As a fifth-generation New Jerseyan, I have always been aware of the bad reputation of my state. Pollution, corrupt, mob-dominated politics, the Rutgers football team, New Jersey doesn’t exactly have a good reputation in the rest of the country. In the 1990s, when I lived off and on in Seattle and Southeast Alaska, the biggest compliment people thought they could pay me went something like this. “You’re from New Jersey? Well, at least you don’t have that accent.” Actually, I do have “that accent.” I sound a lot like Ray Liotta, who’s from my mother’s hometown of Union, did in Goodfellas. You cannot grow up as a Polish American in the great state of New Jersey without acquiring a sense of humor. Cynicism is part of the local culture, and that’s a good thing. At times it’s even poetic. Almost every song Bruce Springsteen writes is more or less about one thing: Getting the fuck out of New Jersey.
For the most part, while it’s often hilariously funny, the stereotype of the typical New Jerseyan as a loud, ignorant, right-wing knuckle dragger, doesn’t stand up to the test of reality. New Jersey is by far one of the best-educated, most liberal states in America. There’s a reason we don’t have mass shootings. We’re smart enough to have gun-control. New Jersey hasn’t voted for a Republican President since it went for George H.W. Bush in 1988. In 2016, Hillary Clinton got 55 percent of the vote to Donald Trump’s 41 percent. Most of the state’s big cities are “sanctuary cities” that forbid local police from cooperating with ICE. The Rutgers football team might be the worst team in the history of the Big 10 Conference, but Rutgers also has top 20 programs in English, history, and math, and top 10 programs in philosophy, women’s studies and library science.
Unfortunately, New Jersey also has a savage divide between its wealthy suburbs and its working class cities. If Donald Trump has no chance of winning the state in 2020 that’s about Newark and Elizabeth, not Westfield or Mountain Lakes. It’s probably more accurate to say that while blacks and Hispanics in New Jersey are liberal, white suburbanites are as reactionary as they are anyplace else in the country. The typical white man in New Jersey over 40 is a racist Republican who could probably pass for a Mississippi Klansman if it weren’t for “that accent.” What’s more, in spite of the fact that Barack Obama won the state easily in 2008, New Jersey also became an early center of “tea party” reaction. In 2009, Chris Christie became governor. In 2010, Koch Brothers funded goons regularly disrupted Congressional town hall meetings on Obamacare. And then there’s the comments section at nj.com
There’s a joke going around that “the Southern Poverty Law Center has identified 51 racist hate groups in New Jersey, but it’s actually 52 if you count the comments section at nj.com.” If anything it’s an understatement. Even before the Koch Brothers started pumping money into the local media — in 2010 you couldn’t read an article about the weather without running into 500 comments by global warming deniers — the comments section at nj.com was a place for middle-aged, white men from the suburbs and the rural areas to complain about the “liberal” cities. After awhile, even I had trouble keeping track of all the dog whistle, and I speak fluent, passive aggressive WASP. It went far beyond “those low income housing applicants are going to ruin our good schools” or “crime in the city of Newark is inevitable in such a diverse city.” It went far beyond changing the name of Bruce Springsteen, one of the most explicitly Catholic rock stars in American history, to Bruce Springstein, and attributing his support of Barack Obama to his Jewish ethnicity. At some point in the late 2010s, the racist comments at nj.com became almost indistinguishable from Stormfront. The comments from the global warming deniers were even worse, often degenerating into conspiracy theories about chem trails, and incomprehensible spam. Finally, the management at Advance Media, which owns nj.com, decided they couldn’t go on funneling traffic to what had essentially become a hate site.
I agree with Advance Media’s decision to pull the comments at nj.com, but I’m not naive enough to believe it was about any real objection to platforming racists. While the comments have gotten stupider and more incoherent, they’ve been viciously racist ever since the Bush years. I also vehemently disagree in the strongest possible terms with their decision to delete their archives. The white supremacist comments at nj.com are part of a historical document that should be studied by future generations of social media analysts. How exactly did the users’ forum at a mainstream media outlet in a “blue” state get taken over by white supremacists and neo-Nazis? Why couldn’t Advance Media simply hire moderators like the New York Times. The first amendment applies to government, not private business, but a private media company is certainly not obligated to choose from two bad extremes, unmoderated comments overrun by white supremacists, or no comments at all. How much exactly would it cost to hire a few interns to make sure the comments stayed on topic, avoided open expressions of racism, antisemitism, and homophobia, and at least made some kind of logical argument? The truth is Advance Media has nothing against racism. They’re just fucking cheap. They also want to destroy the evidence of just how complicit they’ve been in poisoning political discourse in the great state of New Jersey. My guess is the Koch Brothers money just ran out.