Friday, July 7, 2017

Intolerance

This is a popular internet meme:


It's been around for years, one of these things that has become such a staple that no one even remembers where it started. If you've spent any time talking politics on Facebook, you've seen it a million times. A few years ago, I guess I saw it one too many times and opted to use it to turn the mirror on those who so ubiquitously posted it:


A truism: Tolerance necessarily involves a disdain for intolerant points of view. That's baked into its basic premise. On the internet, though, where everyone's favorite charge against those with whom they disagree is "hypocrisy," this basic liberal virtue tends to be portrayed by conservatives and rightists as, in itself, intolerant. Everywhere, we see expressions of mindless hatred of Muslims, LGBT folks, immigrants, etc. and anyone who speaks against this and stands up for the pluralistic liberal society is, for doing so, tagged as intolerant and thus a hypocrite. Hating Nazis is the same as being a Nazi.

The idea that standing against intolerance is, itself, intolerance is, of course, strictly Orwellian but it's a narrative the right-wing Rage Machine has peddled relentlessly. The Rage Machine--nearly every major rightist outlet in the U.S.--fosters a cult of aggrievement among its followers, relentlessly drilling into their heads that they're persecuted by the liberal society. The rise of Donald Trump, a protofascist who openly promotes hatred against Muslims, immigrants and other marginalized groups and who, as a presidential candidate, repeatedly encouraged violence against those who protested against him, didn't encourage any pause, any soul-searching; the Rage Machine simply doubled down on the doublethink. According to the Machine, it wasn't the orange clown on stage who was weaving vile hate-fantasies about thousands of American Muslims gleefully celebrating the 9/11 attacks or offering to pay the legal bills of his followers if they beat up anti-Trump demonstrators. He wasn't the one who was intolerant. Rather, it was those objecting to such things.

Riding the Trump train, alt-right shitbag Milo Yiannopoulos became, for about 15 minutes, a major rock-star on the right. Yiannopoulos was a troll in the truest sense, a cynical purveyor of hatred whose celebrity was based solely on saying vile, outrageous things he, himself, didn't even believe but that the right absolutely loved to hear. He barely even pretended to have any substantive message; he simply gamed the poisonous outrage culture on the right for fun and profit for as long as he could. He worked at alt-right sewer Breitbart, an outlet that loves to harp on "liberal intolerance" while acting as a sympathetic platform for white nationalists and other actual hatemongers. Breitbart had a great racket going with Yiannopoulos, a perfect feedback loop wherein it financed his "Dangerous Faggot" tour as it rolled through institutions of higher learning in 2016 and 2017 then used the outrage it provoked as examples of the "hate and intolerance" of liberals on college campuses, a theme that was then picked up across right-wing media.

In these appearances, Yiannopoulos was as content-free as ever--in the name of "free speech," he simply attacked rape victims, Muslims, black activists, immigrants, transgendered people and anyone who objected to Milo Yiannopoulos, including students on the campus. He'd come to command an army of admiring trolls and took great relish in unleashing them to harass and bully his targets (in the midst of this, he'd been kicked from Twitter after promoting the ugly, racist harassment of actress Leslie Jones). In January, anti-Milo demonstrations at UC Davis convinced the campus College Republicans to cancel their scheduled event. Yannopoulos took to Facebook to assert it had been cancelled "after violence from left-wing protestors," but there had been no violence of any kind (presenting any protest as "violence" is a standard feature of this particular narrative). Shortly after that, a man was shot outside another of Milo's appearances, this time at the University of Washington. Inside, Yiannopoulos implied it was one of his fans who'd gotten plugged. "If I stopped my event now," he told the assembled, "we are sending a clear message that they can stop our events by killing people. I am not prepared to do that." In reality, the victim was an anti-Milo protester; a pair of Yiannopoulos supporters took a gun to the event, bragging on social media about how they were looking for a fight, and shot the fellow in the stomach.

The incident went virtually unreported in the corporate press (and Breitbart, following Yiannopoulos' lead, left readers with the impression it was an anti-Milo protester who had been shot) but it seems to have become the straw that broke the camel's back. When, shortly after this, Yiannopoulos brought his shit-show to the University of California, Berkeley, there were the usual protests but after most of the demonstrators had left, masked anti-fascists descended on the site, destroyed some property and succeeded in getting the event cancelled.

For much of right-wing media, this was manna from Heaven and the incident was quickly fashioned into a bloody shirt that continues to be waved about today, even long after Yiannopoulos' downfall--the symbol of violent, intolerant liberals shutting down conservative speech. That fantasy runs all over any sort of reasoned evaluation of the incident. There's the usual insistence on portraying everyone from center-right Democrats to communist radicals as "liberals," the misrepresentation of property-damage as "violence," the deliberate refusal to distinguish between the great mass of regular demonstrators, with whom there was no issue, and the handful of radical anti-fascists who broke stuff and, of course, none of the context offered here re: Yiannopoulos, his tour, the shooting, etc. It was all about how Berkeley, the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement, now stood opposed to same. Donald Trump took to Twitter to threaten to cut off federal funding to the institution, one of the top research universities in the United States, over these incident, over which the university had no control at all. Yiannopoulos was elevated to the status of a free-speech martyr.[1]

Milo self-destructed shortly after this. A tape surfaced in which he made warm, jokey comments regarding pedophilia and he became instantly radioactive--fired from Breitbart, his six-figure book-contract cancelled and he's mercifully slunk back under whatever obscure rock from which he'd originally crawled out. The narrative he helped to build and feed, however, continues, aided by much of the regular corporate press, which followed the rightist media in taking the anti-fascist radicals to task for their alleged anti-free-speech attitudes.

The Trump regime has emboldened the white supremacist/Nazi/fascist subculture--what has now been rebranded the alt-right--to an extent that hasn't happened in the lifetime of most reading these words today. Radical anti-fascists--antifa--have long confronted such elements in the streets and the presence of this emboldened alt-right has led to greater antifa visibility. While the right-wing press has gleefully exploited this development to continue its ridiculous narrative about violent, intolerant liberals, much of the rest of the corporate press has, mostly through laziness, often aided that same narrative. When, in April, violence erupted at a pro-Trump "free speech" rally in Berkeley, for example, much of the press portrayed this as merely a clash between pro-Trump and anti-Trump demonstrators. An important article in Esquire took these outlets to task for failing to get at the real story: the rally had been organized by the alt-right, featured overt white nationalists as speakers and "explicitly racist groups and individuals were present in force." Some of those racists had, for weeks in advance, openly bragged about planning to instigate violence at the event. Antifa counter-demonstrators showed up to oppose these elements, not to brawl with a bunch of ordinary Donald Trump fans.

At the same time, liberals have, contrary to the Rage Machine's narrative, largely joined much of the corporate press in condemning antifa activists. Antifa forthrightly takes the position that hate isn't speech and seeks, through direct action, to deny it any platform, noting--correctly--that fascism is, by its very nature, a direct threat to marginalized communities and to the freedom and safety of all. For ordinary American liberals, this simply cuts too sharply against the grain of their traditions of free speech as a thing that must be upheld for even the most deplorable elements, and the kind of street-brawling in which antifa engages is seen as an unacceptable breakdown of civil society (whereas hate and fascism apparently are not). The notion that hate isn't entitled to free speech protection is rarely given any serious consideration in the U.S. but it's actually a mainstream view in most of the rest of the advanced industrialized world. It's a legitimate position and an arguable case but, for reasons good and bad, not one most American liberals are presently willing to entertain.

On the other hand, the Trumpanzee right's ubiquitous portrayal of antifa (and the "liberals" it ludicrously associates with same) as fascist brownshirts is a complete inversion of reality. Antifa battles--and, in fact, exists to battle--actual brownshirts, people who heil Hitler, wave swastikas and openly stand against every notion of freedom, democracy and basic human rights that civilized peoples hold dear, but for the Rage Machine, acknowledging this would mean sacrificing a narrative it has too successfully milked to simply abandon. It also runs counter to several other false but long-running Rage Machine narratives, like the notion that fascists are "leftists" and white supremacists "liberals." If antifa is acknowledged to battle such elements, it can no longer be made a stand-in for "liberals" in a tale in which violent liberals try to repress conservative speech and it would instead become necessary to explain why lefties are battling lefties and, by extension, how one of those groups, who are rightist Trump supporters, are still actually somehow "lefties" and... well, you get the picture. The Rage Machine's sole product is anti-rationality and hate designed to keep its audience worked up into a perpetual lather and after it has spent all these years explaining the world to its ill-informed followers by way of a series of fantasies, it becomes more and more difficult to ever tell the truth about anything.

Donald Trump's hate-speech, his encouragement of violence during the campaign, his protofascism energized a much broader movement of street protests against his candidacy then against his regime and the Rage Machine has also used this as part of its ongoing narrative. Protests, which are exercises of free speech, are presented as attacks on free speech, demonstrations equated with violence and the kind of scuffles that often break out around the edges of such demonstrations are magnified a millionfold by the rightist echo-chamber, held up as outrageous examples of liberaldom's intolerance. Trump's tale, mentioned earlier, about thousands of American Muslims celebrating in the streets of Jersey City on 9/11 is devoid of any content; it's just a lie aimed at fostering hatred of a politically powerless minority--a fraction of 1% of the population--and justifying repressive government measures against them. The same is true, to cite another example, of Trump's lie about millions of illegal immigrants voting in the last presidential election. While elements of the Machine have acknowledged these are false, no weight it given to them or to the very negative consequences they could have for those targeted by them. To maintain the narrative about intolerant liberals, the Machine has to take the position that these sorts of monstrous lies, deliberately aimed at fostering intolerance, justify no significant reaction by people of good conscience, because if the liberals protesting Trump for such things have a legitimate beef, the wind goes out of the sails of that narrative. Trump's encouragement of violence against demonstrations sparked by his own misbehavior elicited no real condemnation either. The ugly truth is that the Machine itself has spent years deploying similar lies aimed at demonizing Muslims, immigrants and the other groups targeted by Trump, including liberals. Trump is merely a reflection of this. In their condemnation of "liberal intolerance," the talking heads of the Machine appeal to a particular standard of civil behavior and attempt to apply it to counter-Trump liberals while refusing to apply it to either Trump or to themselves.

There's that hypocrisy thing again. Hmm...

--j.

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Post Script - Anecdotal: This writer is all over Facebook in the last few years. I run or admin many groups, participate in many others, and by far the most persistent lament I've encountered from those who attempt to recruit people for political discussion is that it's almost impossible to find quality conservatives and rightists. Whether its a consequence of very bad luck or something about the personalities of righties drawn to discuss public affairs on the internet or on that particular platform or whatever, nearly all of them turn out to be angry reactionary demagogues who merely parrot whatever nonsense they get from the Rage Machine that day and who are as ill-informed as they are utterly hostile to the expression of any other point of view. And they tend to author a whole lot of posts about "liberal intolerance" too. It's relatively easy to find good liberals and leftists (and, to be fair, easy to find bad ones too); finding good righties is like finding unicorns.

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[1] Though his legitimate free-speech rights were in no way violated. No one has a constitutional right to a platform; no provision of the Bill of Rights entitles one to speak at a school that doesn't want you. The Rage Machine's persistent misrepresentation on this point justifies more than just a footnote but that's where I'm putting it anyway, so there.