These days half the posts I read on the Internet seem just as nasty and tendentious as the trolls’ comments that unscroll beneath them. Salon’s Britney Cooper cast herself as a victim of over-weaning white male privilege when, “buoyed by his own entitlement, his own sense of white male somebodiness,” a passenger moved her bag off an empty seat on a crowded train, because manhandling a black Rutgers professor’s computer bag is just one short step away from extra-judicial execution. Jezebel’s Anna Merlan peremptorily dismissed Richard Bradley’s early concerns about the Rolling Stone gang-rape story as a “giant ball of shit” (to her credit, she went on the record a few days later and admitted that she had been “dead fucking wrong,” which is something it’s hard to imagine a Sean Hannity or Bill O’Reilly doing under the same circumstances). But still….These people are supposed to be on my side, which is to say, members of the reality-based community. Why so quick with the ad hominems? Why so ready to demonize? Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be fighting against?
Of course their words weren’t journalism, rough first drafts of history, but real-time advocacy. Advocacy can be high-minded, but as often as not it’s opportunistically prosecutorial. At its worst, it’s sloganeering, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for any of the shades of gray that reality is always colored in.
When a mentally ill misogynist easily obtains an arsenal and uses it to kill a random bunch of men and women in California, one side seizes on it as the apotheosis of rape culture, a continuum that begins with catcalls and ends with rape and murder. When a mentally ill black man easily obtains a handgun and uses it to shoot his girlfriend in Baltimore and then two cops in New York City as revenge for Eric Garner, the other side seizes on it as the end of a slippery slope that begins with voting for Barack Obama (cf Rudy Giuliani).
Of course spree killers often do have ideas and write manifestos about them (Anders Behring Breivik’s was a veritable encyclopedia of The New Hate), but mass murderers are hardly the most useful frame of reference for a discussion of politics, anymore than Hitler are Stalin are. It’s a little like Godwin’s Law: whoever brings them up effectively loses the argument.
Still, both sides do it, and I suppose it’s not an altogether terrible thing. Complacency is a kind of complicity and they both thrive in silence. If the backlash depends on rancor and disruption, progressivism demands a certain amount of creative destruction as well. If you want to change the world, you can’t be diffident; if you want to make an omelet, you’ve got to break a few eggs.
But it’s not my thing, and I feel less and less inclined to engage in it. I’m not good at catchphrases anyway; my preferred mode is the run-on sentence.
My New Year’s resolution for 2015 is to hold my tongue in public until I’m sure I have something to say.
Trying to read the faces of the cops encircling Foley Square last night was as useful an exercise as trying to formulate a political philosophy from the slogans being chanted and waved around me on placards would have been. Demonizing all cops is as useless as angelifying them; the same goes for their victims.
The problem isn’t whether this cop or that cop is a racist or this victim or that victim is a good citizen or a thug–it’s whether the criminal justice system is delivering anything remotely equitable, whether the net product of the police is service and safety or oppression and terror.
But of course it’s both. Watching the video of the cops standing over the prostrate body of Eric Garner doing absolutely nothing to help him is horrific. They are swaggering brutes, and they are wearing very different faces than the guys standing around Foley Square last night were–or the Brooklyn beat cop who rang my doorbell 25 years ago to ask me how I was doing and tell me that the guy who’d pistol-whipped me had been arrested and indicted.
Racism is a huge factor in our current crisis, of course, but so are our absurd drug laws. And so is economic inequality. As the unskilled white working class continues to devolve into a virtual underclass, they’ll learn this. Staten Island’s Oxycontin problem is a case in point (“from 2005 to 2011, according to city health statistics, as fatalities from overdosing on drugs decreased citywide, the death rate from opioid overdose on Staten Island nearly quadrupled, leaving it more than three times that of the Bronx”–New York Times).
When I was in college, they taught me that FDR saved capitalism by giving the working class such a big stake in the economy. I suppose that was true up to a point, but racism, xenophobia and cognitive dissonance probably did more.
I wonder if historians will see the rise of the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, Alex Jones’s John Birch-style populism, Glenn Beck gold bug-ism, and the post-Ferguson protests as part of a continuum, rather than opposing tendencies.
If I was a Communist, I might see that as a good thing.
So this is funny. Yesterday when I first woke up I noticed a story about Glenn Beck’s latest health crisis. For all I know it’s true, though I have heard about so many sensational, shocking things on Glenn Beck’s CNN HN, Fox, and now Blaze shows over the years that didn’t quite pan out that I had to wonder.
For example there’s this one from last summer: “This country is, I believe, going to be rocked in the next 24 hours with some things that are going on in Washington and beyond that we found out about yesterday and that we will be telling you in detail in the next 24 hours….you are going to witness things in American history that have never been witnessed before….My people have seen one document, one….that will take down the whole power structure, pretty much everything.”
Anyway, I dashed off a comment on my Facebook author page (there’s a button over there on the right if you’re interested in seeing it) and forgot all about it. Here’s what I wrote:
The first time I ever noticed [Glenn Beck] was in 2008, when he had hemorrhoid surgery that went wrong. I was channel surfing at my father-in-law’s house, and there he was on CNN Headline News, showing videos of himself hallucinating. Talk about TMI!
By the end of that year, he had moved to Fox, Obama was elected, and he became a media giant. In 2012, when Fox was getting ready to dump him, he announced that he had macular dystrophy and might lose his sight within the year. He’s so sinister and smart and yet he’s also like a giant baby in his need for attention. I’m sorry for his troubles, but at the same time I can’t help wondering if he doesn’t have Munchausen syndrome.
It was all true–I had had no idea at the time that he would come to occupy such a large space in The New Hate.
Last evening, I looked at my iPhone as I was walking across the Manhattan Bridge, and to my astonishment I saw that Glenn Beck had commented on my post and shared it with his Facebook friends. He was long-suffering and sad: “It is interesting how far down the rabbit hole of lack compassion we have traveled,” he wrote. “People make all kinds of sick videos for attention and our culture cheers. I share true stories that can actually help others by breaking down the walls of fear and silence about our health and you accuse me of all kinds of evils. If this is the world healthy people live in, I am proud to be sick. I wish you peace and wholeness.”
By this morning, some 50,000 had read my post, and more than 400 had replied. Suffice it to say they weren’t very happy with me. This afternoon, I dashed off another little comment:
So what have I learned from my 15 seconds of infamy? That Glenn Beck’s reach is amazing–when he shares something on Facebook, it goes out to tens of thousands of people, hundreds of whom, anyway, share his essentially Manichaean world view. There are the absolutely good (them and Glenn Beck) and the absolutely degenerate and depraved (me and Barack Obama, and maybe Salon.com and MSNBC). Many bear witness to their hatred of my wickedness and cruelty, some with what they see as justifiable fervor (one commenter confessed that he sometimes wishes all liberals were sent to camps and exterminated), some with love (many have offered me their prayers).
But here’s the thing. As rich and powerful and beloved and Godly as Glenn Beck may be, as faithful and loyal his followers, even a completely obscure liberal writer like me, someone with just a handful of Facebook likes, a couple of books to his credit that didn’t sell particularly well, and a funny elitist-sounding Jewish name, has the power to wound him.
If you read Alexander Zaitchik’s terrific Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance, you might remember this anecdote, which sort of puts things in perspective. When Beck was a shock jock in Phoenix, his rival Bruce Kelly pissed him off.
As Zaitchik relates the story, Beck “got his revenge with what may rank as one of the cruelest events in the history of morning radio.”
“A couple couple days after Kelly’s wife, Terry, had a miscarriage, Beck called her live on the air and says, ‘We hear you had a miscarriage,'” remembers Brad Miller, a former Y95 deejay and Clear Channel programmer. “When Terry said yes, Beck proceeded to joke about how Bruce apparently can’t do anything right–he can’t even have a baby. It was low class,” adds Miller, who is now president of Open Stream Broadcasting. “There are certain places you just don’t go.”
Let me just say this: I wish him peace and wholeness.
The Confession of Agimet of Geneva, Châtel, October 20, 1348
The year of our Lord 1348.
On Friday, the 10th of the month of October, at Châtel, in the castle thereof, there occurred the judicial inquiry which was made by order of the court of the illustrious Prince, our lord, Amadeus, Count of Savoy, and his subjects against the Jews of both sexes who were there imprisoned, each one separately. This was done after public rumor had become current and a strong clamor had arisen because of the poison put by them into the wells, springs, and other things which the Christians use-demanding that they die, that they are able to be found guilty and, therefore, that they should be punished. Hence this their confession made in the presence of a great many trustworthy persons.
Agimet the Jew, who lived at Geneva and was arrested at Châtel, was there put to the torture a little and then he was released from it. And after a long time, having been subjected again to torture a little, he confessed in the presence of a great many trustworthy persons, who are later mentioned. To begin with it is clear that at the Lent just passed Pultus Clesis de Ranz had sent this very Jew to Venice to buy silks and other things for him. When this came to the notice of Rabbi Peyret, a Jew of Chambry who was a teacher of their law, he sent for this Agimet, for whom he had searched, and when he had come before him he said: “We have been informed that you are going to Venice to buy silk and other wares. Here I am giving you a little package of half a span in size which contains some prepared poison and venom in a thin, sewed leather-bag. Distribute it among the wells, cisterns, and springs about Venice and the other places to which you go, in order to poison the people who use the water of the aforesaid wells that will have been poisoned by you, namely, the wells in which the poison will have been placed.”
Agimet took this package full of poison and carried it with him to Venice, and when he came there he threw and scattered a portion of it into the well or cistern of fresh water which was there near the German House, in order to poison the people who use the water of that cistern. And he says that this is the only cistern of sweet water in the city. He also says that the mentioned Rabbi Peyret promised to give him whatever he wanted for his troubles in this business. Of his own accord Agimet confessed further that after this had been done he left at once in order that he should not be captured by the citizens or others, and that he went personally to Calabria and Apulia and threw the above mentioned poison into many wells. He confesses also that he put some of this same poison in the well of the streets of the city of Ballet.
He confesses further that he put some of this poison into the public fountain of the city of Toulouse and in the wells that are near the [Mediterranean] sea. Asked if at the time that he scattered the venom and poisoned the wells, above mentioned, any people had died, he said that he did not know inasmuch as he had left everyone of the above mentioned places in a hurry. Asked if any of the Jews of those places were guilty in the above mentioned matter, he answered that he did not know. And now by all that which is contained in the five books of Moses and the scroll of the Jews, he declared that this was true, and that he was in no wise lying, no matter what might happen to him.
I found this in the Internet Jewish History Sourcebook, a site maintained by Fordham University. I remember reading it a long time ago, probably when I was researching The New Hate, though I don’t see it in its index. Oh wait, there it is–in Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies, under AIDS in the Conspiracies section (I so wish that Vintage had made an index for that book!). “Denial, anger, and scapegoating are common reactions to a catastrophe of this magnitude,” I wrote.
Does it remind you of anything that’s going on in the news today?
Here’s another more proximate example of the same kind of thing. Last summer on the 700 Club, a visibly dotty Pat Robertson warned a caller about how gays in San Francisco were using specially made rings instead of thin, sewed leather bags for the same nefarious purposes (to the CBN’s credit, Robertson’s co-host quickly assured the viewer that he had nothing to fear and the show was yanked from its video archive).
“You know what they do in San Francisco? Some of the gay community there, they want to get people. So, if they’ve got the stuff, they’ll have a ring. You shake hands and the ring’s got a little thing where you cut your finger,” Robertson said in the video. “Really. I mean it’s that kind of vicious stuff, which would be the equivalent of murder.”
Bubonic Plague and AIDS are terrifying, no question about it; they killed by the millions and still kill today. But what’s even scarier to me is how many people see them as crimes of intention–and more deplorable still, that they pin the blame for them on the most vulnerable populations. Eliminationist racism in that light is not only justifiable self-defense, it’s a necessary component of social hygiene. No Jews, no plague. No gays, no AIDS. No African immigrants (or presidents), no Ebola.
I wrote The New Hate after all; it shouldn’t surprise me that Obama is being singled out as Patient Zero in certain quarters, or that, in Josh Marshall’s words, the CDC is being cast as ” a suspect, nefarious institution – almost like the CDC, before our eyes, is being transformed into the right’s next ACORN.” But there it is, from Dinesh D’Souza’s questionable “humor” (“Which is worse: EBOLA, the disease; or OBOLA, the dream from his father?”) to Michael Savage’s truly medieval fear-mongering. Obama, he says, “wants to infect the nation with Ebola.”
That’s the way to make things fair and equitable. You can’t have a nation with such good health in a world where there’s such sickness. Obama wants equality and he wants fairness and it’s only fair that America have a nice epidemic or two or three or four in order to really feel what it’s like to be in the Third World. You have to look at it from the point of view of a leftist.
A post I did a while back on Commander Edwin J Quinby and the Great Streetcar Conspiracy still gets a fair number of clicks. Quinby is dear to me because he’s one of those rare figures who walks like a conspiracist; publishes weird, almost-unreadable broadsides like a conspiracist; ties everything up into a seamless package like a conspiracist–but, quackery or no, was basically correct.
A couple of days ago I heard from Louis Guilbault, a tram enthusiast and author of the book A Streetcar Named Conspire. He sent me a link to the above You Tube video, which is filled with wonderful archival footage. He didn’t send me the link to his book website, but you can find it here.
I don’t want to post links because real people are involved (this is so much more than a “literary” uproar; actual lives are, if not being ruined, then permanently changed) but the Twitterverse’s focus on the undeniable misogyny exhibited by the Brooklyn-based book blogger who melted down on Twitter, Facebook, and from what I hear, one of the East River spans a few days ago, reminds me in some ways of the dynamics of the gender wars as they are fought in too many chat rooms and blogs.
The big headline issues that define the conflicts are sexism (whether of the misandric or misogynist variety) and victimization, but the energies that keep them at such a white-hot heat are highly particularized–which is to say, fueled not so much by big ideas as by very specific experiences of pain and suffering.
The man who holds forth about women and hypergamy (marrying up) is often writing about (or projecting his fears onto) his ex-partner; the man who is obsessed with misandric persecution may be generalizing his own sad story into a grand unified political theory. Yes, I will acknowledge that some of their stories are true and that there are feminists who don’t like men; I don’t want to re-litigate all that business here. I’ll even stipulate that you could say the exact same things as I do about men’s rightists about some feminists. Sexism is real, of course, and it is a force in politics and culture.
What I’m trying to say is that, while the political and the personal do go together, their relationship is complicated and multivalent at the individual level–and that personality disorders, mental illness, and substance abuse do complicate things, even if they don’t ultimately excuse anything, never mind everything. I suspect that what’s most salient about the Brooklyn Book Blogger isn’t his gender politics (which probably change with his moods) but a sickness.
Since I started writing about Hate with a capital “h,” I’ve come to believe that, while all prejudice and biases are odious, and that while discrimination under the law is beyond the pale, some capital “h” hates (especially those that sit at the centers of grand totalizing theories) have very different etiologies than others. Some theoretical haters hate coldly; some are unhinged by their own experiences. Some don’t even hate–they adopt the language and the attitudes of haters to further their own agendas. Some hate with a righteous passion, but suffer terrible cognitive dissonance and make use of bogus intellectual frameworks to alleviate it.
And then there are those who are genuinely diseased; they write and say things that might horrify them when they are in periods of remission or under the influence of therapeutic medication. It’s not unusual for bi-polar people to speak and act “out of character” in their manic phases; nor is it unusual when people with degenerative conditions like Alzheimers express prejudiced and paranoid ideas.
Not that delusional people can’t be dangerous (give a paranoid schizophrenic a weapon and absolutely terrible things can happen), but it’s kind of a waste of time to argue with them, or to parse their ravings if that’s what they are. To do so is to pretend that they’re lucid, which has the effect of normalizing both their twisted ideas and their bad behavior.
Consider Elliot Rodger, the Isla Vista killer, whose manifesto and pseudonymous chatroom comments revealed him to be a thorough-going misogynist. Would writing long, reasoned rejoinders to his posts have saved any lives? Of course his parents did send him for treatment and at the end even go to the police, so my analogy only goes so far. Did Rodgers bring discredit on all the non-homicidal people who share his misogyny? Absolutely; I’m not saying his ideas were irrelevant. But what’s most terrible about his writings in retrospect isn’t their theoretical content–it’s that they announced his intention to kill people.
Of course I’m not talking about someone with real influence–a politician or a demagogue, someone in law enforcement who has the power of life and death over people, a foaming-at-the-mouth revolutionary, a distinguished professor who forms minds and advises important people, a writer with a big audience. You have to engage with them. But while the book blogger might have seemed like a powerful figure to the book people he mixed with, his influence in the wider world is pretty minimal (or I should say “was,” because his career, such as it is, is almost certainly over). If you think misogyny is a big problem in book publishing, then you should choose a more out-sized figure to be its avatar.
Like I said, I’m not going to inject myself into his story (who, full-disclosure, conducted as thoughtful, sensitive, and interesting an interview as I ever sat for the one time I met him). But I will say this: that while the people he victimized don’t owe him their compassion or forgiveness for the awful things he said and did to them, they can rest assured that he hasn’t “gotten away with” anything either.