Sunday, August 20, 2023

Nut harvest

 I had a disturbing encounter on the internet.

Okay, I’m sure you’re thinking “Bottom story of the day” as James Taranto used to needle headline pronouncements of ordinariness in his “Best of the Web Today” column at the Wall Street Journal. But this was a different sort of disturbing than the usual online stupidity.

It’s true that people say stupid things all the time, both online and offline. Most of the time it isn’t new or insightful. In fact, most of the time, it’s just the opposite. In a lot of cases, when you see something stupid on the internet, it has been an exercise in nut-picking.

a whole walnut on a white background
Photo by Mockup Graphics on Unsplash

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That’s not a typo. When I used the phrase “nut-picking” a few weeks ago, someone pointed out that they thought I misspelled the word “nit-picking.” Both would apply but “nut-picking” was what I meant.

I didn’t coin the phrase but it means “picking out a nut on the other side, trumpeting their actions, and then using the example to paint the entire other side as nutty by association.” Both sides engage in this behavior.

The nut that I ran into recently was on Twitter. I’m not going to identify him. I’ll just call him “Delbert.”

Delbert was not someone that I had interacted with previously, but during the course of a normal exchange, he posted the following message.

Wait, what?

We live in a world in which reality is sometimes more unbelievable than satire. It’s also true that satire can be difficult to detect in online exchanges. Delbert, however seemed to seriously believe what he was saying.

I also had to wonder why, if Democrats were bent on genocide, they were going to wait until after the election. If they moved up their mass-murderous schedule to before the election, they’d have a bigger electoral edge.

In another tweet, he explained, “Did you see Cernovich’s tweets tonight? He’s right. We are headed for a repeat of Rwanda. The Rwanda genocides happened literally overnight. NO WARNING. They just started chopping Tutsis up with machetes.”

For those who are unaware, “Cernovich” is Mike Cernovich, an “alt-lite” right-wing blogger and pundit. The references to the Rwandan genocide hearken to ethnic cleansing between two tribes, the Hutus and Tutsis, that left about 800,000 people dead in 100 days.

Earlier, Cernovich, whose identity I am not going to protect, tweeted:

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Cernovich didn’t explicitly say that “Democrats are coming to kill you,” but Delbert took the message exactly as Cernovich intended. Never mind that a lot of the dehumanization comes from people like Cernovich who have spent years labeling political opponents as RINOs, commies, socialists, pedos, groomers, etc.

Cernovich is doing his best to frighten people like Delbert with fecal-quality posts. This sort of thing should be ignored, but the problem is that, if we ignore it, people like Delbert who live in bubbles of right-wing confirmation bias will assume that it is true.

And ideas like the one that Cernovich is pushing and Delbert is buying into are ideas that get people killed. If right-wing believers like Delbert become convinced that Democrats are out to kill them, the logical course of action is to strike first.

We’ve already seen how conspiracy theories kill. QAnon has been linked to multiple murders. The 2020 Christmas bombing in Nashville was carried out by a conspiracy theorist. The Buffalo spree-killing perpetrator believed in the “great replacement” conspiracy theory. Pandemic conspiracy theorists plotted to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Even the January 6 attack on the Capitol is directly linked to conspiracy theories about the election.

And a lot of right-wing conspiracy theories take on very dystopian and malevolent undertones. I’ve seen people who believed that Barack Obama wanted to declare martial law over the southwestern United States, that detention centers were being set up in abandoned Walmarts, that Joe Biden is after your guns, and that private gun ownership is the only thing that has kept conservatives and/or Christians out of concentration camps. Never mind that the first two never happened, that Joe Biden didn’t push gun confiscation when he had a majority, and that there is a multitude of examples of countries with strict gun laws that have never experienced mass deportations or genocides.

It isn’t just the right by the way. The left has dystopian conspiracy theories as well. One common one is the “Handmaid’s Tale” conspiracy that the right wants to strip rights from women and make them baby breeders. Of course, the biggest leftist conspiracy theory, that Donald Trump was planning to ignore an election loss and hold onto power, turned out to be true.

The question is what to do about conspiracy theories and inflammatory and misleading posts. The First Amendment guarantees that the government can’t restrict such speech unless it crosses the line to incitement, but private companies can rein it in. Some social media platforms would remove such posts. Not Elon Musk’s Twitter (or X or Xitter or whatever). And even then, removing posts doesn’t eliminate the underlying conspiracies, it just drives them underground. The upside is that this makes it harder for them to spread.

I’m a believer that the best answer to abhorrent and evil and lying speech is more speech. As Louis Brandeis said, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

But that’s a difficult answer in an age in which people like Delbert can seal themselves in a bubble in which they only hear people like Cernovich. We need a way to pierce the bubble. Even then, a lot of them won’t listen.

Conspiracy believers have a way of walling themselves off from logic, reason, and truth. It really is cult-like.

And while I’m old enough to remember when conservatives would decry the culture of victimhood on the left, these days the shoe seems to be on the other foot. The right desperately wants to see itself as victims. Of what? You name it. In a country with more religious freedom than anywhere else on Earth, many Christians have a persecution complex. Gun owners at least somewhat reasonably see themselves as “targeted” but judicial protections of the Second Amendment have only gotten stronger, the same as for religious freedom. Medical masks and vaccines to stop a pandemic are viewed as tyranny and allowing social media platforms to set standards and police their sites for decency is considered censorship. The list goes on and on.

I wrote recently that I was optimistic about our future. And I am, but situations like this fuel my pessimistic side.

Most Americans reject the sort of nonsense that people like Cernovich and Donald Trump spew forth, but, depending on exactly what sort of nonsense we are talking about, the minority that buys into the conspiracy theories can be pretty significant. Few people are likely to believe that Democrats are out to kill off Republicans but a CNN poll from early August showed 69 (nice!) percent of Republicans believe that Biden’s win was illegitimate.

And while these are minorities, a small number of people can cause a lot of chaos. We saw that on January 6 as well as all through the War on Terror.

There is a core of people on the right who believe that we are headed for a civil war. I know this because I know some of them. Some don’t look forward to the war with dread but with anticipation. Like the Confederates of the 1860s, I don’t think they know what they are wishing for.

As we saw on January 6, the vast majority of law enforcement and military personnel will stand with the legitimately-elected government. If we ever have Civil War II, it’s not going to end well for rebels, a minority whose bubble of confirmation bias has convinced them that they are a majority.

In fact, I am convinced that a lot of Trumpworld thought January 6 was the beginning of the revolution. They expected the country and its security forces to rise up and join them. I think that explains the hatred and disdain that the MAGA right has focused on the Capitol Police who stood in their way.

If or when MAGA takes up arms against the federal government, it won’t be pretty, but it also won’t be successful. MAGA is likely to “reap the whirlwind” as Billy the Kid’s gang put it in “Young Guns.”

David Frum put it another way when he opined on Twitter, “When I called for civil war against the United States, I didn't expect General Sherman to burn down my house!”

More than 1,000 MAGA Republicans have learned since January 6 that insurrection is a serious business as they have been charged with federal crimes. Hundreds have gone to jail. Some for extended stays.

Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.

People like Donald Trump and Mike Cernovich seemed determined to spread that misery around to more of the Delberts on the right. This convinces me more than anything else that Trump does not love either America or his supporters. People who really love America wouldn’t want to see it burn.

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GEORGIA NUTS: NBC News reports that Trump supporters have obtained the names and addresses of the Georgia grand jury and posted them online. So much for MAGA’s complaints about doxxing innocent people.

ABORTION PILL RULING OVERTURNED: A court of appeals overturned a lower court ruling that revoked FDA approval for a common abortifacient, reports AP. The court left some restrictions intact pending a hearing before the Supreme Court. For now, the drug cannot be delivered by mail and must be administered with a physician present.

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