Notes From the Fringe

Posted October 8, 2009 in News

It would be naive to think that Max Blumenthal doesn’t expect criticism and controversy. After all, liberal journalism’s enfant terrible has been busy minting a career for himself by exposing the pathology and hypocrisies of Christian and right-wing extremism. His latest book, Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement That Shattered the Party, paints a bold picture of the GOP controlled by anxiety-ridden theocrats.

So when this contributor for The Nation and took part in a panel discussion last week at UC Riverside to discuss Gomorrah, some flak was to be expected.


But what occurred was that a forum for the exchange of political and intellectual ideas instead degenerated into a chaotic barrage of crude heckling, disorder and theatrical insults stemming from Blumenthal protesters. Organizers were so caught by off guard by the vitriol-laden demonstrators, the event hadn’t even been staffed with security guards.


Considering Blumenthal’s latest book decries the lack of civil discourse among Republican circles, the fact that the Oct. 1 protest was the product of members of the national College Republicans, the irony becomes obvious.


Dare one say that in trying to prove Blumenthal wrong, all protesters did was prove him right?


So much for civil discourse.


Blumenthal had been invited by Louis Vandenberg, the director of KUCR radio, and UCR student newspaper the Highlander to discuss his book for a free event open to the public. Events proceeded relatively smoothly, Blumenthal screened his YouTube footage and discussed Gomorrah before he took part in a panel discussion.


The panel included Christopher Records, the Highlander’s editor-in-chief; Jonathan Walton, a media commentator and UCR professor of religious studies; and Mark Tekano, a RCC trustee who also happens to be openly gay (this soon became relevant). Efforts to reach out and secure a conservative voice on the panel—hey, why make the panel one-sided?—were declined.


But once the panel was introduced, everything came unglued and what unfolded was high theater the university’s performing arts staff could have sold tickets to.


One protester, identified as Chasen Bullock of Cal State San Marcos, stood in front of the panel with a sign that read “Michael Moore Wannabe” while several others followed suit with their own degrading placards (“Crazy For Logical Politics”). Blumenthal appeared to take the protest in good humor and continued with the panel, even taking a moment to be photographed holding the “Wannabe” sign.  


But things began to heat up. Another protester, identified as Ryan Sorba, a graduate of Cal State San Bernardino and outspoken opponent of homosexuality, blurted out slurs at panelists. Sorba, who appeared to be the protest’s de facto leader, menacingly shouted comments such as “You’re a racist!”—aimed at Walton, who is African American—and “Homosexuality is immoral” towards Tekano. As Walton tried to call for order, witnesses say Sorba issued taunts, like blowing kisses at Tekano and making lascivious gestures at him with his tongue.


You’ve got to hand it to Sorba’s approach: subtlety has nothing to do with it.


Footage of Sorba disseminating his unpublished, conspiracy-mongering “The Born Gay Hoax” can easily be Googled.


He and his group continued to interrupt the panel’s attempts at intellectual exchange and it was clear their modus operandi was to shut things down.


Curiously, not every protester seemed 100 percent gung ho. UCR undergraduate Kelly Steele waved her “Leftist Hack” sign high and proudly, but other students appeared insecure and hid behind their posterboard. One student even approached Walton afterwards to apologize.


Had things gone too far? 


Through it all, the panelists showed restraint and remained cordial and composed even as they were vociferously shouted down by protesters. Perhaps they were holding out for the slim chance of a meaningful discussion over an obvious difference of ideologies. Barriers could have been broken. Different sides of the political spectrum could at the very least agreed to disagree.


No such luck.


To be fair, one must recognize that Blumenthal and his work are bound to stir up a ruckus among conservative circles. His YouTube work skewers Republicans and fringe extremists. He takes no prisoners when he targets the hypocrisies of the family-value camp—former Idaho Sen. Larry Craig and allegations he solicited for gay sex in an airport restroom, former evangelical preacher Ted Haggard, who later admitted to soliciting for homosexual sex, etc. Heck, his latest book contends the Republican Party is threatened by a Christian theocratic fringe movement.


You can bet your next paycheck that Blumenthal’s going to ignite some serious emotions.


But even he has his limits. And with the loss of this opportunity to trade ideas, thoughts and different world views in a scholarly arena, the gap between the culture wars appeared to have only widened.


Surprisingly, the UCR debacle was the most outrageous reaction he’s yet to get on his national book tour, Blumenthal reveals to the Weekly. But he’s pleased with how things turned out. He got more book sales out of it. But more importantly, he contends the protest proves him right.


“They are reflecting the fear I’m making and my factual reporting is damaging to their cause,” Blumenthal says. “It was an honor to be a target of the racist, homophobic, sexist, greed mongers of our society.”


And what about the protest’s coup de grace?


Sorba—witnesses say—made two requests: a one-on-one debate with Blumenthal himself and he asked the journalist to autograph his penis.


Neither were dignified. (Photo by Andrew Marr/Highlander Newspaper)


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