Gun Regulation, Profanity and Thuggery in Rhode Island

It is rare that the comments of a state legislator make national news, even more so when those comments are only three short words. Last week, however, State Senator Joshua Miller made national news when he told Dan Bidondi of Infowars to "Go f#ck yourself!" Bidondi, an avid supporter of unrestricted gun ownership had been present at a press conference where Miller and other state legislators appeared. Miller's comments came after Bidondi had been harassing and berating participants at the event.

Miller later apologized for using profanity. However, as more information about this confrontation and about Bidondi comes to light, Miller should probably be lauded for his restraint. Bidondi is associated with the website Infowars, a right-wing site that is given to conspiracy theories questioning, among other things, veracity of the Sandy Hook shooting and the Boston Marathon bombings. Bidondi has sought to represent these views through among other things intimidation and shouting down opponents. Nonetheless, Bidondi has a right to express his views and elected officials, even ones trying to defend constituents from harassment should, on balance, avoid using profanity.

Since these events, and his apology, Miller has faced an unrelenting campaign of thuggery, threats and bigotry. Miller is a small businessman who owns several restaurants in and around Providence. Since he made those comments, Miller's restaurants' web presence have been compromised through floods of negative reviews on sites like Yelp and Trip Advisor and the Facebook pages of his restaurants. Other websites belong to Miller and his campaign have been hacked as well. These are apparently the tactics of the gun supporters who interpret Miller's support of a bill to do things like ban assault weapons and make it illegal to bring guns onto school grounds as undermining the US constitution.

Critics of Miller have also attacked the senator for being too far left. It is not clear that Miller, who chairs the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services, would disagree with the substance of this. Miller is a strong supporter of gun regulation, expanding access to healthcare, marriage equality, the environment and labor. Attacks on Miller for his progressive politics are no surprise given how his position on gun regulations and comments to Bidondi undoubtedly infuriated many on the right.

Pointing out that Miller, a strong supporter of gun regulation, has a generally progressive agenda, is an appropriate political strategy in this context. It is unimaginable that this is the first time Miller has been criticized for being a progressive, and it almost certainly will not be the last. Attacking Miller because he is Jewish, however, is not appropriate at this, or any, time. Bigotry of that kind never plays a constructive role in the political discussion, yet Miller's Judaism has drawn comments of a very bigoted and vile nature since the Bidondi incident.

The anti-Semitism Miller has confronted in recent days is disturbing and draws on some of the oldest and vitriolic prejudices against the Jewish people. It is saddening, but not altogether surprising, that his kind of hatred still exists and is so easily aimed at Miller by some on the far right. More upsetting than the noise from these bigots has been the silence from the more moderate and allegedly reasonable factions of the conservative and pro-gun movements. While these people have every reason to condemn Miller for his profanity, his views on gun regulation and his politics generally, they also have a greater obligation to speak out against the bigotry that some have used against Miller. While it is clear that it is not the mainstream of the Republican Party or the gun movement that made Miller's religion an issue, the need to take a position against this kind of thing remains strong. In their silence, too many gun supporters tacitly condone attacking Miller for being Jewish, rather than his politics. While this may not be the intent, it is, unfortunately, the effect.

Miller's words have led to different interpretations. Opponents of gun regulation have accused Miller of being an arrogant and elitist politician who cares little for the constitution and specifically the second amendment. Miller's supporters, on the other hand, have asserted that the senator was standing up to a bully who was using aggressive and confrontational methods to try to stifle debate on gun regulation. Although it is possible to disagree about which of these interpretations is right based on the initial incident, the fallout from Miller's comment makes it clear that the forces of intolerance and intimidation are clearly on the side of Bidondi, as Miller's opponents have resorted to hacking websites, dishonest and negative reviews of decent small businesses, and bigotry to make their point. I don't get to Rhode Island much, but the next time I do, I know whose restaurants I'll be patronizing.