Ever save somebody’s life? I have. “Elizabeth” was in her early twenties, and she was dying in a remote “hospital” in a Nepali village. A Nepali boy approached me and told me that there was an American dying nearby. He guided me to Elizabeth, lying on a rubber sheet with a hole cut in the bottom to accommodate all the fluid pouring out of her. Her skin was the color of camouflage. I harangued the village elders and would not let them rest till a jeep arrived to transport her to Kathmandu, and a flight to a real hospital.
More recent life-saving is less elevated. Heroin addicts clod like zombies through my current neighborhood. Actually, comparing heroin addicts to zombies is an insult to zombies. These mostly white addicts guarantee that my young black and Hispanic neighbors, mere children, are growing up on streets littered with hypodermics and glassine envelopes. But when an addict overdoses in my path, I dial 911 and wait till emergency personnel, looking even more annoyed than I feel, arrive with the Narcan.
Here’s the footnote to these stories. Elizabeth and I had met at Peace Corps functions, and we repelled each other. Different ethnicities, social classes, politics, and taste in music. And I have no sympathy for addicts. And, yet, I have worked to help people I didn’t especially like. Others, who didn’t especially like me, have helped me. Why?
My hardcore second amendment friends insist that guns are the foundation of everything we enjoy. I beg to differ. I’ve lived and worked in societies where even little kids play with deadly weapons. In such societies, a woman or a single man is not safe doing something as simple as going for a walk, or leaving his or her possessions near any open window.
What we take most for granted in America is something we can’t bottle. It’s civil society. Without civil society, you can carry as much firepower as you want. You will not be safe, because someone out there will have more weaponry than you. It’s why anyone with any anthropological knowledge can tell you that wars to export democracy will never work. Civil society requires building blocks that we in the West developed over four thousand years, beginning with that day when God told Abraham to “Go!”
Indeed, the phrase “civil society” is Aristotle’s. “The term civil society goes back to Aristotle’s phrase koinonia politike … [civil society is] characterized by a shared set of norms and ethos, in which free citizens on an equal footing lived under the rule of law. The goal of civil society was eudaimonia, often translated as human flourishing or common well-being.” One of the shared norms enjoyed by citizens on equal footing with each other was free speech. The Greeks pioneered it.
Our daily life is blessed by the Founding Fathers, and the influence on our Founding Fathers from the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Greeks, and the Enlightenment, that, together, created a society where people stop at red lights, and say “please” and “thank you,” and respect elections. Why do I stand on dangerous street corners in gathering dusk, listening for the siren I have summoned, while I monitor an addict who is drooling helplessly onto the sidewalk? Because we are inheritors of a tradition that hammered into our bones that we owe each other, that something we can’t even see transcends all our differences, and when I make life better for you, I make life better for me.
Atheists like to tell us that we don’t need our heritage, tainted as it by sins like slavery and genocide. Human beings are good at heart, and we can build brave, new worlds out of our best intentions. Again, I beg to differ. In 2011, a two-year-old Chinese girl who came to be known as Little Yue Yue was run over by two vehicles. The first driver, after hitting her with his front tires and stopping to check, continued to run over her with his back tires. Eighteen passersby walked past Little Yue Yue. In the subsequent national conversation, Chinese commentators attributed this behavior to the Confucian emphasis on filial piety. Your own family matters; outsiders, not so much. China, they pointed out, lacks a “Good Samaritan” ethic that teaches that a stranger’s welfare matters.
Without civil society, we careen toward chaos, anarchy, and bloodshed, which wait, just below the surface, for our dedication to the civilization we inherited to slip. Consider how quickly doctors and nurses, confronted with Hurricane Katrina, started talking about euthanasia. Consider Gary Slutkin’s research that shows that violence is a contagion that can be amped up or tamped down with something as simple as human speech.
The rules of civil society are being rewritten. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, mainstream media, academia, and now Ravelry are redefining community. The Ravelry controversy represents the wider society in microcosm. Even folks who don’t knit should care about the decision of Casey Forbes, Ravelry’s founder and owner.
An article published in 2008, a year after its founding, reported that “Ravelry is an online community for knitters, crocheters, spinners, dyers, weavers, pattern designers, and all other manner of fiber artists … It is a personal organization tool, a yarn and pattern database, and an online community … Ravelry is the single greatest thing to happen to yarnies since the invention of the spinning wheel … It is just that awesome.” Ravelry claims to have eight million users.
On Sunday, June 23, 2019, Casey Forbes, Ravelry’s developer, owner, and administrator, released a statement forbidding users to post in support of Donald Trump. Further, Forbes equated support for Trump with white supremacy. “We cannot provide a space that is inclusive of all and also allow support for open white supremacy. Support of the Trump administration is undeniably support for white supremacy … Note that support of President Trump or his administration … all constitute hate speech.” Forbes’ announcement hit national media. Stephen Colbert, oozing smug, oily, self-satisfied superiority, unquestioningly accepted and gave national attention to the demonization of all Trump voters as white supremacists.
If he had taken time to investigate, Colbert would have discovered that Ravelry’s members have published allegations that Forbes has allowed discussions of violence against Sarah Palin, and allowed projects that involved caricatures of Donald Trump as a voodoo-doll-like pincushion or toilet paper cover, and a Jeremy Corbyn Christmas tree topper. Note that Jeremy Corbyn is a notorious anti-Semite, and a project celebrating an anti-Semite is, again, allegedly, permitted. One YouTube video alleges that Forbes exposed the identity of a Ravelry member who wanted to remain anonymous. Another YouTube video alleges that an eleven-year-old atheist knitter group on Ravelry includes “vicious” anti-Christian material. One post in that group was a picture of a Bible with the caption, “The Good News Is Jesus Dies on Page 681” with a laughing emoji. I was told that Forbes permitted an avatar of Kathy Griffin holding a realistic replica of Donald Trump’s severed head, and that Forbes rejected an avatar of Betsy Ross. I was also told that Forbes was banning some Christian-themed needlework projects. I have no idea if these allegations are true – Ravelry is not accepting new members. I did see a screencap of a particularly ugly caricature of Donald Trump that was allegedly allowed on Ravelry.
If Forbes’ purge of politically incorrect knitters were made into a movie, would it be a horror movie, or a comedy? Both frightening and slapstick elements combine in this ridiculous nightmare.
In attempting to understand this bizarre story, I read hundreds of internet posts, and watched many YouTube videos, by those who support, and who reject, Forbes’ new policy. I joined two Facebook groups, one of former Ravelry members who did not support Forbes’ new anti-Trump-voter policy, and one of Ravelry members who do support the anti-Trump-voter policy. In the group that rejects Forbes’ policy, in my first post, I plainly identified myself as someone who is not a Trump fan.
I wish I could report to you that after I posted that I am not a Trump fan, hundreds of hooded Klan members, carrying torches, and armed with knitting needles, descended upon me. That would be much more exciting than what actually transpired. I received over two hundred replies to my posts. About five of them were mildly hostile. That’s five hostile posts out of over two hundred. The remaining posts were civil. In response to the very few posts questioning my intentions, people stepped up and said, paraphrase, “Don’t give her a hard time. Welcome her.”
The posts in the group of people who did not support Forbes’ policy were, for the most part, grammatically correct, properly punctuated, contained few obscenities, and rarely veered into all caps “shouting.”
I watched ten videos by women rejecting Forbes’ new policy. These women were courteous, sane, and calm. Vone Kevitz is near tears in her video. She is nervous, but determined. She is Asian-American, and she identifies as someone who has escaped a communist country. She says that she supports Trump because she is pro-life. She says it breaks her heart, as an Asian American immigrant, to be identified as a white supremacist. She repeats, again and again, that Ravelry could have banned uncivil speech, or all political talk, rather than Trump voters.
Stephanie Knipper says that she is not a Trump supporter, but she knows that the first thing dictators do when they come to power is ban speech. “Tolerance is not measured by how you treat people who agree with you. Tolerance is measured by how you treat people who disagree with you,” Knipper says.
A commenter under Knipper’s video wrote, “I am black, conservative and voted for Trump. I am not alone. I grew up in a military family and I served in the Air Force. I love my country. I hate that they think EVERY black person thinks alike. So I guess I am a white supremacist. I am 61 years old and grew up with discrimination. Shame on Ravelry for outright shaming of those who do not think the same as them. I prefer no political talk at all. I just love fiber arts stuff … I closed my Ravelry account. Blessings.”
My experience visiting those who support Forbes’ new anti-Trump-voter policy was quite different. In their posts, I found incoherent rage and hate-mongering. An example of what disturbed me in the anti-Trump-voter camp: a “Fiber Craft Political Affiliation Public List,” listing fiber arts suppliers, their ethnicity, religion, and whether or not they support Forbes’ policy. The version of this spreadsheet that I saw also specified which venders were Jewish, black, “trans” and “queer.” Identifying crafts venders’ ethnicity, skin color, and sexual orientation chills me. The list is clearly meant to encourage consumers to boycott or support venders based on their religion, ethnicity, and personal vote. We’re not talking about merchants or consumers who are feeding homeless children, cleaning up toxic waste sites or teaching literacy. These are people are trafficking in yarn. And they are imagining themselves as revolutionaries risking all to create a better tomorrow. They are erecting and inhabiting a fantasy world.
Obscenities abounded in anti-Trump-voter posts. “Eat a big bag of dicks,” one post said. “I don’t have to listen to your b——t, a—–e” said another. “You’re looking weak as f—,” and “I’ll pluck your eyeballs out with my S hook.” One post said, “You’re not supposed to deepthroat the boot.” This expression means that one must not provide fellatio to oppressors. Evidently Trump supporters are, metaphorically, holding their boots over the open mouths of anti-Trump-voter knitters. The phrase is over-the-top and repugnant. Those using it crave to be participants in some large historical struggle where any shred of decency is discarded. But they lack the courage to go out and find that battle, and are limiting their pyrotechnic displays of heroism to keyboard yarn commentary. Hate-mongering politics has saturated the most petty aspects of our lives.
“I Stand With Ravelry” was condemned as “ableist,” that is, discriminatory against those who cannot stand up. It was replaced with “I Support Ravelry.”
Pro-Forbes posts were not limited to hatred for Trump voters only. One pro-Forbes knitter posted, “When the cops passed in the pride parade, I stood there and flipped them off the entire time … The only people who approached me with negative remarks about how much ‘hate I have in my heart’ were white men.” Evidently, police and white men are also enemies deserving of contempt.
This same anti-cop poster demonstrated another feature of anti-Trump-voter rhetoric. She shared a post from a pro-Trump knitter. “The Joy of Knitting” urged Ravelry knitters to pray. To pray to understand the situation, to pray for those with whom they disagreed, to pray for strength and courage. The anti-Trump-voter knitter posted this entire, entirely positive message and said that the real meaning of the message was “Aka My god hates brown babies and the gays. God bless Tennessee.” Two follow-up posts in this thread said that the prayerful post made them want to vomit. Another said, “She sounds like a typical deluded extreme Christian to me. I find them uncomfortable anyway and would tend to steer my business elsewhere … she’s extra gross.” Others called her a “twunt,” a portmanteau word combining two insults for a woman.
These posters, who attacked a Christian for praying, typify a trend I found repeatedly in anti-Trump-voter internet posts. Anti-Trump-voter posters took posts I could see and read in their entirety, that were entirely positive, and insisted that they said things that they did not say. I saw many such posts in private internet environments so I can’t quote them here, but I can paraphrase them.
First Knitter: I think we should try to see the best in everyone.
Second Knitter: Oh, so you are complicit in the murder of children on the border.
First Knitter: Excuse me? Children at the border? I thought we were talking about knitting. By the way, you keep saying you want everyone to feel “safe.” How “safe” do you think Jews feel around praise for Jeremy Corbyn? How safe do Christians feel when you mock the crucifixion? How safe do Americans feel when you insist that 63 million voters are KKK? I’m not KKK. I’m a Christian and I love everyone.
Second Knitter: But you support the murder of gay people.
First Knitter: That’s not true! I have gay friends. Can’t we all just get along?
Second Knitter: You should be killed you hater.
First Knitter: You just called me a hater! You want me to be killed! Isn’t that hate speech? Aren’t you being hypocritical? You want to ban support for Trump as hate speech, but you are saying hateful things to me!
Second Knitter: Colonizer! Imperialist! Stay in your lane! The Oppressor is not allowed to lecture the Oppressed! You should be silent and listen to me.
First Knitter: I’m your oppressor? Since when? I’m a mostly homebound, sixty-year-old Kentucky widow whose husband died from black lung. I make ends meet and give my life a sense of meaning by selling, on Ravelry, yarn I make myself. I have used my profits to stock a local foodbank frequented by local poor folk, many of them black. You are sabotaging my business and making it harder for me to donate that food! And for what? You’re a healthy, twenty-something hipster from Portland, living off a trust fund you inherited because your dad did classified work at the Pentagon. You knitted your own Bob Marley snood for your white-boy dreadlocks and now suddenly you think you are the liberator of the peoples. How are you oppressed?
Second Knitter: Peak Whiteness! White denial! White privilege! White fragility!
First Knitter: Do you realize that you are attributing negative qualities to me based on my skin color? Is that not the very epitome of racism?
Second Knitter: CHRISTO-FASCIST TWUNT I’M REPORTING AND BLOCKING YOU.
The above is not parody. It’s my attempt at a faithful if anonymous recreation of actual discourse I encountered in some closed groups. You can taste some of this madness yourself in the posts linked here. Those in the pro-Forbes group are imagining into being a monster, the hated other, the Trump voter, or even just the person who didn’t support Trump but is leaving Ravelry because they support free speech. This monster is so dangerous that one must curse, swear, and threaten to destroy the monster. Thus, the keyboard trench war.
Many of my Facebook friends are Trump supporters. In spite of my direct criticisms, I have not had to ban a single one. One of these friends is a member of a black church. My Trump supporting friends do not post white supremacist material. In fact they frequently post links to black conservative authors like Thomas Sowell, Jason Riley, and Walter E. Williams.
Further, in spite of my sharp criticisms, none of my Trump supporting Facebook friends has harassed me. In short, I just do not believe Casey Forbes or his supporters. I do not believe that pro-Trump knitters are such a menace to world peace that they need to be banned, outright, from the world’s premier knitting community.
Jessica Forbes, self-dubbed “Mama Rav,” Casey’s wife and Ravelry’s co-founder, grew up in Hunterdon County, one of the wealthiest counties in the United States, in a town that has a one percent African American population. Casey Forbes is from New Hampshire, a state that also has a one percent African American population. Ravelry’s webpage indicates that Ravelry’s staff are all white.
In a lengthy video interview with Fruity Knitting, Jessica Forbes, sitting next to a shelf stocked with Harry Potter books, described living in Boston and “trying to figure out what to do with my life.” She was working as a study abroad advisor, work she enjoyed, ironically enough, because it exposed her to diverse cultures. She was considering grad school at Harvard, where she was taking “fun extension courses,” when she and her husband Casey put Ravelry together.
The Forbeses openly acknowledge that Ravelry required donations from users to get off the ground. Without these donations, they say, they would have had to move back in with their parents. They were “living off donations from users.” “I don’t know how we would have ever made it to the self-sustaining company that we are today without all of the generous support from our users,” Casey said. “A lot of people helped us build Ravelry along the way. We built a community culture. People were invested in it.” Users helped them to upload patterns into their database. Professional librarians helped them organize. “It’s an amazing community. Such a friendly place to hang out,” Jessica said. I did encounter Trump supporters who donated both cash and labor to the Forbeses to make their dream a reality. Now, of course, the internet site that their donations and their content helped bring into being is closed to them. The revolution eats its young.
During the Fruity Knitting interview, Casey Forbes, in contrast to his wife Jessica, rarely makes eye contact with the camera. He keeps his arms so close to his chest that he appears to be cringing, and he often crosses his arms across his chest. When speaking, he often touches his throat, almost looking as if he is attempting to protect his voice. Some knitters told me that they had met Forbes at events and that he impressed them as being uncomfortable with human contact. Forbes, the Fruity Knitting interviewer commented, was “a little bit geeky.” No surprise – he was a computer programmer, and it is he who coded the Ravelry website. Casey said that, “99% of the time I am living in my yarn world so I don’t have a lot of contact with other business people or other tech people.” He described how his computer programming work cut him off from the outside world. It is tough, he said, “Being in my house and missing the sun for a whole summer.”
The impression one gets from this video is of two well-meaning young people who, in spite of Jessica’s work as a study abroad advisor, may pay lip service to diversity, but who haven’t experienced much diversity in real life, and who were totally freaked out by their encounters with people who think differently from they, who live in flyover country, or vote Republican, or worship Jesus.
I did try to contact them for this piece, but received no reply. On the off chance that they ever read this piece, I’d like to say the following to Jessica, Casey, and their supporters.
Jessica, Casey, community demands that you brush up against people you don’t like. The solution is not to declare these people non-persons and disappear them to the Gulag. The solution is found in our ideal of civil society, in which “free citizens on an equal footing live under the rule of law.” Rather than scapegoating Trump supporters, you could have applied a universal norm about speech, for example, “Don’t insult people.” A norm like that treats everyone equally.
Jessica and Casey, it looks like you’ve lived lily white lives. I could be wrong, but I think you and many whites on the left are trying to expiate the guilt you feel by smearing all Trump voters.
The words “community,” “diversity,” and “tolerance” mean a lot to you. What you’re doing now does damage to those three words. Your community is not based on love for each other. It’s based on hatred of your scapegoated, demonized outsider: The Trump Voter. These Trump voters, who contributed financially and spiritually to your project, are now your human sacrifice, made to suffer for the real or imagined sins of all. You’re building a police state where you encourage members to inform on each other.
Exactly because real community demands that we brush up against people we don’t like, real community offers us opportunities for spiritual growth that we can’t find in purged enclaves we imagine to be pure. I thought Elizabeth was a snob who rejected me because of my social class. Saving her life, and receiving a gracious thank-you note from her afterward, changed me for the better. If you exclude anyone from your so-called community who is different from you, you can never be blessed by that experience, that teaches you that what unites us is more important than what divides us.
Jessica and Casey, your supporters insist that this isn’t about free speech, because Ravelry is your “living room.” No, it isn’t, and you said so yourself. You acknowledge the money, time and effort that knitters contributed, making your site what it is. Technically, yes, you are the sole occupants of the iron throne, and you can push people around however you wish. That totalitarian stance, however, defies your own ethos of cooperation and sharing.
But there’s more to it than that. Ravelry is a community that is essential to yarnies. Millions of yarnies connect there, and make their living there. When participants in a community are told that certain thoughts are crimes against the state, everything in that community changes. Do you really want that kind of change? Me? I’m a Christian. I live in a world where Christians are the most likely to be persecuted for their faith. I know I’ve not gotten jobs because of my faith. I go to Facebook and before breakfast I see two or three anti-Christian posts, and that doesn’t even factor in the anti-Jewish material, that comes from the same type of person.
I do not agitate for suppression of anti-Christian speech. I do not demand that I be “protected” and “made to feel safe.” I choose environments where free speech reigns. That’s because free speech makes me feel safe. Jess, Casey, I’ve lived in countries where there is no freedom of speech. They are more violent and less safe than America. Free speech is foundational to a civil society. The lack of free speech is the sine qua non of an oppressive, and, eventually, always, violent society. Suppression increases pressure and pressurized speech always eventually explodes.
Civil society requires human bonds. Community requires interactions with those we don’t like. How do we form bonds with those we don’t like? This bonding requires adherence to norms performed in neutral spaces, neutral spaces that are not the voting booth, the used car lot, the contentious schoolboard meeting. People are mocking the silliness of your controversy. “Knitting! We’re talking about a silly hobby!” These critics are both right and wrong.
To explain why needlework is a key factor in this controversy about civil society, I want to invite you into one of my favorite memories. My mother was from Slovakia; my father was Polish. I grew up at a time when Polak jokes were popular. To make things worse, we did wear hand-me-downs, there was excessive use of both alcohol and fists, and my parents did work menial jobs: we seemed to be living proof of every stereotype.
But. Slovaks produce eye-popping embroidery. The colors, the technique, the variety, are all without equal. Women in tiny, primitive villages who spent most of their lives bent over a plot of dirt produced embroidery that bested any artform from any other tradition.
I think of my mom and me in her bedroom, a single lamp illuminating us both. She is painstakingly instructing me in intricate stitches. Her voice is patient, slow, and warm. I follow her every move. My sister is at the sewing machine, or maybe on the couch, knitting. Antoinette knocks out amazing hand-knit sweaters and outfits that make her look like the richest kid in school.
Here’s the kicker – my mother abused me. Badly. And you know what? That memory of her and me embroidering is untouched by the abuse. I don’t feel terror or doom. I feel comfortable and lucky. I am seeing the best in my mother, and sharing something special and unique that the other kids at school can’t match.
My high school buddy Otto would understand. Otto’s dad was a Nazi – a Wehrmacht corporal who won two Iron Crosses for North Africa and the Eastern Front. Otto’s dad abused him. I know the rage and disappointment Otto feels. But this otherwise bad father taught Otto ironwork. When Otto talks of his dad the ironworker, Otto’s face and demeanor utterly change. He glows with admiration and pride.
Through embroidery, a “silly hobby,” I saw a side of my mother I did not see anywhere else. I felt joy and peace, appreciation and gratitude, as I watched her fingers create beauty on fabric. No man wants to tell his son or daughter that they are the grandchildren of an abusive Nazi. But Otto can also tell his kids that their grandfather did impressive ironwork, and that he passed that skill on. No. I’m not saying we ignore the worst in Nazis, or white supremacists, or child abusers. But the fact is we live next door to, or we ourselves are, some version of human wickedness. Establish laws that punish bad behavior, and amplify the best in every human you meet. That is how you build civil society. We have to learn to see the best in each other, or else we never truly see ourselves, because we, too, are flawed. Neutral spaces, like the sewing room or the toolshed, are vital not just so we can have warm sweaters and andirons. They are vital because they offer us a space to see the best in each other, and with that best, we bond, and build civil society.
Ravelry once was that neutral space, where Christians and atheists, coastal Harvard grads and flyover housewives, could share the same appreciation of the same beautiful artistry. For it to be that place, where the magic of civil society is forged, there must be norms. The norm, “I get to insult Christians and white people but you can’t criticize me, and anyone who thinks politically incorrect thoughts must be demonized and disappeared,” is not a norm that builds community. It builds monstrosities: police states, gulags, hatred. Jessica and Casey, the metaphor is so obvious you might not see it. Knitting takes short, weak, individual fibers, and, using time-tested technique handed down by our ancestors to combine these fibers, creates art and craft that is beautiful, strong, and greater than any one of its constituent parts.
Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery
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