Internet abuse is being used to distract from the death and destruction that politicians are responsible for.
Every tribe needs its mythical figures, big striding symbols that can gather together the general mess of humanity into a simple archetype. Lately, Western society has developed a new one: the Bernie Bro. He is a young male whose chief interests are partying, knocking back some brews, hating women, and, for some reason, tepid socialist politics. He supports Bernie Sanders in his race for the Democratic nomination in the US presidential election, because the Bernie Bro does not want Hillary Clinton, a woman, to take power. He demonstrates this support by being crude and abusive to Clinton supporters online, pumped up by male self-righteousness, socialist insensitivity, internet anonymity, and creatine. He is thoughtless, vicious, and stupid. He also doesn't really exist, but that's not really any problem for a myth.
It certainly hasn't stopped him being the subject of a recent flurry of anthropological studies: TIME magazine warns against the "smug-sounding Sanders supporters", Mashable calls them "the most obnoxious people on the internet", and even the BBC reports that "Bernie Sanders supporters get a bad reputation online." As has been pointed out, there's scant evidence for any of this, but it doesn't matter – if you can successfully collapse thousands of people into some hideous metonym, it's impossible to prove that this fictional character did or didn't do anything.
This isn't to say that some Sanders supporters haven't been occasionally vitriolic. But if you're on the internet and you say anything that anyone might plausibly disagree with, you will immediately find yourself encountering dozens of implausibly angry single men looking to talk to someone new. (Look out for them below the line on this article!) There is no cause so peaceful and progressive and self-evidently justified that it won't have, scurrying behind it in the churned-up mud of the social field, thousands of fanatical cockroaches. The idea that there's a concerted campaign of abuse coming from the political left has a lot to do with selective focus: you're much less likely to see the abuse when it's coming from your own side. The Bernie Bro became a phenomenon because opinion writers in establishment publications tend to support Clinton, and because these people labour under the bizarre and false impression that their audiences want to read about how unpleasant other people were on Twitter.
There's no better example of this than The Sunday Times's Camilla Long, who voiced a fairly thoughtless and insensitive opinion on the death of David Bowie and then managed to spin the inevitable backlash into a long blubbery column on the cruelty of crowds. For reasons that still don't entirely make sense, it's people like this who get to shape the general discourse. They're famous, so when they're rude to people it's just a case of poor judgement, while when other people are rude back, it's violence on the part of an angry, faceless, idiot mob, and everyone needs to know about it.
The story of the Bernie Bro isn't just reducible to a few short-sighted journalists, though; nor is this a case of the internet and its murky anonymity bringing out the worst in people, of the pathetic and the put-upon suddenly turning into hulking trolls when placed in front of a keyboard. The internet unleashing a tide of pent-up hatred is a popular image, but once you start to think about it, it's actually fairly stupid. When people with vested interests disagree about politics online, they will be rude and abusive to each other, use unacceptable language, and try to shout down their opponents. When people with vested interests disagree about politics in the real world, thousands of people end up dead. This isn't a facile comparison: here, the whole point of the constant earnest bleating about the first type of disagreement is to drown out any discussion of the second.
Take, for instance, Peter Daou. Peter is a former senior adviser to Clinton and the founder of #HillaryMen, a prominent campaign group devoted to arguing that while opposition to Clinton isn't necessarily rooted in misogyny, every actual instance of it is. Like many prominent Clinton supporters, he's come under some fire for his allegiances – he complained on Twitter of being called a "hack, operative, shill, sell-out, etc. just because I support the candidate who is best for my daughter's future."
This kind of abuse is unacceptable, especially when it's directed against a veteran. Daou has made repeated reference to the fact that he "served" in the Lebanese Forces militia, an experience that gives him the authority to hold forth on gun control and global politics – after all, he was "facing down the very terrorists GOP get all blustery about." If you didn't know what the Lebanese Forces were, this might sound like a very noble thing. In fact, they were the paramilitary wing of the Phalange political party, which was named after General Franco's Falange Española Tradicionalista and inspired by the Italian fascist party. The Lebanese Forces were chiefly known for perpetrating the infamous 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre, in which Phalangists entered two Palestinian refugee camps in south Beirut and butchered up to 3,500 defenceless civilians. However unpleasant Daou's critics might be, they've never actually killed anyone.
Because online abuse is real and often very damaging, it can be used to allow those who are actually perpetrating violence to claim the mantle of victimhood. In this upended moral cosmology, calling someone names online is a significantly greater sin than starting a war, and only slightly less egregious than holding your wine glass by the bowl. We saw something very similar last year, during the debate over British military intervention in Syria. As the British state whipped itself into another destructive war, the pro-Corbyn campaign group Momentum was met with widespread censure for "bullying" MPs who supported the bombing, employing such insidious tactics as encouraging voters to make use of their right to petition their representatives, or correctly identifying people who were pushing for war as being warmongers. To kill people with airborne explosives is fine, as long as you do so politely; trying to prevent this with undefined uncouthness is unacceptable. The morality of war is no longer an issue, not while there are bullies or Bernie Bros in our midst.
For supporters of Hillary Clinton, this is a particularly potent tactic; if the conversation is about whose supporters are the least polite, it helps divert attention from the fact that their candidate has an awful lot of blood on her hands. Clinton has pulled a brilliant Daou-like move in debates, touting her experience in foreign policy – in particular her role as Secretary of State between 2009 and 2013, and her decisive role shaping US policy in Libya and Syria. In other words, she destroyed those places; she is responsible for turning secular middle-income republics into failed states, hollowed-out scenes of eternal war. Hillary Clinton is qualified to lead, because none of her opponents are materially responsible for the creation of Isis. She's a political chameleon: she vehemently opposed equal marriage until the popular mood shifted and she had to support it; she gushes about labour unions despite her former directorship at Wal-Mart, which is no fan of unions; she has no allegiances except to money and herself. With a stinking trail of corpses behind her and the detritus of misery on all sides, it's far better to pretend that people only oppose her candidacy because she's a woman.
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