James O’Keefe is always creating headlines, most recently filing suit against Al Gore’s Current TV, Keith Olbermann and David Shuster. Shuster of course is a respected, award winning television journalist (unlike O’Keefe) and thought it was hilarious to falsely label O’Keefe a convicted felon who had been accused of rape. O’Keefe’s willingness to counterattack and his frankly confrontational take on the “fascist” media has made him a figure of loathing on the Left, while even frightening some conservatives that shy away from his adversarial tactics.
Lost in the caricature is what James O’Keefe is really all about. Reluctant to label himself a right-winger, he considers himself an “artist” more in the spirit of the Old Left. His motivation is to “stick it to the man, expose things, educate people,“ and most of all, “reveal the truth about powerful institutions.”
Twitter is central to O’Keefe’s artistry, allowing him to be in complete control of his message and get in touch directly with people. More than anything else, O’Keefe believes “content is king” and emphasizes the need for tweeting original content. He has built his following by breaking his own news first on his own twitter account.
He also uses twitter to keep tabs on the media, notably Sree Sreenivasan (@sree), Dean of Students at Columbia Journalism School. While Sree posts interesting stories on the media, O’Keefe says wryly, he’s “not too much of a fan of mine.”
O’Keefe is not some conservative movement hack. He is scathing in his treatment of the Beltway Right, noting that they “spend millions on conferences, ceremonies, and gatherings – funding what amounts to a veneer of activity in an echo chamber” instead of funding direct action. The result is that while “the Left is out there occupying buildings, state legislatures, pressuring corporations and engaging in street activism with full support of the entire left of center, the Right casts its own to the wolves. That’s the biggest difference right there.” While conservatives titter about such tactics, O’Keefe seems almost envious.
O’Keefe slams the Right for its refusal to engage the mainstream culture and their skepticism of effective tactics, noting that “Lila Rose’s videos inside Planned Parenthood clinics have done more to damage Planned Parenthood’s reputation than all other pro life organizations combined.” He didn’t add that his own takedown of ACORN could be put in the same category.
O’Keefe’s identification of the media as political actor in its own right separates him from the conservatives that merely complain about liberal bias. For James O’Keefe, the media has become part of the system that they were supposed to guard against. Even when he breaks a story about government malfeasance, most of the media attacks the messenger and ignores the message. O’Keefe fires back that they are fascists. “They defend the government using corporate money, I don’t know what else you would call it.”
Anti-system, artist, and activist – James O’Keefe doesn’t fit with the presumptions and premises of the self satisfied Beltway Right. In fact, he’s not really part of it at all. His mission, as he sees it, is to pursue “art for art’s sake” and make the world a “more virtuous place.” This kind of existential politics fits uncomfortably with a movement concerned about status within the existing system and which once used “don’t immanentize the eschaton” as a slogan. Looking at how that movement operates today and what it has and mostly hasn’t achieved, maybe an artist is what we need.