David Futrelle is a drama-blogging demogogue.
But that’s redundant. All demagogues are dramatic. It is a requirement of the genre. The Cult of the Demagogue needs a steady diet of drama to sustain a crisis mentality. The villains must be a constant threat, or the flock will lose a sense of urgency and disappear for meaner pastures. The Cult of the Demagogue is simultaneously a Cult of Drama, because it is a cult, and there has never been a cult that did not thrive on drama.
U.S. radio pioneer Father Charles Coughlin ranks as one of the great demagogues of the 20th Century because he understood drama and executed a brilliant dramatic strategy. Coughlin exploited the intimacy of radio, a new technology, to create a bond with his listeners as he told them how much they had to fear from the hidden forces at work in their world. He and his audience were in a Great Drama together, and of course they believed that they were the only ones who could see the Real Truth about the Communists and the Jews who were hellbent on ripping apart the fabric of American society.
Are you impressed by the volume of comments that David Futrelle gets at We Hunted The Mammoth? Here’s the New York Times on Coughlin’s audience-engagement score: “By the early 1930’s his fans were sending him 10,000 letters a day.” The easy-to-understand “us versus them” scheme in Coughlin’s radio broadcasts forged a deep personal connection in his Cult of the Demagogue. Audiences often respond with gratitude and even love when they are guided through the confusion of reality to the clarity of drama. Welcome to the drama, welcome to the cult.
Like Bill O’Reilly and David Futrelle today, Coughlin was a media demagogue as opposed to a political demagogue. (Coughlin tried expanding his influence by starting a political party but failed.) Because they seek directly to abuse the enormous power of the government, political demagogues such as Sen. Joseph McCarthy get most of the attention from those who study demagoguery; demagogues with subpoenas just seem more dangerous than demagogues with microphones, and in some ways they obviously are.
But Father Coughlin was enormously influential, to the point that President Franklin Roosevelt was preoccupied with “taming” him. Coughlin framed the social and political agenda for his audience of millions. In his folksy style, the kindly but passionate radio man told the story of the Good People, who were under attack by the Cult of Evil represented by the Communists and the Jews. His show was a radio drama, with you as the protagonist. Father Coughlin would make you angry, he would make you scared, and he would always make sure you understood that while the villains were fundamentally evil, in fairness, they were also bananas.
If Charles Coughlin had had a blog, it probably would have looked something like this:
The aggressive anti-social behavior that cults demonstrate toward those around them is in the category known as hero behavior. Only a hero can push the boundaries of social convention and ethics to complete the critical mission for the benefit of the rest of us. We don’t give that privilege to just anyone. Only heroes get to break the rules.
The demagogue needs to break the rules. That’s why the demagogue needs to see himself as a hero. Only a hero could get away with such otherwise socially unacceptable acts as misleading, lying and demonizing. The behavior determines the role.
The demagogue is always a hero. But what is a hero? You might think that a hero is someone who fights and wins. You would be wrong. While many heroes fight and some heroes win, it is not necessary for a hero to fight or win. It is only necessary for a hero to suffer.
Jesus did not fight or win. He only suffered. That is all it took for Jesus to become one of the greatest Heroes of all time, and sell more books than God.
Suffering is the main function of the hero, and suffering is at the root of all Drama, including the drama at the blogs of drama-blogging demagogues.
Suffering in the Cult of the Demagogue
The hero must suffer. That’s what sells the tickets.
Some heroes advertise their suffering, just to make sure you know. Hamlet doesn’t shut up about his suffering from Act One to whenever it is that he finally dies. Joan of Arc was known to have said a thing or two about her inner pain. And don’t get me started on Job.
Does David Futrelle advertise his suffering? You bet he does. He generously opens up about his suffering when he writes his most important posts — the ones where he asks his readership for money:
When I started this blog I had no idea that it would turn into a community, but now that it has it’s the community here that keeps me going, even when I get utterly sick of the awful, awful people I write about regularly. I appreciate you all — you of the Man Boobz community, that is, not the awful misogynists — more than you realize.
David Futrelle suffers by spending most of his day reading the output of “awful, awful people.” He suffers so much that he gets “utterly sick” and has to lean on his community “more than you realize.” But he must make this sacrifice, so that he can bring the stories of awfulness to his audience, which then also suffers terribly as it experiences these “awful, awful people.” Everybody in the Cult of the Demagogue is suffering as they share the stories of scandal and villainy with each other. The experience is so wrenching that you almost wonder why they compulsively do it, day after day.
They don’t enjoy it. No. It almost destroys them. But they do it for you. Team Mammoth must do the work of filling those file cabinets and letting everyone know what the files say about the character of the targeted group. They must.
I mean, just imagine what would happen if Team Mammoth didn’t do this emotionally strenuous but very important work. Just imagine.
Actually, that’s not a question that comes up very often in the Cult of the Demagogue. What would happen if the Cult of the Demagogue didn’t endure the suffering and do the very important work of ruminating on and publicizing the essential badness of the “awful, awful people”?
The answer is that we might have a reasonable conversation.
These are the three necessary elements for a Cult of the Demagogue:
1. The Demagogue
2. The Audience
3. The Targeted Group
Together, the demagogue and his audience are the Cult of the Demagogue, which exists to oppose the targeted group. The demagogue transmits selected information about the targeted group to the audience. The cult shares and discusses this information until the cult is convinced that it intimately knows the Real Truth about the targeted group. That Real Truth, always, is that the targeted group is essentially ill-intentioned and dangerous.
Filled now with both certainty and righteous anger, the Cult of the Demagogue shouts down all who contradict the Real Truth about the targeted group. Observers of good will who notice what is going on soon grow weary of trying to call the cult on its rhetorical aggression and sleight-of-hand, because the cult draws on a deep well of fury that few disinterested observers have the patience to endure. When the aggression of the Cult of the Demagogue is successful, the only people left with the will to speak for the targeted group are members of the targeted group. But members of the targeted group will now keep running into people who already believe that they are ill-intentioned and dangerous, and they can’t get a fair hearing. They have been dead-agented by the Cult of the Demagogue.
Of course, the demagogue and his audience do not see themselves as a cult. They see the targeted group as a cult. They see the targeted group as a cult built around evil intentions.
At Coontown, the targeted group is a Cult of Depravity. In 1930s Germany, the targeted group was a Cult of Greed. At We Hunted The Mammoth, the targeted group is a Cult of Misogyny.
Why does the Cult of the Demagogue believe that the targeted group represents a Cult of Evil? Just ask them, and every single one of them will give you the same answer: Because of the evidence.
Evidence in the Cult of the Demagogue
Demagogues always have mountains of evidence to support their characterizations of their enemies. Demagogues always have file cabinets, which they are always stocking with fresh files. Almost every story of villainy and depravity by African Americans at Coontown is a story from a legitimate news outlet. The stories are true. That horrifying rape and murder of a white woman really was committed by one of America’s 45 million black people. So was the next crime. And the next.
The individual stories are true. The demagogue and his audience extrapolate from that undeniable fact — “the individual stories are true” — that the greater story they are telling themselves is also true. They believe that the stories of scandal and villainy that they share with each other represent the True Character of the targeted group. Because those are the only stories that they hear. Because those are the only stories that they tell.
David Futrelle started his blog in 2010 with this editorial approach: “I track down some of the most egregious and/or entertaining examples of man-boobery online.”
Futrelle decided at the start what story he would tell. He would tell the story of the worst. He would “track down” those stories for the benefit of his audience. The stories would be “egregious” or at least “entertaining,” with the definition of “entertaining” having a lot to do with how much dumber than you these people are.
Stories at Coontown tend to fall into two categories: Criminal behavior by black people and dumb behavior by black people. The editors at Coontown “track down” these stories for your benefit. One could say that they “track down some of the most egregious and/or entertaining examples” of behavior by African Americans.
It’s the same premise.
I strongly suspect that he didn’t realize it, but David Futrelle’s blog was from the start a recipe for demagoguery. It was unlikely to become anything else.
The game was rigged before it began:
“I’m going to publish the worst stories I can find about black people.”
“I’m going to publish the worst stories I can find about the Jews.”
“I’m going to publish the worst stories I can find about the Communists.”
“I’m going to publish the worst stories I can find about the MRAs.”
It doesn’t matter who you put at the end of that sentence. The product is a Cult of the Demagogue.
Imagine that this is a sequence in a movie:
A demagogue discovers that a journalist is preparing a major story about the group of people that the demagogue despises. So the demagogue hastily assembles a character-assassination dossier about the targeted group from his huge collection of files. He sends it to the journalist, along with a note urging her to understand that the dossier’s collection of scandal and villainy represents the Real Truth about the group.
The journalist thanks the demagogue for the information but indicates that her story will not be entirely drawn from the Dossier of Crimes, and she has, in fact, been speaking directly with members of the group that the demagogue despises to hear their point of view. The demagogue responds that he is “deeply disappointed” in the journalist and warns that the villainous group is sure to hurt the journalist in some way. He sadly predicts, “You will come to regret your embrace of these people.”
For fiction, yes. But it’s not too on-the-nose for reality.
“You will come to regret your embrace of these people” is a direct quote from an email that David Futrelle sent to Cassie Jaye, the filmmaker currently finishing a feature-length documentary about the Men’s Rights Movement. Two private emails from Futrelle to Jaye have just been made public, and they reveal Futrelle to be exactly the cliched demagogue portrayed in the synopsis above.
Here is how the first email begins. I have bolded the parts where Futrelle reaches Peak Demagogue:
We haven’t talked since the plans for an interview with me fell through, which may have been my fault.
But I have just watched the preview for your film and looked at some of the things you’ve posted on your facebook page and I am very deeply concerned about the direction of your film, and the highly unbalanced list of people that you interviewed for it.
It looks as though you have gotten a highly distorted, one-sided view of the Men’s Rights movement, by talking to a bunch of MRAs who tamped down their anger long enough to give you a sanitized pitch about what it is they do.
It’s good that you talked to some feminists. But instead of talking to those feminists and writers who have actually dealt with MRAs on a regular basis you have talked to feminists who have only a vague connection to what is really going on with the Men’s Rights movement.
I’ve been writing about them for five years now, and trust me, the video here is a better representation of them than what I’ve seen in your preview.
At this point, David Futrelle offers a link to a video. What is this video that constitutes “a better representation” of Cassie Jaye’s subjects than the experienced documentarian’s own interviews conducted over the course of two and a half years?
I’m not kidding here: It’s a 2-minute video of a group of drunken men’s rights activists ranting drunkenly and sounding stupid. Sure, Cassie Jaye, you have more than 100 hours of long, sit-down interviews that you did yourself, but here’s what some of them are like when they’re drunk. That’s who they really are. “Trust me.”
A snippet of drunken behavior rarely provides much insight into a person, but private emails sometimes do. Futrelle does not disappoint. He goes on in his email to offer an extensive dossier on the specific crimes of “Paul Elam and his allies,” including their “bitter, vicious attacks on Twitter” and their alleged harassment of specific women. Naturally, Futrelle’s one-sided dossier, like his blog, leaves out relevant context for these episodes of harassment, which occurred in a tit-for-tat environment where MRAs both harass and are harassed, and sorting out victims and perpetrators can be extraordinarily complicated.
After presenting his intellectually dishonest summary of everything Cassie Jaye needs to know about the people whom David Futrelle despises, he gets to the point about what kind of film Jaye is supposed to be making:
Making a video about Elam and his allies at AVFM without talking to these women would be like making a documentary about Bill Cosby without talking to any of his accusers.
Throughout his conflict with Cassie Jaye, Futrelle has maintained an obsessive focus on who certain MRAs “really are” in their heart of hearts, and he seems to have sincerely failed to comprehend that Jaye’s film is not about that character obsession. Cassie Jaye has stated several times that her movie is about the Men’s Rights Movement and has two parts: 1. Issues. 2. Ideology. Her movie doesn’t have a third part called Who These People Really Are In Their Souls, According To David Futrelle.
Jaye’s movie is about the issues and ideology of the Men’s Rights Movement, but David Futrelle wants it to be a movie about how specific individuals harassed someone on the internet. And he apparently considers it reasonable to attack Cassie Jaye for not custom-creating, to his specifications, the movie version of his demagogic blog. After all, he’s even willing to help:
You can find more information about almost all of these things on my blog, even if I haven’t provided a link. And if you need any more information or links or contact information, please feel free to contact me. And I really hope you do.
And I hope even more strongly that you contact some of the women that Elam and his allies have harmed.
I have file cabinets full of information on these people. File cabinets, I tell you!
When Futrelle’s compendium of scandal and villainy did not prompt a Road to Damascus conversion in Cassie Jaye, he wrote a second email to Jaye that began: “I am deeply disappointed in your apparent embrace of some of the internet’s most toxic individuals.” Futrelle then went full Concern-Troll Demagogue and, using the phrase “these people” for the second time, warned that “these people are bullies with a habit of turning on their former allies.” Futrelle then strongly indicates that his tactic from now on will be to portray Cassie Jaye as too afraid of harassment by MRAs to tell the Real Truth about the Men’s Rights Movement in her film. (Futrelle’s commenters are already up and running with this talking point.)
Futrelle the demagogue is revealed in embarrassing full-color in the released emails, and I might perceive an ethical issue in publishing their content were it not for the identity of the person who released them.
Seriously. He doesn’t understand how embarrassed he should be of his own behavior. The demagogue does not know that he is a demagogue. He only knows that he is a hero.
A David Futrelle follower, apparently motivated by a desire to strike back at the enemy on behalf of David Futrelle, has doxed a Tennessee men’s rights activist named Jack Barnes. The Futrelle follower, using the Twitter handle “Jack Barnes Doxx,” performed a two-stage attack with a side of extortion. The doxer first publicly revealed Barnes’ private phone number and home address, then demanded action from Barnes on threat of a second revelation of private information:
Admit you quotemined David Futrelle and apologize for dishonesty or additional info gets leaked to the public. Your choice, mate.
When Barnes failed to comply, he paid what “Jack Barnes Doxx” apparently felt was fair retribution for the offense of using an ellipsis while quoting David Futrelle: The doxer posted the real name of Jack Barnes’ young daughter. (Barnes previously kept information about his family private because he knows that his activism attracts enemies.)
David Futrelle wants you to know that of course Futrelle bears no responsibility for this Futrelle follower’s blatant harassment of one of Futrelle’s favorite targets. Jack Barnes does blame David Futrelle, and is quite upset with him, but Futrelle just can’t see it:
What I have done is, in fact, nothing — nothing beyond letting the world know of some of the disturbing things Barnes has posted online.
But as Barnes sees it, I am responsible for putting his family in danger. How?
I agree with Futrelle that he bears no responsibility for harassment that he did not commit or suggest. However, just ten days ago Futrelle expressed a remarkably different idea about the way that responsibility works. With his customary absolute certainty, Futrelle held a popular anti-feminist YouTuber accountable for harassment that the YouTuber did not commit or suggest:
Phil Mason, better known online as Thunderf00t, is a scientific researcher and YouTube bloviater who’s turned his hate-crush on video game critic Anita Sarkeesian into a surprisingly lucrative part-time job; his seemingly unending stream of YouTube videos attacking Sarkeesian, many of which have drawn hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube, have without a doubt contributed mightily to the harassment directed against her by the online mob known as #Gamergate.
Just a short time ago, Futrelle felt that Thunderf00t, who makes videos criticizing feminist YouTuber Anita Sarkeesian in the same bellicose style that Futrelle employs in his criticism of MRAs, was responsible for “contributing mightily to the harassment” of Sarkeesian. Futrelle offered no evidence at all of a meaningful connection between Thunderf00t and the harassers of Sarkeesian. That some of Sarkeesian’s YouTube harassers are probably also among Thunderf00t’s 400,000 YouTube subscribers (it would be unusual indeed if some of Sarkeesian’s opponents did not also watch the channel of Sarkeesian’s most prominent critic on YouTube) is apparently enough to implicate Thunderf00t in Futrelle’s mind.
But when a Futrelle follower goes so far as to specifically name “David Futrelle” as the reason the follower is crossing the moral line into doxing, the innocent blogger just can’t see any connection that implicates David Futrelle. The charge apparently baffles him.
In her essay “Characteristics of Demagoguery,” Patricia Roberts-Miller writes the following about the kind of thinking that rules in the cult of the demagogue:
Members of the ingroup (by virtue of being essentially “better” people) are held to lower standards, and can behave worse. Bad behavior on the part of ingroup members is explained externally (they made a mistake, they were forced into it) and is dismissed as meaningless; bad behavior on the part of outgroup members, however, signifies their true identity.
Futrelle has not excused the actions of “Jack Barnes Doxx” (he has condemned the doxing and called the doxer a “shithead”), but he has held himself to lower standards than he holds Thunderf00t.
It couldn’t be more clear:
Thunderf00t criticizes Anita Sarkeesian. His fans harass Sarkeesian. Thunderf00t is responsible.
David Futrelle criticizes Jack Barnes. His fan doxes Barnes. Futrelle is not responsible.
Accountability for thee, but not for me.
As a demagogue, David Futrelle feels ownership over the Men’s Rights Movement that he targets. He is especially protective of his right to define that movement for the rest of us. When that valuable territory is threatened, Futrelle goes on the attack.
So when filmmaker Cassie Jaye managed to get funding to complete the documentary about the Men’s Rights Movement that she has been working on for more than two years, it was inevitable that Futrelle would step in with his usual demagoguery.
As soon as Jaye’s Kickstarter received publicity, Futrelle went into Full Public Denunciation mode, virtue-signalling to his peers: Don’t worry. I’ve got this. Futrelle’s “Open Letter” to Jaye reads like a cult “disconnection” letter, complete with disingenuous praise, guilt by association and a not-inconsiderable amount of butthurt. Asserting his superior knowledge of the community that Jaye studied closely for 30 months of her life — and that Futrelle has only encountered on the internet — Futrelle manages to be simultaneously condescending and incoherent as he writes to Jaye: “I felt uneasy about your project from the start, concerned that you had been pulled in by the soothing but misleading rhetoric that MRAs spout when they are trying to sound more respectable than they really are, rather than on what MRAs actually say and do when the cameras are off of them.”
It was the same refrain that we always hear from David Futrelle: Only I know who the MRAs “really are.”
Why so defensive? After all, Cassie Jaye has not come out and endorsed the Men’s Rights Movement. What she has endorsed is what she calls a “balanced approach” to the making of her documentary (as she has in her previous documentaries). To figure out what the MRM wants, Jaye sat down with members of the MRM and asked them to explain themselves from their point of view. Then she went to their critics and did the same thing.
This balanced approach is exactly what David Futrelle cannot abide. He has already determined that his compilation of demagogic articles at We Hunted The Mammoth represents everything that anyone needs to know about the Men’s Rights Movement. Importantly, Futrelle was able to achieve his definitive perspective on MRAs — the perspective that he insists everyone must have regarding MRAs — without sitting down and talking to a single one of them.
So why on Earth would Cassie Jaye do that? She must be one of them.
A Difference of Approach
The clash between Futrelle and Jaye ultimately comes down to their very different approaches to the task of understanding and reporting on a social movement. Here are the two different approaches:
1. On a daily basis, David Futrelle goes out looking for the MRM’s worst arguments.
2. Cassie Jaye, by her own account, went looking for the MRM’s best arguments.
With the first approach — which Futrelle has described as “I track down some of the most egregious and/or entertaining examples of man-boobery online” — you get We Hunted The Mammoth: a collection of articles about dumb people saying dumb things. Sure, you already would have guessed that a Red Piller on Reddit said something stupid today, but We Hunted The Mammoth makes sure you know exactly what that stupid thing was that somebody stupid typed out onto the internet today. Those links span only the past five months and represent twenty articles by Futrelle starring his favorite recurring character, the “Red Piller,” who is almost always just a random dude with little influence who made the mistake of saying something dumb to a handful of people on Reddit. But Futrelle is always looking for the worst, so he has to dig down pretty far.
With the second approach, you get Cassie Jaye’s doc. We don’t yet know exactly what arguments it contains, but I am guessing that it will include arguments that I have not encountered in Futrelle’s endless parade of “Red Piller” exposes. Because Jaye took a different approach. She wasn’t looking for the worst. She was looking for the best.
There is significantly more value in the second approach. If I want to know whether a certain social movement has anything going for it, I want to hear their best arguments, not their worst ones. I want to know about The Feminine Mystique (best feminist book ever written), not the SCUM Manifesto (funny, not actually representative of feminism).
The first approach, looking for the worst, does have some value. Futrelle’s’s site is nothing if not entertaining. Stupidity can be strangely fascinating, and Futrelle often wields some good snark as he rips apart the simpletons. If you want to know who was being the most entertainingly stupid bro in the manosphere today, Mammoth is the go-to site for that fix.
But it can be a problem to believe that the first approach is actually giving you a meaningful understanding of a community or a movement. Because when has that ever happened? When has anyone ever created a compilation of the worst behavior and speech that could be found within a group and that compilation truly stands for the group? There are sites that do this with feminists. Especially since the advent of Twitter, these sites have no shortage of material. But it would be a huge mistake to believe that you understand feminism from reading these sites.
And yet, it’s an easy mistake to commit. Because you notice patterns. You develop stereotypes. You notice that this feminist said a dumb thing that is similar to the dumb thing that another feminist said. Or this MRA said a dumb thing that another MRA also said. So that must be what they all believe.
Actually, it’s probably not. There’s probably more to the story.
And when it comes to the MRM, David Futrelle does not want you to know the rest of the story. His story is the only story, and if, like Cassie Jaye, you try to tell any other story — especially if that story is directly from the people who are in the community that he targets — you become fair game for his demagogic attacks.
Futrelle’s bitterness toward Jaye may stem partly from the fact that she represents something that Futrelle used to be: a journalist. If Cassie Jaye has conducted a dozen in-person interviews with members of the Men’s Rights Movement, that’s a dozen more interviews than Futrelle has done — even though he has been “covering” the movement for five years now. He doesn’t do interviews with the people in the movement that he writes about — he just caricatures them from afar.
Perhaps Jaye’s documentary is a painful reminder to David Futrelle that while he once was a journalist, he’s just a demagogue now.