One fact about Steve Kangas is indisputable: This proud veteran of years of political argument in Internet discussion forums, and creator of an award-winning Web site devoted to liberal issues, is dead. On Feb. 8, his body was discovered in a men's room on the 39th floor of a building in Pittsburgh -- just outside the offices of conservative billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife.
But that's where the certainty ends -- at least on the part of those discussing Kangas' death in the very same Usenet newsgroups that Kangas, a dogged debater who championed liberal causes with formidable persistence, once participated in. Was Kangas, as press reports in Pittsburgh papers declared, the drunken victim of a self-inflicted gunshot to the head? Had he really become obsessed with Scaife to the point that he had traveled all the way from his home in Las Vegas on a deluded mission to assassinate him? Could it possibly be true that this lifelong foe of right-wing ideology had been found with a copy of "Mein Kampf" by his side?
Or was something more sinister at work? In newsgroups such as alt.current-events.clinton.whitewater and alt.society.liberalism, longtime virtual acquaintances of Kangas picked apart odd discrepancies in the story. Why did the police report say the gun wound was to the left of his head, while the autopsy reported a wound on the roof of his mouth? Why had the hard drive on his computer been erased shortly after his death? Why had Scaife assigned his No. 1 private detective, Rex Armistead, to look into Kangas' past?
To some of Kangas' longtime adversaries, the conspiracy-theorizing by his sympathizers was absurd -- and yet at the same time it served as a kind of long-sought ratification of their own pet obsessions. Hadn't they been arguing for years that Vincent Foster, the Clinton official whose death in 1994 has been officially ruled a suicide, was actually the victim of a malign conspiracy? If the liberals were going to start questioning strange aspects of Kangas' death, then shouldn't they open their minds to the possibility that there was more than met the eye to Foster's demise?
The story's many baroque layers of cross-references don't end there. The single person most responsible for spreading conspiracy theories about Vincent Foster is, arguably, Scaife himself. The Scaife-owned Pittsburgh Tribune-Review newspaper has been the leading vehicle for pushing the claim that Foster was murdered. Now, that same paper was dismissing any possibility of foul play, dismissing Kangas as a would-be assassin and suicide, not to mention an Internet pornographer and ne'er-do-well.
Who can one trust in such an atmosphere? On the Net, and on Usenet in particular, you judge people by their words. Thousands of Kangas' posts are still around, and thousands more posts invoke Kangas' memory or point to articles archived at Kangas' impressive Web site, Liberalism Resurgent. What do they say about him?
"He had a helluva Web page," says John Van Metre, a retired General Motors worker who describes himself as a regular poster to the political newsgroups. "More people are looking at it now than ever before, that's for sure."
A common debating tactic in online arguments is to demand a "cite" --
some kind of textual backup to support one's assertions. Steve Kangas took
that requirement seriously: Liberalism Resurgent is a massive collection
of documents, footnoted articles and frequently asked question files that
works as a kind of primer and encyclopedia for Usenet political thrashes.
Indeed, if you search for Kangas' name at a Usenet archival site like
DejaNews, you'll turn up more
references to his Web site than to his own posts -- especially over the past year or so, when his posting frequency declined dramatically. Although articles in the right-wing press have depicted his Web site as obsessed with Scaife, only a fraction of it is directly concerned with the conservative financier.
"Yes, at times his articles indulged in suggestions of conspiracy, but
for the most part they were just an excellent summary of what others -- from
Chomsky to Galbraith -- had written," says A. Engler Anderson, a regular
poster to the political newsgroups. "The Liberalism Resurgent site, despite
many flaws, is a treasure trove of information, talking points and
inspiration for anybody who has been drawn into a national political
dialogue that is ever more framed by the conservative think tanks that
Kangas fulminated against."
Milton Brewster, the founder of the newsgroup, alt.society.liberalism,
says he first suggested to Kangas, four years ago, the idea of creating a
"'liberal' Web site, in answer to the conservative Web sites then available
on the Web."
"His Web site reflects his rational mind as well as his considerable
research skills-- he and I both felt that political policy should be based
on facts and careful analysis," says Brewster. "It is a mystery, to many of
us who knew him, why he died of a gunshot wound in Pittsburgh."
Mystery indeed -- Kangas' online style did not convey a sense of imbalance. A typical post might include a
straightforward refutation of a couple of specific points, followed by a
pointer to articles on his site. Although, as one person who has reviewed
his posts recently noted, "he wasn't above the occasional name-calling
episode," Kangas was a model of decorum in the normal run of extreme rhetoric that characterizes Usenet political debates.
Even some Usenet posters who considered themselves steadfast opponents of
Kangas were quick to note that he took pains to ground his
arguments in facts and evidence.
"My impression of his posts that I've read since his death is that he had
a good command of the language, made sure of his sources before
making a claim and seemed to rely heavily on statistics, some of them
outdated, to prove his points," says Kurt Nicklas, a programmer who is
currently a prolific contributor to the ongoing debate over what did or did
not happen to Kangas.
Both his friends and his foes say they saw some changes over time.
"Steve Kangas showed a lot of style in his early posts ... His style changed as time went on towards the end; where
he used to attack the issue, he began attacking the person. It was becoming
apparent that he was frustrated that not everyone could grasp what he saw
as truths. His professionalism was slipping toward the end," says Duane
Kelly, an Internet service provider operator. "Where at one time he would
welcome someone with opposing views, he began to disdain them publicly
as idiots, fools and ignorant."
Toward the end, the articles posted at Liberalism Resurgent do betray a
pronounced conspiracy-theory tendency -- an alarming development from
Kangas, who had previously attacked conspiracy theorizing. One of the last
major articles posted on the site was a lengthy screed outlining
CIA involvement in a conspiracy to concentrate wealth among the top 1
percent of the American population. Even those predisposed to support Kangas
found themselves put off by his new direction.
"I do think that he had gone off the deep end a bit with his CIA
conspiracy theories that he had come up with late in his life," says Loren
Petrich, another Usenet regular.
Even so, the news of his death surprised almost everyone who had
interacted with Kangas.
"I certainly would not have listed him as someone to actually go over the
edge," says Brett Kottman, maintainer of a Web page devoted to Ronald Reagan,
who adds that he was one of Kangas' "primary targets" on Usenet.
"In one respect I'm sorry to see that he's gone, both in the way that it happened and that he's no longer around to debate with," continues Kottman. "Even though I thought he was wrong, he was one of the few people who could muster a good enough argument in opposition to make you work to prove them wrong."
"I know one thing," says Kottman, "a long-time Usenet adage: 'It's all 1s and 0s' -- no longer applies."
The phrase "it's all 1s and 0s" is often used on Usenet to turn down the heat in a particularly nasty flame war and remind participants that all they're exchanging are bits and bytes. But when someone who spent years arguing about politics suddenly ends up dead, in circumstances that are inextricably connected to his political beliefs, it isn't just 1s and 0s. If Kangas' death means anything, it means that the hubbub of words on the Net -- the to-and-fro of argument, the claims, counterclaims, invective and oratory -- can't be disentangled from the flesh-and-blood world.