A couple days ago, I woke up to the following email from someone calling himself "George Barbery":
It was only then that I discovered that Campus Watch still exists and that it has two other heads, one called Middle East Forum, and one called American Thinker (whose icon is a patriotic man in a straining, seated position). Thanks to "George Barbery" I had been alerted to the fact that an employee of MEF and Campus Watch had defamed me as an apologist for ISIS. Given that what the author wrote bore no resemblance to what I had posted on my blog, it was easy to dismiss as non-serious. Yet, I couldn't help but respond:
"George Barbery" did not respond. But as I looked at the vitriolic comments that began to build on the website, I noticed a comment, posted by "RedzoneDog" that could belong to him:
People began to take RedzoneDog's advice. Minutes later, I received the following note, this time from someone calling himself "Dr. Tom Barron":
I responded again:
"Dr. Tom Barron" wrote back immediately:
The email read like it had been written by a Campus Watch/American Thinker/MEF employee whose job was to solicit content and create the appearance that these organizations are engaged in debates about ideas. Again, I decided to respond:
"Dr. Tom Barron" did not reply. Subsequently, as the piece was reposted across Campus Watch's other websites, such a Middle East Forum, I began to receive other emails such as this:
And on it goes. What has been most striking in the emails and comments are these things:
- Misrepresentation. These folks—authors and readers alike—speak a lot about 'ideas', but do not actually engage with them. At first I was surprised to see how confident the editors of the site were that their readership would not bother to compare the piece's claims to what I actually wrote. Silly me. They know their audience very well, and are secure in thinking that their readership couldn't be bothered to check whether claims are accurate or fair.
- Defamation. Sites like these exist not to debate ideas, but solely to defame character. Usually, they set their sights on people of color and especially Muslims. For some reason, I am in their gunsights this week. Next week it will be someone else. The logic of their defamations boggles the mind. For instance, this author and his audience claim I am a communist, a Nazi, an ISIS apologist and more. But that's not the point—the point is they believe if they can fling enough crap, some of it might stick. For people whose careers are actually precarious, such willful misrepresentations of character and thought could actually inflict damage.
- Censorship and Danger. What the author and his audience find so objectionable is not just the content of what someone like me has said, but rather the fact that we were allowed to say it in the first place. In other words, the project is grounded in doubts as to whether people who disagree with them have the right to free inquiry and research. Why is their anger and outrage so visceral? Why are they so outraged that people oppose their agenda?
- End the University. From the outset, one of this organization's goals has been to poison the workplace of universities. Why? With their relative autonomy, universities are some of the last places that cannot be (completely) controlled by the right-wing and their corporate backers. It is true that informed, disinterested research produces knowledge that diverges radically from the programs of think-tanks and interest groups. But Campus Watch and MEF would like to take it a step beyond contesting the claims of scholarship—they would like to do away with the institutional supports that make disinterested scholarship possible in the first place. Perhaps it is because they cannot imagine what it would be like to do disinterested research, for unlike scholars, American Thinker's editors and writers are paid to produce a given party line, just as an advertiser is paid to produce inticement or a lobbyist is paid to produce political and rhetorical pressure. These organizations are so detached from actual scholarship that they have come to assume that, like them, everyone else must be a party stooge or paid propagandist.
- Scripted Hate. The comments and emails sent to me by readers of The American Thinker (and MEF and Campus Watch) are so regular that they appear to be based on a preexisting template or script. The bullet points are remarkably focused: tenured liberals are radicals; our universities are corrupting the youth; leftists hate America; people who disagree with them must be Nazi sympathizers. The insults I have received from Campus Watchers pale in comparison to the kind of hate and contempt these organizations reserve for the Arab and Muslim figures they defame. But it is hate speech all the same, designed to hurt and intimidate. Behind this symphony of hate stand its conductors and composers, the Campus Watch/MEF/American Thinker editors and authors.
- Echo Chamber. The public comments section of the forums of these publications speaks volumes about the institutions that support them: they are uncivil and non-serious, characterized largely by an intense hate and fear, most of it directed toward Muslims and Arabs. It's difficult to get a sense of how hateful and inarticulate the comments are without reading them. Some of these comments smack of sock puppetry, like the email from "Dr. Thomas Baron." But others might be composed by actual people. At sites where comments are unmoderated, we could plausibly that the vitriol is accidental, or not necessarily a direct expression of the site's managers. In contrast, at The American Thinker the poison is not only moderated, but cultivated. The incivility and hatred that flourishes there is anything but accidental.
But what are we to make of a garden whose tenders plant so many flowers of hate and fear? And who needs groups like ISIS when such homegrown threats to civilization already flourish on our own soil? Curious, I wrote to some of my correspondents:
It didn't take long for "firstname.lastname@example.org" to write back:
I have been told the phrase "Lech tizdayen" (לך תזדייו) is not a traditional way to say "shabbat shalom."