So You've Been Publicly Called an Agent of ISIS ...

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

It’s not everyday that one is described as an agent of an international terrorist organization in the pages of Canada’s most influential newspaper. Yet it happened to me, just this weekend.

David Frum: Unpaid Intern of The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” was the charge flung by Tabatha Southey, a columnist for the Globe & Mail. The accusation was provoked by this tweet of mine:

Her retort: “Mr. Frum’s tweet may literally be the worst joke ever made.” Literally the worst!

It would be easy to mock this reaction as something out of @99Problematics. Yet I must hold myself somewhat to blame. My tweet attempted to satirize a threat often heard from migration advocates: a threat that the West will face even more Islamic terrorism tomorrow if it does not rapidly admit huge numbers of Middle Eastern refugees today.

If you’ve been following the debate over Middle Eastern migration, you’ve heard versions of that threat over and over and over again. Here for example is the threat issued in a New York Times oped. Here it is in a paper from the Brookings Institution. Here it’s articulated by a senior UN official. And here, most memorably, it’s pronounced by President Obama: “I cannot think of a more potent recruitment tool for ISIL than some of the rhetoric that’s been coming out of here.”

Unfortunately, my tweet didn’t link to any of these examples. That was a mistake. However well-trodden an argument may appear to those in the midst of a controversy, there is always a newcomer encountering it for the first time.

So with Southey.

The unusual in her case: typically, the arguments we’re unfamiliar with are those emanating from people of opposite views. She somehow contrived to be ignorant of a central polemic on her own side. If she—aligned with the side issuing the threat—finds it ugly to hear, imagine how it sounds to those of us on the receiving side.

But in asking her to imagine such a thing, I’m probably asking too much.

Southey is a writer known in Toronto for her fierce ideology and wide social network. She’s carved out a special role for herself as an adjudicator of what it’s acceptable for nice people to say in polite company and what it is not.

Which is how Southey—whose work over the past year has dealt with competing high-end grocery stores, how Uber is like dating, sexual kink, and what the well-dressed person is wearing these days—can turn about this week and write with absolute certainty about what ISIS wants, what it does not want, and what it “is acutely aware of.” (That last being ISIS’s urgent desire to avoid “bad optics” and “seriously bad press.” This Southey-discerned anxiety for its media image may explain why ISIS only posted video of the burning alive of one caged Jordanian pilot rather than, say, three or four.)

The convenient thing about a politics based on decorum, convention, and peer-group approval is that it eliminates the need for independent research, analysis, or hard work generally. The answers are all at hand, even before you have understood the question.

Is that a tweet? Better not. I fear I’d next be accused of doing something else that’s the worst-ever—or maybe the second-worst, like man-splaining that the flip side to the rule, “write what you know,” is the corollary: “don’t write when you don’t have a blinking clue.”

Update: And how could I have overlooked this especially blood-curdling warning from Canada’s own Michael Ignatieff that if Syrian refugees are not resettled in the West, “We will be creating a generation with abiding hatred in its heart”?