How I wasted my Friday

Don’t ever get into a debate about politics or religion. Or typography. Definitely not typography.

I’m not sure I can legitimately call myself a typographer. I spent ten years typesetting books. I spent a year publishing a typography Web site. However, I’m not professionally trained. I do think I’m better informed about typography than 99 percent of the shmoes out there who think “typography” is what you do when you run Microsoft Word. So when someone criticizes my knowledge of typography, them’s fighting words.

Silly me. I had no idea. It all started when Political Animal had an innocent post consolidating the evidence on whether the CBS memos from last Thursday might have been forgeries. The comments started flying in fast and furious. As I’m writing this, there are 474 comments to that one post. There must be tens of thousands of comments in the hundreds of blogs that have taken this issue up.

Most of the commenters had the same brilliant idea: If I can make a copy of the memo in Microsoft Word, then it must be a fake! And therefore, Bush will defeat Kerry! After all, I am 100 percent certain they didn’t have Microsoft Word in 1972, so we should all re-elect Bush!

The heights of typographical ignorance expressed in these comments would take any self-respecting typographer’s breath away. If you believe these guys, you’d think documents were etched on stone tablets in 1972. According to the commenters, kerning was not possible in 1972 (Claude Garamond had kerning in 1540, and these documents aren’t kerned anyway). Also, you couldn’t center text because of the “calculations” involved (that’s right, they didn’t know how to divide by 2 in 1972). Also, the font of the memos, Times New Roman, did not exist in 1972 (“Times” was created in 1931, “Times New Roman” was commissioned by Microsoft for Windows 95 to avoid paying copyright fees for “Times”; the two fonts are practically identical, and there’s no way to identify the font in the badly copied/faxed memos anyway). Oh, and if you just “overlay” the documents with this copy I typed in Microsoft Word, you can easily see that they are identical (actually, you can’t see anything. The overlay makes it impossible to discern either similarities or differences).

This is not to say the documents aren’t forgeries. They could be. After all, Microsoft Word was developed to imitate those archaic 1970s machines called typewriters. It’s very easy to imitate the style of any document using Microsoft Word, or even “advanced” programs like Microsoft Publisher. Nonetheless, the volumes of typographic ignorance being spewed about last Friday simply became too great for me to ignore.

Foolishly, I weighed in on the comments thread over at Political Animal. For correcting a few of the more obvious gaffes, I was labeled an “ass” and a “liar.” How dare I contradict not only the unemployed slobs wasting away their days in obscure comment threads, but also the “experts” hired by Fox news, that bastion of unbiased reporting! (Note to Fox viewers: if the network you’re watching has to constantly remind its viewers that it’s “fair” and “unbiased,” it’s probably neither)

Before I knew it, Friday was gone. It was 5:00, and no one’s mind was changed by any of my typographical insight. Amazingly, they’re still at it over there at Political Animal, with 299 comments on a new post about additional memos. Apparently typography can incite more passions than even the most dogmatic religious debate.

What’s truly ironic about all this is that even if the documents are forged, that gets us no closer to deciding who to vote for. The Kerry campaign, the Bush campaign, CBS, or (most likely of all?) someone just looking to make a quick buck could have done it. (Obviously, if Kerry did it, he won’t get elected. Hell, even I wouldn’t vote for him — I wouldn’t want a president so inept he couldn’t write a convincing phony memo.) But unfortunately we’ll probably never find out who did it, so the question of whether or not they were forged likely has no relevance: it’s just another wasted day.

But today is a new day. I’m not planning on wasting this one.

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