Editorial: A Response to Kevin Riordan’s Column In The Philadelphia Inquirer

by Adam Sheridan of Cooper River Indivisible

Link to Riordan’s column here.

“We can disagree and still love each other,” James Baldwin once wrote, “unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”

The speakers at the alt-right MindsIRL conference, recently booted out of Pitman, N.J., fail Baldwin’s test thoroughly and flagrantly, making it hard to understand why columnist Kevin Riordan insists that anyone should debate them.

Riordan so badly misses the point of local objections to it that one wonders if he properly researched the speakers, as a professional reporter might, or simply accepted self-serving statements by white nationalists and their allies at face value. Riordan fails to mention some of the most disturbing details about the scheduled speakers and omits some speakers entirely — without explanation — perhaps because mentioning them would have revealed the fundamental weakness of his thesis. 

Riordan also somehow fails to grasp the difference between private citizens lawfully protesting a private business (which is what happened here) and unlawful government censorship (which no protester even suggested). How could a journalist, of all people, be so confused about these basic free-speech concepts?

People of conscience will not support a venue that hosts events for racists, misogynists and white supremacists, or videographers whose favorite tagline is  “gas the Jews.” Pitman’s Broadway Theater is free to ignore us and do as they please, of course. They have decided, however, that this conference isn’t appropriate for their small-town community theater. In South Jersey’s marketplace of ideas, the alt-right’s ideas simply have failed.

Nobody’s rights have been violated; rather, protestors have engaged in the best traditions of the civil rights movement. Perhaps Riordan is uncomfortable with the example of Rosa Parks and her Montgomery bus boycott. We are not. Parks’ boycott forced a change in policy — or as Riordan might have it, “Parks abridged the free assembly of racists.” Thank God that she did.

Perhaps most dangerously, Riordan fails to understand that good-faith dialogues are not possible with people who act in bad faith, like Andy Ngo, or with those who promote dangerous conspiracy theories, or who promote violence against people of color, Jews and LGBTQ+ people and women. Yes, the conference includes some oddball speakers who seem to be “left of center,” but taking a rightwing extremist’s “desire for debate” at face value is a rookie mistake.

Anyone who is familiar with Ngo’s history can tell you that he doesn’t want a debate. He is a grifter and fabulist who wants a platform to spread his fabricated narrative of left-wing violence as a “real problem.” It’s pure propaganda, a calculated distraction from the all-too-real epidemic of rightwing violence, sharply on the rise since 2015 and now representing the majority of domestic terror in the U.S.

Riordan indulges in abstract theories of freedom, completely divorced from the actual violence happening right now in this country. He insists that women, people of color, Jewish people, and LGBTQ+ people must welcome into their communities those who wish to harm them. Has he truly thought through the implications of that stance? In America today, these philosophies of hate get real people killed. Why should brown-skinned people be forced to engage in a debate over their most basic right to live? Why should anyone?

Two weeks ago, a rightwing terrorist gunned down citizens in El Paso, inspired by the same “alt-right” conspiracy theories that will no doubt be discussed at Ngo’s conference. With the gunshots from Tree of Life Synagogue still ringing in our ears, indulging the propaganda of these bigots is not “open-minded.” It’s simply taking their side.

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