Papers like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal are conflating bigotry with normalizing words like “firebrand,” often defending this framing as "objective." It's anything but.
After my husband and I moved into a new apartment last year, the Wall Street Journal started showing up at the front door every morning, expecting to be taken in and read and given a bowl of milk and a warm blanket. I assume the previous tenants decided they didn’t want to take the paper with them into their exciting new future elsewhere, or that some jokester member of my family is trolling me from afar. Either way, I do give it a glance before it slouches out to the recycle bin. This morning, I nearly spat out my coffee.
“Firebrand Wins in Alabama” hollered the front page, above-the-fold headline about former Alabama Supreme Court justice Roy Moore’s win in the Republican senatorial primary Tuesday night. I wasn’t surprised Moore is one step closer to taking Jeff Sessions’s Senate seat—I was coughing my way through the word “firebrand.”
Roy Moore is not a firebrand. He is a misogynist, a racist, and a homophobe who uses his religion as a cudgel in the courtroom. He has twice been sanctioned by a judicial ethics committee for his decisions to repeatedly flout the Constitution and conflate his religious beliefs with federal law, right on the bench: first, in the early aughts when he threw a years-long tantrum over keeping a display of the Ten Commandments in his court, and a second time after he issued an order encouraging courts to defy the Obergefell ruling that legalized same-sex marriage across the country. He believes that “abhorrent, immoral and detestable” gay, lesbian, and queer people should not be allowed to parent children. He believes abortion should be illegal and that the government should force people to stay pregnant and give birth against their will—and he writes appalling poetry about it. He is an Islamophobe who acknowledges that there’s no basis for his assertion that parts of America are ruled by Sharia law, but he believes it anyway. He believes Muslim Americans should not be allowed to serve in Congress. He has called Asian-American people “yellows” and Native Americans “reds.” He believes God sent the 9/11 terrorist attacks as punishment because America has become an insufficiently Christian nation.
The word “firebrand,” inadequate to the point of inaccuracy in Moore’s case, stuck out to me for all those reasons, but it also stuck out because I’d seen the descriptor used a couple of days before in a New York Times article about the tech industry. I’d originally intended to make that Times piece—“Push for Equality in Tech? Some Men Say It’s Gone Too Far”—the subject of this week’s column, critiquing the article for its failure to contextualize the extent to which the movement that calls itself “men’s rights” is instead a well-organized harassment engine dedicated to threatening and abusing women. In that article, journalist Nellie Bowles describes the right-wing lawyer and California Republican Party official Harmeet Dhillon, who is representing the ex-Googler who issued a wanky screed about the biological and professional inferiority of women in tech, as a “firebrand.”
Two “firebrands” in a matter of days, both in articles that obfuscated or avoided articulating the depth of their subjects’ cultural malevolence? Something’s up with that. And we have to face it because if we don’t demand that legacy media do a better job of diagnosing and describing these cultural cancers for what they are, the sickness will only spread. The American public must be made to understand that there is a wide gulf between what “men’s rights” activists say they believe, or what bigots like Roy Moore say they believe, and what these kinds of people actually do: Inspire and foment terror, shoring up systems of inequality and injustice.
In the Times, Bowles does do a good job of letting the Silicon Valley dudes who believe there is a cabal of feminist masterminds hell-bent on banning men from the technology industry hang themselves on their own words. Nobody who isn’t the same caliber of sexist dipshit as Jon Parsons, another “men’s rights”-sympathizing lawyer who represents male Yahoo employees who say they were discriminated against because of their gender, is going to take seriously a man who thinks it’s actually impossible for women to take an interest in cars, as Parsons asserts in the piece.
But just letting these guys talk, even when they say awful and stupid things, isn’t enough. These guys don’t just believe awful things. They do awful things, and they want awful things, among them the legalization of rape and the repeal of domestic violence laws. Or, in Moore’s case, he wants for gay and lesbian families to be ripped apart, and for some kinds of consensual adult sexual behaviors to be criminalized. That’s not merely controversial; it’s not the sassy posture of a “firebrand.” It’s misogyny, and it’s homophobia, and it’s bigotry, and it’s dangerous.
Take Paul Elam, the founder of A Voice for Men, the website and harassment hub that Bowles describes in her latest piece only as “a men’s rights group.” In fact, A Voice for Men has almost nothing to do with anything resembling “men’s rights,” but instead is the ideological center of the wheel for a widening circle of men who believe that there is a nationwide conspiracy in the court system to keep fathers from parenting their children, that laws against domestic violence and rape oppress men, that women (who they describe liberally as cunts and gold-digging bitch-sluts) should be used, and only sparingly, as receptacles for semen by men who can’t find any other place to put their splooge. (I should note that “in the vicinity of another man” is generally frowned upon as a destination for such excretions—these guys who hate women are, weirdly enough, riddled through with homophobia, because they think gay guys are too ladylike.)
And yet, Elam and the other voices in the piece, including “firebrand” Dhillon, are instead situated in a kind of apolitical non-space, where they have no pasts, merely a present comprised of general grievances about meanie feminist hiring practices and secretly misandrist boardrooms. They are taken at their word, rather than situated in terms of their real-life behavior, and described with wiggle words—again, “controversial” and “firebrand” are particular favorites among mainstream publications—instead of named for what they indisputably are: Misogynist. Racist. Bigoted.
Would it change what you thought about the so-called “backlash” against women seeking gender parity in tech if you knew that the “men’s rights” movement’s figurehead has made a career not out of helping men defend their “rights” but out of encouraging violence against women? Would it change what you think about Bowles’s main character, James Altizer, and his dedication to family values if you knew that the man who is described as the “leader” of the “Bay Area Father’s Rights” group thinks deportation-doxxing jokes about mothers are a good laugh, and that he trades in transphobic Facebook shares when he’s not reposting pro-Trump memes? Would it change what you understood the mission of the Bay Area Father’s Rights group to be if you knew that members supported Return Of Kings, the online troll site that promotes the legalization of rape? Would it change what you thought about the credulity of ex-Googler James Damore’s claims of oppression at the hands of nefarious feminist operatives if, instead of being represented by “firebrand” lawyer Harmeet Dhillon, Bowles briefly noted that Dhillon was on Trump’s shortlist to head the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division under Jeff Sessions, and is the vice chair of the California Republican Party?
I think it might. The Venn diagram of the “men’s rights” crowd (who call themselves “men going their own way,” or“MGTOW”), young white male Trump supporters and American Neo-Nazis have a great deal of overlap. These guys aren’t just cultural contrarians with a theoretical bone to pick, but actual racists, misogynists, and bigots who actively work to silence and marginalize women and people of color, and who thrive on credulous coverage in legacy media.
Bowles’s piece, which overestimates the cultural literacy of its readership when it comes to the darker corners of the web, pits the MRA’s as a kind of rhetorical foil to feminists, as if the dominance of men in the technology industry, and their growing interest in the “men’s rights” sphere, is mostly an internal, intellectual disagreement about best practices in a niche workplace. But the truth is that these guys are capable of unleashing real terror on anyone they consider an enemy, and they’re enthusiastic about doing so.
It’d be easy enough to tackle this contextual problem with a couple of thoughtful, well-placed clauses. Instead of “Mr. Altizer leads Bay Area Fathers’ Rights, a monthly support group for men to talk about the issues they uniquely face,” the Times might instead consider “Mr. Altizer leads Bay Area Fathers’ Rights, an organization that he describes as a forum for men to talk about the issues they uniquely face. The Facebook group features posts about corruption in the criminal justice system, but also links out to extremist men’s groups that advocate for the legalization of rape.” Or, instead of “A Voice for Men, a men’s rights group,” a simple addition: “A Voice for Men, which Elam describes as a men’s rights group, has been widely condemned for its members’ targeted harassment campaigns against feminist writers.”
In a different political era, it might be enough to let a man like Roy Moore say appalling things about gay people and Muslims and hope readers understand the rhetorical wink. It might be enough to let James Damore’s lawyer whine about his ill-treatment at the hands of cruel feminist techies. But the neo-Nazis are marching in our streets. Mosques and temples are being attacked and vandalized. Anti-abortion legislation is proliferating, and just this summer we’ve three times been on the verge of seeing Republicans pass legislation that would decimate access to contraception, maternity, prenatal and other forms of reproductive health care.
At some point, the people who create our modern historical record—the people whose words fill the pages of our legacy publications—have got to call racism what it is, and homophobia what it is, and misogyny what it is, instead of hoping their audience reads between the lines. Because the people who draw power and inspiration from the normalization that a word like “firebrand” offers to a man like Roy Moore are definitely already getting the message.
Over time, this kind of cowardly coverage has a real cultural effect—one that puts women and people of color in real danger. And we needn’t look anywhere other than 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the occasional address of President Pussy Grabber, to see how things play out when young, violent men feel empowered to take whatever they want.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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