Fighting Cyber Racism

In Cyber Racism, I examine the many ways racism is being translated into the digital era from the print-only-era of newsletters (such as those I explored in my earlier book, White Lies).   I also spend some of the new book exploring ways of fighting cyber racism (see Chapter 9).  There is a recent example that illustrates both the pernicious threat of cyber racism and an effective strategy for combating it.

Allen McDuffee is a NYC-based freelance journalist whose writing has appeared in The Nation, Mother Jones, DailyKos and HuffingtonPost.  McDuffee as well as for his own site, Governmentality.   Here’s McDuffee’s account of how this incident began (from July 15, 2009):

Last night as I looked at the results from my statistical gathering software program, I was disgusted to learn that an individual had posted and linked to some content from my blog. Most writers and bloggers work hard to get their work linked to, but when I saw the content of this individual’s blog, I literally became sick to my stomach.A white supremacist, with a screen id and blog called Kalki666, found a post I had written critical of Israel and decided to repurpose it for his anti-Semitic agenda. He also used me as his research assistant for the main part of that same post when he found this post on my blog from May 21 and just re-posted it yesterday. And then there are the swiped images, too. Not only had he posted my content and linked to me on his blog, he further linked on white supremacist discussion boards.  In no way, shape or form will I allow him to attribute his agenda to my reporting and blogging. I fully condemn Kalki666’s actions and everything that he, his blog and his community stand for.  Yes, I am critical of Israeli policies. I am also critical of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. But beyond that, it needs to be clear that being critical of Israel does not make one anti-Semitic.

This kind of “re-purposing” of content intended for a white supremacist agenda is one of the characteristics of cyber racism.   In the book, I talk about the way other white supremacists have used this same strategy to re-frame material from the Library of Congress archive of WPA recordings with freed, former slaves to make their argument that slavery was “sanitary and humane” rather than the brutal and de-humanizing institution it was, in fact.   Lifted out of context and re-posted on a white supremacist website, the oral history of slavery becomes part of an arsenal of web savvy white supremacists.   In McDuffee’s case, text he authored critical of Israel – but not intended as antisemitic – ends up re-posted on a white supremacist forum to further their antisemitic agenda.  On the web, as in print publishing, context and authorship matter; but, unlike printed-media, the copy/paste technology of the web makes the migration of ideas from one context and author to another several orders of magnitude easier.

Then, McDuffee’s story gets even more interesting.   He writes:

Now, upon further research, I learned that Kalki666 was surfing and posting from an IP address registered to Wheaton College (IL)–a conservative, Evangelical Christian college.   [And…] I’m writing to Dr. Duane Liftin, the President of Wheaton College. He should be made aware of the types of activities that are occurring on the Wheaton College IP address. If it’s an employee, I’m sure this violates the usage policy of the College. If it’s a student, well I suppose this opens a whole host of other issues.

I’m also going to bring it to the attention of WordPress, where the blog is hosted. While the post that I’ve described here probably does not violate their usage policy, I’m certain that I saw several others that do–ones that, in my mind anyway, provoke violence. To me, this is the difference between free speech and injuring speech that ought be censored. As a journalist, I take this issue very seriously and, again, I think this deserves its own post where I will elaborate in the next few days.

So, while the form of this digital-era white supremacy is thoroughly web-based, so is the response.  First, McDuffee identifies the IP address (the unique identifier for each computer) and locates it geographically and institutionally to a suburban Chicago college.  He then uses email to contact the president of the college and the software company that runs the blog software.   McDuffee smartly invokes the “usage policy” (sometimes called “TOS” for “Terms of Service”) in place at the college.  Indeed, most institutions, software platforms, and Internet Service Providers (the company that provides your Internet service) have some sort of TOS that prohibits explicitly racist / antisemitic language that encites hatred or violence.   I’m often asked if fighting cyber racism isn’t “impossible” because of “free speech protection” – and the answer is no, it’s not impossible.  This sort of hate speech over the Internet is a “TOS” issue, not a free speech issue.   However, enforcement of these policies is almost entirely left up to individuals – like McDuffee – to pursue the issue and demand action.

Furthermore, McDuffee deftly uses his blog to document and post the responses from the college president, the blogging software and from the white supremacist in question.    McDuffee was understandably horrified by this turn of events, and he was tenacious in his quest for a just resolution.   And, his efforts paid off.  Within 48-60 hours (approximately 2 days) of the initial discovery, McDuffee posted this:

UPDATE #9: Wheaton College President Duane Litfin emails me (July 17 1:44pm)

The culprit has been found and escorted off campus. More details to follow shortly.

As it turned out, the culprit was neither a student, nor an employee of the college, but was an interloper who had accessed one of several free-to-the-public computers in the college library.   He was identified as Merrill Sech, 38, of Westmont, IL.  When the campus police and a local Wheaton police confronted him on the college campus to escort him off campus and issue a do not return letter because he violated their computing policy, he assaulted the officers.  So, Sech was arrested.   According to McDuffee’s FOIA request, Sech also has a history of other criminal offenses and is currently in DuPage County Jail.    For more info, there’s also this podcast about the incident.   According to McDuffee, the story is still unfolding in various ways, so you’ll want to check his Governmentality blog (or follow him on Twitter @allen_mcduffee) to catch all the updates.

For my purposes here,  I want to highlight that in order to effectively fight cyber racism, you need people who are 1) committed to the value of racial equality,  2) web-savvy and 3) willing to take action.   McDuffee embodies all these qualities as an individual.   On what might be called the structural side, you need laws and policies in place that regard hate speech as unacceptable (as the college did in this case), and officials that are willing to take action against these sorts of violations (as the college president, campus and local police did).

McDuffee’s encounter with this white supremacist illustrates several of the points that I make in Cyber Racism,  chiefly that the threat from white supremacy online is less a threat of “recruiting” and more a threat to ideas and values of racial equality.    McDuffee’s encounter also illustrates that the political struggle for racial equality is one that requires us to be committed, web-savvy and willing to take action and demand a response from institutions and organizations that may be unwitting perpetrators of white supremacy.

Fox News’ Racism

Fox News’ Brian Kilmeade revealed a glimpse into the depths of his own racism on the air recently. During a discussion of a study based on research done in Finland and Sweden which showed people who stay married are less likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s, this exchange happened (short, less than 1 minute):

In this clip, Kilmeade questions the results of the study saying, “We are — we keep marrying other species and other ethnics and other …” The co-host tried to distract Kilmeade, but he goes on to add, “See, the problem is the Swedes have pure genes. Because they marry other Swedes …. Finns marry other Finns, so they have a pure society.”

The argument Kilmeade is making, and to their credit that his co-workers at Fox News seem appalled to hear, is one that’s rooted in the discredited racial pseudo-science of eugenics.

Eugenics, which reached ascendancy in the U.S. and Europe in the 1930s, advocated social progress through encouraging those deemed “fit” to reproduce to have children and discouraging, even coercing through forced sterilization, those thought to be “unfit.” One of the intellectual factories producing knowledge steeped in eugenics was at Cold Spring Harbor Lab on Long Island, just outside New York. While claims about “fitness” and “unfitness” were sometimes tied to inherited disease, just as often these designations were linked to poverty and race. Thus, people who are poor or not considered white are designated “unfit.” Indeed, in the extreme version of eugenics, some people were considered “less than human” or of “another species.” This kind of thinking is part of what fueled the Third Reich’s calculated extermination of six million Jews. Following the defeat of the Nazis and the liberation of the camps, the theory of eugenics fell into disfavor.

In his book, Backdoor to Eugenics (NY: Routledge, 2nd Ed., 2003), sociologist Troy Duster explores the ways that current practices, such as prenatal detection of birth defects, gene therapies, growth hormones, are once again introducing “genetic answers” to what are fundamentally social questions. In Kilmeade’s ill-informed discussion of research about the length of marriage, he is stepping into a long tradition of eugenics as the scientific basis for racism and antisemitism. Fox News rarely disappoints as a source for broadcasting such retrograde thinking.

U.N. Anti-Racism Conference

eleanorroosevelthumanrightsThe U.N. anti-racism conference in Geneva adopted a consensus resolution yesterday that demands action against racism and xenophobia.  The resolution is not without controversy, however, and this rather lengthy post is meant to serve as a review of some of the key issues surrounding the controversy that developed it.  First, a little history.

U.N. Declares Freedom from Racism a Fundamental Human Right

The U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, which was passed in 1948 largely due to the efforts of Eleanor Roosevelt (pictured here holding a copy of the declaration, image in the public domain from Wikimedia), includes in it language that reads:

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. (Article 2).

That commitment to human rights in general, and racial equality in particular led to a series of conferences sponsored by the U.N. on racism, the third of which was the first U.N. World Conference Against Racism in 2001 in Durban, South Africa.   This conference is widely referred to by the shorthand “Durban,” or the “Durban Racism Conference.”  That first conference was intensely controversial for the kind of extreme antisemitism it attracted, as the Christian Science Monitor recounts in a recent article:

Some pro-­Palestinian supporters passed out fliers containing a photograph of Hitler captioned, “What if I had won? There would be no Israel and no Palestinian bloodshed.” Thousands of NGO delegates approved a document that branded Israel guilty of genocide, apartheid, and other war crimes.Then-UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson found the forum recommendations so toxic she refused to “forward” them on to the governments.

Yet, as the CSM goes on to point out, often forgotten is the fact that the gathered diplomats stripped out the most incendiary anti-Israel language even though it did make reference to “the plight of the Palestinian people,” a reference which many objected to as anti-Israel if not a veiled antisemitic attack.

Antisemitism & Racism: Disaster from Disaster

Given this context of overt and extreme antisemitism at the first Durban conference, the second conference had a lot of disadvantages at the start.  The second conference, known as the Durban Review Conference (April 20-24, 2009), is still in process and yet many have already declared it a “disaster,” such as 

“There has only ever been one United Nations conference on racism before and it ended in disaster. The second begins in it.”

Part of what prompts Ms. Philp to call the Durban Review “a disaster from disaster” is the extensive boycott by many of the invited nations, led by the U.S.:

“The boycott, begun by the United States and Israel, has snowballed so far across the Western world that any official international consensus on dealing with racism and xenophobia now looks near pointless. “

It’s true that the U.S. has led the way in undermining the Durban Review conference, and to the extent that this has been about taking a stand against antisemitism this is a very good thing.

In fact, the U.S. deciding to boycott the Durban Review was responding to the 2001 Durban resolution.  Here’s the CSM article again on this issue:

“In a statement released Saturday, the US State Department cited the 2001 Durban text in explaining its withdrawal from this conference. That document “singles out one particular conflict and prejudges key issues that can only be resolved in negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians,” it said. And since the draft document for this meeting is based on the previous meeting’s, the US could not participate.”

And, as if there needed to be any more confirmation of the overt antisemitic intentions of some of the key players involved at the Durban Review, Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave a speech that was more a hate-filled screed than a stand against racism.  Clearly, what Ahmadinejad and other hate-mongers have done is seize upon this opportunity to fight racism in order to advance their antisemitic, (not to mention homophobic – but that’s another post -) and hate-filled agenda.   You can begin to see why some would call this conference a “disaster,” but I’m not quite ready to write it off.   

Protesting & Monitoring the Geneva Conference

durban_review_protest

Fortunately, Ahmadinejad’s intolerance did not go without protest and a number of world leaders, as well as NGOs and unaffiliated citizens, walked out of his speech (image of unidentified protesters in Geneva courtesy of DurbanReview).

In addition to the protests, some people have been closely monitoring the Geneva Conference.  For example, Andre Oboler launched on a news service April 2nd 2009 about the conference called DurbanReview (http://www.durbanreview.org/).   Durban Review is a volunteer project supported by a number of NGOs with people on the ground in Geneva and Oboler coordinating information and news gathering several time zones away in Australia.

One of the useful bits at DurbanReview is the piece on the sponsoring nations, aka “string pullers,” and Gregg Rickman’s piece on what’s problematic about this roster.

Hope for a Stand Against Racism and Antisemitism?

As Matt notes,  the conference started on Hitler’s birthday – certainly a bit of inauspicious scheduling on someone’s part – and yet he writes that despite that he’s heartened by the protests to antisemitism:

If people and nations are unwilling to accept antisemitism, there might be a chance to keep it from spreading. Perhaps the antisemites of the world will be radicalized, but if enough nations are willing, we can deal with that.

I agree, I do think there’s hope in that.  And,  I think that the example of being at the conference, and thus, being able to walk out on Ahmadinejad’s speech is more powerful than not attending the conference altogether. As Juliette de Rivero, Geneva advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, points out:

Nations that attended this conference in good faith proved that it’s possible to reaffirm the global commitment to fight racism, despite efforts to derail the process. The adoption of this document by consensus only a day after Ahmadinejad’s divisive speech is a clear message against intolerance.

To me, part of the real disaster here is that the extremists like Ahmadinejad have given the West, and particularly the U.S., a very good excuse to stay away from the conference and to continue the pattern of not participating in the global fight to combat racism.   Perhaps foolishly, I remain ever hopeful that this can change and the U.S. can, eventually, step up and do the right thing when it comes to fighting racism not just here but around the world.  And, the Geneva Conference still provides such an opportunity.

Following the passing of the resolution, de Rivero called for the governments that boycotted the UN racism conference to now endorse the conference declaration and thereby demonstrate their commitment to fight racism.   If the U.S. wants to stand against antisemitism and racism, it will heed this call and endorse the conference declaration.

Updated: You can download the Durban Review Conference Outcome Document here (.PDF).