Monday, August 18, 2008


One thing the new Web 2.0 world has brought us is the ability to take in other people's opinions as we never have before. We read blogs, comments on blogs, comments on comments, comments on newspaper articles, and on and on. I don't know that we have any greater insight into one another than we did before, as this mass of opinion, mostly uninformed, washes over us, but we at the least gain appreciation for the stark differences that happen inside our respective heads.

I've had some opportunity to think about this since I started writing this blog, as the act of expressing my thoughts has required a sharpening of those thoughts. That said, I have also developed a greater appreciation of which things I would term core beliefs, and those which are not so firmly held. Sometimes that's in response to a challenge, a comment on the blog perhaps, other times that comes out of my own thought processes. I admit there are times I will write something that I am not 100% behind, mainly to see how I really feel about it.

There are only a very few things I believe that could not change in response to convincing evidence to the contrary; I like to think I'm at least that open. I'm loath to take personal ownership of an idea unless it comes out of my core. When I wrote last week that I hesitate to regard Michael Phelps as the all-time greatest Olympian, I certainly believed that (and continue to do so). But that is not so strong a belief as to get me to desert other core values; if I were at a dinner party, and someone contended that Phelps was the greatest, I wouldn't storm out in a huff, as politeness dictates respect for others' opinions. (On the other hand, if someone espoused infanticide, I probably would leave as quickly as possible. I am far more opposed to baby killing than I am to the idea of Phelps as greatest Olympian.)

Apparently, others don't see it that way. Phil Hersh of the Chicago Tribune, one of the most respected international sportswriters around, wrote a story last Friday along the same lines as my above-referenced post, that Phelps is not (yet) the best Olympic athlete ever. Hersh picks Phelps #6, with Carl Lewis 1st, Paavo Nurmi 2nd, and so on. (He also quotes David Wallechinsky to the effect that Nurmi and Lewis are co-#1.)

Hersh has covered international sports for the Tribune for 21 years, and has covered 14 Olympics. He makes it clear that these views are his opinion, that Phelps still has a chance to move up in his estimation if he extends his achievements. But others see it differently, as expressed by a couple of letters in the Saturday Tribune:
Shame on Philip Hersh and the Chicago Tribune for reflecting on a superior athlete like Michael Phelps this way. Phelps is the best athlete who ever competed in the Olympics, and the best the U.S. ever brought up. This is acknowledged by millions of people. (George Aygar, Chicago)

With all that Michael Phelps is accomplishing, the training this young man has experienced, the sacrifice, the dedication to his sport - and all Phil Hersh can do is write a column saying how poorly he ranks among other athletes?
Poor taste, Phil. And poor judgment by the Tribune for running it.
Get a grip, Phil. Find the good in this man's accomplishments and write an appropriate column. (Maddie and Jack Smith, Wheaton)
Leaving aside the specious logic of the letter writers, I wonder at the passion. Calling such an article out for "shame" or for "poor taste," does this not demonstrate a complete lack of perspective from the writers? The sense of ownership these people feel about an issue that can have no real effect on their lives is remarkable.

Are these just two examples of people trying to make themselves heard by yelling louder than anyone else (and it works, their letters were published)? Or do they really feel Hersh is tasteless in picking Phelps as the sixth greatest Olympian ever? Either way, it makes one fear for the future of intelligent discourse.

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