Of course I didn’t see how social media could be an accelerant for bigotry

It took a few years after I first reviewed Windows XP for me to realize the enormous omission from my initial assessment of that operating system: It didn’t even include the word “security.” It feels like I’ve devoted much of my work since to making up for that shortfall.

I’ve had the same unpleasant realization over the past few years about social media. Just as my first look at XP showed no imagination about how an OS designed to run on trusted networks would fare on the open Internet, my early writing about social networks evidenced inadequate foresight about how they might help bigots to bond.

Consider, for instance, the Twitter explainer I wrote for the Post in 2008. I loved writing that almost exclusively as a series of 140-character-compliant paragraphs, and I think as prose it holds up well. But although Twitter was still figuring out the basic mechanics of @ mentions then, the piece reveals no consideration of how Twitter’s architecture might let bigoted trolls recruit like-minded people to scale up a Twitter mention’s compelled attention into a denial-of-service attack.

The evidence was there: A year before, writer Kathy Sierra had endured a hail of death threats for the crime of having two X chromosomes while expressing value judgments about technology. But my attention was elsewhere.

I can file away my naïveté about Windows security on not doing enough background research, but I can’t untangle my lack of imagination about social networks from having used them exclusively as a straight white man with an Italian (read: Catholic) last name. On every social network I’ve used–from Usenet newsgroups to Slashdot to the Post’s comments to Twitter and Facebook–I’ve had the unrequested benefit of not being routinely attacked for my gender, sexuality, race or religion.

But I never quite realized that until writing about Gamergate. I spent the day before that Yahoo Tech post ran locking down every important account and steeling myself for a toxic response online. Then nothing bad happened and nobody tried to destroy my critique by impeaching my identity. I can now confirm that white privilege is a hell of a drug.

Since then, we’ve had another unforeseen development: a president who has bragged about sexual assault, regularly evokes such anti-Semitic memes as “globalists”–a laundered code word for international Jewish financiers–and said neo-Nazis in Charlottesville last August included “very fine people.” Trump’s dog-whistling seems to have encouraged some bigots to crawl out from under their rocks and look for company.

Some have also been inspired to look for ways to kill people they see as “the other.” This bigotry boom has a growing body count–in C-ville last year, where I paid my respects at the memorial to Heather Heyer earlier this month, and today at a synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. Last week’s pipe-bombing attempts could have added to that toll.

I’m sorry that I was asleep to so much of this before. I think I’m awake now, but I want you to tell me if you see otherwise.

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The Jefferson Davis Highway in Arlington may be Virginia’s least worthy Confederate memorial

Two years after racist violence in Charleston forced most of us to realize that the Confederate battle flag had long since decayed into a symbol of hate, racist violence in Charlottesville has hammered in the rest of that lesson: The same logic applies to statues, memorials and other public commemorations of the Confederacy that whitewash it as a noble but failed venture.

Arlington County exhibits less of this Lost Cause litter than most of Virginia, but one of our few examples may be the least worthy in the Commonwealth: our part of the Jefferson Davis Highway. The name affixed to U.S. 1 from Interstate 395 to Alexandria and to State Route 110 from Rosslyn to I-395 has long been an embarrassing exercise in denial.

• The residents of what was then Alexandria County voted to stay with the Union by a 2-to-1 margin.

• Union troops promptly liberated the county at the start of the Civil War and turned much of it into an armed camp that saw no Confederate attacks; in the bargain, we got Fort Myer.

• Non-Virginian Jefferson Davis displayed neither battlefield genius nor courage during the war and was a lousy political leader. In an essay arguing for moving Confederate statues to museums and cemeteries, National Review editor Rich Lowry idly flicked Davis into the trash as “the blessedly incompetent president of the Confederacy.”

• This highway only got its name in the 1920s after a lobbying effort by the United Daughters of the Confederacy–part of a larger effort to cement a narrative of white supremacy–that put forth Davis alongside Lincoln as “the two great leaders of the critical period of American history.”

• Lest we lose sight of the subtext here, the Confederacy started a war that cost the lives of 750,000-plus people and threatened to dismember the United States so its citizens could keep and abuse other human beings as property.

Arlington effectively backed away from this highway in 2004, when a reshuffling of Crystal City mailing addresses to match them with building entrances erased many Jefferson Davis Highway addresses–including the one of the apartment I shared with three friends after college. (For a while, Apple Maps was a dead-ender about this realignment.) Arlington also renamed a secondary road from “Old Jefferson Davis Highway” to “Long Bridge Drive”; FYI, the park later built next to the renovated street is great for plane- and train-spotting.

Renaming the highway itself, however, requires permission from Virginia’s General Assembly. The County Board put that among its 2016 legislative priorities, but our representatives in Richmond set that goal aside and wound up getting ignored on other issues.

The city of Alexandria, however, faces no such restriction and has started taking suggestions on what to call its portion of the road. And now, after Charlottesville, Arlington’s elected leaders seem more resolute.

Thursday, the County Board issued a statement solidly backing the renaming of Jefferson Davis Highway, with a softer endorsement of rechristening the county’s portion of Lee Highway. (I once saw Robert E. Lee in an entirely different category from Davis; I had read less at the time about his conduct and the greater cruelty of his troops.) Arlington’s school board, in turn, pledged to reconsider the name of Washington-Lee High School.

That leaves the General Assembly with a choice when it’s back in session, either in 2018 or in a special session that Governor McAuliffe could call sooner: Accept that the Confederacy’s losing effort doesn’t warrant a participation trophy for one of its weakest leaders on this stretch of concrete, or disgrace itself with racially-coded control-freakery. This is not an issue with many sides; there is one right side of history here, and Virginia had best place itself on it.