Earlier this week, David Frum fired one of his website's foremost writers, 20-year old Alex Knepper. It was the last in a quick succession of terminations -- Knepper had previously been let go from Tucker Carlson's Daily Caller and Andrew Breitbart's BigHollywood -- but to those of us who have been following this saga, the former Bush speechwriter's decision was the most jarring. For months now, Frum had been a staunch defender of Knepper, responding with indignation to the various criticism leveled against his protégé by certain elements of the conservative blogosphere -- namely David Horowitz's NewsReal Blog. But this time around, amidst charges that Knepper is in fact a pedophile, Frum finally relented. "The brainy writer of real promise" he had once shielded will now have to go elsewhere for a byline.
This story is impossible to recount accurately without a substantial amount of background information, so you'll have to stay with me as I rifle through the somewhat cryptic history of an online political feud.
Knepper is a gay conservative, and a proudly idiosyncratic one at that. He has often commented on issues of sexuality, and it's not difficult to tell why some on the more prudish right might find his prose off-putting. But in a political environment largely dominated by knee-jerk, anti-intellectual pontificating, Knepper's commentary was both insightful and refreshing -- and his quick ascent to an influential platform reflected as much.
Enter David Swindle, Managing Editor of Horowitz's NewsReal Blog, for which Knepper had been a contributor until being fired in July. Horowitz and Frum had publicly sparred on the direction of the conservative movement -- Frum is not a fan of Glenn Beck, while Horowitz views him as valuable -- and in working for both of them, Knepper was forced to walk a very fine line. He directly reported to Swindle, whose open and inflammatory hostility towards Frum is now a fixture of NewsReal Blog.
"I wrote a piece mockingly calling Ann Coulter a 'traitor,'" Knepper told me of his experience at NRB. "Horowitz and Swindle sacked me for it, and I shot back at them for their rigidity on FrumForum -- which sent Swindle into overdrive in a mad attempt to destroy my career."
Swindle said his decision to fire Knepper came at his boss's direction -- the only time Horowitz had ever exercised such oversight -- after Knepper refused to stop posting about sexually-tinged topics. He came to notice in Knepper's columns a tendency to downplay the severity of sex crimes, especially against children, and eventually concluded that Knepper not only favored the legalization of sexual relations between adults and minors -- but that he himself harbored an urge to carry out such acts. "He is a pedophile," Swindle charged. "He desires to have sex with children."
Swindle set out to confirm his theory by looking through an archive of Knepper's activity on GayTeenForum.org -- a site on which Knepper had accumulated thousands of posts -- and unearthed instances of him making lewd jokes about sex with people below legal age. Most damningly, Knepper had also posted a photo of two quite young-looking males sharing an embrace, and said he found the image arousing. All the lurid details are all available at Swindle's copiously sourced blog entry on the matter.
"I joined GayTeenForum when I was 17," Knepper said, "for help with coming out to my mom. I stuck around for the community, which is filled with many interesting and intelligent young people. The guys there, many of whom I consider friends, are balls-out, politically incorrect, and totally edgy. I've learned exponentially more about life by talking to them than in the three months I stupidly spent trying to lick David Horowitz's boots."
Nevertheless, Knepper's reputation has since been tarred -- perhaps irreparably -- within the conservative blogosphere. He's endured attacks by leading provocateurs Erick Erickson and Ann Coulter, both of whom would otherwise be sympathetic to the majority of his political positions. Knepper's sexual preferences have been widely disseminated for middle-aged men to scrutinize and debate; his future employment prospects look at least momentarily dim. Swindle appears to have succeeded in stymieing Knepper's otherwise impressive rise -- but at what cost?
He denies being motivated by a political grudge, but it's hard to imagine that Swindle would've gone to such great lengths to acquire all this information if he hadn't already been in the middle of waging a Frum-Horowitz proxy battle. "We're not concerned about him, we're concerned about the children," Swindle told me. "Something horrible is imminent. For all we know the police could already be getting ready to knock on his door and arrest him. "
"The children!" Knepper retorted. "Here's how much David Swindle cares about the people he calls little children: he links to the private pictures, profiles, and stories of closeted gay adolescents, inviting the entire right-wing blog world to examine them. The children. Swindle's intellectual kin are the people who collect porno magazines and then claim that they're just looking at them to examine how ugly the secular world is."
Of course, no one would object to prioritizing the safety of children over the career prospects of an aspiring pundit. But Swindle has not satisfactorily established that Knepper actually poses a threat to anyone; aside from inference based on his political writings, Swindle's only evidence is cherry-picked from GayTeenForum's massive archive of digital debauchery. And in order to properly contextualize Kneppers unsavory remarks, one must recognize that the culture on these sorts of forums is so incredibly removed from normal etiquette that even the rest of the Internet seems tame in comparison. Posts are endlessly laced with outrageous sarcasm and inside jokes, shock-value is often of paramount concern, and raunchy anecdotes are wildly commonplace. I've had a hard time explaining the nature of such forums to friends around my age, nevermind conservative politicos, so it's obvious to me how this kind of material can be easily isolated and presented an inflammatory way.
That said, I would not advise anyone to boastfully post about his or her sexual encounters on the Internet, and it's bizarre to me that Knepper was so comfortable broadcasting his rendezvouses in the first place -- but perhaps that's simply a difference in personality. People navigate their sexual development in any number of ways, and to me, musing on Internet forums is not the most offensive means by which to go about doing so.
However you feel about Knepper's political philosophy or his activity on GayTeenForum, the bottom line is that a promising young writer has had his life trajectory needlessly derailed. The accusations of pedophilia and endangerment of children are some of the most grievous charges one can possibly make against another, and as such the burden of proof must be exceptionally high. Even the mere allegation is itself enough to leave an indelible blemish on one's reputation.
Alex Knepper may have a penchant for the occasional uncouth sexual joke, but Swindle's assertion that he represents a danger to children is entirely unwarranted -- and potentially libelous.
I should say in fairness that based on our recent correspondence, David Swindle strikes me as a serious individual. But his behavior in this scuffle has betrayed the standard of decency that must be necessitated by such grave accusations. Knepper was not even asked to comment before Swindle's blog post was published; presumably, some mitigating contextualization could have been provided -- and now it is too late. The conservative blogosophere, which had been Alex Knepper's lifeblood, is alight with spurious innuendo. I cannot speak conclusively to Swindle's true motivation for launching this attack, and a desire to protect children may well be his overriding concern. But there is something very amiss in the way this situation has been handled. If Swindle genuinely felt that minors were at risk, he should have gone to the police -- not David Horowitz's blog.