, known on line as POOH.BAH.
Although afflicted with multiple sclerosis, which caused periodic paralysis and blindness for the last years of her life, she never stopped doing what she believed in. During the early Nineties Holocaust denial became a major issue on campuses. Deniers sought to place ads in college newspapers. Undeterred by her health, Stephanie and a few others would fly on a moment's notice to college campuses to hold all night seminars for college editors to help them understand what it meant to publish such materials and to help them to place the material in context for their readers.
Meanwhile, a small group debated the best approaches to the issues. It was a heady experience. We thought we were saving the world. Our internal e-mail debates became overwhelming. Once on the Sabbath, when the Orthodox members did not participate, I remember receiving 69 e-mail confidential e-mail messages discussing angrily the public messages posted by someone in our group that week. It all seemed so important. Some, like me, participated from the luxury of our homes, pontificating from the keyboard. Stephanie contributed much, much more.
Eventually the world moved on. I kept in touch with a few people from the group for a while. Stephanie's illness progressed. She moved back and forth to Israel. I would lose her e-mail address, she would change providers. Once in a long while, I would hear from her through her husband or a mutual friend. But eventually silence. I recently learned that she died two years ago this week in Safed, Israel, a town of artists and mystics and mystical beauty in the hills of northern Israel.
But she left a legacy. And that legacy has been preserved in a true labor of love by her husband Joel Brumlik, in a book entitled, "The Messenger That I Sent: A debate with those who deny the holocaust." I just received a copy this weekend. Much of what follows is paraphrased fairly directly from the introduction to that volume. I tried to call Joel this morning for permission to quote directly and learned, sadly, that he was buried this week. In memory of them both, I believe the following is a fair use of the information.
In March 1992, at 2:46 P.M. EST, something unusual happened. A man by the name of CONDOR invited over a million people to an open discussion. None of the participants had ever met, and very few would ever see each other. It took place on the computer network known as Genie. It was about the Holocaust, the slaughter of millions of innocents by Hitler and the Nazi regime. This discussion was started by someone with a covert purpose: to attract an audience and convince them that the Holocaust had never happened! CONDOR was an Holocaust denier, or, as he preferred to be called, a holocaust "revisionist".
The debate he launched and the transcript of that debate are studies not only in the verity of the Holocaust, but about the Constitutional right of free speech, about what is open to debate and what is propaganda, about what is scholarly research and what is dogma. The book is based on a verbatim transcript of 1243 of the messages that followed over a period of only about six weeks. While thousands lurked. Forty four participants engaged in the debate.
In this public debate I was a lurker. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. When confronted by professional polemicists and debaters, the slightest mistake - such as reference to unsubstantiated folk history and legend - could provide great targets for the other side. I quickly learned how much I did not know. For once, I kept my mouth shut. Still, looking through the list of participants, near the front of the volume, I find almost half a dozen with whom I have broken bread in places ranging from a kosher restaurant near Detroit and a hotel on Chicago's lake front to my own dining room. All people I met on line. Sometimes we agreed strongly, sometimes we disagreed passionately.
But the central figure in that debate was Stephanie Brumlik. Her intelligence and comprehensive knowledge of the subject and her debating skills help shape the discussion. The book is about Stephanie's heroism. It is the story of a woman who stood up for her people and her beliefs. But it is also about how to read carefully and critically. "It is about words that sound the same, but which, when used by someone with a covert agenda, mean something entirely different." Woven through this debate about rhetoric and historiography, legitimate claims and unsubstantiated claims masquerading and "truth," are bright threads of humor, compassion and remembrance.
This book is not an easy read. I have only had a chance to skim the surface. But it brings back intense memories of that time. Following an introductory chapter on Holocaust denial, which includes the text of Bradley R. Smith's controversial advertisement, and an introduction to the computer networks which helps explain the format and context of the preserved messages, there are over 500 pages of transcript, followed by more than 100 pages of references, glossaries and an index. The book also includes information about current holocaust denial on line. This is an issue which will not go away.The book is truly a labor of love but it is more than that. In addition to everything else, it is essential reading for those who want to learn about the nature of online debate and study its development regardless of any interest in the subject of the debate.
"The Messenger That I Sent" is available on line from Buy Books on the web.com They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .
For more information on the Holocaust and Holocaust denial visit The Nizkor Project.
[An aside: During the weeks leading up to and following the invasion of Iraq, I participated actively in an online debate on the GEnie network. If I remember correctly, eventually there were some 55 news groups or bulletin boards relating to various aspects of the war. The discussion was getting out of hand. GEnie announced that it intended to clean up. The messages would be deleted. So one night I downloaded them all. I think I still was using my first 1200 baud modem. I went to bed When I woke my machine was frozen. I had used every last bit of remaining space on my hard drive. Eventually I found a way to delete some stuff and then compress the file on to one or two floppies. I think I still have the disks somewhere in this clutter. The messages contain a fascinating record of public attitudes toward the invasion, before, during, and I believe, after the event. If anyone is interested in analyzing this material please send me a note. It's probably only a bit over a meg. Seemed a huge file then.]
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I am jaded. I do take the Internet for granted. But once in a while something still opens my eyes.
I am an officer of a local organization known as the Community of Congregations, a pioneering effort at interfaith cooperation in Chicago's Western Suburbs. Their annual election meeting and dinner is an event I look forward to every year. Last year the program included an excellent inner city youth choir. Other years the programs have ranged from powerful messages of faith, to philosophical discussions of the issues raised by interfaith communication, to hands on methods of uniting to deal with the ne ed of the community in literacy, homelessness, food pantries, gang problems. And this year I would be elected vice president The dinner was long scheduled for January 21.
But, late last month I had to go to Columbus, Ohio on a business trip. I was supposed to be in Madison, Wisconsin, the next day. The trip had been too often postponed. There was simply no way to reschedule. I would be out of town on the twenty-first. One of the ironies was that I was scheduled to be changing planes at O'Hare less than half an hour ride from the dinner not long before the time they would say grace. I put the dinner out of my mind.
Discussions went well all day in Columbus. But when I got to the airport I discovered my flight had been delayed an hour because of rain and fog. What about the flight to Madison? It was also on hold but they didn't know when it would take off. I did n't know if I could catch it.
I made a rash decision. - - I would fly to Chicago that night but wait until Friday morning to go on to Madison. I had planned to review documents in my hotel and arrive fresh at the meeting in the morning but if I went home, maybe I could make it to the dinner.
One problem: Since I knew I would be out of town, even though I maintain the group's web page at lgrossman.com/comcong.htm , I had forgotten where this year's dinner would be held. I couldn't think of anyone to call at that time of the afternoon. If only I had a laptop with me. If only I could get online, I ruminated out loud to another poor soul in line waiting to change his reservations.
"But you can," he said. "There is an Internet kiosk down the hall." Sure enough, a hundred yards down the hall there was a kiosk, looking like a combination old video game and an ATM machine.
I was amazed.
Only a small line waiting. I chatted with the woman in front of me. She was an old hand. She met her husband on line on CompuServe in 1989. I stood back discreetly. She checked her e-mail and checked a few websites, eventually printing out a few documents she needed on the built in laser printer.
Now it was my turn. There was a keyboard and a primitive pointing device. I am not used to surfing or typing standing up. I swiped my credit card and followed the prompts. I typed in my URL and in a few seconds there was the page and all the information I needed. The interface was a bit clunky. And I wasn't sure sometimes whether to use the touch pad, keyboard or touch the screen. But I am sure I could get used to it.
I could have logged off right away but I had been chatting with the next person in line and decided to show off a few of my pages - - Forgetting of course that I was running up the clock. I finished. A few seconds later a receipt was printed out. I was afraid to look at it.
Pleasant surprise. The initial cost to log on was about $4.50 and 35 cents a minute for each minute. Total cost was about $7.95 (Unfortunately, the receipt with the exact figures is in my desk drawer at the office.)
The service is provided by TouchNet. and includes fax capabilities and other business services. You can also find a detailed discussion of the airport service online.
[Afterward 1. The flight made it to Chicago in plenty of time for me to go to the program, even if I would have to miss dinner. But when I thought I was changing planes in Chicago, I checked my luggage. It took over 40 minutes just to get my bag. I got home just about the same time as the closing benediction.]
[Afterward 2. The next day I learned the flight to Madison never left the night before. The passengers weren't informed until after 11:00 p.m. (By then I was cozy in bed watching NightLine – indeed, I made the second half of ER.) Then they were taken to Madison by bus – arriving close to 3:00 a.m. I did have to get up early to catch a morning flight but I was much better off. Even if I did have to take a bus back to Chicago that afternoon.]
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Some months ago Symantec was kind enough to provide me a copy of pcAnywhere for review purposes. Perfect, I thought. My daughter, Sarah. was away in school and having problems with the used PC I fixed up for her. She was constantly calling me for help. I would close my eyes and try to visualize the screens she was describing. I constantly had her send me copies of her autoexec.bat and config.sys files and sometime whole .ini files (she was running Win 3.11, then). Then I sent them back with instructions. But her machine kept crashing. Locking up right in the middle of a paper -- actually, usually just when she thought she was finished but hadn't saved the file.
Perhaps I could use pcAnywhere. So when she came home for Thanksgiving, I installed pcAnywhere on this machine and gave her the disk to take back to school. She was busy, but eventually she installed the software on her machine with no problem and set it up in host mode.
It connected the first time I dialed in. She was amazed to watch me manipulate her cursor from two hundred miles way. I fished and snooped around. It was a bit slow but it worked. I found that her machine had been through the wars. Tons of remnants from long deleted applications. Ini and config files with conflicting statements and confusing instructions. Partially uninstalled memory managers, an operating system installed over old garbage. Yecch. It looked like her bedroom floor here at home. I cleaned up quite a bit.
It really was quite a joy having this tool. Sitting on one phone line reconfiguring your daughter's PC over another isn't exactly quality time, but any time between parent and child at this age is cherished. Thank you Symantec.
For a week or so the machine seemed better. But, still, from time to time it would lock up.
We decided the time had come to reformat the drive and start again. That is not something you can do remotely, so far as I know. So, over the next few weeks she saved her files and got ready. After a few missteps we managed to install Windows 95 by long distance. She was up and running. She reports it is running much better now.
Now I wanted to try out pcAnywhere and give it a real test so that I could do a decent review. But at Christmas she brought me a few CDs and after she went back to school, I discovered the pcAnywhere disk was on my desk. Sarah is due home again in a few weeks for a dental appointment. I will give her the disk to take with her. In the meantime, my wife is using my old "pawnshop special" in her office in our old spare bedroom. Perhaps I can clear enough space off of that machine to squeeze in pcAnywhere. Then I can talk to her as well.
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Let me give you the setup: She had been meditating in an isolated, windowless room which was "throbbing with melodious sounds." She was interrupted by a call:
"Who is it?' she called. Her voice was irritable. For she had been interrupted often since the music began. She knew several thousand people; in certain directions human intercourse had advanced enormously.
But it was fully fifteen seconds before the round plate that she had in her hand began to glow. A faint blue light shot across it darkening to purple, and presently she could see the image of her son, who lived on the other side of the earth, and he could see her.
The readers of that tale must have been amazed -- not only by the fact that the round plate booted in only 15 seconds. The foregoing excerpts are from a short story, "The Machine Stops" written by E.M. Forster some time before World War I. A friend recommended the piece to me in consideration of the amount of time I spend on line - - in disembodied communication. And so I pass it on to you. It is a tale of fantasy, so on target are some of its predictions and so far off in others, I hope. It is good once in a while to absorb information from a page. To soak-in reflected light and thought instead of that generated by phosphorescent pixels. The story is anthologized in many places. One source is "The Collected Tales of E.M. Forster", copyright 1968, Modern Library. This edition contains an excellent preface by Forster and many other fascinating tales as well.
For those who prefer phosphorescent pixels, I have discovered that the complete story is available on line at http://www.plexus.org/forster.html. You may also want to visit Plexus which posted the Forster story.
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Copyright 1999 Leonard Grossman
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