There’s a good bit of information that I think my readers should know. To those who come here for the silliness, the ramblings about New York, the pontificating on technology, I ask your indulgence. I’m going to talk about stuff that I’m not as adept with as those topics.
I’m not, these days, very political. I used to have strong opinions about current events and policy in my late teens and early twenties because, well, that’s when those things are easy and everything yields to an idealistic world view. Today, the more I see of the extremes, and as I see every issue reduced to some binary us vs. them debate, I’m too disgusted to be engaged. But I still have opinons, of course.
I’ve discussed a few times over the years here of my distaste for religion, especially in its contemporary trappings, where spirituality is forsaken in favor of ritual and doctrine. If I find Bush’s attempts at allowing federal funding of religiously-affiliated programs offensive and the BJP party’s poisoning of the Indian government with Hindu nationalist toxicity abhorrent, it goes without saying that I think all of the contemporary Islamic theocracies currently in power are evil and corrupt and ought to be replaced with secular democracies.
What’s more, I see millions of Muslims suffering under the brutal regimes of these leaders, and I grieve for a culture that’s been hijacked by extremists. I’ve studied the history of my parents’ culture and seen India fall from greatness to a relative mediocrity, punctuated by flashes of a brilliance that recalls its past seat as the world leader in culture, technology, and art. I see echoes of that past in my culture, in my proud home in New York, in America.
After last September’s attacks, I was surprised by some of the changes in attitude I had. I semi-publicly wrestled with the fact that I had always considered myself a pacifist, but suddenly felt that resorting to violence in self defense was a viable, even necessary element of national policy. I still wrestle with that realization, but it troubles me less now to realize it might be a reluctant obligation.
I went searching for information. I wanted to be able to make a case to those with whom I had formerly had nearly congruent political beliefs. I knew that as someone who had fought unsuccessfully to reclaim the word ‘liberal’, the labels I’d grown up with didn’t really fit all of my beliefs any more.
Another thing I realized for the first time after the attacks was the number of people who didn’t see me as a "real" American. I’d never given thought to having to prove such a core element of my identity before, but it became a requisite when I saw that regular Americans like me were being killed by other extremists, these ones in our midst.
So it became even more important to me that we do justice to the ideals of eliminating bigotry and extremism. That we make sure we don’t judge a group by the actions of some of its members and hold the entire people responsible. That we not make the same justifications that the murderers behind the attacks did.
Charles Johnson and his brother Michael run a company called Little Green Footballs, and on their company site, they’ve got a weblog. I’ve discussed it on this site before, once explicitly, and more recently as a tangent from a slightly cheekish rant about the language used by some political weblogs. In short, Charles went from a standard weblog about technology and general topics to one focusing on extremist Islam and its attendant dangers. His shift wasn’t different from my own, reflecting a new sensibility and perhaps alienating people whom he’d once considered politically similar.
In my first comments about the weblog, I lamented the singularity of focus of Charles’s site. People have mistaken this to mean that I either intended to choose topics for him or that I didn’t feel he had the right to forswear his earlier focuses. The point I was attempting to make was that, having gone through a similar shift, I felt there comes a time to restore balance in one’s life. A fixation on an evil that can’t be affected by words on the web is more perilous to the writer than to the topics of the posts. Worse, Charles had, in his focus on his single topic, allowed himself to be joined in voice and tone with visitors to his site whose examinations of this evil were not motivated by a like desire to solve the problem, but by their own bigotry and xenophobia not just towards religious extremists, but towards all of those who shared similar traits, either physical or by their religious identification.
It flipped my triggers. No doubt about it, they hit a sore spot. I saw the taint of hatred amongst the legitimate points and I lashed out. I don’t doubt that I probably did as much disservice to my points as I did to advance them. But the reality for me is that I feel like the relative lack of domestic terrorist attacks has left things such that I’m as endangered by an American extremist as I am from an Islamic extremist. Apparently, I’m not alone; I’ve family and friends of various ethnicities in the Washington, D.C. area who tell me they feel the same way right now.
But let me be clear. I don’t think Charles is a racist. In the heat of argument with his rather relentless supporters, I’ve come close to saying it, but I don’t believe it’s true. I think that Charles has good intentions and even performs an important service in pointing out links from reliable sources to stories that are critically underreported in mainstream media in this country. In that sense, the very best of what the "distributed media" aspirations of weblogs can be. But I am convinced that a policy of increasing tolerance for blatantly anti-Muslim bigotry has seethed into the site. I’m not the only person so convinced, some regular visitors agree that anti-Muslim vitriol is not censored with the same consistency that anti-Jewish statements are.
After my initial post, comments quickly got heated. I emailed Charles a sincere apology that I had chosen the wrong tactics to communicate my point. He accepted my apology but largely dismissed my criticisms as inaccurate. His position, as I understand it, is that the only hate on his site is that which he reports on, originating from fundamentalist Islamists. I told him that we’d agree to disagree on that point and that, my last direct communication with Charles, ended on a tense but civil note.
Descent Into Madness
Last week, MSNBC’s Will Femia named LGF as a "Best of Blog". Apparently, people who objected to the tone or content of LGF then emailed Femia and stated their objections, prompting Femia to append a disclaimer and some questions to his post. I’ve never emailed anyone at MSNBC for any reason, and I had no awareness of the post about LGF on MSNBC, until it was rather dramatically brought to my attention.
Before I explain what happened, it’s worthwhile to take a detour (if anyone’s still reading) to explain a bit about responsibilities that a site’s owner/creator has for its visitors’ posts. I don’t, frankly, think a website’s owner should be responsible for any writing but their own. I certainly don’t think Charles should be considered racist because some of his posters are, just as I think it preposterous that I should be held responsible for Will Femia’s writing on MSNBC, or for the random attacks on me posted in yesterday’s comments. Charles has a disclaimer above his comments reflecting a similar idea, but has argued frequently and persuasively, and with the support of his audience, that the owners of sites such as an anti-semitic website called clearguidance.org be held responsible for not fighting the hateful comments on their sites. References to this belief can be found on several threads on Little Green Footballs.
But Charles and his audience believe that I was responsible for MSNBC’s comments about LGF, either through direct instigation, which is false, or through indirect provocation through my two posts mentioning the site. In a public appeal, Charles inarguably led his audience to respond to the accusations, linking them to my site, MSNBC’s site, and Will Femia’s email address. Clearly, if clearguidance is culpable for providing of a forum for hate, and my earlier comments’ mere presence is responsible for Will Femia’s writings, then Charles’ repeated public calls-to-arms bear the onus for the existence and tone of the campaign that followed.
And followed it did. In the course of the next few days, I received nearly 100 emails that either directly or indirectly related to the LGF site, on top of the normal volume of email I get. Seventy of them were, as best I can tell, against my statements about LGF, or at least against what they thought were my statements.
Exactly half of the emails I got accused me of trying to stop Charles from talking, or of trying to shut down his site, or of denying him his right to free speech. My response to all of those allegations is to invite any reader of his site to frequent any of the numerous threads in which I stated my true goal, which is to do justice to the noble cause of exposing extremist corruption of Islam for the evil it is, free from the taint of bigotry which would cause the valid points made to be dismissed as the rantings of a different bunch of extremists.
Twenty of the emails accused me of being anti-semitic, which is a fiction that’s entirely made up. Two of them made specific reference to a document called the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which is apparently a bogus screed venerated by anti-semites as "evidence" of a vast Jewish conspiracy. I found that up while trying to figure out what charge, exactly, I was defending myself against. If the charges weren’t so grave, it would be almost amusing. As a true-blue member of the New York City liberal media, and having spent years working with and in the entertainment industry, I thought I’d heard every manner of bizarre conspiracy theory about Jews and the media. The creation of an anti-semitic media conspiracy theory is at least a novel bit of hateful lying.
Massing the Troops
There’s lots more foolishness, of course. I think all but 15 or so used variations on my first name that ceased being clever when I turned twelve years old. Yes, yes, my first name looks like "Anal". Knock yourself out, fellas. Even the people who think I’m wrong about Charles and LGF find that "joke" tiring. There was one arguable death threat, saying that I deserved the fate that had befallen the victims of the suicide attack on the Israeli bus. There were a few funny ones, mostly unintentional, that had such execrable grammar and spelling that I couldn’t fully decipher what particular evil the senders were ascribing to me.
And then there were the 25 that maligned Muslims or Islam by name, without distinguishing between the several thousand evil muslims who pervert the religion and the millions who live peacably around the world.
"LGF is right on for exposing Muslims for what they are, murdering fanatics." "Jews aren’t a bunch of murderers: musilms [sic] are." "the islamofascists want to kill you, too." and on and on. A token few went the extra mile and made sure to mention other evils like gays, "black rapper muslims", and my personal favorite, "all the non-whites trying to poisin [sic] america with lefty bullshit."
The thing that struck me is, I don’t need to be convinced of the evils of radical Islam. Despite my family’s work for decades in India for the rights of outcastes, Christians, and Muslims in India’s increasingly Hindu fundamentalist political atmosphere, they’ve still known the same horrors we know here, of friends and friends of friends lost to suicidal killers. Indeed, I got an email from my uncle in India that was sent at 9:38am on September 11th. The last lines of his message say, "Here, we are used to terrorist violence (of course not of such a magnitude ) You people must be wondering about why such senseless acts are commited. But then, there is really no difference between a religious fanatic and a lunatic. They need no reason or excuse to behave as they do. Incidents like this only show how people go [crazy]."
That’s not all. At Charles’ behest, his weblog community banded together to show support for LGF by emailing MSNBC, Will Femia, and of course by linking to my site with disparaging remarks. The same baseless charges of anti-semitism, anti-americanism and support of terrorism showed up across several of the sites. Notably, a number of strong voices were able to post their disagreement, and sometimes vehement distaste, for my comments while still being respectful or while taking the time to engage me in a dialogue before labelling me with vicious and untrue statements.
Most of the sites that were critical of me while being respectful raised signficant and important points about being responsible with accusations of racism and bias, and for that I thank Meryl Yourish, Mike Sanders, and Mike Silverman. Though sorry, Mike, I’m not a Mac user. I’m assuming that doesn’t put me spinning back on the Axis of Evil. Heh.
The concern that all of this raises for me is that I went in, admittedly with a lot of bluster, but also sharing most of the same values and ideals of the people with whom I engaged in dialogue. Over and over I was faced with various types of litmus tests, questioned on whether I was against terrorism, or whether I made excuses for suicide bombers, or any number of questions far more offensive than any accusation of hosting a website that tolerated bigotry. And the fact that these questions came fast and furious, for days before there was any sort of response on these forums that maybe the criticisms were legitimate, indicates to me that a type of groupthink has taken over. That a misguided minority is swaying a legitimate band of political comrades towards extremism. It’s the same charge leveled against the anti-semitism seeping into the anti-war movement, which threatens to marginalize a valid political viewpoint.
And that’s the important thing. I can still see the validity of various viewpoints. While clearly, I place a higher priority on preserving the safety and civil liberties of Americans of Arab, Muslims, and South Asian descent than some others, I can see that they’re not evil. I can see that they’re not apologists for terror. I am disappointed that some would choose to marginalize themselves and seem like ranting lunatics by accusing me of being in favor of different types of evil.
But some people can’t make these distinctions. James Taranto revealed himself to be both credulous and amateurish; The latter’s a common but forgivable trait amongst journalists, but the former is truly unprofessional. At the behest of enraged LGF readers with more venom than fact, Taranto managed to commit exactly the sin which he criticizes in his column. He cites MSNBC as "smearing" LGF by merely asking if the site is hateful. Yet he artlessly segues from my criticisms of Charles’s site to the prior protestations of some virulent anti-semites. If asking a question about a site is a smear, then surely describing me, describing some anti-semites, and then declaring "This is the real face of hate." counts as slander. It’s frightening that Taranto’s desire to divide well-intentioned Americans into two groups so that he can have an enemy to write about is so strong that he’ll even risk lashing out at those who agree with him.
Taranto attempts to discredit me by scare quoting a phrase from another quote, that one written by a person who thought I was too harsh on Charles and LGF. But even a theoretical compatriot is no match for his hunger for a straw man to attack, and Taranto forges bravely on, unaware that he’s maligning those who would be his allies. America’s a better place than your behavior demonstrates, James. I’d invite you to treat your fellow Americans with the respect they deserve for sharing with you the privilege of living among them.
Silence Behind Me
But Taranto’s flailings and failings aren’t my greatest disappointment in this entire misadventure. They’re not even in second place. That disappointment would be the timidity of the response of those who agree with me. I am grateful to Nick Denton for being an early and vocal supporter of my criticisms of LGF, along with the kind words and emails expressed by Andrew Northrup and Max Sawicky.
Also significant to me was the support shown by Matt Haughey, whose willingness to speak out was especially valued after the truly hateful vitriol aimed at him and his site MetaFilter, despite the fact that Matt’s onine community was calling out the Taliban for its evil policies months before the attacks, back when Charles was still writing about obscure technical points. But I am still left disappointed because I know from conversations I’ve had with others that there are many, many people who agree with me, who reject the extremist tone of many of the comments on LGF, but are too cowed by fear of hate mail like I got, or of the inconvenience of saying something.
It’s a surprise to see that sites like those listed on Charles’ sidebar don’t express their distaste for some of his visitors’ comments, despite the fact that their names are displayed right next to these words. It’s been a moderate surprise to see that a community that would rally to support various other political causes in esoteric realms ignore false attacks by the worst elements of the weblog world. I try not to be too cynical about it, but I wonder if perhaps more people would have rushed in to defend me if the zealots had hijacked my domain name instead of merely emailing death threats and making baseless accusations against me.
But that’s not my biggest disappointment, either. I can understand the fact that there are bigots. I can understand that Charles would rather focus his audience’s wrath on me or Mr. Femia than on those responsible for the outbursts of bigotry on his company’s website. I can understand that many who support what I’ve written would choose not to get into a pissing match that’s this unproductive and that got this ugly. I can even grudgingly concede that there are people who would rather marshall their forces to publish hundreds of words, on dozens of different sites, and in hundreds of email messages, than exert those energies on confronting the hatred in their own community. I can undertand, despite their disinterest in toning down rhetoric laden with words like "paleostinian" and "idiotarian" even though it means that an average reader, not steeped in their insular culture’s buzzwords, will probably find their message obtuse, obscure, or distasteful.
I do have a main disappointment. I didn’t do justice to the important idea I was trying to communicate. I have long believed that a flawed messenger for an important idea is better than none. But I won’t let my frustration with my flawed attempts compromise the fact that being infiltrated and corrupted by bigotry is the biggest threat to the legitimate criticisms of Islamic extremism that are necessary for the safety and well-being of millions of people around the globe. I won’t back down from the fact that dialogue is as important as confrontational engagement, both in our internal discussions of policy and in our interactions with those who would wish us harm.
So, finally, I’m done asking your indulgence. If any of you have read through all of this, thank you. I would ask only a few things. I would like Charles to explain why critics of content on his site are bigger enemies than the bigots who poison legitimate attempts at criticizing fundamentalist extremism. I would ask those who agree with my points to either speak up or admit the fact that they find the existence of these problems in our weblog community either too inconvenient to comment on, or too distant a threat to be worth pursing. I would ask everyone to understand the true dangers of extremism, in all its forms, and to see it for the evil that it is.
And, oh yeah… James Taranto? I’d like to ask you to kiss my big brown ass.
Update: Comments are gone on this thread, too. As much as I’d like to continue a conversation about this, it still seems like people can’t discuss this stuff in a civil manner. I’m disappointed in communities on both sides of this debate, and I hope we can all remember our goal is to reach a solution to the problems of violence and hatred, and that we all have the same fundamental desires to see those things end.