One of the riskiest parts of being a writer is that once you launch your words into the memetic breeze, you have absolutely no idea where they will land, who will read them, or what good or evil purposes they might be turned toward.
This is not idle philosophizing. Late last Thursday night, I learned that 2,039 words that I wrote back in 2008 had entered history, for all time and eternity, as part of a madman’s manifesto that attempted to justify the slaughter of 77 people.
I was in a hotel room in Vancouver when I got an email from a man I’d never met before: “I wonder if you are aware that long plagiarized excerpts of your essay ‘What We Can Learn from Conservatives About Winning in Politics” are included in the so-called ‘1500 pages manifesto of Anders Breivik.’”
The news hit me right between the eyes. It was hard to even comprehend at first. I hadn’t yet read Brevik’s maundering diatribe in full. As a blogger and social analyst who made her bones thinking and writing about political and religious extremism, I’ve plowed through plenty of this kind of stuff over the years; and I’d read enough excerpts from this one to believe I had a pretty good idea of the gist. I planned to give it a thorough reading later.
Brevik’s “manifesto” is an omnivorous cut-and-paste job that regurgitates links from hundreds of right-wing sources. It’s carefully footnoted with links at the end of each chapter. Right-wing polemicists from all over Europe and North America figure prominently (and many of them have gone on the record denouncing Brevik’s murderous assassination attack). Other passages have been plagiarized wholesale, with no attribution whatsoever. Mine was one of these. So far as anyone knows at this point, it’s the only piece of the manifesto that came from a left-wing source, which is no doubt why he didn’t take pains to annotate it.
A subsequent note from Christian Stoia, the man who sent the email, informed me that journalists in Quebec had been plugging passages from the manifesto into Google to see exactly where Brevik had drawn his sources. Stories about my involvement were already beginning to appear in the French Canadian press. I immediately pinged a friend who I knew had given the document a very thorough reading. By the time I checked my mail the next morning, she’d located the passage.
There I was, in Section 2.74, starting on page 652 and carrying on through page 655. Sure enough: They were my words, written in Andre Brevik’s voice.
The passage was cribbed from an article I’d published on Leap Day in 2008 on the website of the Campaign for America’s Future. In it, I gleaned some useful bits of organizational wisdom from conservative founding father Paul Weyrich, suggesting to progressives that the conservative ascent to cultural power offered lessons that those of us on the political left would do well to borrow.
Brevik, coming from the far right, had borrowed those insights right back — bringing Weyrich’s wisdom full circle with a particular vengeance. He left my original language largely intact, mostly just substituting “cultural Marxist/multiculturalist” (his chosen enemies) where I had written “conservative”. In some places, where I was talking about specifically liberal strengths and weaknesses, he used it without changing a thing.
I found one change particularly telling. In my piece, I warned my readers that political shifts always generate strong push-back, and the violent rhetoric that’s been used on the right for the past twenty years is a warning we should take seriously. I wrote:
“But if we’re in this fight to win, we need to get serious about being prepared for the worst. After all, we have far more to fear from them than they do from us.”
Brevik’s amendment read:
“But if we’re in this fight to win, we need to get serious for to [sic] make sacrifices and attack them relentlessly where it hurts the most. After all, we have far less to fear from them than they do from us.” [emphasis added]
Apparently, Brevik and I agree about at least one thing. The comfort that provides is very cold indeed.
There is nothing that can prepare you for seeing your own words being fed back to you by someone who has just committed mass murder on a historic scale. And yet I wasn’t entirely caught by surprise. I’ve long been known to the guys (they are overwhelmingly guys) at the U.S. white nationalist site Stormfront, where I’ve been the target of vitriol for years. (One of them once called me “a huffed-up lefty harridan,” an epithet so cherished I’ve asked my family to inscribe it on my tombstone.) Stormfront has also been home to a writer named Fjordman, who might rightly be credited as the major author of Brevik’s “book.” In that context, it’s hardly surprising that my little “rules for radicals” piece attracted their attention, and eventually ended up in Brevik’s overworked Word file.
I’ve spent a lot of my blogging career arguing that words have power. It’s not that inflammatory language invariably leads to violence. But violence always starts with a mental dress rehearsal, a rhetorical “trying on” of the warpaint to see if it suits. There are specific kinds of language humans use to identify enemies, name their crimes, incite hatred against them, and create moral and emotional justifications for hurting them.
Given that strong political action is always preceded by this kind of language, we are obligated to choose our own words carefully; and also to pay very close attention to the words chosen by our enemies when they talk about us. Call it a blind spot, but the last thing I ever expected or wanted was to see my own words — designed to inspire and focus people on my own side to come together and organize — appropriated by someone to justify the annihilation of the most promising political leaders of an entire generation in a country far away.
Even creepier is the knowledge that a century or two from now, when I’m in my grave and most of what I’ve ever written has passed into irrelevance, these particular 2,039 words are the ones that are most likely to live on, read by curious historians of the 21st century who study Brevik to understand the tensions of our times. If I don’t want my legacy as a writer to be defined by this horror, I guess I’d better get back to work.
Sara Robinson is a strategic foresight analyst, consultant, and writer in the Seattle area. Her work has appeared at ourfuture.org, Orcinus , Alternet, The New Republic, and many other publications. This is her first piece for New York magazine.