The story of how the President's Special Advisor for Green Jobs became the biggest, scariest villain of the right wing (this week, anyway) is also the story of how the right wing information delivery process works now.
Here's the biography of Van Jones: he was a bookish black kid from Tennessee who went to Yale Law and moved to San Francisco and became a radical. Then he decided to use his law degree and smarts to clean up and make things better from inside the establishment.
He was, he openly acknowledges, a "full-on Marxist" in early '90s California. He joined a revolutionary Marxist group and protested police brutality. Then he founded the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, which combats over-incarceration, police brutality, and urban poverty and violence.
Running a civil rights group dedicated to producing real and immediate improvements in urban life will make a revolutionary Marxist a bit more pragmatic. Jones began focusing on job creation, and, with a bit of prognostic intuition that ought to put Thomas Friedman to shame, he decided, in the late-'90s, to focus on "Green Jobs." This is, you know, capitalism—he wants to create wealth, and use market forces to make the world and black communities better places!
And in 2008 he wrote a book called The Green Collar Economy, and it made the Times best-seller list, making him as much of a figure of the mainstream as Sean Hannity or Malcolm Gladwell.
So here we have a radical youth turned respectable liberal. Respectable enough to be on Time magazine listicles and win World Economic Forum prizes and everything. Respectable enough for Tom Friedman to profile him. And The New Yorker. Respectable enough for Meg Whitman, as in former eBay CEO and wealthy Republican California gubernatorial candidate and John McCain advisor Meg Whitman, to proclaim herself "a huge fan of Van Jones."
And for both his activism and his charm he was rewarded with a White House job with the Council on Environmental Quality. He was tasked with making sure stimulus money for green jobs actually went to green jobs. And he's a great person to have in this administration—he is a genuine environmentalist and the only special interest he's beholden to is poor people. He is the sort of person we were all praying Obama would bring with him to DC, instead of Larry Summers.
And that is one of the reasons he is now being ritually and savagely demonized.
To understand why and how he's being demonized, we have to look at the way information and misinformation makes it way from crazy blogs to crazy pundits to crazy citizens to, suddenly, the non-crazy regular media.
The "why" is simple: he is a genuine left-wing liberal with a White House job. He is black. He used to be radical, and probably still has radical sympathies (you know, caring about poor black people and all that). He is, in other words, fucking terrifying, if you frame his story right.
World Net Daily is an old and hugely popular far-right conspiracy "news" website. We've discussed their promotion and popularization of the birther conspiracy but both their influence and insanity cannot be understated. They have a huge email list. The people on that list click on ads and spend money. WND is almost as profitable as Gawker Media. The RNC needs access to that list. So they humor them. And they sponsor them.
And these are the people who insist that there will be FEMA concentration camps and a NAFTA superhighway and a single North American currency and, yes, it is birther central.
WND discovered Jones in April. They took publicly available information about Jones' civil rights past, his arrest at a Rodney King protest (he was not charged with anything because it was one of those illegal but common mass arrests) and his own statements about his youthful radicalism and made a scary, scary story called "Will a 'red' help blacks go green?" Wow, right? And, yes, these were not secrets—remember the Friedman and New Yorker profiles?
Dave Weigel explains how this all snowballed in The Washington Independent: On July 23, Glenn Beck talked about this "self-avowed communist" he discovered in the Obama administration. He brought him up again and again and again over the next month, until his amazing late-August week-long series almost entirely about how Van Jones and Van Jones alone is proof that Obama has a goon squad of violent leftists looking to remake the country as some sort of collectivist Soviet Republic.
Here is the message machine in its platonic form: Glenn Beck introduces his audience to a group Jones once belonged to called "The Apollo Alliance" on August 24th. 72 hours later a constituent is asking his (Republican) representative if this Apollo Alliance wrote the health care bill. The Rep has no idea what the guy is talking about, but the rest of the audience certainly does ("Van Jones!" they shout).
And now, here we are. His name on an old 9/11 truther petition is dredged up. An amusing clip in which he calls Republicans assholes (but explains that he, too, is an asshole) is on CBS News. Jake Tapper and Politico are on the case.
That is how a smear becomes a meme. Schoolhouse Rock, 2009 style.