The kids are all right


Right-wingers are, once again, attacking kids. And, at least in my friend circle, some are surprised by this development. I am surprised that there’s anything to be surprised about. If the bar of morality is so low that molesting kids is no obstacle to holding political office, then surely sending them mean tweets is but a minor offense.

The thing to remember about right-wing pundits is that they are all truly awful people who regularly express an almost sociopathic callousness towards anyone unlike them. Kevin Williamson, recently hired by The Atlantic, would like to see the tens of millions of American women who have had abortions be executed. Megan McArdle, recently hired by The Washington Post, once fantasized about clubbing anti-war protesters with “two-by-fours” and suggested that gun massacres could be stopped if kids rushed the shooter, “8-12 unarmed bodies piling on him at once” (in typical McArdle-ian fashion, she added, “Would it work?  Would people do it? I have no idea; all I can say is that both these things would be more effective than banning rifles with pistol grips.” So, basically, she doesn’t know anything, except that whatever the liberals are saying is wrong.) Ann Coulter, a nationally syndicated columnist, attacked the 9/11 widows for “enjoying their husbands’ death” (to which Matt Lauer said, “Ann Coulter, always fun to have you here.”). Erick Erickson, once a paid CNN contributor, chortled over “watching a hippie protester get tased” at an Occupy Wall Street rally. (“[It] just makes my day. It is just made of awesome.”) Later, of course, he forgot about his past indiscretions, including calling Supreme Court Justice David Souter a “goat fucking child molestor”, and accused Marjory Stoneman Douglas student David Hogg of being the real bully. And Rick Santorum, former Pennsylvania Senator and current paid CNN contributor, patiently adultsplained to the Parkland students that, if they wanted to honor the memories of their dead friends, they should learn CPR, not lobby for gun control. The reason I bring up the associations with The Atlantic, The Washington Post, CNN, and Universal Press Syndicate, is to point out that we’re not talking about the Gateway Pundit or Alex Jones — these people are “serious” “thinkers” who are part of the “mainstream” conversation (I truly don’t have enough scare quotes to write that last sentence properly).

I think Ann Coulter summed up the right-wing perspective the most succinctly (in the same discussion about 9/11 widows):

That is the point of liberal infallibility. Of putting up Cindy Sheehan, of putting out these widows, of putting out Joe Wilson. No, no, no. You can’t respond. It’s their doctrine of infallibility. Have someone else make the argument then.

In other words, liberalism is a failed ideology and the “Democrat Party” is a failed party, full of shrill, unlikeable losers like Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi. The only way they can trick ordinary Americans into falling for their bullshit is to trot out the “infallible”, widows like Cindy Sheehan or the 9/11 spouses, tearful students like David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez, and so-called American heroes like John Kerry and Joe Wilson. But they are all fakers, from John Kerry, who received Purple Hearts for made-up acts of bravery, to the 9/11 widows, who relished their husbands’ deaths as a chance to bask in media attention, to the Parkland students, who were either “crisis actors” bankrolled by George Soros or weren’t even at school that day. (That last gem comes from Erick Erickson, the guy who hates bullies.)

In short, no good person would seek to undermine American values (like the unabridged freedom to buy a killing machine). And therefore the people who oppose them, even if they adopt the guise of “infallibility”, are either charlatans or mercenaries. Don’t fall for their appearances, conservatives say — even the kids are up to no good.

It should surprise no one that this idea has a long and sordid history. The right-wing nutjobs of yesteryear were not too different from the ones of today; they just didn’t have Twitter or Youtube or Facebook’s news algorithm to help them along.

Take, for instance, the story of Graeme Frost. Back in 2007, President George W. Bush vetoed a bipartisan bill to fund (S-)CHIP, the children’s health insurance program for families too wealthy to qualify for Medicaid but still too poor to buy decent private health insurance in this cruel country. (If you thought Republicans were heartless now for letting CHIP expire in 2017, just remember that they weren’t much better 10 years ago.) In response to Bush’s veto, the Democrats let a 12-year old kid, Graeme Frost, respond to Bush’s weekly radio address. Frost had suffered brain damage in a car accident in 2004, and he needed ongoing care and therapy thereafter. As Paul Krugman writes,

[Frost’s] parents have a combined income of about $45,000, and don’t receive health insurance from employers. When they looked into buying insurance on their own before the accident, they found that it would cost $1,200 a month — a prohibitive sum given their income. After the accident, when their children needed expensive care, they couldn’t get insurance at any price.

This was the classic pre-existing conditions problem — the people who needed healthcare the most were screened out as “too expensive” by the companies responsible for giving them access to it. Fortunately, Graeme Frost got onto Maryland’s version of CHIP, and became a real success story of that program. He got the care he needed and deserved, attacked George Bush as a heartless monster, and everyone lived happily ever after.

So…what actually happened is that Frost became a target of the right-wing smear machine, and of Michelle Malkin in particular. Krugman writes so well about this topic that I’ll outsource the heavy lifting to him.

Soon after the radio address, right-wing bloggers began insisting that the Frosts must be affluent because Graeme and his sister attend private schools (they’re on scholarship), because they have a house in a neighborhood where some houses are now expensive (the Frosts bought their house for $55,000 in 1990 when the neighborhood was rundown and considered dangerous) and because Mr. Frost owns a business (it was dissolved in 1999).

You might be tempted to say that bloggers make unfounded accusations all the time. But we’re not talking about some obscure fringe. The charge was led by Michelle Malkin, who according to Technorati has the most-trafficked right-wing blog on the Internet, and in addition to blogging has a nationally syndicated column, writes for National Review and is a frequent guest on Fox News.

The attack on Graeme’s family was also quickly picked up by Rush Limbaugh, who is so important a player in the right-wing universe that he has had multiple exclusive interviews with Vice President Dick Cheney.

[A]n e-mail message from the office of Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, sent to reporters and obtained by the Web site Think Progress, repeated the smears against the Frosts and asked: “Could the Dems really have done that bad of a job vetting this family?”

And the attempt to spin the media worked, to some extent: despite reporting that has thoroughly debunked the smears, a CNN report yesterday suggested that the Democrats had made “a tactical error in holding up Graeme as their poster child,” and closely echoed the language of the e-mail from Mr. McConnell’s office.

All in all, the Graeme Frost case is a perfect illustration of the modern right-wing political machine at work, and in particular its routine reliance on character assassination in place of honest debate. If service members oppose a Republican war, they’re “phony soldiers”; if Michael J. Fox opposes Bush policy on stem cells, he’s faking his Parkinson’s symptoms; if an injured 12-year-old child makes the case for a government health insurance program, he’s a fraud.

If Krugman’s words sounded hyperbolic then, there is no denying them now. If you can’t win on ideas, ad hominems are all that remain.

It’s worth noting that Frost wasn’t the only instance of right-wing bullying of kids. Bob Cesca in the Huffington Post in 2012, documented several more victims, including the son of Herman Cain’s accuser, Sharon Bialek; an 11-year old boy, Marcelas Owens, who attended the signing of the Affordable Care Act; and, of course, Trayvon Martin, the boy who was killed for being black and wearing a hoodie.

And, stepping back even further in time, right-wing claims that kids are being used as tools of more sinister forces also have an interesting provenance. Molly Osberg writes in Splinter News,

As chronicled in the extensive news clippings collected by Heather Cox Richardson in her Death of Reconstruction, during Emancipation black Americans looking for protections under the 1875 Civil Rights Act were accused of being paid by outside agitators, or used as a political tool by the North to tear the country apart. In 1957, rumors that the Little Rock Nine had been paid to go to to an integrated school were so common—or at least considered so credible to journalists—that the NAACP was forced to issue a statement to the New York Times refuting the “pure propaganda” claiming students had been imported by the North.

There is nothing new about the right-wing slime machine. But there is also nothing new about the kids fighting back, and successfully at that. Howard Zinn wrote in 1964 about the SNCC:

For the first time in our history a major social movement, shaking the nation to its bones, is being led by youngsters. This is not to deny the inspirational leadership of a handful of adults (Martin Luther King and James Farmer), the organizational direction by veterans in the struggle (Roy Wilkins and A. Philip Randolph), or the participation of hundreds of thousands of older people in the current Negro revolt. But that revolt, a long time marching out of the American past, its way suddenly lit up by the Supreme Court decision, and beginning to rumble in earnest when thousands of people took to the streets of Montgomery in the bus boycott, first flared into a national excitement with the sit-ins by college students that started the decade of the 1960s.

And since then, those same youngsters, hardened by countless jailings and beatings, now out of school and living in ramshackle headquarters all over the Deep South, have been striking the sparks, again and again, for that fire of change spreading through the South and searching the whole country.

The youngsters of today have been hardened in a more metaphorical way, by a relentless media assault, rather than a physical one. It may be premature to say that they, like the SNCC, will spread that “fire of change” across the country. But one sign that this time may be different is that, for once, the bullies appear to be on the back foot. After her unwise tweet, Laura Ingraham has taken a week-long break from The Ingraham Angle (prompted by losing several of her advertisers). And our friend, Erick Erickson, has been reduced to pitiful whining:

David Hogg is a bully. He goes on television and knows he gets to use what happened to him as a shield to avoid criticism. The media allows him to attack all the targets the media would be attacking anyway. They do not question him or hold him accountable. It further emboldens him to attack others.

We should all be so emboldened.


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