A classic drama full of hatred, ignorance and irony played out this week in the forum section of right-wing Web site Free Republic, as “Freepers” tried to make sense of a church shooting in Tennessee that killed two parishioners and wounded many others. The grotesque irony of the FR discussions is that, after early posters had indulged all their bigoted guesses about the identity of the killer, they found out the gunman was actually straight out of their own demographic: a 59-year-old white man named Jim Adkisson, who left a four-page letter ranting against liberals, was known by his acquaintances to hate “blacks, gays and anyone who was different from him,” left a pile of books by O’Reilly, Savage and Hannity behind in his car, and even wore a red-white-and-blue shirt to his church killing spree.
It’s morbidly fascinating to watch the FR threads as the posters wriggle and bluster to try to accommodate this most inconvenient truth. And if you have the stomach to read them, you can learn a lot (perhaps more than you’d like) about the pathology of the contemporary American Right. For myself — and I realize this will be the most profound heresy to progressives committed to the populist line — reading these posts is a timely slap in the face, a painful reminder that maybe, just maybe, heartland Americans aren’t such wonderful people at all. What you see in these posts is the oldest, deepest and meanest strain in American culture: the Ulster America founded by violent sectarians who moved westward again and again, from Scotland to Northern Ireland and then to the southern United States, then again westward into the American continent, to find a place where they could hone their hair-trigger intolerance without fear of interference from warmer, more humorous people. But that’s me, and I’m often accused of “cynicism,” whatever that means. At any rate, I’ll present a little background on the site and then discuss a few of the posts. Make of them what you will.
For those who want to do their own analyses before reading on, here are the Web addresses of the three FR threads discussing the Tennessee shootings, in the order they appeared:
For those unfamiliar with online right-wing culture, Free Republic is a far-right Web site established in 1996. It soon found a huge, loyal audience among the right wing’s most rabid, ignorant and openly fascistic voices — or as FR calls them, “grassroots conservatives.” Even other right-wing Web sites shun FR, and you’ll often observe posters to these sites worrying, when online discussions become openly racist or fascistic, that they’re becoming too much like “the Freepers,” as FR’s ranting posters proudly call themselves.
The same hatred of “liberals” that drove the Tennessee killer is on display, with unconscious irony, in the house advertisement appearing at the top of one of the forums on the church shooting. A bald eagle stands before an American flag, with the caption, “Driving liberals crazy and having fun doing it!”
The first posts reacting to the church shooting are smug gloats. Many posters were absolutely certain that the gunman would turn out to be a Muslim:
It appears that the identity of the gunman is being protected. … (S)omething tells me this guy had a Quran in his pocket and a diaper on his head. Wonder what was inside the diaper?? The picture in the article showed both a white and a black person. So it couldn’t be a black guy in a white church. If it were a white guy in a black church, they would be holding nothing back from the media. My best guess the shooter was probably a diaper wearing Islamic fanatic.
Other posters displayed a different sort of hatred, one that is consistently underestimated by liberal commentators: the weird, atavistic, violent hatred felt by American Protestants for churches they consider heretical. To read these posts is to be reminded of a fact we don’t like to admit at all: America still clings to the culture of the mean, violent Ulster Protestants who populated the South and West. For Freepers like this, what’s worth mentioning about the church shooting is not that two people were shot to death and many more wounded, but that it happened in a Unitarian Church — and worse yet, while the children’s choir was singing “Annie,” a nonreligious song! A Freeper sums up his contempt in this post:
Three words: Unitarian Universalist Church
(Having said that, I still offer a prayer for all involved. Very sad, when you gotta be armed just to go to church.)
Note the broad-minded concession after the sneer at Unitarians; it’s “sad” even when mere heretics are murdered. Another poster gets his compassion out of the way first so he can get to his real point, the worthlessness of Unitarians:
Prayers up for the victims.
That being said, the term “Church” is relative in the case of Unitarian Universalists … and certainly nothing “Christian” about it.
Several Freepers are obsessed by the fact that children were singing “Annie” when the gunman opened fire. They’re not music critics; their outrage is at the fact that a secular tune was being sung in a church at all. That interests them far more than the murders. “GOP Pachyderm” doesn’t even mention the killings, so angry is he at the choice of song:
Kids were practicing a scene from “Annie”? Are you sure this was a church?
Yes, that’s clearly the most important fact about this story. Another poster sneers, “I suppose for a UUC, Annie would be quite appropriate,” while a poster calling himself “antiunion person” comes up with a classic bit of Freeper humor: “This guy must have really hated Annie to open fire like that.”
The easy familiarity of the slurs — “UUC” is apparently recognized slang, among Freepers, for “Unitarian Universalist Church” — suggests that these people spend a great deal of time spitting on other denominations. One joke repeated several times on the three threads dealing with the story is that it’s surprising that mere Unitarians were able to tackle the gunman. In fact, it seems the congregation behaved with great courage and alertness, before Adkisson could fire the several dozen shotgun shells he’d brought with them. But that, like everything else about the story, doesn’t fit Freepers’ picture of the world. Unitarians are liberals, and liberals are cowards. That’s what they’ve been told, and evidence to the contrary just becomes a punch line.
Then, after the first few dozen posts, comes the biggest shock of all, the news that the killer was no Muslim but a white American straight out of a FR demographic profile. How are the Freepers going to handle that?
The simplest and most honest position is represented by a Freeper using the name “Weegee” who defends the gunman in grotesquely comical language. As “Weegee” sees it, Adkisson was simply expressing “a difference of opinion” — enlightening those Unitarian sinners with a shotgun:
How is this a hate crime? … (The gunman’s) anger, from this excerpt, appears to have been with church leadership which taught acceptance and celebration of sinful activities. So it could be construed as a difference of opinion in religious doctrine.
This is the voice of Ulster America, the line that has been breeding true, unfortunately, for hundreds of years. Maybe it’s time we faced that fact that many millions of our fellow Americans think like Weegee — millions of little Ian Paisleys with a slightly different accent.
Another straightforward response favored by those reacting to the identification of the gunman is denial. He simply can’t be a right-winger. It must be a plot to discredit conservatives:
The libs and the MSM (mainstream media) have salivated for years over the prospect of angry, white, christian, conservative terrorism against their pet immorality and perverted views of religion.
They will attempt to play this up as such as much as possible a such when the truth is, this was simply a diluded. [sic] depressed individual who snapped and became a murderer.
It has nothing to do with conservatism or traditional values, despite the upcoming best efforts of the MSM to the contrary.
Posters like these can barely keep up the pretext of regret for the killing of people who embrace “immorality and perverted views of religion” — even while they’re attempting to say that their Ulster-American ideology has “nothing to do” with the killings. One poster even waxes indignant at the “character assassination” directed at Adkisson:
He’s NO conservative … just a deluded lunatic sociopath. I don’t recall the MSM targeting people with any other philosophy for outright character assassination!
And of course, there are those who jump straight to the pure liberal-conspiracy theory:
“This guy is no more a true constervative [sic] than Timothy McVey [sic] was. Conservatives don’t commit acts of terrorism. I won’t believe this until the killer’s actual letter is released. It could be the sheriff is a liberal himself and is saying these things to smear conservatives. Could be a liberal disguised as a conservative in order to give conservatives a bad rap.
Which prompts this reply from a relatively sane Freeper: “As I understand it, Eastern Tennessee is just chalk [sic] full of Liberal Sheriffs.” More to the point, most people would agree that McVeigh was a conservative — a conservative terrorist, just like Jim Adkisson. In fact, perhaps if Bill Clinton had called out Rush Limbaugh when the Oklahoma City bomb went off, demanding that Limbaugh fly to the bomb site and help clear the wreckage with his own soft, manicured hands, perhaps this tide of hate could have been stopped before the proliferation of O’Reillys, Hannitys and Savages percolated down to the car trunk of a mean, stupid, white Tennessean. Maybe. Personally, cynic that I am, I doubt anything could have stopped this. This is bedrock America speaking, Ulster America. Maybe it’s time we looked it in the face, instead of pretending that our compatriots are all just good-hearted folks who have been misled.
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