Choosing Carefully

Portrait of Alexander Hamilton

John Trumbull [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In a Facebook post linking to this article about the young anti-AR-15 activist David Hogg, NYU Culture and Communications professor Mark Crispin Miller wrote, “This kid may not be a crisis actor, but he’s certainly a partisan shill.” Now, Miller is someone whose work I have long respected, and I certainly defend his right to say anything he wants about Hogg or anyone else but, though I may be making a bit of a mountain out of a molehill (though that’s what social media tend to do), I am a little surprised that an expert on media would post such an unsupported and generalized critique on a social-media site.

I’ve written plenty online that I regret, so I comment on others’ poor choices only when I see them from someone from whom it is a genuine surprise, someone like Miller.

In my Intro to Journalism class, my students are reading, right now, about the early days of the Republic, about the press of that time and about the Alien and Sedition Acts. One of them, at the start of discussion yesterday, said she was shocked that so much she was reading about sounded, in tone and temperament (though she did not use that phrase), exactly like what we are hearing today. The chapters we’ve been reading focus on Alexander Hamilton, who a New York newspaper had once called “Tom S**t,” and Thomas Jefferson—both of whom were often called the Federalist period equivalents of ‘partisan shill.’

‘Partisan shill’ is a meaningless phrase, something to throw at someone you disagree with or disdain without having to back it up. I think Miller feels that Hogg is hiding something, that he comes to his activism through more than last week’s Parkland massacre. That may be, but both Hamilton and Jefferson hid things, too, to gain partisan advantage—as have politicians ever since. Perhaps Hogg hopes to be a political figure himself and saw this recent massacre as an opportunity. If that’s true, it seems Miller finds it despicable—as he must both Hamilton and Jefferson.

And so they are. And in many ways (just read the history of either–they both can make one ill). We don’t really know so about Hogg, however. At least, not yet; Miller doesn’t prove his point.

Without proof, it’s all just name-calling, and name-calling (even when correct) does not make all of Hamilton’s and Jefferson’s actions wrong, any more than Hogg’s implied political connection makes him wrong on assault weapons. If Miller has a point about Hogg, he needs to be more explicit and engage a little less in generalized mud-slinging. It doesn’t matter if Hogg is seizing the moment for his own purposes as long as he is not trying, somehow, to fool us about the issue in question. Attacking him for being a partisan shill, in other words, serves no purpose. We can deal with his own deceit, if that is what it is, in a more appropriate time and place. For now, let’s just say “So?” and move along.

Attacking Hogg only abets the attempt to derail the debate on the place of assault weapons in American culture. Assuming we are in favor of gun control, every minute we focus on Hogg is another minute that the NRA and its allies can use to array their forces against us. Assuming we are not, well, the controversy over Hogg (and the related one over “false flag” attacks and their “crisis actors”) allows us once again to turn aside our enemies.

One major problem with today’s social media is that postings often have less to do with the poster than with the attitudes of the reader. People read things any which way they want—and they do. A ‘partisan shill’ can be, like Hamilton or Jefferson, a patriot to some, a villain to others. Our words, today, need to be chosen more wisely than ever, something difficult when it is so easy to post so quickly—as many of the college professors under attack today for tweets (in particular) can tell us. It’s even been proven possible to forfeit one’s job due to misunderstood irony. That’s not going to happen to Miller for this or any other comment, but he does know full well all of the various sorts of dangers in today’s social media–which is the reason for my surprise at his remark.

Why does Miller attack Hogg as a ‘partisan shill?’ I don’t even know his position on guns  so I can hardly guess. When I first saw the comment, I turned away, thinking it, perhaps, a line from the linked article (it is not). I would have ignored it completely (for it made no sense, coming from someone as knowledgeable and perceptive as Miller) had not a friend contacted me, asking what was up with Miller and telling me that Miller had de-friended him on Facebook due to a comment my friend (also a professor) had made in response. So, I returned to Miller’s post and read the comments.

Afterward, I was even more perplexed.

Again, a phrase like ‘partisan shill’ really means nothing. I would expect someone like Miller, who really does have a deep and long-term understanding of media and culture, to understand that and to have shown a little more care in his choice of words and in how he responds to criticism of his usage. As my father used to say, “A gentleman never insults anyone by accident.”

Just who is Miller trying to insult, and why? Certainly, it’s not Hogg himself, simply a teenager, ambitious or not. It is not my friend, who has no animus toward Miller. So who is Miller angry with?

I wish I knew, but Miller hasn’t said.