Home 2018 Elections Trolling: Poison That Infects Our Discourse

Trolling: Poison That Infects Our Discourse

Virginia GOP Falsely Smears Democratic Nominee as "Anti-Semite"

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By Jim McCarthy and Michael Fruitman, cross posted from Vox Fairfax

On August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginians were subjected to chants of “Jews will not replace us!” by mobs of marchers supporting a Unite the Right rally. Except, perhaps for the marchers themselves, no one would deny the anti-Semitism of the words and the purpose of the participants.

Notwithstanding the trauma inflicted by the events in Charlottesville, only nine months later—on May 5, 2018—the Republican Party of Virginia blustered and bulldozed anti-Semitic accusations onto the campaign for the Fifth Congressional District seat. The medium was a press release reflecting the contemporary use of trolling to communicate in civil and political dialogue.

Trolling, popularized in part by the anonymity of social media, generally consists of lies or falsehoods, and causes terrible damage to public discourse. It is unconnected to truth and employed merely to provoke reaction to a statement, meme, or other message or libel the public image of an individual. Trolling has become a substitute for those who are unable to formulate or articulate cogent, rational arguments for their positions. Yet the content of trolling persists, poisoning public perception and contorting public dialogue, of which there is already too little.

It reminds this writer of youthful encounters where the ultimate retort to some criticism or put-down was: “Your Mother!” The antidote to trolling is the dialectic, the examination of a proposition to arrive at truth. Recently (May 5, 2018), the Virginia GOP issued a press release with all capital letters and a bold headline proclaiming the Democratic nominee (Leslie Cockburn) for the Fifth Congressional District to be a “VIRULENT ANTI-SEMITE.” The document further asserted that “Jewish Republican leaders condemn long history of anti-Semitic rhetoric documented over at least past 25 years.” The basis for the provocative headline was a book co-authored by the Democrat in 1991—27 years ago. (See earlier VoxFairfax article)

None of the content within the Virginia GOP press release named a specific Jewish Republican leader, but it did include a statement from an individual identified as the founder of the Virginia Holocaust Museum. That statement, in total, read:

I don’t know to which hate group she was trying to cater with her book, but her claims are wildly inaccurate. [Leslie] Cockburn and the Democrats want to take away Israel’s ability to defend itself.

In a May 12, 2018, interview with the Charlottesville (VA) Daily Progress, the speaker acknowledged he had not read the book [emphasis added] but relied upon “passages he’s been sent”, which made him “feel that she [Cockburn] is advocating disarming Israel, which could lead to its destruction.” So a feeling based on passages is now enough evidence entitling one to render an opinion! Thus, one week following the GOP press release, the sole implied Jewish Republican leader quoted as condemning Cockburn’s “long history of anti-Semitic rhetoric documented over at least 25 years” belies that claim. Nor do the two existing reviews of the book assert or evince any direct language of anti-Semitism. The horrible irony here is that the GOP itself is engaging in anti-Semitism in projecting that epithet onto others. This is the function of trolling.

At most, it may be said that the Cockburn book is highly critical of Israeli foreign policy in unflinching language, particularly covert operations in conjunction with the United States (see here for the Blue Virginia review of Cockburn’s book). Many American Jews, strong supporters of the State of Israel, criticize the present Netanyahu [Israeli] government, especially with respect to the Palestinian question. This is not anti-Semitism, which is the hostility or prejudice toward Jews as Jews. It is not even anti-Zionism, as Zionism is the historic movement for the development and protection of a Jewish nation in what is now Israel—not the unquestioning support of its government’s actions and policies.

The price the public pays for trolling in civic and political dialogue is steep. It is often hard work to pierce the absence of truth in allegations of racial, ethnic, or gender slurs. Unchallenged, such statements are corrosive, pervasive, and corrupt our attempts to gain helpful information. Trolling—lying—by a mature political party contributes to erosion of trust in our institutions and leadership. Winning at any cost is not sustainable. Trolling—in Virginia and elsewhere—ought to be consigned back to the fishing routine it used to denote, and not be a hallmark of today’s debate.  In a larger and more deadly sense, trolling is a substitute in the minds of many for “shaking up” the established acceptance of civic culture.  The true result is fracturing of the very culture necessary to implementing change and the poisoning of institutions that are the very glue of our society.  This outcome is fortified by the latest report from the Virginia State Police that show a 50% increase in hate crimes in the Commonwealth in 2017 over 2016.

The Southern Poverty Law Center identified eight white nationalists running for federal office in the 2018 midterms. In Washington state, an individual who marched in Charlottesville was unopposed and elected to a local Republican office boldly affirming his anti-Semitism. In Illinois, a congressional Republican candidate ran unopposed while proclaiming his Holocaust denials and received 20,000 votes.

On June 2, the Virginia Fifth District Republican Congressional Committee selected businessman/distillery-owner Denver Riggleman to replace former Congressman Tom Garrett, who announced that he would not seek reelection to the Fifth District seat for personal reasons.

Riggleman has an opportunity to clear the air in the Fifth District as the new person on the scene and contribute to the healing necessitated by the Charlottesville violence. Perhaps, at the same time, and more importantly, Riggleman can improve the public dialogue that voters so desperately need to render their electoral choices.  It will take courage to renounce the state GOP’s smear of the Democratic candidate, but it would gain the new GOP candidate a great deal of respect.