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By Diogenes (articles ) | Nov 29, 2007

An unsympathetic critic of blogs has referred to blogging as a sort of "high tech graffiti." While the comparison clearly wasn't intended as a compliment, it should be acknowledged that, like blogging, graffiti is not uniformly violent and uncouth.

Most, of course, is. And always was. A glance into The Little Golden Book of Deplorably Judgmental Epigraphy (earlier published under the title Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, Vol IV, iii) shows that the walls of the ancient cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum were covered with graffiti that, being thematically fixated on the act of oral copulation, might perfectly well appear on any Gary viaduct today -- or, for that matter, in a Gender Studies workshop at Georgetown. The mentality of the vandal seems to be cross-culturally invariable.

But even in the first century there were, so to speak, "meta-taggers," capable of sardonic comment on the work of their brethren. Pompeiian walls display variations on this witty elegiac couplet:

Admiror, paries, te non cecidisse ruinis
qui tot scriptorum taedia sustineas.

And how, poor ciphered wall, art not thou long disintegrated,
By such a mass of scribbled idiocy over-freighted?

It was much copied, for obvious reasons, but somewhere along the line there was an active intelligence at work.

I've made a desultory collection over the years of those rare specimens that, by happy chance, stand out from the compost of the mindless scrawls that surrounds them. Not many are expressed in Latin hexameters, but all display a nonchalant detachment from the passions of the hour. At one time British Rail (then a state monopoly) had a poster campaign with the following slogan:

The Last Train is Later Than You Think

An unconvinced passenger in Victoria Station made use of the lower margin of the poster to pen the question:

Why has this train been singled out for particular comment?

Or take this laconic observation, scratched onto a condom machine in a tavern men's room:

My dad says these things don't work.

Point taken, lad. With one stroke you've undone the harm of a dozen Planned Parenthood workshops. One of my all-time favorite backhand returns took advantage of a highway billboard whose space the American Federation of Teachers had employed to splash this self-congratulatory message:

Education Has Made America.

Confronted with this bravado, some skeptic with a can of spray-paint altered the surface slightly:

Education Has Made* America.

And underneath added the note: "*euphemism." Call it art for art's sake.

Part of the appeal of these aphorisms is that they're anonymous. It's a case of the nameless against the faceless, the unknown little guy against the megalith. If we learned who authored these graffiti it would spoil much of the fun, which has to do with the mysterious potential that makes a man put a witticism in a bottle and toss it in the sea, on the millionth millionth chance that it will wash up on an appreciative shore. There's a cheekiness to his indifference to the response that parallels his cheekiness toward the over-proud target of his sarcasm.

Very occasionally, even the mighty can catch enough of the spirit to take a poke at themselves. I once met a monsignor employed in the Roman Rota who told me that, scrawled in a lavatory stall in the Rotal gabinetto of Rome's Palazzo della Cancelleria, one finds a graffito taken verbatim from the medieval sequence Dies Irae:

Iudex ergo cum sedebit
Quidquid latet apparebit

When the judge shall mount the throne
All that's hidden will be shown.

I very much hope it's true. It would go a long way in restoring our battered confidence in Roman jurisprudence.

The point of this excursus is that bad blogging, like bad graffiti, cancels itself out by simply adding to the background noise it pretends to comment on. But it doesn't have to be that way. Occasionally I'm moved to wonder whether the most sanctimonious critics of blogdom are not so much concerned with the spread of alarm and despondency as they are tormented by the possibility that someone, somewhere, might be having a laugh at their expense.

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  • Posted by: - Nov. 29, 2007 11:34 AM ET USA

    "And how, poor ciphered wall, art not thou long disintegrated, By such a mass of scribbled idiocy over-freighted?" Perhaps "over-weighted" would have been better?

  • Posted by: - Nov. 29, 2007 10:56 AM ET USA

    I can't help but think this fine excursus was inspired by one of the first entries on the new America blog that inaugurated the feature as it apologized for the whole thing. I find it ironic that so many decry the baseness of blogging even as they venture themselves into blogging's waters, as if they sniff at the idea of having to place their golden bon mots alongside the tortured mouth-breathings of the hoi polloi. Yet they can't stay away, can they?

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