by Arun K. Gupta Huffington Post April 17, 2014
Suey Park is the Bitcoin of activism. Her hashtag movements are a digital phenomenon. Her value is determined by how much others buy into her. The lack of institutional backing allows her to disrupt the status quo. And just like digital currencies, hashtag activism is vulnerable to shadowy intrigues and corrupting influences.
When Park sent out a 115-character tweet at 7:55 p.m. on March 27, “The Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals has decided to call for #CancelColbert. Trend it,” she ignited a media firestorm. She was playing on a skit by The Colbert Report mocking the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation, accusing the faux news show of racism.
The #CancelColbert was all spectacle with colorful characters, outrageous conduct, and lessons in the power and peril of new media. Pundits needed only to generate a new round of controversy to propel the outrage machine, thereby allowing them to ruminate on three of their favorite topics at once: the news, television and Twitter. Park was engulfed by controversy and vitriol, and many people flocked to defend her, supporting her position that the media mocks Asians because they are an easy target and opposing the loathsome death and rape threats aimed at Park.
Park, a 23-year-old “activist and writer,” became a Twitter star in December 2013 with #NotYourAsianSidekick, which encouraged Asian-American youth to use social media to tell empowering stories and challenge stifling stereotypes. Park rapidly built a powerful following, but the site also facilitated the aggression against her. The ability to mask oneself on Twitter has spawned a bestiary of trolls, hackers,doppelgangers, bots, pranksters, and real-life sociopaths who punch down outspoken women of color because that’s how America works.
The openness of platforms like Bitcoin and Twitter is also their weakness, allowing dark recesses to be carved out for malevolent ends. Digital money entices crooks who pilfer strings of code that comprise the currency as a path to fabulous riches, while social media attracts those looking for a shortcut to power and prestige. It’s what led Park into the orbit of Michelle Malkin, the radical right’s Asian sidekick.
Hashtag activism is ancient history for the web, but Malkin, a new-media controversialist, has adopted Park’s language, tactics, and social media skills, and it appears she is influencing Park to target “liberal racists.” Malkin hybridized hashtag activism with reactionary politics by creating #MyRightWingBiracialFamily in January 2014. Accusing MSNBC of racism, her campaign swiftly went viral and elicited an apology from the news network. Evidence shows Malkin came into contact with Park at this point. So when Park started #CancelColbert, Malkin charged in with her huge network and ample resources primed to skewer liberal racism.
Park did not respond to requests for an interview, but sources in contact with Park say she opposes Malkin’s extremism. Malkin’s writings are published on a white supremacist website, and she minimizes torture at Guantanamo, is anti-gay, deals in Orientalist stereotypes of Muslims, and cuts down women based on their appearance. Her book on internment was so flawed the Historians’ Committee for Fairness denounced it as “a blatant violation of professional standards of objectivity and fairness.”
Less than two hours after Park initiated #CancelColbert, Malkin enthusiastically backed it. Park was immediately bombarded with tweets warning of the dangers of allying with Malkin, but she said very little despite Malkin writing an Islamophobic defense of Park that used #CancelColbert to argue liberals were the real racists, not conservatives. Park has also been silent about the fact Malkin wrote a book justifying the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, called Asian campaign donors to Hillary Clinton “limited-English-proficient and smellier than stinky tofu,” and once dismissed campaigns against anti-Asian racism as “self-pitying and grievance-mongering.”
Park has become a sensation with just 23,000 Twitter followers, a scattering compared with Malkin’s 693,000 fans. What sets Park apart is her savvy use of Twitter, flowing from her metaphysical vision that “Digital lives will shape history.” Park and her followers float in digital ether where avatars, buzzwords and representations are terra firma. It’s similar to Bitcoin enthusiasts who proselytize that monetary algorithms, online wallets and virtual keys will reshape the global economy, but fall prey to classic con-man scams. It’s a shame because Park is right that liberal racism is real. Democrats are as complicit as the right in locking up brown people at home and blowing up brown people abroad. But when a young anti-racist activist who writes about “imperial timelines,” anti-capitalism and decolonization finds herself in cahoots with an extremist like Malkin, it reveals Twitter is more useful for political manipulation than collective revolution.
The #NotYourAsianSidekick landed Park on The Guardian’s list of “Top 30 young people in digital media.” One detail left out of the story is that the movement was shepherded collectively by Park and by co-creator and feminist Juliet Shen, facilitators for specific topics, and organizations like 18 Million Rising. In January, Park took sole credit in a bit of humblebragging, writing, “The viral success of #NotYourAsianSidekick after I first tweeted the tag on December 15, 2013, wasn’t about me, but all of us.” By February, Shen and 18 Million Rising had fallen out with Park.
Park’s next triumph came on Jan. 14 when she scorched the CBS sitcom, “How I Met Your Mother,” accusing it of yellowface in an episode satirizing Kung Fu movies.Tweeting “My race is not a costume,”with the hashtag #HowIMetYourRacism, Park elicited an apology from the show’s co-creator after the controversy was covered by CNN, Time magazine, and Cosmopolitan.
It seems Malkin was watching. Sounding like an activist immersed in cultural theory, Malkin tweeted on Jan. 20, “Great thing about Twitter is that it allows those excluded from official MSM narratives to break down the barriers.”
Then, on Jan. 29, Malkin came into her own as a hashtag activist. MSNBC tweaked the right by tweeting, “Maybe the rightwing will hate it, but everyone else will go awww: the adorable new #Cheerios ad w/ biracial family. http://on.msnbc.com/1dPgQEU.”
A first responder in fabricating outrage, Malkin linked the Cheerios tweet to an incident a month earlier when an MSNBC panel belittled Mitt Romney’s extended family, which includes an adopted black grandchild. Then Malkin tweeted, “Hey @msnbc jerks: This is #MyRightwingBiracialFamily. We love #cheerios. Enough with your race card crap==> pic.twitter.com/DZikmrD0PK.” The crowds went wild, retweeting the hashtag and accompanying photo of Malkin’s two biracial children more than 500 times.
Two minutes later Malkin exhorted her followers to make it a movement, tweeting “Counter the Left’s evil narrative. Use social media to expose & crush it. Flood @msnbc w/YOUR pics ==> #MyRightWingBiracialFamily.”
As more than 100 photos of right-wing biracial families poured in, Malkin gushed, “Gorgeous!”, “BEAUTIFUL!”, “LOVE!!!” She played empowerment coach and bare-knuckled brawler, tweeting, “‘Rightwing’ families responded to @msnbc w/love, pride & joy. This, ultimately, is how we will end poisonous, libelous race-card smears.” Her fans played victims of a bigoted liberal media and basked in the Instagram glow of diversity, family and tolerance.
Twitchy, a Twitter aggregation and curation website founded by Malkin in March 2012 (and sold to a Christian media company last December), churned out posts to keep the outrage fresh. The next day, Jan. 30, Twitchy crowed, “Michelle Malkin leads crushing social media win against MSNBC smear,” after the news network apologized and reportedly fired the tweeter responsible.
What’s this have to do with Suey Park? Well, on Jan. 30, Park weighed in on a Twitter discussion that included Malkin. After Park derided another woman as “hysterical,” “unreasonable,” and “immature,” she declared Malkin was “reasonable.”
Why would Park call Malkin reasonable given her noxious politics?
Perhaps Park was enthused by Malkin’s victorious hashtag campaign that mimicked her own, celebrating diversity against racist media depictions. Given the fact they were familiar with each other, it’s distinctly possible they were talking in the internet’s dark alleys, and Malkin was trying to convince Park they had the same enemy. Park’s fixation on the digital world over the material may have led her to conclude that Twitter Malkin was reasonable.
On March 17, Park published a hashtag manifesto with her frequent collaborator, Eunsong Kim, a PhD candidate in literature. The two imagine Twitter as the new vanguard party uniting revolutionaries. Twitter is subversive, a tool to “defy the limitations of time and space,” a means to build intentional communities, and “part of a collective struggle … to end capitalism and abandon the replication of oppressive exclusionary tactics within ethnic confines.” This reveals a disconnect with reality. That the revolution is riding in on a $25 billion company gentrifying a patch of earth called the Bay Area and displacing people of color in the process goes unmentioned in the manifesto. If you can think Twitter is making a revolution possible, then you can believe Malkin is on your side.
A few days later, on Feb. 2, Park smacked “Saturday Night Live” with charges of yellowface. Her complaints were retweeted only by a few dozen people, but Jeff Yang, whom one source said was a mentor of Park, criticized SNL as well in his Wall Street Journal column and linked it to the “How I Met Your Mother” episode.
In neither episode did Park raise the issue of liberal racism. Certainly Colbert, with his bloviating right-wing alter ego, delights liberals and displeases conservatives. But one can easily make the argument that Park’s initial campaigns exposed the racism of liberal Hollywood as well. It was with #CancelColbert that liberal racism suddenly became Park’s target.
The supercells of Park and Malkin collided the night of Thursday, March 27, 2014, generating a perfect media storm. Park fired off at least three tweets in four minutes. The first was a “Fuck you” Colbert. The second was the infamous “The Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation,” which was retweeted a respectable 144 times, a mild breeze compared to a Twittersphere hurricane like Justin Bieber, whose feckless grunts are retweeted 100,000 times or more. In the third tweet, Park accused white liberals of being “just as complicit in making Asian Americans into punchlines.” Presumably she meant as complicit as conservatives.
In the next two hours, Park rained directives, exhortations, jargon, and rebukes on her followers while skirmishing with others on the side. Park was Asian-America: “there are 19 million of us,” “We are waiting for an apology and explanation,” and “we aren’t amused.”
Park commanded, “White people–please keep #CancelColbert trending until there’s an apology. This is NOT the burden of people of color. Fix it. Do something,” ordered those who aren’t “structurally subordinated [to] please shut up and help #CancelColbert,” and sneered, “Still waiting for white allies to make themselves useful, but they probably enjoy the show too much.” (She changed her opinion about the utility of white people the following week, telling Salon, “I don’t want them on our side.”)
Park later claimed #CancelColbert was a provocative way to expose liberal racism, but that night she chided, “White people … I know y’all are used to having structural power, but losing one show isn’t oppression #CancelColbert.” Additionally, the headline for her and Eunsong Kim’s article for Time magazine read, “We Want to #CancelColbert.”
An hour into the campaign, at 8:52 p.m., Twitchy swung into action. In February, I felt the heat from a Twitchy-led mob, including a thinly veiled death threat, after sarcastically tweeting that Republicans were guilty of economic terrorism by threatening to cut aid to a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee if workers there unionized. But for #CancelColbert, Twitchy became as earnest as an Occupy Wall Street general assembly, curating Tweets about racist “othering,” transphobia, fat shaming, cis privilege, bullying, and triggering. Garnering more than 1,200 mentions on Facebook and Twitter, the Twitchy post praised Park’s persistence, framed the issue as one of liberal racism, and noted the campaign was going viral fast.
MALKIN IT FOR ALL IT’S WORTH
At 9:34 p.m. Park announced the first victory. The Colbert Report deleted the original offending tweet that had gone out at 6:02 p.m.: “I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.”
By 9:44 p.m. the tweets were flying furiously. Park tweeted, “I’m sick of liberals hiding behind assumed ‘progressiveness’ #CancelColbert.” Malkin retweeted it instantly, “Co-sign! RT @suey_park I’m sick of liberals hiding behind assumed ‘progressiveness’ #CancelColbert.” Malkin was retweeted 152 times, nosing past the first Cancel Colbert tweet.
Also at 9:44 p.m. Malkin tweeted at Park, “@suey_park I know we don’t agree on much, but you are TENACIOUS & I respect that greatly. Hats off to you. #cancelcolbert.” Given their contact in January, the tweets suggest the two had been in communication. At minimum the two were now joined in battle against the specter of liberal racism. Park does not comment on Malkin, but she retweeted or favorited all three of her tweets.
Others alerted Park she was making common cause with someone who commits every political sin Park preaches against. At 9:48 p.m. on March 27, only four minutes after Malkin backed Park, noted anti-racist and feminist blogger Mia McKenzie, aka Black Girl Dangerous, expressed her displeasure, tweeting “@suey_park ew michelle malkin, though? ew.” Park didn’t respond, but she favorited this tweet soon after.
At 9:54 p.m., two hours after #CancelColbert was born, Malkin explained the goal was not to cancel Colbert, it was to “#ExposeColbert & it’s working very effectively. Luv the smell of hypocrisy toast.” Park favorited the tweet.
Cancel Colbert rapidly went stratospheric. At 10:33 p.m. Park tweeted, “Fun! We are the #1 trending hashtag in the US right now … Keep it up! Park’s mood understandably soured a few hours later as Twitter interactions hit 200 per minute, many of them oozing racist and sexist vitriol, including rape and death threats.
The next morning Twitchy published another post defending Park that made it seem as if she and Malkin were united on the issue. At no point did Park publicly distance herself from Malkin, reject her politics, or at least express concern that Malkin’s vicious real-world racism might harm the campaign to address racism in the fictional world. Park’s only comment the night of March 27 to Malkin was to declare, “I’m Christian, too,” at 8:56 p.m.
While Malkin and Twitchy supported Park, Park concluded that Colbert fans were behind the torrent of abuse directed at her. Park tweeted that night to Colbert’s personal account, “Dear @StephenAtHome–your years of satire have failed when your fans send rape/death threats to an asian woman for critiquing your work.” From the Twitter feeds of abusers calling her “chink” and “rice nigger,” nearly all look to be right–wing trolls.
By March 28, #CancelColbert burned through the media. Park’s article in Time indicated that Cancel Colbert was the goal. But in an interview with The New Yorker the same day, Park sounded like Malkin, saying she didn’t really want to cancel Colbert, despite the hashtag. Park said of Colbert’s sketch, “That sort of racial humor just makes people who hide under the title of progressivism more comfortable.” Malkin completed the Freaky Friday switch, sounding like Park when she tweeted that afternoon, “For all you CLWM’s [clueless white males] lecturing brown & yellow women about how we don’t get the ‘satire’ …”
Park obviously is not responsible for Malkin trying to co-opt her message. But given the number of times she retweets or favorites Malkin, and acknowledges criticism but is silent about it, this suggests she is keeping quiet about Malkin’s politics so as to benefit from her support.
Three anti-racist feminists who have been in touch with Park say “she might be in over her head” in tangoing with Malkin. Juliet Shen, who calls Park a “former friend,” says she was “shocked” to see Malkin and Park “were talking to each other, and in a way supporting each other.” Another source says Malkin “doesn’t support Park, she is just eager to use her to slam liberals.”
Shen thinks Malkin is using Park to “change people’s opinions about her, and in that way help loop Asian-Americans into right-wing politics.” She suggests both Park and Malkin may be “using each other for an opportunity to get more visibility in communities neither of them had a lot of presence in.”
Shen says, “It is confusing to see why Park wouldn’t denounce Malkin of all people,” especially when Park is quick to fling around insults such as “anti-blackness, racism, sexism, homophobia [against]other organizers in the Asian-American community.” She says Park might be afraid “if she did publicly criticize Malkin, she has this huge following that could easily turn on Suey.”
One source who asked Park about Malkin’s support for Cancel Colbert claimed Park expressed her distaste for Malkin but then did not respond when asked if she would repudiate Malkin publicly.
Park’s first comment about Malkin came on March 30. The previous day Jeff Yang slammed #CancelColbert and the limits of Twitter as a social justice tool in the Wall Street Journal. Park broke with Yang that evening, calling him “a gaslighting self-promoting patriarch.” Shen wrote in a blog post that it’s common practice among Park’s followers to accuse others of gaslighting, that is, trying to deliberately twist someone’s memory. At 3:42 a.m. Park tweeted at Yang, “@michellemalkin has been a better friend than you.”
On April 1, Malkin threw down in support of Park, making no bones of her intention to use Park to sanitize right-wing racism.
“Question: Who are the most prominent, public purveyors of Asian stereotypes and ethnic language-mocking in America?
“The right answer is liberal Hollywood and Democrats.
“The wrong and slanderous answer is conservatives…”
After denigrating Colbert as an “illegal alien amnesty lobbyist,” Malkin applauded Park for leading a group of “diehard liberals” to “tenaciously” question Colbert and his defenders as “race-baiting liberals who hid behind their self-professed progressivism.” Malkin also took the opportunity to bash Muslims and defend her internment book.
Finally on April 1 Park offered some ambiguous criticism, tweeting, “Michelle Malkin cosigning my work means my message sucks, but white supremacists threatening rape cosigning Angry Asian Man means…what?”
Just as Park has shied away from criticizing a demagogue who boosted her, Park’s defenders have ignored how she and her supporters engage in abusive behavior, outrageous claims, and odious alliances. This is not equivalent to the threats of violence directed at Park, who has shown real courage to face down internet predators.
But Park and her followers use the digital medium as a cudgel to silence opposition and to erase histories, which serves to promote her brand. Park says the revolution involves building bridges “across difference in our Twitter neighborhoods” to understand “how slavery, genocide, and orientalism are the three pillars of white supremacy.” Twitter’s 140-character limit, however, also selects for cliques that build gated ideologies out of code words. The medium is hostile to analyzing the quality of an idea, the logic of an argument, or the nuance of history.
If you are an ally, your social genotype takes precedence as long as you can correctly assemble the jargon: decolonial, intersectional, queer, anti-racist, imperial timelines, trans, white supremacy, heteropatriarchical. If you are a critic, which is a polite term for enemy, then your phenotype is all that matters.
Thus, if you are an Asian-American man Park disagrees with, that’s because “Asian men [throw] women of color under the bus.” If you are an Asian woman critic, you sound like “a white feminist.” If you are a white feminist, that really means “White (Supremacy) Feminism.” And if you are a hetero cis white male, nothing more needs be said.
There is no institutional memory on Twitter, just a stream of directives and pronouncements that wash away the past. If Twitter is the revolution, then Park can actually believe “my tweet” of #NotYourAsianSidekick was “the point of origin for Asian American feminism.” That’s right. Suey Park invented Asian-American feminism. Additionally, Park can simultaneously speak for 19 million Asian Americans, tell them to “decenter” their identity, and berate them for “gaslighting,” “sidekicking” whites, and ignoring their internalized racism.
Her enablers include the swarm of leftists on Twitter so intoxicated by identity politic buzzwords they couldn’t walk the line between defending someone against vile threats, and challenging the conduct and ideas of Park and her supporters. The media is even more complicit as it made her into a national figure, but is so incurious about Asian-America that Park can act as its voice and the founder of Asian-American feminism without raising an eyebrow.
Then there’s the matter of how #CancelColbert “Drowned out the Native Voice,” as Indian Country Today Media Network bluntly stated. Native American journalist Jacqueline Keeler criticized Park for shifting discussion away from the Redskins name, and for not promoting hashtags to protest racist sports team names. Keeler claims, “We kept Suey Park in the loop regarding our hashtag #Not4Sale, she was just not moved to act on it.” Native activist Jennie Stockle, who works with Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry, wrote: “… like a tornado, Suey Park’s tweet calling to cancel Colbert Report came through and pushed all of our efforts into a storm shelter.”
Ironically, Park is right that digital lives do bleed into reality, just as drug traffickers and the IRS alike realize Bitcoin is more than fictitious capital. Park and her allies sparked a national controversy and sent the media all atwitter. They proved a point that Asians are an easy punchline for television comedy, even as their claim Asian-Americans is one monolithic marginalized community is as fictional as the shows they critique.
But in the offline world, says Shen, they’ve “burned bridges, hurt many people in our community, and by throwing buzzwords around they’ve diminished real organizing against sexism, racism and other forms of bigotry.”
Shen adds Park’s appropriation of grand roles and achievements shows a lack of “recognition for those who’ve done so much before us. … This is not the origin for Asian-American feminism. This is one blip in the long timeline of fighting for racial, sexual and gender justice.”
The only one who gained from the dust-up is Colbert with more attention and a show’s worth of material. Park built a national platform out of hashtags, but her standing has likely peaked. After Colbert was tapped for the coveted spot of host on “The Late Show,” Park and Kim took to Time magazine once more to vow they’re not going to stop “until it ends.” It, presumably, is how the “entertainment industry has perfected the development of white, cis, straight, male characters,” and marginalized “other voices.” It’s a worthy goal, but they are trying to empty an ocean with a thimble by using Twitter to change historical consciousness.
Bitcoin paved the way for a slew of digital currencies, and #CancelColbert will inspire others to replicate Park. There will be more hashtag activists inventing history 140 characters at time, erasing allies and achievements, positioning themselves at the head of movements and communities, and influencing national conversations. Lurking in Twitter’s shadows will be other opportunists like Malkin ready to divert that energy for twisted ends. But 140-character harangues in the dark won’t change anything. Real change happens in the real world.
Correction: This post has been updated to accurately reflect the order in which Suey Park and Michelle Malkin were tweeting or retweeting each other in one exchange.