Left Behind

The Radical Right Got Wired Fast. When Will Progressives Catch Up?

Now, in the midst of the supposed Internet Revolution, sophisticated and well-financed right-wing activists are weaving that same kind of superstrong web in the ether. They're even taking media into their own hands, producing news sites like DrudgeReport.com and NewsMax.com [see Ridgeway] and creating online portals with easy access to dozens of conservative think tanks and outlets.

The Heritage Foundation, for one, has made a smooth and powerful transition to the Web at heritage.org, serving once more as a sort of umbrella for other associations as well as generating the usual flood of documents and reports. Its TownHall.com site has allied a score of groups like the Concerned Women for America (cwfa.org) and the old-school American Conservative Union (conservative.org) and mixed them together with radioland's Ollie North, the conservative elite's Weekly Standard newsmagazine (weeklystandard.com), and the Reverend Sun Myung Moon's Washington Times (washtimes.com), whose former editorial-page editor became editor of Heritage's own magazine, Policy Review (policyreview.com).

Right-wing radio talk-show hosts are racing to reach audiences over the Internet, using streaming audio. But they're looking for more than the new, new technology: They want respectability, which could help them hook young listeners as the faithful corps of Dittoheads ages. So they're going after journalists like Joseph Farah, who veered to the right and became a harsh critic of the press and Hollywood, founding TalkRadioNetwork.com in 1997 as a Web-based haven for talk shows. Another conservative news operation, WorldNetDaily.com, recently snared David Goodnow, the bland and familiar face of CNN Headline News for 17 years.

The same tools that allow longtime journalists to reach ideological kin across great distances give extremists like Duke a bully pulpit to the world. "When there is a free and open discussion of the race issue, fact and reason will triumph," Duke writes online. "My friends, that free and open discussion is coming, and it comes by way of the Internet."

Power of Rabble

Activists on the left have been out in the cold for so long—not only demonized by the right for the past five decades but marginalized by the corporate liberals who dominate the Democratic Party—that they have no equivalent of the Heritage Foundation to plug them into the Net. It doesn't help that the left wing often lacks the right wing's access to big money.

Leftist zealots—mostly shut out by mainstream media, which prefer coldly sober voices, and radio talk shows, which like loud but conservative ones—now have the Internet as an outlet, and they are not being subtle.

One online outlet, DAMN, the Direct Action Media Network (damn.tao.ca), offers screaming in the streets in streaming video, an alternative paper in multimedia. A recent broadcast of DAMN's Headline News featured 10 minutes of crackerjack material on two hot stories from Chicago: the gentrification and urban renewal of the historic Maxwell Street district and the plight of school janitors, who are about to lose benefits and have their pay cut because of privatization. In both cases, the DAMN collective came up with good, lively hooks. They linked the Maxwell Street story to the fact that the area is the birthplace of electric-guitar blues, used a sound bite of someone mocking the urban renewal as "Negro removal," and then showed some of the protesters playing mean guitar licks. In the labor article, they pointed out that privatization would leave the janitors' estimated 1100 children with no health insurance.

Apart from sites like DAMN, students and faculty around the globe gather on extensive discussion groups such as H-Net, a humanities and social-sciences listserve at Michigan State University (h-net.msu.edu). Moderated discussion groups hold court on dozens of specialized areas, keeping tabs on racists and anti-Semitic agitators. While David Duke tries to dig dirt on anyone who's not a "European American," his targets are tracking his every move on such sites as hatewatch.org and the Southern Poverty Law Center's splcenter.org. Duke crows that the Internet gives him a great audience, but how many of the extremists would invite such scrutiny?

John Aravosis, founder of Wired Strategies (wiredstategies.com) and veteran of several leftist Internet campaigns, takes the optimistic view, insisting that "the free exchange of information always favors the good guys." But instead of waging propaganda wars, some of the most successful left-wingers on the Web so far are those who are just trying to get things done—like the activists who took advantage of cybertools to organize the trade-war protests in Seattle and Washington, D.C.

Starting small is the way the far right did it in the '50s and '60s as it built its networks. Much of its activity looked like grassroots organizing but was actually directed from above, as when Amway distributors funneled a flood of donations to conservative causes and candidates. Since so many leftist activists operate without well-financed organizations, they're building from the bottom up. The trade-war protests may have drawn a lot of attention, but they were hardly the first time progressives have used the Internet successfully at the grassroots level.

In 1997, students in Laney College's Labor Studies group collaborated with dockworkers in Liverpool, England, to fight shipping companies that were trying to replace strikers with scabs.

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