Once a Troll, Always a Troll?

by Rabbi David Seidenberg

Fox News' Laura Ingraham is in the headlines for just the kind of thing she has always loved: being a troll.  Back in 1984, when we were both enrolled at Dartmouth College, she secretly recorded a confidential support group for gay students, and published a transcript in The Dartmouth Review - complete with the names of the students at the meeting, students who were in the closet, back in the day when being outed could mean getting rejected for jobs and attacked by drunken frat boys.

Just last Wednesday, Ingraham was up to her old tricks, making fun of student activist David Hogg of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, for getting rejected from some of the colleges he'd applied to.

The Dartmouth Review, which Ingraham eventually headed, embodied the essence of trolling, years before the term was even coined, before the Internet was born.  I got trolled multiple times by the Review, including being branded as "limp-wristed."  The Review didn't "out" me because I already presented myself in a way that people might now call "genderqueer," even though I was straight. Yet even for the Review, Ingraham took trolling to a new level.

A friend of mine who was enrolled in medical school when she was outed by Ingraham's secret transcript publication was terrified about what would happen to her prospects.  So I organized a Review "recycling" event - not because I like censorship, but because I cared about my friend's privacy more.  We collected about 90% of the paper copies.  But as we learn from the Jewish folk tale about the feather pillow torn open, there's no way to really gather all the feathers that gossip blows into the world.

Back then, conservatives had standards, and the Review was the exception.  After college, I went on to become a rabbi, and Ingraham, after a stint as a lawyer, went on to become a professional troll.  Today, we have a whole troll news network, and a troll president, and the whole world is a troll playground under the bridge of the World Wide Web.  David Hogg, it turns out, has mounted a very effective response, calling on people to pressure advertisers to drop her show.  While that may seem like an exaggerated response to Ingraham's childish insult, it's been well-deserved, for a long time.  And it's working.

Meanwhile, I turned to Google to learn more about what Ingraham has gotten up to since our college days.  It turns out, like most people, Ingraham isn't just a troll.  She cares about animals, for example, in a way that's not just personal but also political.

She also wrote a touching article in 1997 for the Washington Post about her gay brother's boyfriend and her evolution on gay issues.  But she doesn't come clean about the 1984 Review article, which did in fact publish names of all the students at the support group meeting.  However, she did say, "I now regret that at Dartmouth we didn't consider how callous rhetoric can wound - how someone like Barney Frank must have felt - not to mention how it undermined our political point."  That was more than twenty years ago, and unfortunately, it seems she did not learn that lesson well enough to apply it today.

She also wrote in that 1997 article, "Until a few years ago, I hadn't thought about the gay community as setting an example in self-help - the virtue lauded and encouraged by conservatives...."  What would happen if she applied that exalted thought to the students leading the March for Our Lives?  We may never know.  That's the pity of the troll, who demonizes their target, themselves, and all of us who are besmirched by hearing their words.  If only the students like Hogg at Stoneham Douglas were married to her brother, or furry.  If only conservatives still cared enough about dignity and respect to deny Ingraham a market in the first place.

On Thursday, March 29, after several advertisers had dropped Ingraham's show, she tweeted, "On reflection, in the spirit of Holy Week, I apologize for any upset or hurt my tweet caused him or any of the brave victims of Parkland."  Money tweets, apparently, and so does costuming oneself in religious finery.  (Her website sells replicas of the cross she wears here.)  But is there any chance Ingraham means it this time, that the spirit will last longer than one week?  Will she at long last take her own advice to "consider how callous rhetoric can wound"?

Ingraham is not the only one with a Holy Week.  This is one of those serendipitous years when there's a calendar mash-up of Easter and Passover.  While Jews celebrate the redemption, and Christians celebrate the resurrection, both are holy times of liberation and healing.  But if Ingraham thinks it suffices to reconsider her jabs and bullying just this one week, she has a few things to learn about the Spirit.  I hope the time comes when Ingraham treats people the right way every week, adults and liberals included, without being threatened with a boycott.  For now though, it's safer for all of us to assume she's still living "under the bridge."