As I’ve mentioned in the past, I am a fairly active Twitter user. Something about the microblogging platform has always appealed to me, and in my years using it I’ve found tweeting to be an excellent way to work on my writing. A 140-character limit means having to figure out ways to make my ideas more coherent and to the point, something my prose has traditionally struggled with. Florid turns horrid fairly quickly, after all.


Trump’s usage of Twitter has in some ways rekindled its relevance. It has gone from an odd place that mixes news and social feedback to an online forum where the intemperate words of a Dunning-Kruger Effect-laden avatar of white fragility could potentially spark a nuclear war against China, an important trade partner, in the service of Russia, a long-term enemy. Fun!


This past week, Representative John Lewis, a civil rights icon whose endurance of the brutality of 1950s segregation defenders has been indelibly marked on the historic record in a series of photos of angry cops beating him for the temerity to demand equal rights, came out of a classified briefing on the Russian attempt to install a puppet dictator, an attempt which appears to have succeeded. He said that Trump has no legitimacy to lead this nation. Later, he doubled down on this, starting a boycott of the inaugural festivities which has snowballed into the double digits. I’m proud to report that my congressional representative, Yvette Clarke, has joined this act of nonviolent civil disobedience.


But disobedience in any form is an irresistible lure to the petty authoritarian, and Trump did not disappoint. He came out swinging at Lewis, and in doing so he only confirmed to those listening that the man is racist to his core. John Lewis represents a fairly affluent section of Atlanta, a lovely place that sure as hell puts the tiny town I grew up in to shame. Trump described it as a blistering hellhole, a crime-infested inner-city ‘hood aflame. I am not exaggerating.





See, Trump’s a bullshitter. He never bothers to fact-check anything that comes out of his mouth, which means his tweets are typically his unfiltered id. And apparently, in his mind any place where black folk live is crime-infested. If you don’t think that’s telling, and an ominous indicator of future police-state oppression, then his propaganda has worked on you. Way to be a dupe.


Anyway, I tend to keep a library of memes on my phone. When I see one that seems thought-provoking, I’ll save it. And for a while now I’ve been ruminating on Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. The entire text is worth a read, but what he has to say about the white moderate seemed particularly relevant in Trump’s America. Whether or not you like the comparison, Trump has risen to power on an even slimmer margin than the Nazis did in pre-Holocaust Germany. The Nazis had the support of 33% of the population, while Trump’s 63 million votes counts for less than 20% of the 319 million people who live in this nation. The only way the Nazis managed to succeed in their brutal take-over of German society was with the complicity of moderates.


You know the famous Niemöller quote about the Holocaust, yes?


First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.


That is where moderation in the face of fascism leads. And, considering many of the people who will be hurt by Trump’s reign are considered “undesireables” to a large chunk of the population, either by dint of race, sexuality, gender, religion, origin, or a host of other ways they try to divide us, this lesson seems more relevant than ever. So, remembering the Letter from Birmingham Jail, Saturday morning I put together the following (fairly innocuous, if you ask me) tweet:


And then I went to brunch. By the time I got back to Twitter, my tweet was in the first stages of going viral, to a degree I had not seen before. Previously the most engagement I had gotten with a tweet was a couple of thousand interactions with a Pokemon meme, and this beat that record within hours of me posting it. I framed the quote well enough that more people read it than they otherwise would have, and as of the time that I am writing this over 15.5k individuals have read my tweet and decided they wanted their friends to read it (more if you count up all the quote tweet engagement), and 22k have read it and agreed with it enough to give it a like.


I discuss this not to toot my own horn or further highlight a quote I think is incumbent upon us to learn and internalize, but because the process of going slightly viral has been a fascinating one. First off, in terms of mass virality, while these are good numbers for a person who had like 666 followers when this whole thing started, Kim Kardashian got more engagement with a poorly-framed candid of her ass. Observe:


Side note: I say this not to shame Kim Kardashian… I’m actually a fan of how she managed to take the violation of an insignificant ex revenge-porning her with a sex tape and turn it into a massive multimedia empire. And while there are terrible people in that household, none of the Gen Xers or Millennial members of that clan can hold a candle to how atrociously awful its Boomer representatives are.


But let’s be real… that Kardashian content is a nothing tweet, and it had far more thorough response than mine did. So I have no illusions that my tweet represents anything other than a glancing contact with the collective narrative, no matter how many cool celebrities may have retweeted me. But because I only brushed against the zeitgeist, I saw many of the structures put in place to respond to these things while not provoking the full enmity of the right-wing suppression machines. And it taught me some valuable lessons.


For starters, engagement is your enemy. Negative engagement, that is. My tweet got a lot of angry responses from fairly early in the process (the hate started pouring in once Joss Whedon retweeted me, but I write this two days later and it has still yet to abate). While it’s worth examining these responses in more detail, something I will do below, collectively they shared two aspects: they were trying to influence my emotions in a violent fashion to provoke some sort of result, and they were not at all coming from a place of good faith. None of the people yelling at me, or trying to sound reasonable and failing, were honestly engaging with my argument. None of them represented potential converts who, with the right sequence of magic words, would abandon the fragile white supremacist mindset to which this (again, fairly innocuous) tweet was threatening. As such, there is no reason to give these random shouting strangers any more attention than it takes to categorize them and block them.


Block quickly, because the most enraging response you can give to these types is a silence that reflects their utter insignificance in your life. I do not give a damn what those randos think, and they’re not going to be able to shout me down when I am doing what’s right, which in this case was merely sharing some words of MLK beyond “I have a dream.” This strategy minimized the poison they wanted to inject into my system, leaving me with hazy memories of the content and occasionally a horrific barb that made it past my defenses. So when I discuss these things in more detail below, don’t think a minor error in my recall has any disqualifying significance.


Because remember that my controversial tweet was anything but. I stated a) it was MLK weekend, b) Trump was attacking, c) a civil rights leader, and it was d) an opportunity to remind us white folk of a MLK quote other than “I have a dream.” And then I included the quote. And people lost their shit.


The first category of answers were those focused on what was “allowed.” Somehow I was infringing upon their right to free speech by sharing my opinion. That Lewis was “out of line.” That in order for there to be peace, liberals “must” do something. They demand we kowtow and take anything less than that as justification for continued violence. Abuser tactics aren’t new, we’re just not used to them being a political platform in the modern era.


This dovetailed often with the second category (these categories being my own attempt to make sense of a stream of offense that seemed to be testing my responses on every level, and thus blended together), in which people whined that it was unfair or inaccurate to characterize Trump as attacking because Lewis started it. White folk, to be clear. There were maybe five angry responses by people who appeared to be people of color? Anyway, perhaps missing the irony, these angry folk tried to yell me down for having the temerity to share something that made them think critically about their place in the world. The anger that underpinned these messages were intense, but the uniting factor was a fetish for some “fairness” that meant any restriction on their behavior was unfair, no matter how much their behavior would force a restriction on another. These are the type of people who get angry when you say they shouldn’t say the n-word. “But they get to do it!” “You can’t tell me what I can and can’t say!”


The difference is context, and no one is saying you can’t do a thing. We’re just saying to do that thing is racist, and we are of the opinion that makes it a shitty thing to do. In voting for Trump, and continuing to defend him as he behaves exactly like a Putin-puppet would (whether or not he is one), you’re showing yourself to be pretty shitty too.


What irritated me the most about these responses, though, was the fact that I merely said that Trump was attacking Lewis. I at no point claimed that the attack was unwarranted, and in fact I can see why he counterattacked. Trump is dancing on a knife’s edge, and he knows it. His flagrant caping for Putin has damaged America’s stature in the world already, and he doesn’t even have the keys to the White Gold House yet (it’s “classier”). But whether or not he started it, he is still engaged in an attack against one of the last major living civil rights era figures during MLK weekend, and that’s a bad look. Turn the other fucking cheek once in awhile, particularly when the optics of doing otherwise are so starkly against you. A counterattack is an attack. Own it.


The third category of insults tried to tear down Rep Lewis, Obama, and Hillary Clinton, as if any of those things made the words MLK said less true. I see this commonly on the right, and occasionally on the left as well, though there’s utterly no equivalence there. It’s like the fetish in the academy to cite everything, even if the idea being cited is an unremarkable one that, once you’ve seen it, develops obviously outside of the other predicate arguments. But this is an attempt to use my beliefs against me (Rule #4 of the Rules for Radicals, in case you were wondering). The right sees the way that we are painting affiliation with a racist sexual assaulter as being guilt by association, and they try to flip it on us. But their rage interferes with their aim. They think name calling will have the same effect, because in their eyes that’s all it means to call out racism or rape culture: just an insult. But that’s not true. Call HRC a “neoliberal” all you want, I don’t care about the label that other people put on her ideology I care about her words, her policies, her dreams. Meanwhile, Trump’s flagrant promulgation of rape culture has already resulted in (male) supporters using his impunity to lash out at women. “I love this new world, I no longer have to be politically correct.” Trump’s racism and homophobia have resulted in an increase in hate crimes (over 700 in the week following the election alone). That’s the difference. And if you can’t grapple with that, how do you think you’re going to shake my certainty?


(And, to be clear, that is the goal here: undermine your reality so that you no longer have a moral framework to judge their actions. Sure, it’s nice if they can convert you, but shattering your grip on reality is an alternative victory condition. Well, that and making you afraid to speak out, which tends to go hand in hand.)


But it’s even more ridiculous when the criticism or insult is at odds with reality. Say what you will about John Lewis (and they have), but the man isn’t a racist. He is not a figure whose influence only stems from the 1950s. Within the last decade alone not only has he chartered the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, pushed hard for gun rights including sitting in to draw attention to the intransigence of the House Republicans, and been a major member of the House Ways and Means Committee (as part of Democratic leadership). Yes, he doesn’t necessarily have a robust history of bills passed, but that’s because he’s a member of a minority party in a legislative body which has stopped doing anything that can’t be passed solely by the majority party (at least when the GOP is in control, Dems are far more willing to bargain away their leverage).


This brings us to the fourth category of attacks, the utterly ahistorical ones. A lot of people thought it was a relevant factoid/cutting rebuke to point out that MLK had been a Republican. It has the benefit of being true, which is how it would work its way into someone’s brain, were you not inoculated by the knowledge that the Southern Strategy resulted in a party realignment between then and now. MLK may have been a Republican in the ‘40s, but in the ‘00s and ‘10s he would clearly be a Democrat. Party identity was less important to him than liberation, something utterly alien to the hyperpolarized Republican, a person who’s happier to see his government hurting his Democratic neighbors than he is to see the government doing something positive for everyone.


You know, the type that’s dependent on the ACA and yet voted against it anyway because the GOP branded it as Obamacare?


Basically, these attacks are about challenging the idea that history is a thing that exists, that lost cause mythology is a legitimate way to view the past, and that activism against white supremacy is something we’re doing wrong. You know, basically the entire point of the quote I shared? As someone who has spent a fair bit of time examining the past, I found these tweets most tempting to rebut, since it would be so easy. But again, engagement isn’t worth it. Each fact I point them towards will be met by some Breitbart link or other piece of propaganda that shows me to be wrong. There is no potential benefit to me and only risk. Better to just let them rant into the aether.


The final category showed up in basically every other column as well, but was the sole content in a large number of tweets. This category is “insults”, and they tried to insult everything about me. They insulted my intelligence, my education, my looks, my sexuality, my gender identity, called me “at least a jew” (which, so the fuck what you goddamn nazis?), tried to play me off as the next Rachel Dolezal, called me a self-hating race traitor, and even sent me a set of old graphic photos including one of a black man lynched in a noose and another with mounted KKK members burning a giant cross. One of my cats does this thing I call “playing her scales,” where she modulates her pitch with each meow, trying to find one tone that gets me to do what she wants. This felt a lot like being on the receiving side of that, only with the active goal of hurting me in order to shut me down.


They obviously did not succeed at that.


The insulting ones were the easiest ones to handle (though often still damaging), because as soon as I saw an insult it gave me reason to stop reading and just block. A few made it through my shields, though, and I found myself battling temptation to respond. For example, a splinter that bothers me enough to mention were the several tweets from white people attacking my use of “gotta” and “us white folks”. Apparently a lot of privileged white people are totally unfamiliar with the concept of code-switching, or the practicalities of a Twitter character limit. Ironically, I think by bringing down the grade level of my prose I helped extend my reach, but perhaps that just means it’s design not irony. Anyway, as someone with rural roots, who spent her weekends on the family farm growing up, I don’t feel particularly inauthentic when my folksiness leaks out. But it really bothered some people!


By far the funniest of the insulting tweets, however, were all the ones screeching at me about how I was a “triggered snowflake” and I needed to shut the fuck up because Trump won. It was a good reminder that the right is all about projection, since I wasn’t the one who was so infuriated by a MLK quote that I started screaming at a stranger on the internet. The only thing that’s white and fragile here are the members of the Republican party who know their election was illegitimate but can’t face the implications. That’s why it’s so important we shut up and accept Trump’s victory, after all. We remind them that there is something off about the election, something even they can’t help but to see. Being a bad winner is indicative of a deeper moral or psychological failing, an attempt to align the behaviors of the “vanquished” with the sore winner’s fantasy of what winning will feel like. When we act less crushed, less submissive, they get angry and try to force us into line with their unrealistic expectations. And should we at all resist, again this becomes an excuse to lash out.


One fascinating aspect of all this was the way in which it became clear that some of these aggressive responses (in all categories) were coming from bot accounts. For example, at one point someone tweeted a response that attacked the civil rights movement without displaying any specific relevance to my initial tweet. At first I just let my misanthropy play that disconnect off as a failing of the logic of the right, but the more I thought about it the more I realized it would be easy to set a bot up to respond to keywords like “civil rights leader” with something just universally relevant enough to get people to give it a second glance. We know this is part of how the Russian hackers got their man Trump elected, but it was interesting to see it in the wild. Also, according to my mentions there was at least one other bot on the thread that ended up arguing with a person I didn’t block, but it took her like 20 tweets to realize that the “liberals are scum” account wasn’t a human arguing in good faith.


Because that’s where we are now, living in the future. Network enough magic mirrors together and soon it starts looking like a demented funhouse, where much is not what it seems.


I gained some temporary followers from this virality, and it’s been a fascinating experience. I’m glad I didn’t get any more hate than I did, although I understand there’s always the chance I find myself at the epicenter of a flare-up again. After all, none of this will make me tweet less. This experience has only hardened my resolve to refuse to bend a knee to fascism, unless doing so results in some concrete benefit that outweighs that which I give up (a benefit which would need to be for a broader category of people than “just me”). But, what’s most important about this experience? I got thousands of people to engage more seriously with an MLK quote with some teeth to it. Let me leave you, once again, with his prescient words.


First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

-Martin Luther King, Jr.—Letter from Birmingham Jail

Jess Stirba rode the lightning for a weekend.

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