Listen Up, the Anvil Chorus

The “Anvil Chorus” is the English name for the Coro di Zingari (Italian for “Gypsy chorus”) from act 2, scene 1 of Giuseppe Verdi’s 1853 opera “Il Trovatore.” It depicts Spanish Gypsies striking their anvils at dawn and singing the praises of hard work, good wine and Gypsy women.

So, basically, a cacophonous babble from a bunch of good old boys shouting out about the things that matter to them most.

Naturally, within a few years it became slang (according to Oxford’s Lexico site) for “an insistent clamor, especially of criticism; a group of noisy critics.”

It was also the name of the letters-to-the-editor column on the editorial page of the Michigan City News-Dispatch, the last newspaper I worked on before moving to the News-Sentinel in Fort Wayne. I’d like to have known the long-ago editor who came up with that sly, wicked name, because it was an inspiration of demented genius.

Anvil Chorus is exactly what a letters-to-the-editor package is, a collection of clamor from vociferous citizens — ranging from irritated to insane — about the big issues and small annoyances that bug them the most. Picture Howard Beale in the movie “Network” shaking his fist at the sky and yelling, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

(Yes, let me acknowledge, before you bring it up, that you can also find letters praising the hard work of selfless volunteers and remarking on the first robin of spring. But those oddities from contributors unclear on the concept are only thrown into the mix by dyspeptic editors forlornly trying to lighten the mood.)

If it seems that I’m disparaging letter-to-the-editor writers, diminishing their contribution to the common good, I apologize, because that is not my intent.

No matter what you say, the fact that you’re willing to put your name on it and throw it out for public consumption deserves respect. Carping is the essence of participatory democracy and so very American. I dealt with letter writers daily for most of my newspaper career and found them to be a cantankerous but valuable check on the use and abuse of power by petty functionaries and elected officials who should have known better.

And I’ve been saddened to watch their number and zeal diminishing over the years.

When I started in the business, a newspaper editorial page was just about the only outlet for people who felt voiceless but wanted to be heard. They might not be able to command the attention of city hall, let alone get the governor’s ear, but they could by God grab pen and paper and give the world a piece of their mind.

In the years since, though, we’ve seen the arrival a number of platforms for the disaffected and disenchanted.

Cable companies, in order to secure their monopolies, created public access channels for any oddball or kook to spout utter nonsense no one watched. Radio talk shows proliferated and invited callers to unload their wrath. Countless social media websites imposed no boundaries of taste or sense on the anonymous horde of vicarious cowards.

We’re in a world now where anybody can say anything anytime and get an audience, and I don’t think we can call it an evolution in communication, if by that we mean improvement.

Instead of annoyance harnessed in service to a community’s needs, there is just a continuous stream of undifferentiated ire thrown out to an indifferent universe in hopes of … what, exactly? Just look at the drivel of Twitter trolling, where people with something to say and people who want to hear it are drowned out by the “Look at me!” ravings of delusional cranks.

We’re becoming a nation of hecklers.

But I am happy to have discovered a small but hopeful development. It is on the Nextdoor app, available in most communities, a platform where neighborhood residents can share interests and concerns.

It’s the digital equivalent of a small-town newspaper. People go there to find services needed or offered, items for sale, reports of lost dogs and found cats, suspicious activity sighted, gatherings scheduled or canceled, gossip both spread and disputed.

And lively debates worthy of any editorial page.

Somebody recently posted a question on the site wondering if some people, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, were “refusing to wear masks or bandanas or some sort of barrier for some reason.”

If our politicians and opinion leaders want to “take the pulse” of the community and find out what people are concerned enough to gripe about, it’s the masks, OK? That question has received nearly 600 comments so far, and the discussion has been boisterous verging on murderous.

People started out talking about why they wore masks or did not wear masks and ended up calling each other names for wearing masks (fraidy cats!) or not wearing masks (uncaring fiends!). In between, they praised or damned officials for their wisdom or lack of it, offered up a variety of conspiracy theories, told (sometimes) relevant stories about ill relatives, and linked to articles that were usually interesting if not illuminating.

Clearly the great mask debate has become in many ways a convenient way to address the larger issues that divide us in our Blue State-Red State reality. It has been quarrelsome and sometimes exasperating, sincere but often edgy, occasionally downright ugly.

But glorious.

Some guy recently posted that people will choose to wear masks or not, so why keep arguing about it? He said he was sick of the whole thing and checking out until things calmed down.

I beg to differ. What we’re hearing here are the voices of free people using that freedom. Not anonymous and diffused hate and anger, but neighbor talking, and sometimes yelling, to neighbor over the digital backyard fence.

It’s the sound of the anvil chorus, alive and well.

Leo Morris is a columnist for The Indiana Policy Review. Contact him at [email protected]. Send comments to [email protected].