Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Demolition Man

You may not recognise his face, but Rick Dakota is arguably the most important man alive today. Variously known as ‘Obama’s Rottweiler’, ‘Dawkins’s Bulldog’ and ‘The Demolition Man’, his devastating victories in online debates have shaped global politics, caused irreparable damage to most of the world’s religions, wholly revised contemporary thinking about popular music and earned him millions of dollars. Now he’s turning his attention to climate change... and what happens next could literally decide the fate of the planet.

In a rare interview, exclusively for The Sunday Times Magazine, Neil Hacksworth tries to unmask the man behind the myth, and reveal the person behind the pixels.









THE first thing you notice about Rick Dakota is his right index finger. Unnaturally elongated and warped by ceaseless mouse-scrolling, it protrudes from his person like some ancient, weather-twisted tree on a stark clifftop. Even across the crowded lobby of a fashionable London hotel, the finger seems almost to poke me in the eye and, though I’ve never seen the face of the famed Demolition Man other than in the handful of long-lens paparazzi shots that pepper the internet, as soon as I set eyes on that tentacle-like digit I know I am in the same room as the world’s most prolific, influential and successful blog commenter.

That the physical presence of a figure whose digital presence is so dominant should be dominated by a digit, is somehow apt. Dakota is otherwise corporeally unprepossessing. White-haired and spread with middle-age, in his check shirt, black chinos and unflashy designer spectacles he could be any American businessman stopping over for a European conference. The waitress who takes his drinks order (“coffee, black, tall, plenty of Sweet’n Low or whatever you call it here”) barely bats an eyelid, presumably unaware that she is serving the man whose opinions could, and probably will, determine whether the world’s leaders enact radical, capitalism-crunching measures to combat climate change, or whether we risk our children’s future by carrying on carbonating regardless.

“I like to be low profile from a personal point of view. It suits my purposes,” he says when I mention the vast disconnect between his public face and his global influence. But hasn’t he ever been tempted by the trappings of fame: big cars, red carpets, glamorous dollybirds? A man who counts Barack Obama amongst his disciples would surely have access to some of the finer things in life? “Those are just distractions. I’m very goal-oriented. I like to have goals.” The finger wags dismissively, as if to brush worldly goods aside. “But it’s not like I’m not a complete puritan or anything,” he adds, with a slight grimace which I choose to interpret as a tight-lipped smile.

So perhaps he’s not a machine, after all, though as an interview subject Dakota is hardly effusive. He is polite but distant, conveying a vague sense of irritation, as if my questions are distracting him from a train of thought. Indeed, this may be the case. I notice that his eyes frequently wander into the middle distance, suggesting that one part of his brain is composing an exquisitely cogent 400-word argument of the kind that has made his fortune, while his hand twitches, crablike, as though missing a mouse. My smalltalk ice-breakers are barely tolerated (“Yeah, it rains a lot in Chicago too”); questions about his past and his family life are dealt with perfunctorily (“Normal, dull, happy. Sorry I can’t give you anything more, ah, exotic”) and he only really lights up when discussions move on to his current internet concerns. But more of that later. Just who is this man, and how did he end up as every blogger’s most feared opponent?

***

Richard Hubert Jefferson Dakota Jnr was born in 1951, the first of four siblings, in Kingsnorth, a one-horse town in rural Illinois. School was a short bike ride to a converted cowshed, Chicago an annual three hour drive in his father’s pick-up. Richard Snr was a self-made builder and handyman of adequate means, his wife Mary-Lou a traditional home-maker. (Handmade apple pies cooling on the windowsill perhaps? “Metaphorically maybe. Maybe literally too, sure, why not? I don’t really recall.”) The young Rick achieved sufficient grades to gain a place at Eagar Cow College, where he majored in Economics, and after graduation he took an accounts job in Burnet-Cohen plc, a plastics manufacturing company. There he met his future wife and the mother of his two children, coincidentally called Mary-Lou (“It’s a common name in the States, don’t even think about trying anything Freudian with that”), and there he worked for three diligent, unobtrusive decades, until the day in 2001 that was to change his fortune, and ultimately the fate of the world: the day his employers installed an internet-enabled computer in his office.

So far, little in Dakota’s history seems to provide a clue about the direction his life was to take. One childhood anecdote is perhaps significant. When he was about eleven years old, he recalls overhearing a discussion between his father and the local preacher, who had stopped by for coffee on the Dakota front porch. “They were arguing about evolution, or trying to. The preacher was kinda against it, and Pop was kinda for it, but they were just tiptoeing around the thing. They weren’t really confronting each other’s viewpoints, there was no defined goal there. I guess they didn’t want to offend each other, maybe, or they just didn’t know what they were talking about.” You sensed something unusual in this? “Somehow I knew they weren’t arguing effectively. Of course I didn’t have the information I have now, I didn’t have the answers.” So you do have the answers now? “Nobody has all the answers. But I have the information and the tools, and I know how to use those tools to argue with you and to beat you. Every time.” As he says this Rick Dakota fixes me with the coldest, steeliest stare I have ever received. That weirdly long finger stabs at each syllable and suddenly I glimpse how this unremarkable-looking American came to be known as The Demolition Man.

***

We have covered the first half-century of Rick Dakota’s life and coffee is only just arriving. But this is indicative of the meteoric nature of his rise from provincial obscurity to global ubiquity. Fifty years of nothing, then a sudden mushrooming of fame. As the caffeine hits home (“Not bad coffee, for England… I call it my brain-juice”) and the subject matter turns to his new career, our conversation changes up at least three gears. “They put the internet in my office and then 9/11 happened. That changed a lot of lives directly. Indirectly it changed mine.”

Dakota had barely sent an email before 11 September 2001. After it he began searching for questions, answers, discussions. “There was a lot of crazy stuff, stupid stuff being said, in the street, on talk radio. I felt a strong urge to do something about it.” The web provided the outlet. He discovered message boards, forums and, critically, web logs. Dakota began commenting on popular 'blogs' at both ends of the political spectrum under the pseudonym “Crawler” and his impact was instantaneous. ‘Crawler’ supported the invasion of Afghanistan via a series of thorough, irrefutable arguments with liberal commenters which hardened public opinion in favour of the war. Of even greater significance, at least to Britain, was his initial support for the invasion of Iraq. New Labour insiders have revealed that, more than any ‘dodgy dossier’ or cosy relationship with George W Bush, it was an 800-word Crawler comment on a Guardian messageboard, complete with hyperlinks and bullet points, that ultimately persuaded Tony Blair to throw his full weight behind the planned removal of Saddam.

But Dakota is no gung-ho neocon. Resolutely independent, he became increasingly critical of the handling of the Iraq insurgency, and of the Bush administration generally (“They just made a goddamn mess of it. I warned them but back then nobody in the White House was really listening to Crawler. I guess they probably regret that now”). In 2006 a well-known right-wing website carried a post with a 300-strong comment thread, to which Dakota, now going by the name ‘VoiceOfReason61’, contributed no less than 148 comments while taking on the cream of US conservative blogging. So persuasive and well-argued was Dakota’s effort that it proved a turning point for the Republican Party. Bush’s domestic popularity immediately plummeted to record depths.

Yet Rick Dakota’s influence extends far beyond politics. Notoriously, a rigorous defence of Richard Dawkins’s River out of Eden on The Tablet’s website prompted a personal apology to Dawkins from the Pope and forced the Catholic Church to radically revise its stance on evolution. The episode inspired Sunday Times writer Bryan Appleyard to describe Dakota as “Dawkins’s Bulldog”, but a lengthy retort on Appleyard’s own blog about why this was a glib and inaccurate moniker earned the American another full apology. Has he forgiven the English journalist? “It’s not a case of forgiving. I don’t bear grudges or take things personally. I just like to put the facts straight.”

Perhaps Dakota’s most celebrated instance of ‘putting the facts straight’ was his overturning of forty years of conventional wisdom about the influence of the Beatles on popular music. In a set of comments on Rolling Stone magazine’s online forum, he proved beyond all reasonable doubt that Sergeant Pepper was a virtual copy of an obscure Roy Orbison album featuring pygmy tribesmen of Papua New Guinea, and that Johnny Cash’s 1950s output was the source of all pop musical styles from heavy metal to trip hop (“I just said it like I heard it”). This ‘comprehensive demolition of prevailing opinion’ – as pop mogul Simon Cowell described it - proved devastating for the record industry, as sales of the Beatles’ back catalogue halved overnight. Many believe that the decline in value of the Lennon-McCartney legacy contributed directly to owner Michael Jackson’s mental breakdown; and ultimately to his untimely death. It undeniably earned Dakota worldwide respect and infamy in equal measure, as well as the Demolition Man tag. Is he proud of the nickname?

“Well let’s just say I’ve been called a lot worse,” he says, sipping his coffee and, for the first time since our interview began, unambiguously smiling. I can’t say it’s a nice smile, exactly, but it’s a start.

***

Now that we’re getting along so well, I suggest to Dakota that it is a testament to Barack Obama’s political savvy that he enlisted The Demolition Man for his online Presidential campaign before the Republicans or indeed Hilary Clinton could claim him. He visibly bridles at this. “Obama doesn’t own me. I say it how I see it and if I think Obama’s wrong about something, that’s what I say.” But what about the reports of six-figure salaries? “Category error!” he snaps. “I have been paid consultancy fees for advice about winning blog arguments. My own blog arguing is unaffected.”

I choose not to push the point, but few would deny that Obama’s decision to make nice to Rick Dakota was a wise one. But just what is it that makes The Demolition Man such an effective internet protagonist? Before meeting Dakota I contacted web expert Dave Lull – the only man to have read every single page of the internet – who told me that the Illinoisan has an irresistible two-pronged approach to comment thread arguments: ‘First, he’s watertight and consistent,’ says Lull. ‘That’s a given. You just don’t find holes in a Dakota argument, and if you think you do, you’re wrong and he’ll tell you exactly why you’re wrong. In detail. Second, he’ll put in the hard yards. That’s what marks him out from the rest: he’ll just keep coming at you, weekends, evenings, holidays. You contradict him at length, he’ll contradict you back even longer. The thread can be fifty, a hundred, five hundred comments long – it doesn’t matter, Rick Dakota will just keep on going, repeating points again and again as necessary, until he’s utterly demolished you. There’s no last word with Dakota.”

Uber-blogger Andrew Sullivan of The Daily Dish agrees. “Rick Dakota is a phenomenon. He gives veteran bloggers nightmares. Often they’ll just quit blogging rather than face him. Rick Dakota is the sole reason I don’t allow comments on my blog – I simply can’t risk it.”

When I mention these accolades to Dakota he feigns modesty: “It’s got a lot easier these days. Google Alerts, Google Readers, emailed comments…It allows you to keep tabs on threads so you can always get over there and fix it if someone is being wrong.”

Then comes a startling revelation. A soft enough question, it would seem, but when I ask whether his wife is proud of his blogging achievements, his reply shocks me. “Mary-Lou? She doesn’t know anything about it. Not a clue. All she knows is that I spend a lot of time on the computer.” But the money, the fame? “She’s fine with the money obviously but the fame isn’t real to her.” But what about your staggering achievements – the Iraq War, the Obama victory, the universal acceptance of Darwinian evolution in America? “To her, it’s just a load of guys wasting time on the computer. Hey, maybe she’s right. It’s a point of view; I don’t like to argue with her.”

This time, his smile seems genuinely warm.

***

With our time nearly up, I attempt to press Dakota on the big and so far unspoken issue; the elephant in the room. After years of deafening silence on the subject, he is rumoured to be ready to enter the Climate Change debate. The UN has already begun pencilling in venues for emergency summits, in order to be ready to convene and take appropriate action at a moment’s notice when his comments finally appear. At this stage, nobody even knows on which blog his climate change conclusions will be posted, though the likelihood is that it will be one of the contemporary internet giants, such as Nigeness.

Despite my best efforts, however, Dakota is revealing nothing. “It’s a heck of a big issue, a mess. There’s a lot in there and I wanted to get all my facts one hundred percent watertight before I started putting the thing right.” Is there any chance he could be wrong, though, any possibility that someone, somewhere could beat him in a Climate Change debate? “Sure, there’s always a chance.” But he’s not worried about it? “At this moment? Honestly, no.”

And with that he gives me his third – or if we’re generous, fourth – smile of the morning, rises from his seat, shakes my hand and walks out of the lobby. I watch him blend back into general mass of London life, unremarkable save for that strange, dangerous index finger, which right now is hailing a taxi. Without a backward glance Rick ‘The Demolition Man’ Dakota climbs in and the Cockney cabbie, completely unaware of the weight of his burden, carries into the capital the fate of the planet, and of his children’s children’s children.


************



Errata
Following publication of this article Neil Hacksworth received a lengthy email from Mr Dakota correcting several points. As a result The Sunday Times Magazine would like to apologise for the following errors:
- Mr Dakota is the second of four siblings, not the first, but is the eldest son
- He worked for a plastics import company, not manufacturing company
- The chinos he was wearing were very dark blue, not black
- Mr Dakota contributed 146, not 148 comments to the famous anti-Bush thread
- Simon Cowell’s exact quote was ‘a comprehensive demolition of the prevailing opinion’
- Mr Dakota’s right index is not 'unnaturally elongated'. While it is in the 80th percentile for index finger length, it falls within standard medical parameters

7 comments:

Peter Burnet said...

He's a legend, for sure, but he's not invincible. Remember the time he unleashed a flurry of comments on evolution and recursive systems and everybody had to scream at him in caps that the thread was about Terri Schiavo? Plus all you have to do is mention the word "France" and the guy totally loses it. And just what is with all those Chesterton quotes?

I hope he knows when to quit. There are few things sadder than an aging blogger who can't see that he has left his best work behind him.

Nige said...

Brilliant! I'll be ready for him - just hope he doesn't call himself 'Anonymous'...

Hey Skipper said...

First I must insist ...

Uhhh. Never mind.

malty said...

Where does he find the time? the day job, as Kim's double, mustn't pay enough.

Sophie King said...

"Richard Hubert Jefferson Dakota Jnr was born in 1951, the first of four siblings, in Kingsnorth". I feel there may be something weird going on here.

Sophie King said...

OK - now I've actually read the whole thing and my spoofometer is working again.

David said...

In the states, he's been completely exploded. National Enquirer ran a photo of him wearing a backwards baseball cap.

President Obama immediately put out a statement insisting that, while he didn't personally know Mr. Dakota, he was obviously a jackass.