Dangerous Clowns (Part 2)
By Pamela Troy
A BUZZFLASH NEWS ANALYSIS
[Part 2 in a 4-Part Series. Part 1 is at:
… the day will come when the German people
will awake … and that day will be sealed in blood. -- Julius Streicher
1924 DS #22
If the Christian people work together, they can succeed during this decade
in winning back control of the institutions that have been taken from
them over the past 70 years. Expect confrontations that will not only
be unpleasant, but at times physically bloody … -- Pat Robertson,
Pat Robertson’s Perspective, October/November 1992
When contemplating college liberals, you really regret once again that
John Walker is not getting the death penalty. We need to execute people
like John Walker in order to physically intimidate liberals, by making
them realize that they can be killed too. Otherwise they will turn out
to be outright traitors. -- Ann Coulter at the Conservative Political
Action Conference, 2002.
If guns are outlawed, how can we shoot liberals? -- Originally a
quote from State Sen. Mike Gunn. It is now a popular bumper sticker.
Early in 2005, Americans were offered a working illustration of the
extent to which those often dismissed as irrelevant crackpots have a direct
pipeline to the mainstream media, all the way up to the Washington Press
corps. At a January 29th press conference, a “reporter” using the name
Jeff Gannon asked Bush the following question:
Senate Democratic leaders have painted a very
bleak picture of the U.S. economy. [Senate Minority Leader] Harry Reid
[D-NV] was talking about soup lines. And [Senator] Hillary Clinton [D-NY]
was talking about the economy being on the verge of collapse. Yet, in
the same breath they say that Social Security is rock solid and there’s
no crisis there. How are you going to work – and you’ve said you are
going to reach out to these people – how are you going to work with
people who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?
Most readers are probably familiar with the resulting tempest, which
resulted in “Jeff Gannon” being exposed as an online writer named James
Guckert whose journalistic credentials are skimpy to the point of being
nonexistent. To be fair, "Gannon’s" soft-ball questions were
not much more eccentric and biased than those of the venerable Les Kinsolving,
who up until his recent health problems, had been a regular if rather
weird feature of White House Press conferences.
But Kinsolving, unlike Guckert, has solid chops as a reporter, and Guckert
has some embarrassing connections to gay websites uncovered by liberal
bloggers. So “Jeff Gannon” resigned his post as a “reporter,” with much
eye dabbing on the part of his right-wing fans and regretful sighs on
the part of deliberately obtuse mainstream commentators like Howard Kurtz,
all of whom helped to paint Guckert as the unfortunate victim of liberal
bigotry and harassment.
In fact, a truly interesting, but overlooked aspect of Guckert is not
his sexuality or his affiliation with Talon and GOPUSA, or even the undeniably
fascinating question of how he got access to White House briefings using
an alias, but his connection with a popular right-wing website called
Free Republic, to which Mr. Gannon frequently contributed.
Free Republic is more than just a forum where like-minded people can post
their opinions. It is used as a contact point for mobilizing right-wing
activists on a grassroots level in a manner that sometimes goes beyond
simply campaigning for a favorite candidate or pushing for changes within
the context of our legal system.
Bands of right-wing toughs are not physically beating up the opposition,
as was the case in Striecher’s Germany. After all, in the 1920s and 30s,
there was no mass media as we know it. Political expression more often
took the form of a speaker communicating directly with an audience in
a hall. In such a society, one silences the opposition by physically preventing
them from speaking, breaking up the meeting, making people afraid to either
speak at such gatherings or attend them.
Today, in a world with television, an Internet and widespread access to
computers, silencing the opposition can be done more indirectly, through
attacks not on the body of the person making a speech in an auditorium,
but on the show, and more directly on the web site or discussion board
where they are expressing their opinions. The right wing web site and
forum Free Republic early on established a reputation for fomenting organized
efforts among their members to skew national polls, flood discussion boards,
and bring down websites they deem too “liberal.” In fact, they ended up
coining a term for this kind of activity – “freeping.”
From the standpoint of physical safety it’s obviously preferable to be
figuratively rather than literally elbowed aside, silenced not by having
your ribs cracked but by having your web site brought down or your poll
skewed or your online forum over-run. It remains, however, a disturbing
symptom in a free society, particularly given that the Free Republic forums
have shown a tendency to target not just polls and websites, but individuals.
And the language used about these individuals often does more than merely
border on the violent. David Brock’s Media Matters pointed out the reaction
on Free Republic to the reporter who had filmed an American soldier shooting
to death an injured Iraqi.
"Turn [Reporter's name] over to the terrorist."
"No need for anything overt. Unfortunate things happen in combat
zones, and if the reporter fails to hear someone yell 'Sniper!!', well,
c'est la guerre.”
"I don't want the punk killed, I'd just like to see his hair mussed.
Jaws wired shut for a few months, food through a straw, that kind of
It might be argued that, as an embedded television reporter, the reporter
was a public figure, and thus inevitably prone to harassment and death
threats. In some cases, however, the individuals targeted for “freeping”
have not been public figures at all, but ordinary Americans who have marched,
signed petitions, or posted web sites about their opinions. In this eagerness
to target ordinary citizens as well as in its virulent language about
those whom they target, Free Republic and other right wing websites increasingly
parallel Julius Streicher’s Der Sturmer.
As Randall Bytwerk notes in his biography of Streicher, “in 1933 Streicher
began the pillory column, giving the names and addresses of German women
purportedly having relations with Jewish men … The very popular brief
items section of the paper served similar functions. Perhaps the best
way to understand the despicable nature of such material is to summarize
the twenty items from a typical 1937 issue:”
Bytwerk goes on to cite the items, which include “In a village, the populace
is concerned because a well-known Jew-lover has been given the guardianship
of a farm; A town councilman lets his daughter date a Jew; A printer is
represented by a Jewish attorney; A German attorney represents a Jew …”
“In each case,” Bytwerk continues, “the names of the accused and their
towns or districts are given … And in addition many longer letters were
printed, and interior articles were based on materials supplied by readers
… those who feared appearing in the Sturmer had good reason. Even if most
were not officially prosecuted, they could lose friends and business …
in 1934 a reader reported that a German married to a Jew had been expelled
from an organization after the Sturmer published the marriage …”
In the summer of 2001, after Jenna Bush was carded at an Austin Texas
restaurant and arrested for underage drinking, the name of the restaurant
manager who had turned the girl in was posted on the Free Republic web
site, as well as personal information about the manager and her infant
son, her social security number, her telephone number, and her home address.
Free Republic forum members suggested ways of “dealing with” the manager,
from vandalism, to arson, to identity theft, and other crimes.
To give at least minimal credit to those who run Free Republic, the messages
containing the woman’s personal information and those advocating outright
crime were quickly removed, but not before they had been greeted with
vociferous approval from many Free Republic posters. There were Free Republic
members who disapproved and said so, but the overwhelming response on
Free Republic was venom. The messages that were not removed include the
“FWIW, a call place to [name of the restaurant] yesterday confirmed
that [name of the manager] was still employed as of 1700 hrs. CT.”
“If we have to destroy [restaurant] and [name] to send you the message
to cut it out, so be it. If we have to destroy ten, a hundred or a thousand
more leftists to make the point, that is OK too.
“the health dept. HAS been alerted and are going to go check 'em out.
i got "sick" there eating last friday and HAD to report that
fact to the health department ...”
“I haven't heard of any husband, so I suppose that she's unwed ... I
wonder if she knows who the father is? That being said, I wonder if
she's a fit mother… I wonder if child protective services shouldn't
get involved, in order to make sure that there is an appropriate, stable
environment for the child?
Free Republic itself became so alarmed at the level of vituperation
that a planned demonstration by local Freepers in front of the restaurant
was called off. The story was picked up by Salon and several other outlets,
and resulted in such bad publicity for Free Republic, that one would think
its administrators would have learned some caution when it came to targeting
But in March of 2004, a member of Free Republic posted what he described
as an “Enemies List,” triumphantly announcing, “Here you are, FReepers.
Here is the enemy. Working in conjunction with A.N.S.W.E.R., they have
given us their names.” What followed was a list of signatories for an
online petition posted by ANSWER. The obvious purpose of posting this
list on Free Republic was for “Freepers” to target individual names on
the petition for harassment, and the original post made this plain by
adding, “How about this one --- [Name Omitted], U.S. Coast Guard, [Location
omitted]. Well, sailor, I guess it is time for me to call your commanding
officer and see what he thinks about this.”
“Don’t forget [Name Omitted], Military/Navy, [Location omitted] while
you’re at it.”
“You already made the call? Good work…by his name is he probably a Muslim.
The CO will love to have a disgruntled Muslim in his unit.” “The poor
moron is never going to know what hit him.”
And it was not only members of the military who were targeted. Some
Freepers were apparently poring over the list in search of names from
their own areas.
“Here’s an Enemy in the County – [Name Omitted] Roman Catholic Priest,
“Well shiiiite! None of this pond scum live [City name]. Too bad, I
was looking for something to do this evening.”
“Ah, too bad we don’t have some pictures, so we could make a rogues
gallery of some of the individuals.”
“I sure do hope to see a round of hangings soon. After a fair trial
This zest for going after individuals is by no means confined to Free
Republic. During the controversy surrounding the Dan Rather/George Bush
Memos, a university professor posted to his web site the first draft of
an examination of the memos and his cautiously worded opinion that they
were genuine. He was denounced as a “liar and a charlatan” on a right
wing web site, his name, the university where he worked, his email address,
as well as that of his employers was posted online. It ended, fortunately,
in his university threatening legal action against the web site that had
spearheaded the campaign and a rather half-hearted apology by the web
site’s manager, but not before the professor and the university had been
inundated with Internet hate-mail, attacks and demands that he be fired.
Apologists for the right-wing blogosphere often claim that it’s all hyperbole,
that the people who describe Democrats and liberals as traitors worthy
of beatings, imprisonment, and execution don’t really mean it. This good-natured
assumption is undermined by the fact that right-wing posters on forums
like Free Republic, Lucianne.com, and Little Green Footballs are unfazed
by genuine tragedies involving liberals and leftists. In April of this
year, a young activist named Marla Ruzicka was killed in Iraq when a suicide
bomber attacked a convoy. Ruzicka’s work in Iraq was strictly humanitarian,
but her affiliation with Medea Benjamin’s CODE PINK made her the enemy
in the minds of many right-wingers.
There were some lonely voices raised on the right wing Internet in respectful
acknowledgement of Ruzicka’s humanitarianism, courage, and accomplishments,
but they were drowned out by a roar of chest-thumping contempt:
I am trying to muster up some tears – but it just ain’t happening.
She hated this country and everything about it. She played with matches
and got burned. Good riddance to the idiot gene pool I would say.
She wasn’t one of their victims; in her case, it was ‘friendly fire’
that did her in.
Good riddance to this piece of filth,
Because the Bush administration validates this kind of language by conflating
dissent with disloyalty it’s not surprising that these “jokes” and “hyperbole”
have morphed more and more into organized actions.
[To be continued ... This is Part 2 of "Dangerous Clowns,"
presented as a 4-part series.]
by Pamela Troy
A BUZZFLASH NEWS ANALYSIS