Schadenfreude Nation

How did we all get so mean?

Our culture has grown unspeakably vile, and the origins of its decline can be traced directly to the mainstream media. Look no further than the ubiquity of the word -- and the concept -- "schadenfreude." It means "enjoyment derived from others' trouble," and over the past twenty-odd years or so, it has only grown more popular. The word didn't appear at all in the New York Times until 1985 (shortly before the exposure of the Iran-Contra affair, a nasty incident that many Reagan-haters enjoyed just a bit too much -- coincidence?), but by the end of 2008 the trend-setting paper had used the word 43 times in a single year. Thanks a lot, New York Times!

When did we get so mean? When did we decide that juvenile mockery was some substitute for the sober and respectful assessment of world events and leaders? Are we all such tense and miserable failures, hunched in our under-heated condos as we wait for the repo man to come and take our last can of chicken-noodle soup, that we feel such a shameful sense of relief when somebody, anybody, looks like a bigger failure than we do?

Everywhere you look, even on reputable news sites like NBC, you find the bilious jabbering of evil hack "journalists," delighting in such pettiness as Tim Kaine's bad hairdo, or trash-talking the brave war hero who recently ran for President, or cackling over the misadventures of wealthy, soon-to-be-divorced couples. Can we not be a little more generous, a little more tolerant, to recognize the humanity hidden within even the most badly coiffed, electorally spanked, or romantically doomed among us? The Internet is far too precious, our bits and bytes far too valuable, to be wasted on the puerile rantings of bitter scribblers who are just jealous that regular people like Joe the Plumber get to do the real reporting assignments.

And speaking of reporting and the news -- most of the news these days is bad anyway. It all boils down to one person or another's awful day, whether they're in Indiana or California or some place called "Greensburg." This just feeds into our culture of negativity and name-calling. What if, for just one week, we only reported the good news? It would put a lot of angry, mean so-called Internet writers out of business -- and it might retire schadenfreude forever!

Sara K. Smith writes for Wonkette, a scholarly online journal of media and cultural criticism.

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