January 22, 2010


Right-Wing Flame War! (JONATHAN DEE, 1/24/10, NY Times Magazine)

If the tone of Johnson’s writing on the blog sometimes bordered, as his detractors claimed, on hate speech, that of his mostly anonymous commenters was reliably worse. A popular blog like L.G.F. functions as a kind of cloud-sourced id. It is not uncommon for a simple, 200-word post to accrue upward of a thousand written responses from readers. The question of how responsible he is, or should be, for these expressions of uncensored reader sentiment is one that Johnson, like many bloggers, has struggled with; but in the middle years of the last decade, whether for free-speech reasons or simply because he enjoyed being the popular focal point of such strong nationalist feeling, he did very little to rein it in. Muslims were described as “vermin.” The posthumous nickname St. Pancake was coined for the young American pro-Palestinian activist Rachel Corrie, in reference to the Israeli bulldozer that killed her. Discussion of U.S. foreign-policy options included terms like “targeted genocide.” As for Palestinians, “they don’t need statehood,” offered one commenter; “they need sterilization.” And on and on. A so-called stalker blog, called L.G.F. Watch, sprang up to document instances of what it considered hate speech on the part of Johnson and his followers. Vanity Fair’s James Wolcott compared Johnson’s site to a “disorganized Nuremberg Rally.”

But enemies themselves are a kind of currency on the Internet, and for every attack L.G.F. provoked as a place that permitted and even fostered bigotry against Muslims in particular, new allies rose up to link themselves to Johnson and his causes. Those links were both spiritual and literal; allowing (or preventing) less-successful sites to post a link to yours, and maybe offering them a link on your own site in return, turns you into a kind of taste maker, a locus of tangible power. L.G.F. was, by 2007 or so, at the heart of a vast, amorphous grid of right-wing sites of every description, an interdependence that Johnson himself had become, in a way, too popular to control.

That concept of the link, in all its permutations, is the key to what happened next, both to Johnson and because of him, and it says something enlightening not just about blogging but also about the nature and prospects of citizen journalism. Whatever you think of him, Johnson is a smart man, a gifted synthesizer of information gathered by other people. But just as for anyone in his position, there is an inevitable limit to what he can learn about places, people, political organizations, etc., without actually encountering them. Instead of causes and effects, motivations and consequences, observation and behavior, his means of intellectual synthesis is, instead, the link: the indiscriminate connection established via search engine.

IN OCTOBER 2007, Johnson was asked to take part in what was billed as a Counter-Jihad Conference in Brussels, a gathering of fewer than a hundred politicians and opinion leaders from around the world who convened to share ideas and strategies for combating the spread of militant Islam. Johnson was not the only writer invited — Geller was there, as well as Robert Spencer of jihadwatch.org (a Web site Johnson himself designed), to name two — but he did not go. “I’m just not a joiner of these things,” he says.

The conference finished up in Brussels, and “the next day,” Johnson remembers, “people were e-mailing me saying, ‘You might want to cover this.’ So I started looking into it.” He discovered that among the conference’s 90 or so participants — though not among the speakers — was a man named Filip Dewinter, a leader of a Belgian-nationalist political party called Vlaams Belang, or “Flemish Interest.” Vlaams Belang, which has a history that reaches back to the wrong side of World War II, has an unabashed record of inflammatory rhetoric and hateful, opportunistic verbal viciousness of all sorts; a few years ago, for example, the party announced an advertising campaign in Moroccan newspapers and magazines to “discourage foreigners from coming to our country.” And as recently as 2004, it was condemned by the Belgian Supreme Court for incitement to discrimination and racial segregation. (The party responded by changing its name.) Even to most right-wing sensibilities, Vlaams Belang is certainly beyond the pale. Still, whether or not Dewinter, who has said that “in Flanders, the multicultural society has led to a multicriminal society,” is more extreme than the commenters who appeared regularly on Little Green Footballs seems like a subject on which right-wing minds might reasonably disagree. Perhaps that still happens somewhere. Gray, however, is not a popular shade on the Internet.

It seems borderline ridiculous that the political character of an extremist Belgian party, which in the last parliamentary election captured just 17 seats out of 150 in the Chamber of Representatives, should become the issue over which a kind of civil war among American conservatives broke out, but that is what happened. Opposing “Islamofascism,” Johnson had come to believe, shouldn’t require identification with fascism of the older sort. Johnson began taking shots at not only Vlaams Belang, an organization it seems safe to say the vast majority of his readers had never heard of, but also at formerly favored colleagues like Spencer and Geller, to whom, by attending the same conference, the European neofascist movement was now . . . linked. Johnson first hinted, and eventually demanded, that they publicly distance themselves from both Vlaams Belang and the conference itself, and when they demurred, he publicly distanced himself from them.

“Filip Dewinter has said some things I deplore,” Spencer says. “But I don’t consider myself responsible for him just because I was at this conference and he was, too. That’s an outrageous kind of guilt by association. Let me ask you this: a few years ago I spoke at a Yom Kippur service, and one of the other speakers was Hillary Clinton. Does that make me a supporter or her work, or her of mine?”

Regardless of whether Johnson’s view of Vlaams Belang is correct, it is notable that the party is defined for him entirely by the trail it has left on the Internet. This isn’t necessarily unfair — a speech, say, given by Dewinter isn’t any more or less valuable as evidence of his political positions depending on whether you read it (or watch it) on a screen or listen to it in a crowd — but it does have a certain flattening effect in terms of time: that hypothetical speech exists on the Internet in exactly the same way whether it was delivered in 2007 or 1997. The speaker will never put it behind him. (Just as Johnson, despite his very reasonable contention that he later changed his mind, will never be allowed to consign to the past a blog post he wrote in 2004 criticizing that judicial condemnation of Vlaams Belang as “a victory for European Islamic supremacist groups.”) It may be difficult to travel to Belgium and build the case that Filip Dewinter is not just a hateful character but an actual Nazi (and thus that those who can be linked to him are Nazi sympathizers), but sitting at your keyboard, there is no trick to it at all. Not only can the past never really be erased; it co-exists, in cyberspace, with the present, and an important type of context is destroyed. This is one reason that intellectual inflexibility has become such a hallmark of modern political discourse, and why, so often, no distinction is recognized between hypocrisy and changing your mind.

Johnson broke off relations with blogs that claimed openly to owe their own existence to him. He called the syndicated columnist Diana West and the investigative reporter Richard Miniter fascist sympathizers. He threatened to take down Michelle Malkin. In some ways, it was an exploration of the limits of his own influence: all over the blogosphere, you were either with him or with the fascists.

“I was such a small fish at the time,” Geller said. “I realized I was basically committing blog suicide by going against him. But he was wrong.” When one of Johnson’s posts about the conference was picked up and incorporated in a press release by the conservative bête noire Council on American-Islamic Relations, Geller called him out on Atlas Shrugs; he responded with a series of posts about her, the most memorable of which was titled, “Pamela Geller: Poster Girl for Eurofascism.” (Not that Geller herself, who posted a Photoshopped picture of Johnson in Joker makeup, was exactly on the high road.) Traffic at her site, she says, went down about 75 percent. “He really did put a knife in the trans-Atlantic counterjihad movement, for a long time. People were running for cover. Nobody wanted to go against him then. He was the king.”

Spencer says: “I have actually had people contact me and say, ‘I understand you’re the American representative for Vlaams Belang.’ And that is because of Johnson.” After Spencer wrote last month on Jihad Watch that I interviewed him, Johnson forwarded me several posts by other bloggers charting Spencer’s unsavory “associations”; one of them tried to connect him, via a chain of links that is too long even to summarize, to Slobodan Milosevic. The more creatively defamatory the whole dispute becomes, the further it moves from the issues around which Johnson and Spencer and many others have supposedly reframed their lives. But I never got the sense that any of it was put forth by Johnson, either in person or on the blog, in anything other than perfect earnestness. He came of age, as a writer and as a public figure, in the culture of damnation by link, and he does not exempt himself from its logic.

Thus in retrospect it also seems clear that the Vlaams Belang blog war, with its attendant scary buzzwords (“fascist,” “racist,” “Nazi”), gave Johnson the intellectual cover to do something he wanted to do anyway, which was to conduct a kind of public self-purge of the alliances he acquired on the road to fame.

THE QUESTIONING OF Johnson’s tactics started to come not just from without L.G.F. but also from within. Readers both casual and loyal spoke up in the comment threads to ask, sometimes diplomatically and sometimes not, whether all this casual flinging of epithets like “fascist” wasn’t maybe an overreaction. Johnson’s response, in thousands of cases, was to block their accounts and ban some of them from viewing the blog. “Get off my Web site” was a common farewell. (Johnson insists that this is not true — that no one has ever been banned from L.G.F. merely for disagreeing with him — but the anecdotal evidence to the contrary is voluminous, and the fact that the offending comments were instantly and permanently deleted makes it impossible to check others’ records against his.)

“Running a community is hard,” says Markos Moulitsas of the liberal Web site Daily Kos, “and I don’t criticize people for the approaches they take in trying to control their sites. As I tell my own disgruntled commenters, if they don’t like a site’s comment policies, they can always find greener pastures elsewhere. It’s a big Internet.”

A reasonable approach, which L.G.F.’s exiles mostly rejected. Comment threads all over the blogosphere were hijacked by people sharing stories of their banishment. Another stalker blog — this one assailing Johnson from the right — sprang up, administered by banned former “Lizards,” as L.G.F.’s registrants are known. Johnson responded by posting those former registrants’ real names and photographs on L.G.F. — an astounding breach of civility on the Internet, where anonymity is often prized above all else.

It was a kind of orgy of delinking, an intentionally set brush fire meant to clear the psychic area around Johnson and ensure that no one would connect him to anyone else, period, unless he first said it was O.K. No one would define Johnson’s allegiances but Johnson. Of course, much of this was accomplished by the very methods he felt so threatened by: a kind of six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon approach to political rectitude, in which the existence of even a search-engine-generated connection between two people anywhere in the world implied a mutual back-scratching, an ideological partnership. It was unfair and simplistic and petulant, but it also seems to have achieved its goal. Very few people on the right want to be linked with Charles Johnson anymore.

NO ONE SEEMS TO WANT to believe that his thinking simply changed over time — and in fact he still has that much in common with his old allies, for Johnson, too, insists that he hasn’t really changed. His recent expressions of support for abortion rights, of contempt for creationism and the religious right — all these beliefs, he told me, are elements of the “classical liberalism” he has always believed in but previously opted not to write about. Why now? The answer is so heretical it seems destined to raise the tizzy-level among his former followers to new heights: “It’s not that the war on terror has finished,” he said. “It’s never going to be finished, but I think things have reached the point now where it’s not as pressing as it was. Some of the measures we took to protect ourselves against extremists have been pretty effective. And so I realized, you know, that maybe it’s time to tell people that I’m not onboard with a lot of this social-conservative agenda.

...it has been our experience that if you simply do not allow hate speech, profanity and personal attacks in the comments section that such commenters move on pretty quickly to the places that do allow them to spew. Nor do we get much anti-Muslim craziness. [It's generally anti-immigrant fervor that crops up and leads people to storm off in a huff when we aren't interested in allowing them to vent it here.] Meanwhile, we don't much link to blogs (nor read more than a handful of them) and never engage in these flame-wars. Does anyone who reads a blog really care that the blogger doesn't like some other blogger?

Generally our experience has been quite pleasant and the comments and commenters make the blog. Thank you all for that.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 22, 2010 9:57 PM
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