In a recent article, A Journey Out of Islamophobic Darkness, Loonwatcher CriticalDragon1177 told the story of how he embraced Islamophobia for a decade, and how and why he eventually left the quagmire of hate. He has since joined the struggle against Islamophobia and other forms of bigotry, and he suggested we also share the story of former “counter-jihadist,” Charles Johnson.
Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs was at one time a prominent figure in the “counter-jihad” movement, and he also turned his back on bigotry. He has now devoted his resources to exposing his former allies, and in this interview for AlterNet, he shares his story of transformation. (h/t: CriticalDragon1177)
For years, Charles Johnson was a prominent right-wing “war-blogger.” On his site, Little Green Footballs, he coined the term “anti-idiotarian,” wrote frequently of a “leftist-Islamist axis,” called Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas “a fanatical, deadly enemy of Western civilization” and inspired the hawkish Israeli journalist Gil Ronen to gush, “If anyone ever compiles a list of Internet sites that contribute to Israel’s public relations effort, Johnson’s site will probably come in first, far above the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s site.” His comments section became an infamous hotbed of xenophobia and wingnuttery.
That was then and this is now. Visit LGF today, and you’ll find posts decrying his former fellow travelers’ knee-jerk Islamophobia, debunking the Breitbrats’ steaming piles of nonsense and defending the Obama administration against scurrilous charges from Fox News. Johnson has undergone a remarkable political transformation over the past five years, but it didn’t come without a cost; he is now among the top targets of the right blogosphere – an apostate drawing an enormous amount of venom from people he once considered his allies.
This week, Charles Johnson appeared on the AlterNet Radio Hour. Below is a lightly edited transcript (you can listen to the whole show here).
Joshua Holland: Charles, I’ll be honest, I used to find you kind of terrifying. Not in a personal way, but as a prominent member of this group of so-called war bloggers. You were prominent in that group. You co-founded Pajamas Media and you were widely credited with helping to bring down Dan Rather after he reported on George W. Bush’s Air National Guard service. You used to be really filled with Islamophobia and xenophobia. James Wolcott of Vanity Fair once compared your site to “a disorganized Nuremberg rally.”
Charles Johnson: Yeah, I’ve heard worse. That’s a fair enough description. If you actually go back before the 9/11 attacks and read what I wrote on my blog you’ll find that I actually was never what you’d think of as a right-winger at all.
JH: You were always kind of an anachronistic right-wing blogger. You’re a highly accomplished jazz guitarist; you always seemed to care about the environment. What were your politics like on September 10 or during the Clinton years?
CJ: My politics in one sense didn’t change because even when I started to be more associated with right-wing blogs and that whole milieu I was still what you call a social liberal. I never went in for the religious right stuff. In fact the rising importance and power of those kind of people in the Republican Party is one of the reasons why I finally had to just go elsewhere.
JH: September 11th was a traumatic experience for the entire country. We all felt that way. Is it fair to say that you kind of snapped?
CJ: In a sense I guess you can say that. It hit me really hard. I grew up in New York and I was actually interested in architecture, so I followed the construction of the World Trade Center. It helped that I had a really personal connection to the area. It hit me really hard.
I don’t know if I snapped so much as I really wanted to know more about what was going on. I tend to focus real intensely on things when I get interested. That’s what happened with the blog. I focused on fundamentalist Islam and radical Islam. Over the years I began to be involved with people like Robert Spenser and Frank Gaffney. If I had known some of the things I know about them now I’d like to think I wouldn’t have been associated with them, but you live and you learn, I guess.
JH: Right. You were a very early entrant into the blogging world. By the time I started reading blogs, maybe in 2002 or 2003, you were very much like Robert [Spencer]. You were using this method common to people who have a fear of Islam which is finding examples of Muslims doing terrible things, and then at least implying, if not stating outright, that these horrific incidents represent the Muslim community outright.
CJ: That’s a fair criticism, and that’s one of the reasons why I’ve changed my focus. I’ve realized that to be true. At that point I had to say to myself that this doesn’t really make sense, knowing what I know now about some of the motivations of people like Spenser and the like. That’s one of the big reasons I’ve changed the focus of my blog.
Just to be clear, I was never really known as a right-winger until after the September 11th attacks. On my blog there were some pretty harsh criticisms of George W. Bush prior to the 2000 elections. And I didn’t vote for him.
JH: OK, so along the way you began to see things a little differently and you started to criticize your erstwhile allies. You started calling out Fox News inaccuracies. You called Jim Hoft, the dumbest person on the internet, a “borderline illiterate bigot.”
CJ: I stand by those words.
JH: They’re not even controversial, Charles. Along the way, and correct me if I’m wrong because I was an outsider looking in, it seems the tipping point came in 2007 when you had this epic flame war with Pamela Geller, who remains one of the country’s biggest bigots to this day. Geller was behind this ridiculous Ground Zero mosque controversy and was an apparent inspiration for Anders Breivik, who murdered 70-plus Norwegians last year. Tell me about that incident. And what is Vlaams Belang?
CJ: So you’ve been googling around a bit. Actually the split between me and the far-right blogging scene had begun before that, but that was one of the big schism points. It wasn’t just Pamela Geller, but Robert Spenser and those who called themselves the “anti-Jihad bloggers.” They had gone to Belgium to have a meeting with a bunch of European like-minded bloggers and other personalities. When I discovered that one of the people there was Filip Dewinter of the Belgian Vlaams Belang party, which actually is a successor to a party called Vlaams Blok, which was banned by the Belgian government for their neo-Nazi roots and extreme-right hate speech. What they did is basically reform the image of the party, but didn’t change much else.
When I discovered that this was one of the people they were making alliances with, I said I can’t. This is not for me. I started to criticize people like Pamela Geller. Geller in response started to lash out at me with incredible viciousness, which is kind of her standard mode of operation, and it went from there. Basically the more I looked into and really started to investigate the connections that were forming between these people and the American anti-Jihad blogging scene, the more I realized there’s something really wrong here. We’re talking about people who are fascists, who not only have neo-Nazi connections but also have connections to real, oldtime Nazis, the real Nazis from the Third Reich.
At that point I had a real gut check. It was a moment where things kind of changed — I began to look at things differently.
JH: Geller continues to dance with European far-right-wing parties like the English Defense League as well. And, as you say, she lashed out with lupine ferocity. She wrote at one point that your “campaign to destroy the most effective voices on the right from within has been completely exposed.” That you “have been outed for the mole, the plant, the dis-informationalist” that you are.
CJ: Both her and Robert Spencer question who’s paying me. They have all kinds of conspiracy theories about who bought me out, and is that even really me anymore?
JH: It’s George Soros, right?
CJ: Of course! He’s always behind it. But really what they’re doing is trying to divert attention from the very real issues I bring up about the people they associate with. That’s the bottom line with those people. All these personal attacks are really an attempt to divert attention away from the facts.
JH: On some level, blogging communities do form. It must have been kind of nerve-racking to switch sides when you’d developed these allegiances in these ongoing blog wars. Did you have second thoughts? Were you worried about whether you would be villified?
CJ: Absolutely I had feelings like that. Emotionally, it wasn’t easy to go through all this stuff, but sometimes you have to and hopefully you come out the other side better. I’ve always looked at my blog not as something I wanted to be the most popular place. Believe it or not, I try not to do things that just make my blog more popular on purpose. What I try to do is be as honest, straightforward and factual as I can. That’s kind of always been my intent, and sometimes above and sometimes below the line. Whether a whole bunch of other bloggers suddenly stop linking to me or said bad things about me, I can’t let that influence what I do. It doesn’t make any sense, otherwise I won’t be doing it anymore.
JH: Jonathan Haidt is a psychologist who studies the relationship between cognitive styles and ideology. He says that one of the attributes — and he says it’s a positive attribute — that conservatives display more prominently than liberals is loyalty. Loyalty is a good thing, but it has a dark side, which is tribalism. They’re more likely to have these tribal inclinations. I think you experienced what going against the tribe looks like first-hand.
CJ: That’s evident in my Twitter timeline — even in the last week, it’s been really nuts out there. I think it was Gandhi who said first they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win? They tried to ignore me, and now they’re going kind of in the mocking mode and graduating toward the attacking mode. Hopefully we’ll continue on with this analogy.
JH: The New York Times said you moved into a gated community because you were worried about these online threats. Is that true?
CJ: I’ve actually told other people that they kind of exaggerated that. They asked me what caused me to move into this gated community here. Really it was just that I found a nice place that happened to be in a gated community. It really wasn’t because I was worried about the threats, although I have had some threats, including one from a neo-Nazi who is a friend of blogger Stacy McCain. That was a concern, but it wasn’t the primary reason at all.
JH: Now what about the other side? From my perspective, once you shifted the focus of your writing I had no hesitation adding you to my RSS feed, and following you on Twitter. Were there people on the left who you’d tangled with in the past who had a harder time accepting you into their fold?
CJ: Absolutely. There have been one or two, but most people have been willing to just see where I’m at now and see what I’ve said about the stuff I wrote in the past. A lot of it I do regret, there’s no doubt about it. Hopefully all I can do is continue to do what I do, and be as straight and true to what I believe as possible.
JH: You say you have regrets. I wonder is there one thing that you regret more than others? Is there something that stands out in your mind?
CJ: I was totally wrong about Barack Obama. That’s one of my main regrets at this point. I really fell for a lot of the right wing propaganda, and I thought he was going to be a communist and a radical leftist and all that stuff. I believed a lot of the propaganda about him. If I could go back I would vote for him now, but we don’t have that time machine yet. That’s actually one of the main things. I should not have been so ready to accept it. That was one of the things that really woke me up, seeing the truth as opposed to all the lies that were being spread by this blizzard of propaganda.
JH: I had Eric Boehlert on the show a few weeks ago. He’s with Media Matters. He said something really interesting. He said that in the era of Obama, when things have really gone off the deep end on the right, they don’t bother debunking a lot of the right-wing media outlets that they used to track regularly because they’ve become so transparently crazy that nobody pays attention to them.
CJ: That’s a great point. Sometimes I actually stop myself from copying or covering that stuff as well, because it does seem like just another crazy or absurd thing. At this point they’re so far out there that there’s absolutely no concern for reality on these blogs. And they never back down and never correct anything.
JH: They certainly don’t. Do you think that their influence has truly waned? We saw Mitt Romney try to court right-wing bloggers this week.
CJ: I think influence is an interesting thing that’s hard to measure. The effects of the Tea Party on the Republican Party was definitely exacerbated by the right-wing blogs. I don’t really know how much of that Mitt Romney meeting was just pandering and how much of it was a genuine attempt to curry favor with the base. Some of the people they invited are weird choices if you really know their background. Some of these people have been incredibly vicious toward Romney, but that’s politics.
Joshua Holland is an editor and senior writer at AlterNet. He is the author of The 15 Biggest Lies About the Economy: And Everything else the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know About Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America. Drop him an email or follow him onTwitter.