Ad-blocking is, it seems, all anyone invested in the future of online publishing (so not, like, everyone, but some very smart people!) is writing about lately. And without wading into the various pros and cons of whether or not the blocking of ads will destroy smaller ad-dependent, never-going-to-get-a-significant-enough-number-of-paying-subscribers-to-make-a-serious-financial-impact publications, I can say that ad-blocking has been something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Only not so much in terms of what I see on the screen. Rather, what I have been thinking a lot about lately is how ads 2.0—i.e., windshield fliers and business cards stuck in doorways—have been lately littering my block in such abundance that they’re actually more of a nuisance than what confronts me on a daily basis on my laptop, but there’s no simple program for making these types of advertisements vanish, no easy way to avoid the detritus that now litters the curbs of my streets.
All of which is why, when I saw the fliers that had—mysteriously! quasi-magically!—graced all the cars on my block sometime in the middle of last night, I decided to actually really look at them and see what they said. The fliers were newsletters of a sort (in the banner headline they are called “World Newsletters”) and they are published by the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries, an evangelical Christian group whose leader—one Tony Alamo—is serving a more-than-century long prison sentence for the kidnapping and sexual abuse of children. The headline on one read “THE KINGDOM OF GOD ALLOWS VIOLENCE AND THE VIOLENT TAKE IT BY FORCE” and the other bore the personal testimony of Alamo in the form of an essay titled “Dry Bones.” I can’t say I wasn’t a little bit impressed by these attention-grabbers, despite the presence on both fliers of portraits of Alamo (one dated 1986, one undated—see above) which actually made my hair stand on end. Because while it wouldn’t be fair to judge a person as being a child molester based on how he looks, it also wouldn’t be unfair to say that I wasn’t surprised to learn that Alamo’s crimes included being a child molester.
If this were an ad that popped up on my computer when I was reading a story on Gawker or something, I probably wouldn’t have gotten much farther than the provocative headline and creepy image, but because I was actually holding these fliers in my hands, I actually wound up diving more deeply. Because, while I totally get why I get ads for Madewell boots when I’m looking at Facebook, I do not understand why my area of Brooklyn would be papered in faux-newspapers advertising for an evangelical church whose founder, beyond being in prison for the rest of his life, also has delusions of having been the 6th Beatle. (He’s also, I think, the inspiration for Tina Fey’s show The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, maybe.)
And so I decided to call the number on the flier and see why these fliers were turning up near me. Nothing online indicated that there were any Tony Alamo services anywhere nearby me, so were these fliers just the result of a fanatical Tony Alamo truther? I wanted to know.
B. picked up on the fourth ring. Her Southern accent was strong as she told me, in short succession, that she had no idea why the fliers were in my area specifically, that there were weekly Tony Alamo services at the Moonstruck Diner in Manhattan at 8pm every Tuesday, and that I had caught her while she was in the restroom, so if it was alright with me, she’d call me right back.
When she did call me back, I asked her what it was about this particular church that was so appealing to her. She launched into the familiar tale of once feeling empty inside, and thinking money was the only answer to happiness, before being born again and being embraced by a community that cared little for earthly riches. She emphasized over and over again that she felt welcomed for the first time in her life, and that the poverty in which she had grown up—both literal and spiritual—was now gone. And even though I had—and have—no interest in joining the church of Tony Alamo (or any other church which shelters child abusers, or, really, any other church!) I also couldn’t help but empathize what B. was trying to tell me, which was her own specific variation on being lost and then being found.
I ended the call with B.—who was totally sweet about me not wanting to be on the Alamo Church mailing list, but did want me to know that I could call her any time just to talk—wondering if this was what it would be like if I clicked on every ad that I encountered online, which is to say, a time-consuming, deep-dive into the sadder, weirder parts of our sad, weird culture, that would maybe, if I weren’t careful, result in me being put on a new mailing list, and definitely result in making me feel both more and less alone than ever before.
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