Last week, the Portland Press Herald published a piece by Greg Kesich calling attention to the YouTube channel “Zoon Politikon” hosted since October by Portland’s Holly Seeliger, a Green Party affiliate and member of the Portland School Board.
“Zoon Politikon,” a show through which Seeliger, working alone, releases content near daily, covers a broad range of political headlines and sentiments, much of it from what might be understood to be a liberal-left perspective.
But Kesich keyed on several conspiracy theories propagated by Seeliger, most of them originating on right-wing message boards and Reddit threads, that aren’t as politically controversial so much as they are flatly incorrect.
Among the most recent of them, the widely debunked theory that late DNC staffer Seth Rich’s death in July, 2016, was a murder by Democratic National Committee officials, was originally concocted on Reddit and later popularized by Donald Trump’s political strategist Roger Stone, widely understood to be one of the most prominent liars in American political history.
In a subsequent video, Seeliger calls Kesich’s op-ed a “hit piece.” She told me in a phone interview that he was trying to slander her. (Reached by phone, Kesich declined to offer further comment.) In the week since, it’s been baffling to see the tone and intensity of those defending her.
The Phoenix has covered Seeliger many times, for her political advocacy and leadership, and separately, for her contributions to Portland’s arts scene. I’ve peripherally known of her in town as a kind, intelligent, interesting person. Furthermore, the work of initiating alternative media is a good and noble one.
But the whole exchange has raised a question I've asked about the Zoon Politikon project for months: Is Holly Seeliger for real?
I don’t know! No one has a handle on what’s real anymore, and the media landscape is as chaotic as the political landscape. But “fake news,” as it’s understood to mean politicized right-wing phenomena, is a real thing. And Zoon Politikon is spreading it.
Here are three scenarios I can imagine for why that’s happening:
1. Seeliger, a former Occupy activist, Bernie supporter and Green Party member, is strategically trying to expand the left-liberal coalition among the country’s conspiracy-hungry, anti-intellectual, Reddit-loving, politically incoherent voters.
This is the most charitable theory among the bunch. It re-casts Seeliger as a sort of special-ops double-agent journalist, disseminating useful progressive medicine like antiwar sentiment interspersed with sugary helpings of tabloidy pap. When I asked Seeliger in a phone interview if she believed everything she discussed on her channel, she said “Um, no,” redirecting me to her belief that “we have to start questioning narratives,” adding that “that’s the work of investigative journalism.” I mean, sure.
2. Seeliger has seized upon a market opportunity.
It’s important to remember that political discourse is theater. That’s never been more true than today. Right-wing lunatic Alex Jones has admitted he’s playing a character. Milo certainly is. To other aims, so have Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. One of the reasons “fake news” emerged is because people found the real stuff too fucking boring.
Seeliger, of course, is no stranger to performance, having danced with burlesque troupes in town for many years. While this option may seem like an accusation of cynical intention, there’s absolutely no shame in forming a media outfit that delivers political content with pizzazz — in fact, it’s exactly what gave rise to the Boston Phoenix, the original incarnation of this paper, in the late ‘60s.
Zoon Politikon isn’t regionally specific (indeed, Seeliger admits that many of her 4,000 followers believe she lives in Oregon). But her party affiliations link her to Maine, where she’d be one of the only women-led media organizations. Holly currently makes $172 a month via Patreon (her PayPal contributions are unknown). And, by the laws of the Internet, many of her supporters read the Press Herald piece as an dramatic personal attack, which seemed to rally more followers (and cash) to her campaign. Again, no shame in finding creative ways to make money. But that doesn’t make what she’s saying any more true.
3. Seeliger actually believes this stuff.
Or, a less damning version: She’s fine speculating about theories she doesn’t know for certain aren’t true. But that opens the scope of this independent media project to virtually anything. Sure, that can be entertaining, but it’s hardly journalism. Nor, I'd offer, is it particularly useful in 2017. If Maine Green Party activists are ignoring, say, the spread of Right to Work laws in our state in favor of wild speculation about Pizzagate, then progressives have an even steeper climb.
Look, I don’t know George Soros personally. I can’t say anything about him with absolute certainty. Like any billionaire, he’s probably a jerk. But it’s almost overwhelmingly clear he was popularized as a right-wing bugbear to take the pressure off the Koch Brothers. In a video in early February, Seeliger “reported” that the protesters who shut down a Milo Yiannopoulos lecture at UC Berkeley were “funded by Soros.” The reporting, in this case, consisted of her reading off-screen, citing “several news outlets.” But the only “news outlets” that reported this are noted sensationalist right-wing sites like Breitbart and The Daily Caller. It is brutally unsupported by facts. It’s true that billionaire philanthropistcapitalist George Soros has donated to “liberal” organizations like Planned Parenthood — but why is that alone something a Bernie-supporting activist would incite moral outrage over?
In a video from January 24, Seeliger asserts that Soros “financially backed” the Women’s March on Washington, citing a Women in the World Media op-ed written by former Wall Street Journal reporter and noted Trump advocate Asra Q. Nomani. Seeliger calls it “a piece in the New York Times” and implores us to “look it up.” (It’s not: Women in the World Media is a separate entity hosted digitally via a partnership with the New York Times.) In that same video, Seeliger tells us that Soros, a Hungarian Jew who fled Nazi-occupied Hungary in 1947, “had worked with the Nazis as a young man,” an absurdity originated in the jungle of the right-wing web that has been widely debunked.
So I can’t tell what’s going on. But Seeliger’s channel reminds us that in times of political crisis, those on the left, too, can succumb to conspiracies. Seeliger is right to question mainstream media, but her effort seems consistent with a philosophy that in order to advance politically, the left has to abandon the truth. No.
Furthermore, beneath the dramatic coverups, the murderous plots, and thrilling paper trails that effectively erase the work of those fighting for human rights by linking their efforts to rich Nazi benefactors, “Zoon Politikon” doesn’t have much actual political content. Which is a shame, because the left seems to have some real work to do.
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