Columns » Max Brantley

New media, old GOP

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The Arkansas Blog, the Times' outlet for breaking news and  commentary, played a role in development of a national political story last week that brought together new media and old school Southern strategy Republican politics.

A Fort Smith native and former UA student, Audra Sigler Shay, 38, of New Orleans, is running this coming weekend for president of the National Federation of Young Republicans.

Shay, the favorite, has built a popular Facebook page on the Internet as part of her networking.

Last week, she inspired a vibrant string of comments with her  sharp disapproval of Wal-Mart's decision to back mandatory health insurance for private employers. A number of readers agreed with Shay on this and big government in general. One “Eric Piker” wrote, “Obama Bin Lauden [sic] is the new terrorist …. Muslim is on there [sic] side … need to take this country back from all of these mad coons … and illegals.”

Eight minutes later, Shay wrote, “You tell em Eric! Lol [laugh out loud].”

Several Young Republicans immediately criticized the racist language, though not Shay. Eight hours after the “coon” post Shay removed the offending comment and wrote that she did not condone racial slurs. However, she also took away “friend” status (or the ability to comment) from several of those who had criticized the remark, but not from Piker.

Responding to the criticism and removal of the offending remark, Piker weighed in again: “This is still America… freedom of speech and thought is still allowed… for now any ways… and the last time i checked I was a good ole southern boy… and if yur ass is black don't let the sun set on it in a southern town…”

Critics kept a digital copy of the offending remarks. An Arkansas Republican, offended by the dialogue and worried about the damage such thinking can do to party rebuilding efforts, sent them to me the next day. I laid out the story on the Arkansas Blog, a few minutes after commentary was posted on a rare black-oriented Republican blog. The story went “viral,” thanks to Twitter and blog traffic. By the beginning of this week, the influential Hotline, Daily Beast and Huffington Post websites carried accounts.

In minutes after the Arkansas Blog post went up, I  received a statement from Shay distancing herself from the racial remark. She contended that her “lol” remark was in reference to an earlier comment from Piker (crudely scatological though it was) and not the racist one.

As with the Sarah Palin disaster over the weekend, even Republican commentators made clear criticism wasn't partisan opportunism. A conservative writer and former Giuliani staffer writing for the Daily Beast ran through a list of recent racial missteps by prominent Republicans, including former Huckabee campaign manager Chip Saltsman's ill-fated gift CD with racially infected song parodies.

Wrote John P. Avlon, “This pattern of racial remarks from grassroots Republican politicos highlights a real problem: As the party tacks right, it seems increasingly reluctant to challenge folks on its fringe for fear of offending the base — even, in this case, by failing to immediately rebuke racist supporters on a Facebook page.”

You could say the same  about the persistently demeaning view of Latinos, women and gay people among the noisy Republican fringe. It's ugly and counterproductive. (Or productive, if you lean Democratic.)

The Young Republican vote this coming weekend on native daughter Shay will be interesting. Avlon boils it down to a choice in theme music for young followers of the party of Lincoln —  “Battle Hymn of the Republic” or “Barack the Magic Negro.” LOL.

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