An Army of Children
Posted by Pamela Troy in General Discussion
To those of us who aren’t fast writers, it’s been a tough couple of weeks. First there was the whole issue with the calls from various prominent pundits for the arrest, and in at least one case, the execution of those journalists at the NYT who published details about an anti-terrorist program that was already quite well known. Then the right-wing blogosphere followed suit by declaring war on the NY Times travel section, publishing the addresses of a publisher and a photographer and inviting readers to… well, do something with the information. It wasn’t clear what but no doubt there were plenty of godfearin’ patriots who had some pretty interesting ideas on that score once they’d heard about what terrorist loving traitors these people were. Then there was the case of Nedd Kareiva’s Anti ACLU website posting the address and phone number of a Jewish family who had already been bullied ut of Indian River Delaware for daring to complain about Christian harassment of nonChristian students at a local school. (And boy did the good citizens of Indian River prove those carping heathens wrong!) And while that sordid matter was unfolding, someone pointed out Michelle Malkin’s post-mortem smearing of Denice Denton, the UC Santa Cruz Chancellor who’d recently committed suicide.
In short, there has been what can only be described as a sort of glorious blossoming of jaw-dropping right-wing venom. It’s kind of like watching one of those acts in a circus where a little bitty car drives into view and suddenly ejects an endless procession of clowns who cavort about the ring competing for the audience’s attention, turning cartwheels and somersaults, blowing raspberries at the onlookers and waving plastic hammers. You just don’t know where to look.
I’m glad to report that in at a couple of cases at least, partial sanity prevailed. One blog that had offered the happy suggestion that its readers “hunt down” not only the reporters involved in the NYT travel story, but the reporter’s children, vanished completely in the face of widespread revulsion. Nedd Kareiva’s project of posting the addresses and phone numbers of anyone even suspected of being an ACLU plaintiff collapsed in a flurry of impotent threats and, for the moment at least, has disappeared into a single unseemly whine about the very good advice Nedd’s lawyer gave him about it.
Other, better writers have already done a good job of characterizing these nasties for what they are. Both David Neiwert and Glenn Greenwald have pointed out the profoundly serious underpinnings of these incidents, the manner in which they reflect, not just the rants of a fringe element, but what Neiwert calls an “eliminationist” mindset that has been increasingly mainstreamed and poses a genuine threat to political freedom in this country. I’m not going to rehash those arguments here, though I would like to point out to those inevitable hopefuls who talk about the far right “panicking” and “imploding” and at last going “too far” that these acts have been part of an escalating trend over the past two decades and therefore likely indicate not “panic and desperation” but a sense of impunity.
All these things popping up so close together have highlighted a certain characteristic shared by the likes of Michelle Malkin, Ann Coulter, and various less famous right-wing bloggers. The word that comes to mind is “callow.” I’m reminded of children, and not the beauty, hopefulness and openness of children. Rather, these cases bring to mind the callousness of extreme youth, the eagerness of kids to attack as a group, and their inability to grasp context, assess consequences, or take responsibility for those consequences.
When we speak of the “innocence” of a child, it often refers to the slack we’re willing to cut the very young because they have not yet had the chance to learn lessons most of us have grasped by the time we hit our thirties. A group of fourteen-year-olds who think it’s clever to write threatening and abusive letters, mock another person’s appearance or disabilities, and sneer at that individual’s personal tragedies might inspire disgust among the older and wiser, but there’s also the knowledge that, ten, twenty years down the road, most of them are going to be adults who remember those acts with shame. A group of middle-aged people who think it’s clever to write threatening and abusive letters, mock another person’s appearance and disabilities, and sneer at that individual’s personal tragedies, is another matter entirely.
That’s what makes the 40-something Ann Coulter so creepy, and why my own reaction to some of the faceless bloggers who’ve been posting names has come dangerously close to the empathy of a big sister who sees a sibling burst into wails after the cat he’s been torturing leaves a red line of scratches on his chubby little cheek. As an incurable bleeding heart, I’m afraid that while my first response to the collapse of Nedd Kareiva’s “Get-the-ACLU-plaintiff” was relief, my second was the urge to pat him on the arm and murmur “There, there. We’ve just learned an important lesson now, haven’t we?” After all, when someone posts a message online that refers to “all the Looney Left Liberals from the likes of The Daily Kookoos (KOS with 3 extra O's), Jesus (Armchair) General, (Hair) Salon and others” the image of the writer that’s conjured up is that of a downy adolescent, still awash in puppy fat, sipping a Red Bull in between sobs and pounding out his rage and frustration late at night from his Dad’s old computer down in the basement.
I know, I know. Many of the people I’m dismissing as teenagers are probably well past the age when they deserve that level of forbearance. It’s gut reaction I’m describing here. In the long run, I think what we’re seeing is cause for more serious action than wiping away the tears of a brat. For far too long, these incidents have been shrugged off with the comments, “They’re crazy,” or “They’re kids.”
Even if the overwhelming majority of the online right wingers engaging in this kind of garbage range in age from thirteen to their early twenties, the danger they pose should not be underestimated. Proddy kids may be endemic on the internet and may cut across ideological lines – I’ve read some pretty callow and stupid postings on Democratic Underground too – but when there are no adults willing to restrain them or worse, when unprincipled and influential adults are willing to use them as a means to an end, they can do genuine damage. Whether an address or phone number was posted online with invitations to pile on by a normal fifteen-year-old or a 50-something case of arrested development does not make much difference to the private citizen now fielding death threats and worrying about whether his or her kids can walk to school safely.
And the fact that Michelle Malkin is an over-indulged cutie whose youthful good looks have insulated her from the hard knocks her venom would inspire if her waist were fatter and her nose bigger, does not make the popularity of her bloody-mindedness any less worrisome. One very cherished American myth is that average, God-fearing Americans who engage in violent rhetoric will, as a group, draw back in horror if the rhetoric is acted upon. As I’ve observed elsewhere, both American history (Kent State, the Black Civil Rights movement, the Red Scare) and the willingness of many of these people to dismiss and even celebrate actual tragedies that befall liberals strongly indicates otherwise. We’ve reached the point where equating disagreement with treason is part of mainstream political rhetoric. It’s no great step to move from that to treating political opponents as literal traitors.
The worst possible reaction, and one that worries me more than any other, would be for the left to respond in kind. It’s not as endemic as it is on the right, but the ugly fact is that are young and/or callow liberals who are positively chomping at the bit, eager to leap into the fray and post the addresses and phone numbers of people they dislike. I’m not going to pad my assessment of liberals who do this with phrases like “well meaning” or “understandable” because I don’t use those terms to describe Freeping or other examples of online thuggery. It’s stupid. It’s irresponsible. It’s contemptible. And any liberal or leftist who advocates it is no friend to the cause.
Nor will it do any good to ignore it, as if Malkin, Coulter, etc were primarily about annoying us liberals. Don’t flatter yourself, guys. They aren’t. They are about firing up a grassroots base of people who can be counted on to respond with Pavlovian fervor to the singling out of anyone deemed an “enemy.” We can deal with them now, or we can deal with them later -- after they’ve gained even more influence and respectability.
The way to deal with them is to expose them. Don’t politely ignore their more outrageous comments. Bring them up. Force their apologists to defend them. Demand that the implications of their statements be examined in the cold light of day. Make it an issue, because it is an issue, and a damned important one. Be angry and be assertive, but don’t resort to insult or name-calling. A slanging match is the only fight they can really hope to win, and they’ll do everything they can to entice you into one.
Remember, these people don’t avoid reason because reason is an inferior weapon. They avoid it because reason is their enemy.