Several weeks ago, two bloggers who had been hired by the John Edwards for President
campaign became the target of criticism
by Bill Donohue, the leader of a religious organization called the Catholic League. One of those two bloggers is Melissa McEwan, who uses the pen name Shakespeare's Sister
on her blog of the same name. Ms. McEwan is a friend of mine. We became acquainted because we were both commenters at AMERICAblog
, and we ultimately began our own work as Weblog publishers and writers at about the same time. Ms. McEwan, in fact, reached out to find me after we had stopped commenting at AMERICAblog
: she wanted me to know about her new blog, and she wanted to know what I was doing. It was through her generous effort, then, that we became reunited in our separate but mutual efforts to speak out against the Bush Administration, the religious zealots, the neo-conservatives, and all the others who have made this century open in such a grim and awful way.
In Mr. Donohue's inflammatory press release condemning the two women Mr. Edwards had hired, he declared that the Edwards campaign "has no choice but to fire them immediately." His press release and subsequent comments deriding Ms. McEwan gave members of his organization (and perhaps others sympathetic to his concerns) what they perceived as license to flood her with e-mail, some of which was violently threatening, hateful, menacing, and altogether unworthy of anyone who would pose to speak on behalf of an organization affiliated with any Christian church committed to the New Covenant. Whether or not Mr. Donohue accepts responsibility for the cyber-violence his condemnation of her brought about, he was not merely the catalyst; he was the instigator
The much-touted constitutional protection of citizen speech is a right to the extent that the Constitution does not recognize the government's role in restricting it. This leaves to the federal legislature, the several states, the civil society, and the courts such responsibility as necessarily exists for defining the distinction between speech and conduct and the setting forth the boundaries where speech becomes actionable under civil and/or criminal law. Speech that is an incitement to riot is not without sanction because it interferes with the compelling interest of the government in maintaining civil order; speech that endangers others in demonstrable ways is subject to scrutiny because of the compelling interest of the government in protecting its citizens. Where the line is drawn is always a matter of controversy, and that line shifts over time as new dimensions of speech and innovative experiments in existing modes of communication arise.
Mr. Donohue cannot simply declare that his was protected speech: demonstrably, it led at a minimum to civil assault upon Ms. McEwan, this being the case because "assault" involves a reasonable belief on the part of the victim that she is in imminent, personal danger. Mr. Donohue had created a sense in his followers that theirs was a threatenedindeed, persecuted
lot and, because of the perilous condition of their right to worship as they wished, they would consequentially have not merely the option of reactive violence to perceived threats, but compelling religious duty
to react as necessary to protect their religion.
I shall not leave to the likes of men like Mr. Donohue their sentiment that they may continue to terrorize those whose voices are strongly contrary to their own. As a matter of fact and evidence, he was the proximate initiator of events that led to cyber-violence. Whether or not he believes that his god will reward him for what he loosed upon Ms. McEwan and the other blogger by describing them as "trash-talking bigots," responsible agents of the civil society must take notice and respond within the bounds of law and efficacy; and ultimately, that civil society, through its responsible, concerned agents, must compel both statutory and common law to address those who would use the Internet to incite individuals to become a menacing mob.
As an important note with regard to the above, I have found no instance of an official statement by the Catholic League condemning the threatening e-mail messages received by Ms. McEwan. Neither have I found an official statement by that organization ordering its member to cease such activities. Indeed, I have found no spoken or written evidence that any official of the League took advantage of what was happening to counsel the membership on rightful action in accordance with Christian teachings. Should such firm, resolute, and forceful efforts to stop the mob violence have been widely promulgated, I shall amend this article to include praise of that work.
Cyber-attacks come in many forms. Some, like distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks and spambot slams, are highly technical and seemingly impersonal, although some of them are not nearly as random as might first appear. My servers have labored occasionally under these types of assaults. The cyber-attack on Ms. McEwan was far more obviously personal and infinitely more frightening; but it was, at its essence, the very same type of strategy with a very similar objective: swarm and silence the target.
Mr. Donohue's followers who went after Ms. McEwan were extraordinary in their numbers. In that way, they were just like the multiple sources in a distributed denial of service attack; and similarly, their objective was to drive Ms. McEwan from a position of visibility and influence.
In the end, they succeeded, but only nominally: Ms. McEwan's voice lives on as Shakespeare's Sister; and, if anything, Mr. Donohue has made her influence greater if unofficial. She need no longer concern herself with parsing her language to meet the needs of John Edwards as he fashions himself a respectable candidate who is "personally offended
" by what he otherwise should
have tolerated were he to really want strong, feminist thinking within his inner circle of advisers and assistants.
For my own part, I am relieved that I no longer have to consider mincing words about John Edwards, who thinks he is centering himself politically even as he panders to interests in ways that I find altogether troubling. While I most likely would not have held my criticism of Mr. Edwards even if Ms. McEwan had continued to serve as a technical adviser to his campaign, I now no longer have to worry about whether or not she would take flak for continuing to associate with me as I escalated my own critical rhetoric.
Distributed denial of service cyber-attackers and the vitriolic e-mail attackers are of the same breed: They are locusts. Stopping one of them does no good; stopping a dozen or a hundred of them is useless; stopping a thousand of them is trivial. They just keep coming and coming. It is not in their individual actions that they do their damage, but rather in their collective menace, their smothering erosion, that they cause their great harm.
They swarm, and in the time of their swarming, the victim believes that the onslaught will never end absent his or her full-scale retreat.
Long before I came to be a writer here in this venue, I wrote on message boards. My words were far harsher than they are in this time of my life. When finally the time came that I had offended several who could call the locusts down upon me, I backed down and completely disappeared from the Internet. There was nothing else I could do. More importantly from a personal perspective, I had the ungodly, awful, penetrating sense that the attacks upon me would never end and that, sooner or later, one or more of those violent people writing to me and about me were going to find me and kill me. At one point, I wished that it would happen just so the dread of waiting would be at its end. Every light shining in my window at night was the end coming; every time the phone rang, it might be one of the maniacs; every car that followed me for too long on a darkened road was the end about to happen.
Was all of this my own, personal, delusional paranoia? In fact, I was
followed late at night on several nights; property of mine was
destroyed; and other, much worse things that I shall not share were visited upon me. I literally, honestly wanted to be at the end of myself as a living person. I had been humiliated, I had been wrecked. Most tellingly, all the moral support, all the kind and generous words I received, meant nothing
And, of course, I was silenced.
The locusts swarmed; and thereby, those who had summoned them won.
Never again, though.
Let me make it entirely clear that, while I can take care of myselfI have made it one of my principal life endeavorsto ensure my ability to strike back destructively against cyber-attackers, this is not what other potential victims should have to do. Progressive bloggers, both individually and collectively, should not have to live with an intimidating sense that they might be targeted, attacked, and wrecked by Right-wing secular and religious zealots. Extremists are an expanding ball of fire that just keeps right on billowing with every drop of blood they draw. Michelle Malkin, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, Ann Coulter, Bill Donohue, and dozens of other significant and minor invokers of the swarm thrive on their minions who pay them to spew hate and who would gleefully leap into the air to join a swarm against some defenseless victim.
Countervailance against the swarm is not within the scope of most individual bloggers. It must be more than a group effort; it must, in fact, be an official
effort of a scope, funding, and gravity commensurate with the threat the Right-wing zealots pose to civil society.
That means those who would benefit from our progressive voices, Democrats and moderate Republicans alike, must take responsibility for ensuring that the netroots, which will become more and more important to them as time goes by, can function without fear of cyber-attacks.
Chet Scoville of Vanity Press
recently published a post, cross-posted
at Big Brass Blog
, in which he cited an article by Jeffrey Feldman
advocating the formation by the Democratic National Committee of a full-fledged task group dedicated to "...protecting Democratic candidates... from the cancer of organized Republican smear." Specific responsibilities of the task group are laid out, including "Republican smear campaign forecasts; Status of ongoing (smear) campaigns; Framing and Keyword analysis; Background research (presumably on known and suspected smear instigators); Strategy and tactic suggestions; Internet activist reports..."
Mr. Scoville adds to Mr. Feldman's fine list the importance of every Democratic campaign having its own version of this task group. This is important because the work of the national group would have to be articulated and augmented by any particular candidate to operationalize meaningful action and response to smear campaigns. Invoking the model and terminology of Robert Altemeyer (recently discussed by Minstrel Boy
of Harp and Sword
), who has extensively researched
what he calls "Right-wing Authoritarians" and "Social-Dominance Oriented" individuals, I commented on Mr. Scoville's article in part as follows:
The Southern Poverty Law Center offers the model for cataloguing, monitoring, and tracking hate groups. What is being proposed in your article seems at first blush far more ambitious, if only because the source of these hate attacks appears more ubiquitous. Actually, it is not: the so-called "Right-Wing Authoritarian Followers" comprise maybe about a quarter of the population of this country, but the overwhelming majority of them are dormant unless harangued into action.
We have seen this before: huge numbers of RWA-F lie dormant until a Social Dominance-Oriented/Right-Wing Authoritarian (SDO/RWA) "double high" (as such a person is called in the literature) draws them to action. In historical terms, we saw this with a certain group of evangelicals who were brought to bear by Jerry Falwell; we saw it with Phyllis Schlafly of the Eagle Forum (with the Equal Rights Amendment); and we saw it again several times in the '90s, and one last time quite starkly with the thugs who laid siege to the facilities where Florida election officials were trying to commence a recount of the 2000 Presidential Election votes.
The RWA Followers are not dangerous unless and until they are bid to action by a small core of leader types, generally either financially well-off, themselves (as with Melton Scaif), or capable of generating large amounts of money (as with Pat Robertson, Sun Myung Moon, and Paul Weyrich).
As far as mitigating their influence is concerned, to some extent, it is a matter of open exposure. The RWA Followers are actually rather immune to public humiliation, but some (not all, but some) of the SDOs that set them in motion are fairly sensitive to the limelight, especially when it turns against them and they cannot cloister themselves against awareness of it.
To the extent that wide-ranging exposure of their action is not enough to slow them down, though, the next step is to move against them in the courts. This includes suits alleging torts, particularly torts of interference with business relationships. It also includes suits alleging defamation. Finally, it also includes an all-out effort to bring civil RICO charges to bear on them and their lieutenants.
To this last point, there will come a time when we must clarify in our own minds that this isn't "just politics"; this is, instead, an organized criminal enterprise that has spanned well more than a decade and used hundreds of millions of dollars to the purpose not of benefiting the democratic experience of these United States, but instead of interfering with and degrading it.
However, that comment having been made, this work, as important as it is, cannot be the extent of dealing with those who would cause the violence Ms. McEwan suffered. It really doesn't even address
what can happen to progressive bloggers unless
the umbrella of protection extends past the candidates, themselves, and reaches deep into the progressive Blogosphere.
In fact, an official task group at the national level cannot succeed unless that task group uses as one of its primary resources the bloggers who could very well be at the shock front of any smear campaign. We are the ones who see the ebbs and flows of trolls; we are the ones who get the e-mails that we actually open and read; we are the ones who look at our hit counters for nuances of increased traffic; we are the ones who read the details of our incoming visitor traffic reports, meaning we can often see the source that has referenced trolls to our sites.
And, as time goes on, it is we the progressive bloggers who will know far better than candidates and their suit-and-tie type of technical advisers the terrain here in cyberspace. It is we who will know the lay of the land and the threat level presented by trolls and other harsh commenters. It is we who will take the messages of presidential candidates and echo them across the electronic world. Unlike the mainstream media, which for the most part uses the Internet as an after-market publication platform, we bloggers are often the wells from which arise into the electronic information stream the character and quality of candidates through what they are saying that the mainstream media might very well be trivializing or even ignoring.
But it goes beyond merely "tracking" Right-wing smear campaign organizers. Unless and until the necessary resources are brought to bear in law enforcement actions by those who know how to use such instrumentalities, the Right will just keep on calling the swarms.
That means the DNC or whoever would form a full-blown task group has to deal with men like Mr. Donohue by filing complaints with the IRS for the violation by the Catholic League of prohibitions on issue advocacy by 501(c)(3) groups. That means aggregating threatening e-mail messages on behalf of targeted bloggers and moving that menacing literature to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. That means having attorneys who can issue letters to the smear campaign organizers laying the blame at their feet and demanding that they issue public statements ordering their followers to stop. That means, when those smear campaign initiators smirk and say there's nothing they can do about it, hauling them into civil court and hammering away at them until they get tired of the litigation pain and learn how to control themselves when they write and speak. That means fighting back as a concerted, sustained, unrelenting, opposing force
how you stop the locusts.
If the Democratic National Committee and the candidates haven't the interest to provide for our protection under some national task force dedicated to dealing with smear campaigns, then the DNC and the Democratic candidates have done themselves every bit as much harm as they have allowed to happen to us. And if the Democratic Party and those candidates believe they can come to us thinking we'll hand them free air time, they simply must understand that we will accommodate them only to the extent that they grasp our significance to the world of tomorrow. If they cannot bring themselves to stand up for us, they should not be surprised when we deploy our own net of defenses and then ask them, "Where exactly were you when the locusts came to pick us off one by one?"
Likely, the Democratic National Committee will protect itself, and each of the major Democratic candidates will protect himself or herself. Those candidates will still come to us, hat in hand, expecting us to speak favorably of them and use our valuable resources to their own political gain. In that event, they will find this: learning how to survive in a world of hatebe it on the violent streets of urban America or in the streams of cyber-violence in the online worldmeans learning how to grow up strong, mean, and unforgiving, especially of cowards who could have helped but would rather stand in the bright sunlight waving to the adoring crowds of sheep.
Whatever choices are made by others, though, one thing is certain for us, the progressive bloggers out here in the field.The locusts shall not prevail.
The Dark Wraith has spoken.