“You’re Pure Evil”: NY Times Indicts An America That’s Lost Its Mind

There’s a great Op-Ed in The New York Times on Sunday that takes a critical look at the rapid deterioration of political discourse in America.

In it, Frank Bruni faults both Republicans and Democrats but ultimately, blame is laid at the feet of the internet.

The piece is a ringing indictment of social media and the extent to which it allows those with a penchant for confirmation bias to connect with like-minded (and sometimes wrong-headed) individuals at lightening speed and with remarkable efficiency.

This, Bruni contends, allows “suspicion [to] blossom into certainty” which in turn creates the conditions whereby an absurd story about Democrats running a child porn ring out of a D.C. pizza shop takes on an air of legitimacy by virtue of the sheer number of times it’s repeated. The result: 

A 28-year-old North Carolina man named Edgar Welch showed up armed at a restaurant in Washington, D.C. Welch had fallen under the spell of #pizzagate and come to believe that children were being imprisoned and sexually abused by Democrats in a basement there. One of the fabulists who’d spread this tale was the son of Mike Flynn, Trump’s short-lived national security adviser.

Bruni notes that the incident in Alexandria, Va. may well be a byproduct of this same dynamic. “The shooting that wounded the Republican Congressman Steve Scalise and four others may or may not be the bitter fruit of that [as] the biography of the gunman, James Hodgkinson, suggests many prompts, including mental illness,” Bruni writes, but cautions that at the very least, “it demands soul-searching along those lines.”

But far from searching our souls, we have in fact done the opposite. Bruni cites one rather poignant example of our failure to learn anything from these types of tragedies. To wit:

The Fusion website published a story noting that one of the cops who heroically took on Hodgkinson and possibly saved Scalise’s life was a gay black woman and that Scalise, in his political career, has indulged white supremacists and fought against L.G.B.T. rights. That was worth telling.

But the headline began by branding him a “bigoted homophobe,” and the story described this situation as an “especially delicious irony.” “Delicious”? When the congressman is lying in a hospital bed in critical condition?

Good point.

Of course Alex Jones gets a mention and as regular readers know, we think Alex is a big part of the problem when it comes to poisoning the national conversation (see here and here).

But as detestable as he is, it’s not possible to blame one man for a national phenomenon, and even if it was possible, Donald Trump and Steve Bannon probably deserve more blame than Alex.

And indeed, it’s not entirely clear that the likes of Stephen Colbert are doing anyone any favors at this point either. In the Jon Stewart era, there was some real utility in using humor to shed light on just how absurd the Conservative agenda often is. Humor is a universal language and Jon was really fucking good at employing it in the service of making people think.

But Colbert isn’t Stewart – he never was. Stephen was always a cartoonish version of Jon. The guy you watched for pure, unadulterated laughs after Stewart’s darker, more sobering comedy.

Colbert’s lampooning of Trump (and especially of Alex Jones) is hilarious and well-deserved. That said, Bruni makes a good point: calling Trump’s mouth “a Putin cock-holster” serves no purpose other than to exacerbate the already tenuous situation in America.

Because we are unquestionably guilty of participating in all of this, we felt compelled to print Bruni’s Op-Ed, presented below without further comment…

Via The New York Times

In denouncing the hatred that brought bloodshed to a baseball diamond in Alexandria, Va., some people went ahead and spread more of it. Rush Limbaugh, take a bow. You called the shooter “a mainstream Democrat voter.” What do I call you? I want to be clear about my disgust, but not disgusting in my expression of it. That’s the hell of American politics and American discourse today, with its 140-character emissions.

To be seen in a thicket of hashtags and heard above the din, people screech. Passion and provocation blur. One is admirable, the other is adolescent, and too many of us have lost sight of the line between the two.

The shooting that wounded the Republican Congressman Steve Scalise and four others may or may not be the bitter fruit of that — the biography of the gunman, James Hodgkinson, suggests many prompts, including mental illness — but it demands soul-searching along those lines. If not physically then civically, we’re in a dangerous place when it comes to how we view, treat and talk about people we disagree with. Ugly partisanship may not be new, but some of its expressions and accelerants are. We’d be foolish to let this moment pass without owning up to them.

Over the past decade in particular, the internet and social media have changed the game. They speed people to like-minded warriors and give them the impression of broader company or sturdier validation than really exist. The fervor of those in the anti-vaccine movement exemplifies this. So did the stamina of Americans who insisted that Barack Obama was born abroad — and who were egged on by Donald Trump.

Admirers of a responsible politician or righteous cause coalesce quickly, but the same goes for followers of a hatemonger or crackpot. One good articulation of this came from David Simas, who was Obama’s political director, in a New Yorker article by David Remnick that deconstructed the 2016 election.

What people find on the web “creates a whole new permission structure, a sense of social affirmation for what was once unthinkable,” Simas told Remnick. Obama, in his own comments to Remnick, picked up that thread, saying, “An explanation of climate change from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist looks exactly the same on your Facebook page as the denial of climate change by somebody on the Koch brothers’ payroll.”

“The capacity to disseminate misinformation, wild conspiracy theories, to paint the opposition in wildly negative light without any rebuttal — that has accelerated in ways that much more sharply polarize the electorate,” Obama added. Suspicion blossoms into certainty. Pique flowers into fury.

Shortly after that New Yorker article appeared, a 28-year-old North Carolina man named Edgar Welch showed up armed at a restaurant in Washington, D.C. Welch had fallen under the spell of #pizzagate and come to believe that children were being imprisoned and sexually abused by Democrats in a basement there. One of the fabulists who’d spread this tale was the son of Mike Flynn, Trump’s short-lived national security adviser.

And then came Hodgkinson, who used social media as others do: to marinate in his political antipathies until swollen with them. In a Facebook post in March, he declared: “Trump Has Destroyed Our Democracy. It’s Time to Destroy Trump & Co.” Facebook groups to which he belonged included one called Terminate the Republican Party and another called the Road to Hell Is Paved With Republicans.

His life online reflected the goosing, goading, amplifying power of social media and the eminence of outrage in public debate. As Michael Gerson noted in The Washington Post after the shooting, today’s partisans “have made anger into an industry — using it to run up the number of listeners, viewers and hits.” Mocking and savaging political opponents have been “not only normalized but monetized,” Gerson added, and he stated the obvious, which needed stating nonetheless: “If words can inspire, then they can also incite or debase.”

That’s true whether those words are spoken from the right or from the left, and the monetization of partisan combat spans the ideological spectrum. I’m not in any way equating Alex Jones and Bill Maher — the former traffics in contemptible lies meant to whip the agitated into a full-blown frenzy — but both turn politics into spectacle, the better to keep watchers and listeners tuned in.

Our language is growing coarser. Our images, too. And even if they’re only rarely a conduit to violence, they’re always a path away from high-minded engagement.

Madonna fantasizes about blowing up the White House. Kathy Griffin displays a likeness of Trump’s severed head. Stephen Colbert uses a crude term to describe Trump as Putin’s sexual boy toy. Maher suggests that Trump and his daughter Ivanka have engaged in incest. I don’t question the earnestness of these entertainers’ objections to Trump, which are wholly warranted. I ask whether they’re converting even one person with a contrary point of view.

Lately, Trump and his children have been playing the victims of all this, but save your tears. He has been an enormous part of the problem, from before his candidacy to the present. If anyone sets and bears responsibility for our country’s tone, it’s our president, and let’s please not forget that he got all those plaudits last week for his dignified, sensitive response to the Alexandria shooting because we’re never sure we can count on him to clear even the lowest of bars.

He doesn’t so much lead the country as addle it, unhinging everyone in his orbit and anyone pressed to keep tabs on him. Anderson Cooper, flustered by Jeffrey Lord’s blind worship of Trump, describes a vulgar scenario to ridicule it. Politicians litter their remarks with four-letter words.

We’re surrendering restraint and a musty but worthy thing called tact, in ways guaranteed to widen the divisions between us. The Fusion website published a story noting that one of the cops who heroically took on Hodgkinson and possibly saved Scalise’s life was a gay black woman and that Scalise, in his political career, has indulged white supremacists and fought against L.G.B.T. rights. That was worth telling.

But the headline began by branding him a “bigoted homophobe,” and the story described this situation as an “especially delicious irony.” “Delicious”? When the congressman is lying in a hospital bed in critical condition?

For more and more Americans, the other side isn’t merely misguided in the extreme. It’s evil in the absolute, and virtue is measured by the starkness with which that evil is labeled and reviled. There are emotional satisfactions to this. There is also a terrible price.

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3 thoughts on ““You’re Pure Evil”: NY Times Indicts An America That’s Lost Its Mind

  1. APPLAUSE!! All good and all true! Social media, even the little comments section after non-political stories allows people to place judgement or blame onto subjects in the story — demeaning mothers, fathers, siblings, teachers, bosses, etc., all total strangers other than what was printed in the story, and yet some really horrific comments are made and other people “pile on” with their like/dislike marks, with no thoughts as to how those words may affect the family or friends of the subject. Some really crude and vicious statements. I have said many times that those comment sections should be discontinued. Easy fix and would stop the spread of contaminated news, but it draws readership and attention, so nobody shuts it down. At least take control and enforce stricter rules and don’t bow down to accusations of “censorship”; instead, enforce Supreme Court’s 1919 decision in the case Schenck v. United States. The Court ruled unanimously that the First Amendment, though it protects freedom of expression, does not protect dangerous speech.

    I’ve been on that campaign wagon for a long time….. then along comes Trump. And he takes it to a new level. He stands at a podium with a microphone, constantly displayed by every news outfit in America – “left and right” – and due to the rhetoric that is spewed from his mouth, he is “newsworthy” and then is even more promoted and the more he is seen, the more people hear him and see him. Opinions of him are reported as well since crowd behavior responds in his rallies. Then the media is reporting the growth of the anger and at some point Trump puts the media in a pen because now he has turned against the media calling them fake and slime, and all that grows. There are uproars in his crowds and calls them names and has them “removed” forcibly if necessary, all the while telling the crowds to punch ’em or watch his back! Now, while all this is going on, he belittles McCain and then a man with disabilities and a fat guy in the crowd and crying babies and it is just ridiculous how many more people watching the news becomes angrier and it continues to build with his incredible disrespect and how he has split the viewers into two groups, lovers and haters.

    Then those two groups not only react to him, they react to each other. And the way he ran his campaign with very negative comments and name calling and flat out lies and the anger of the lovers and haters has grown rapidly. Cut to the end and he wins. Now that has really fueled the two groups. And he stands and smiles smugly and his hate filed rhetoric is getting worse because now he is the President and he demands respect. And this Ugly Person takes over the nightly news and continues to display horrid behavior towards dignitaries of other countries, just being the bully he is and has been since long before he became the President. Out of his wrath he has revoked or seriously altered many long standing regulations or has appointed people completely unqualified to head government departments and so much more!

    And whomever has the ability to control Presidential behavior in any way possible, does nothing. And the two groups of Americans he created, Lovers and Haters, he continues to bait and to incite with his angry speeches and those ridiculous childish tweets.

    So, there’s your problem.

    – Murphy

  2. This is an excellent piece that merely hints at some kind of contextual parallel in equal “baiting” of one party versus the other. The subtext is probably a good one because their is a case for both sides being guilty on some level. There are still some facts that one cannot ignore, most republicans are NOT racists but most racists are conservative independents or republicans.

    This was NOT the case for many years after the Civil War because the Democratic party in the southern US was mostly/more racist and many would eventually change their party affiliation. So who do you want to blame the democrats the republicans, how about the actual person who is doing the racist “sh*t”.

    Whose better for taxes, religious freedom, your health and care of your family, job creation, safety of our nation? It’s the person not the party. Who is lying to you about the things that matter in your life? Facts do matter, honesty does matter especially in tough times and that exactly what we have coming. Choose wisely “Padawan” and may the farce be without you.

  3. Unfortunately, the piece covers the symptoms of a greater problem being enabled by social media and yet does not name the real problem. How we receive, interpret, catalog and store information regardless of the source – is based on if – and how we were taught our critical thinking skills. Actually, the same accusations of people getting too much faulty and incorrect information off the internet – was once similarly accused of the printed media. “You can’t believe everything you read.”- indeed.

    Our education system politics and its administrators are primarily at fault (this coming from someone who works with several colleges and universities – and IMO each by my experience are guilty of the same) by not creating an educational environment that has all fields framed within the constant testing of critical thinking skills – be it math, science, and or especially the humanities which tend rely more on philosophy and less on science/reproducible data. The students produced are gullible – no to political and religious schemes, but big money marketing schemes (medical and pharma) that also exploit those that aren’t critical of the information they receive.

    Left, right, up or down slanted Media can create all the information it wants without factual basis or with selected and cherry picked facts, but the skilled critical thinker will generally detect this corruption in short order. Clearly and sadly, this is not a capability of the vast majority of US citizens today. Given that we are led by people who are also unskilled critical thinkers – or worse purposefully biased thinkers (bought and paid for), it doesn’t appear that this will change any time soon.

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