Above: Rotten.com's appropriately sinister logo and slogans.
(Image by Rotten.com) Permission Details DMCA
When television became popular in the 1950's, liberals rallied to make it a free speech bastion. They failed (which is unsurprising, given that the 1950's were so conservative). When the Internet first became popular in the mid-1990's, liberals vowed not to fail again. This time, they didn't (which is equally unsurprising, given that this decade was much looser both morally and politically). To this day, then, the Internet remains a true free speech bastion, just as the progressives hoped it would be. Unfortunately, very quickly, this freedom became a double-edged sword. A case in point: Rotten.com, which is a "shock site" so lurid that it manages to outrage both conservatives and liberals in equal measures.
Rotten.com is one of the most venerable websites on the Internet (it was launched in 1996), and, throughout its long existence, it has been one of the most offensive ones. It seems to possess at least three slogans, all of them gleefully transgressive: "When Hell is full, the dead will walk the earth" (which is actually a line stolen from the old zombie film, Dawn of the Dead); "PURE EVIL SINCE 1996"; and "Flush please." It further describes itself as "An archive of disturbing illustration," and its staff members aren't kidding: Rotten.com is about as perverse as it gets. The website itself is actually a vast repository of alarming photographs and art work, which are grouped together by subject matter under alarmingly-named categories. "Pornopolis" is Rotten's collection of overtly sexual material. However, Rotten.com's brand of pornography is far different from the glossy images one sees in Playboy or Penthouse. "Pornopolis" presents gritty, grainy images presenting sexual acts that most people would find to be deviant and disgusting. For all of its imperfections, Rotten.com does have a sense of humor, as indicated by its "Sports Dignity" section, which is a collection of photographs mostly consisting of athletes and cheerleaders publicly displaying their buttocks or genitalia to insult their competitors.
Amazingly, Rotten.com can be ferociously intelligent as well. Most impressive in this regard is the "Rotten Library," a small encyclopedia devoted to subjects that the staff members find interesting. Most of the subjects are of an edgy nature (such entries would include "Satan," the too-brief biographies of notorious pornographers, and the "Bermuda Triangle"). Apparently, though, the staff members have a cerebral side to them as well; thus, the reader is presented with fascinating articles about quantum physics and Hollow Earth theories from long ago. Surprisingly, these articles are brilliantly written and researched.
Ultimately, however, Rotten.com is famous because of its main section, which is simply referred to as "rotten." The name is appropriate. The photographs in this category include images of: the gory, messy remains of men who have killed themselves with shotguns; bodies ravaged from the effects of advanced syphilis and leprosy; the shattered, splattered remains of people who have been run over by trucks and trains; explicit autopsy scenes; massive tumors; blood-soaked crime scenes; and grisly industrial accidents. Most, if not all, of the images are authentic. All of the images in this category are disturbing and revolting, but a few are also emotionally devastating: Rotten.com also provides pictures of dead babies. It's all stomach-churning, ugly, and ghoulish stuff.
Not surprisingly, the website has inspired an army of critics. Rotten.com's brash tendency to display the death scenes of celebrities like Sharon Tate and Nicole Simpson has led to a blizzard of cease-and-desist orders filed by grieving relatives and fans. Salon.com, the famously liberal (and sophisticated) news publication, did a story on the website way back in March 2001. Predictably, its eminently civilized staff, in response to Rotten.com, was appalled. Salon.com stated that it "represents the darkest, deepest, most sordid side of human nature. There is absolutely nothing nice about Rotten.com; this site is simply foul." For a time, both Scotland Yard and the FBI were investigating Rotten.com. The investigations were launched partially in response to the website's most infamous image: a picture of an Asian man happily munching upon a dismembered, roasted infant. The investigations slowly fizzled, though, because of lack of evidence, and because of the media's general agreement that the photograph constituted a demonic hoax. Nevertheless, as The Register reported back in February 2001, there were still trained professionals--such as the Scotland Yard's Detective Inspector Clive Driscoll--who remained utterly convinced that the photograph was legitimate, and depicted actual infanticide and cannibalism. Interestingly, Rotten.com has united many conservatives and liberals. Conservatives loathe it because it depicts moral perversions, while progressives hate it because they believe that these depictions constitute gross human rights abuses. Feminists and minorities especially despise the website because it tends to fixate on the sufferings of women, blacks, Asians, and Hispanics.
Rotten.com may be loathed, but, like many controversial websites, it apparently is not going anywhere. Although it's not as active as it once was (because of the avalanche of criticism, perhaps?), it's still going strong. According to Alexa, it remains a fairly popular website.
Also interesting is Rotten.com's rationale for its existence. Salon.com interviewed Soylent, at the time the publication's chief spokesperson. Soylent (this person wished to remain anonymous because of multiple death threats placed against him) claimed that, above all, Rotten.com was about preserving the purity of the First Amendment. Thus, like liberals, its staff members were all about fighting for individual freedoms.
That may be true. Maybe they are sincere. Nevertheless, the nightmarish, dismal qualities of Rotten.com present to all progressives a profound moral quandary. They tend to view constitutional protections as being in terms of all-or-nothing. Thus, either we have total freedom, or we have no true freedoms at all. Rotten.com suggests that we can't enjoy such intellectual luxuries. We have to draw a line somewhere, and this website clearly crosses that line. Past liberals like Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, Jr. almost certainly would have been appalled by Rotten.com, and would have pushed for its demise--and so should we.