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I Sold My Soul on Twitter. Now I’m Trying to Win It Back

I didn’t like John McCain’s politics. He supported wars of aggression, and wasn’t nearly as “moderate” in his politics as many claimed. I also thought it was ridiculous that he was called a hero for telling a crazy woman that Barack Obama wasn’t an undercover Arab. If McCain were alive today, I’d still be complaining about him. But he’s not. This week, he died of brain cancer. His family lost a son, father and husband. And ordinary Americans lost a real war hero who refused early release from a North Vietnamese prison unless every man taken in before his capture was released with him.

But you wouldn’t know any of this from my left-wing Twitter feed, which looks like normal-human Twitter did the day U.S. soldiers killed Osama Bin Laden: Macabre celebration, and attacks on anyone who has anything nice to say about McCain. Dear lord, social media has turned us into terrible people.

It wasn’t that long ago that I would have done the same thing. Twitter allows us all to rush to bad decisions and type them out for the world to see. You tweet something about a dead man that you wouldn’t have had the guts to say to his face. It’s like the rush you get when, as a kid, you’d say a bad word out loud in public.

Back in the day when I was (what grandly might be called) a Twitter activist, my life was falling apart. I never thought about the consequences of my Tweets. I never thought that my targets’ families might see what I’d written, or that they may lose their jobs, or that even though we had massive disagreements politically, that these people were still human beings with feelings. All I cared about was getting validation. All I cared about was getting to bask in the negative energy of someone else’s crappy life, so that I didn’t have to confront my own. My marriage is falling apart, but at least I’m not Justine Sacco! I haven’t called my Dad back in weeks, but John McCain’s a dead asshole! Ninety percent of social media is projection.

And if someone died—for real Twitter addicts, that’s Asshole Christmas. If you could make a facile point that reinforced your team’s political stance on the day someone collapsed in front of his wife and kids—you were a true hero, the Twitter version of a captured pilot resisting torture in a POW camp. Except your prison was your mother’s basement, or your half of a Brooklyn apartment covered with Cheetos.

Jamie Kilstein

I’m only 36 years old, and so my memories of the pre-Internet world are dim. But it strikes me that when a public figure died 20 years ago, we didn’t run to the rooftops to scream stupid jokes about the guy. If, on the day of Nixon’s death, I’d have posted a note on a middle-school bulletin board declaring “#RememberWatergate Rot in Hell!” my classmates and teachers would have thought I was insane.

Fortunately, Troll Twitter doesn’t rule my life anymore: I largely gave it up in 2017, after my crowd turned on me in the aftermath of a public fight centred on my personal life. It ended up being a great decision. I now follow liberals, conservatives, independents, UFC fighters and drunk comedians. I’m exposed to people outside of my bubble, some of whom follow me back—so I take a second to think before writing some mean bullshit just to fit in.

On Sunday, I saw Megan McCain’s tribute to her dad. The words “I love you forever my beloved father” made me break down in tears—this was for a father and a daughter whom I spent much of my career as a stand-up comedian and podcaster attacking.

I keep reminding myself that John McCain was a Republican who supported wars that led to thousands of innocent people losing their lives. But I also keep reminding myself that Democrats supported those same wars. Barack Obama called in countless drone strikes in the Middle East and Central Asia, and Bernie Sanders supports the NRA—the very same bullet points you see on the anti-McCain hate manifestos that have gone viral this week in my old circles. But then, these hate spasms aren’t about policy or any actual analysis of McCain’s legacy. They’re about playing Twitter tough guy by spitting on a bogeyman’s casket.

The lessons I’ve learned since my divorce from left-wing Twitter go beyond social media. I’m now skeptical of any ideology whose organizing principle is based on the practice of dividing the world between angels and villains.

When I started to get invited on TV shows in 2012, I vowed I’d never do a right-wing station. “If FOX ever invites me on, you’ll see it on YouTube,” I’d say, “because I’ll be flipping over tables and smashing shit.” (For the record FOX, never invited me on.)

You don’t compromise with Nazis, I’d say. And I still believe that. Except that in those days, I’d declare—with a straight face—that Republicans such as John McCain weren’t much different from real historical Nazis. And you can still find plenty of people who think and Tweet this way on social media. Just as hardcore Sean Hannity viewers assume that every liberal is a masked Antifa activist with a backpack full of Molotov cocktails, my original Twitter tribe was composed of liberals who assume all Republican voters to be racist rednecks who pawn food stamps to buy guns, and decorate their trailer home with tacky Christian gift-shop kitsch.

I helped perpetuate that. I didn’t care about learning what the other side had to say. And if I did, by chance, come across something thought provoking from a forbidden source, I wouldn’t bring it up in public for fear of getting called out. (Last month, film director Mark Duplass made the mistake of Tweeting out: “I don’t agree with [Ben Shapiro] on much, but he’s a genuine person who once helped me for no other reason than to be nice.” This single Tweet actually became a trending story on Twitter for a whole day, and Duplass was forced to apologize.) The left takes joy in eating its own. And when someone suggests adding a conservative source to the communal reading list, things quickly become hysterical.

When I did finally bite the bullet and appear on a right-wing talk show last month, I didn’t flip over tables or smash things. Instead, I ended up making friends. The show was The Daily Wire with Michael Knowles, which broadcasts on Ben Shapiro’s network.

Turns out their offices are in Los Angeles—not in the Idaho hinterlands, surrounded by barbed wire and armed militiamen. And it says a lot about how brainwashed I was by stereotypes that I found myself surprised to see so many women and visible minorities casually strolling the hallways. In my ignorance, I’d once imagined these places to be a white-collar version of Triumph Of The Will.

I met Knowles while I was getting makeup done. He was warm and hilarious. In my former life, I’d never have pictured a Republican laughing at anything except the plight of the poor. Then his producer came in. His Latino female producer. I made direct eye contact in case she wanted to blink out some S.O.S kidnap code. But nothing. Just another goddamn nice, and funny, conservative.

At one point, someone brought in a gift from a fan to present to Knowles. Was it a hat emblazoned with the words “Grab ‘em by the pussy?” The gun used in the Parkland massacre? Nope. It was a tasteful painting of him and his wife on their wedding day. Then the producer walked out from behind a curtain, where she’d been pumping milk for their newborn baby. Turns out the party of family values occasionally attracts people who actually embrace family values.

I know what many readers are thinking about me at this point: another liberal who gets mugged by reality and suddenly goes full-on conservative. Trust me, I wish I could do that: I’d have a nice book deal and daily hits with Tucker Carlson. But that’s not me. I’m still a liberal—someone from the left reaching out to people on both sides.

Just the other day, Knowles himself was tweeting something crazy about abortion—the very opposite of what I believe on the subject. Old Me would have thought—or at least Tweeted—that Knowles wants millions of women to die in alleys. New Me realizes that we are two adults who have a disagreement on the question of when human life begins—just as I’m hoping that a conservative who sees me Tweeting against military adventurism won’t conclude that I “hate freedom,” but rather will realize that we simply disagree on the extent to which military intervention can help make the world a safer (and freer) place.

After Knowles’ show, which was a blast, the host invited me to church, and his producer sent me an email (again, free of any discernible coded rescue plea) thanking me for my appearance, and linking me up with a friend who she thought would be a useful professional contact. As for the show’s (largely conservative) audience, they didn’t send me the expected barrage of emails calling me a cucktard, but rather thanked me for coming on air and representing the other side. I replied in like manner. It felt good.

None of this changes my belief that many prevailing views on the right are dangerous, the same word that many conservatives would apply to my own opinions. But guess what happens if you don’t automatically assume the person who disagrees with you is an incipient genocidaire? You find common ground, or at least make friends in the effort. At the very least, you hold your tongue in respectful silence as an 81-year-old man is laid to rest after a lifetime of service to his country.

 

Jamie Kilstein is a comedian and host of the Jamie Kilstein Podcast. He has been seen on Conan, Showtime, FX, and crying over Twitter comments. He will be touring Sydney from Oct 24th till Nov 11th. Follow him on Twitter @jamiekilstein.