This is a story about the toxicity of the right-wing echo chamber.
Last week, I sat down with Kristen Stewart in the lobby lounge of the Greenwich Hotel in downtown New York. She was in town to promote her latest film, Camp X-Ray, in which she delivers one of the better performances of her career as Pfc. Amy Cole, a naïve young woman who feels compelled to join the armed forces after the events of September 11th. She’s assigned as a guard at Guantanamo Bay, where she strikes up an unlikely friendship with Amir Ali (Peyman Maadi, A Separation), a man who was given the extraordinary rendition treatment in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and hauled off to Gitmo. They bond over books, and Cole begins to see the humanity in this suspected terrorist.Our discussion touched on a wide range of topics including feminism and the difficulties of being a woman in “male-dominated” Hollywood. Many sites, like MTV, ABC News, and The Huffington Post, picked up on the the 24-year-old actress's words about millennials’ odd aversion to labeling themselves “feminists.”
That issue didn't interest the conservative sites, however. Instead, they highlighted Stewart's discussion of her character's motivation. She said
Breitbart was the first offender, claiming the actress “Trashes the Military, Defends 9/11 Terrorists”—in a truly insane, trolltastic, click-bait headline. The piece claimed that, “Stewart seemingly finds the standards of intelligence for joining the armed forces rather low,” and that “judging the detainees at Guantanamo Bay is reportedly ‘f*cking evil’ and ‘crazy,’ because they are people, too.”
The incendiary Breitbart piece was picked up by Fox Nation, which reprinted it verbatim, as well as the Tea Party News Network, which went with the equally out-there headline, “Actress Kristen Stewart: Terrorists Are Only Human and the Military Are Socially Inadequate, Stupid People.” The Fox Nation piece was then picked up by Fox News, which ran a segment on its Red Eye program that claimed she said, “Gitmo detainees are misunderstood and that enlisting in the U.S. Army is for dummies.” Red Eye, by the way, is hosted by Greg Gutfeld, who recently made sexist jokes about the UAE's first female fighter pilot, Mariam al-Mansouri.
My Twitter feed began lighting up with readers seething with rage at Stewart based off the Breitbart piece. The problem? The Breitbart piece twisted Stewart’s quotes around and recontextualized them to align with their agenda—namely, making a young woman starring in a military-themed film (Stewart), which dares to lightly probe an institution like Gitmo, look like an anti-military terrorist sympathizer.
When Stewart fans came to her defense and linked to the actual interview, right-wing readers’ minds were already made up, and they wanted no part of the corrective:
Here are the portions of the actual interview in question (my questions in bold):
She really gets swept up in all the post 9/11 patriotism and signs up for Gitmo duty, only to find that it isn’t what she thought at all.
She’s simple, not very smart, and really socially inadequate—but a good person. So, if you can sign up, put a uniform on, and erase yourself, you don’t have to consider yourself anymore. You can take the individual out of it and say, “Well, this dignifies me. I’m good because of this.” And when that doesn’t end up being true, you actually have to contend with who you are. All she wants is to think, “They did 9/11, they’re bad, fuck that, I’m going to do my job and I’m going to do it well.” But then she gets down there and just can’t accept it; she can’t conform to that.
Right. The mistake we make is not viewing these detainees down there as people, too. We’re all people.
That is essentially so fucking evil, it’s crazy. It’s a ridiculous idea for you to think that you know anything for sure in life—other than to take care of your fellow people. Where the fuck do you get off thinking otherwise? These two people couldn’t be from more different worlds and perspectives, and probably disagree fundamentally on most things, but there’s a through-line for all of us—and that’s what people forget, and that’s what makes people capable of doing terrible things to each other. What makes you different from any other person that walks the earth?
In case it wasn’t made abundantly clear, in the first question we are discussing her character in a fictional film. She’s describing Pfc. Cole’s motivations—as a simple, small-town girl who finds herself swept up in the rush of post-9/11 patriotism and joins the military, but after being placed as a guard at Gitmo, finds herself questioning her decision. What we didn’t touch on is that Pfc. Cole endures a host of hardships at Gitmo, including her mistreatment at the hands of a chauvinistic male corporal (Lane Garrison). She files a report on him only to have it fall on deaf ears.
The second question was about viewing the world in strictly black-and-white (or red-and-blue) terms. Stewart was explaining how it’s “evil” for anyone, no matter how awful they are, to be viewed as less than human, because “that’s what makes people capable of doing terrible things to each other.” So, yes, she’s acknowledging that even Gitmo detainees are human beings—or, as Variety put it, “the film treats its characters, guards, and inmates alike, with clear compassion.”
To recap: Stewart described her character in a fictional film, and then Breitbart (followed by Fox Nation, followed by Fox News, followed by their right-wing readership) twisted and transposed her words into a blanket statement on all those serving in the U.S. military. Then, Stewart made a fairly innocuous, compassionate plea about how it’s “evil” to see anyone as less than human—even Gitmo detainees—because we’re all human beings and we, as Americans, should aspire to be more compassionate than our enemies—which was warped into “defends 9/11 terrorists.”
This is a case study in how the right-wing fear factory works, distorting and recontextualizing bits of news—whether it’s a quote, video clip, or what have you—to fit their odious red vs. blue agenda.
For the real scoop on how Stewart feels about the military, let’s go to Warfighter Media Group—a coalition of veterans from all branches of the military working together to create jobs for veterans in all forms of media. “We prove that the depiction of military in the media is always better with veterans,” reads their website. Warfighter Media Group worked closely with Stewart, training the actress for her role as Pfc. Cole in Camp X-Ray.Here’s what they had to say about Stewart: