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The Violent Language of Right-Wing Pundits Poisons Our Democracy

On TV and the radio, conservative pundits infuse violence into their arguments, destroying our precious culture of civil debate.
 
 
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The following is an excerpt from Jeffrey Feldmann's new book Outright Barbarous: How the Violent Language of the Right Poisons American Democracy (Ig Publishing, 2008).

The emergence of a cohort of right-wing pundits who use violent logic, language and arguments in national political debate did not gradually take shape over a long stretch of time, but rose up at a starling speed in the lead-up to the national elections of 2004 and 2006. As the horrific extent of the Iraqi military occupation waxed and George W. Bush's popularity waned, a hitherto sarcastic right-wing punditry seemed all at once to step into a new rhetorical frame. Suddenly, with Bush's re-election in doubt, casualties spiraling out of control, and revelations of U.S. military human rights abuses popping up all over, right-wing pundits shifted their tone from critique to conspiracy. The shift is summed up best by the opening line in Dinesh D'Souza's book The Enemy at Home : "The cultural left in this country is responsible for causing 9/11."

As if that is not enough, D'Souza's book also accuses liberals of engaging in civil war with the rest of America and of harboring a violent dream that complements the terrorist goals of Osama Bin Laden, yearns for the destruction of U.S. military forces in Iraq and seeks the downfall of the United States. D'Souza's book filled mainstream bookstores, giving scholarly legitimacy to violent accusations of high treason against vast segments of the American population.

Violent language as a manner of speech amongst right-wing pundits reached a crescendo in the days leading up to the 2006 midterm elections. I remember flipping through TV channels one day, attempting to avoid pundits' violent rhetoric. But such language was everywhere. Anne Coulter joked about "nuking" Iran, Bill O'Reilly talked about the "war on Christmas," Pat Buchanan and Lou Dobbs spoke of the "invasion" and "conquest" of America by immigrants. I even came across a discussion of the "war against the war," in which an anti-war protest was discussed as if it was a war. Every political topic seemed clouded over by a right-wing pundit using violence language.

In the first few months after the 2006 mid-term elections, I penned several blog posts questioning whether the rise of violent rhetoric on the right might be a dangerous development that could possibly transform, through a sudden incident, into actual physical violence. Turning to the work of Hannah Arendt, in particular her masterful study of politics and violence, On Violence , I began to realize that the last significant violent turn in American political ideology and practice involved both the political right and the left. The late 1960s was a time, Arendt explained, where people increasingly believed that violence could actually produce controlled political outcomes. The result was an era in U.S. politics where a broad range of different political organizations and movements each took up violence, a product of the widespread acceptance of Mao Tse-tung's aphorism "Political power grows at the barrel of a gun." Arendt watched this moment lead to assassinations and mass chaos in urban centers, and thus argued that violence was problematic because it led to outcomes in politics that could not be controlled. Violence, she explained, drawing on a famous quote from Karl Marx, may be the birth pang of a new political body, but we would never say that labor pains were the cause of a birth. The same is true with violence, which occasionally happens at times of great political change but is not the cause of such change.

Arendt's thoughts on violence helped me to clarify several aspects of the trend in right-wing violent language that I was tracking in the media. First, I realized that the use of violent language was not accidental, but was the product of a shift in the political philosophy on which the right-wing punditry built their ideas. The shift was from a rhetoric of parody and burlesque to one of violence and accusation. Second, Arendt helped me to clarify exactly what role "violence" was playing in the worldview of the right-wing pundits. Most right-wing pundits see the power of the state as residing ultimately in the monopoly over violence, an idea that comes from the writings of German philosopher Max Weber. This, however, is not the political philosophy that guided the framers of the U.S. Constitution. In other words, violent rhetoric is not just a question of linguistic style, but a sign that a political philosophy in conflict with American deliberative democracy has captured the imagination of many right-wing pundits. Many factors have led to the emergence of violence among right-wing pundits, but the events of 9/11 seem central. In the wake of the attacks, right-wing pundits grew ever more convinced that the continued survival of United States depended on its willingness to use violence. The more violent language filled the airwaves of America's broadcast media, the more this new and disturbing logic of violence and power seemed to saturate public thinking. Lastly, Arendt's writing helped me to see that the American form of deliberative democratic politics itself was a form of government crafted as a replacement for earlier forms of rule by violence. In a discussion of American politics, the opposite of violence has never been nonviolence, but participation -- specifically, participation in deliberative democracy. The quintessential American town hall meetings that Jefferson imagined happening amongst small, mostly agricultural communities in rural colonial America were not just a system for accomplishing the needs of the people but a bulwark against tyrannical rule that resulted from a royal monopoly on all forms of power.

After considering the violent language from right-wing pundits, I began to see the language of America's elected leaders in a new light, particularly the rhetoric of President Bush and Vice President Cheney. It was clear to me that from the start of its term in office, the Bush administration was unrivaled in its ability to manipulate the public via the media. As such, strong political ties to privately owned, right-wing broadcast media was its biggest political asset. Yet, beyond their ability to wield control of the means of communication in our country, President Bush and Vice President Cheney embraced violence as a structuring concept in their political speech.

President Bush first stepped in the direction of violent language in the week following the attacks of Sept. 11, when he gave a series of public statements during visits to the White House by foreign dignitaries and U.S. government employees. The stated theme of that week was the mounting of a campaign to fight terrorism on a global scale, but the agenda had much more to do with constructing a new persona for Bush through a series of violent statements threatening the perpetrators of the attacks of 9/11. Over and over again that week, Bush said, "We're going to smoke them out of their holes," talking about the impending operations to find the terrorists responsible for 9/11 as if he were a cowboy setting out to kill prairie animals. Attempting much more than a bad John Wayne impersonation in those speeches, Bush was boldly stepping across a line that most presidents rarely crossed: direct calls for the death of other human beings.

That was a week of unimaginable emotional anguish for most Americans, and Bush's foray into violent language was largely hailed as welcome bravado in response to an act of war. While researching my book on presidential speeches in the summer of 2006, I went back to the transcripts of Bush's post-9/11 appearances and found moments filled with glib references to death and killing. Speaking to employees at the Pentagon on Sept. 17, 2001, for example, Bush said the following in response to a reporter's question:

I know that this is a different type of enemy than we're used to. It's an enemy that likes to hide and burrow in, and their network is extensive. There are no rules. It's barbaric behavior. They slit throats of women on airplanes in order to achieve an objective that is beyond comprehension. And they like to hit, and then they like to hide out. But we're going to smoke them out. And we're adjusting our thinking to the new type of enemy.

A sitting U.S. president's using his own voice to advocate graphic violence to the public signaled a disturbing change in our political system. Events can be relayed in a variety of ways. President Bush chose violent descriptions to sum up the problem. At first glance, one would assume that his words had the obvious impact of injecting fear into American consciousness. Indeed, they did. In the months that followed Sept. 11, 2001, the country grew more and more afraid of knife-yielding terrorists on planes and more afraid of hidden threats, as waves of panic spread back and forth across the country. President Bush's metaphoric description of terrorists as animals skilled at hiding and committing barbaric acts of murder led people to accept that safety and security could only be restored by an equally violent process of hunting and killing. The violence of 9/11 had made Americans nervous about danger from the skies. As President Bush began to describe hidden threats of "barbaric" violence, Americans began to worry about which dangerous persons might be hiding in their own communities, or standing behind them in the grocery store lines, or sitting one seat over on the subway.

President Bush's turn to violent language was foreshadowed by his prior interest in the bellicose foreign policy vision of right-wing think tanks that had been pushing violent foreign policy since the late 1990s, such as the Project For The New American Century. His speeches also served as a green light to right-wing pundits, inviting them to step into a violent political idiom. Perhaps nobody embodied this more than Anne Coulter. Having made a name for herself as a pundit willing to talk about sex, Coulter's first column after 9/11 called for Americans to "invade" Muslim nations, "kill" their leaders and "convert" foreign citizens to Christianity. Coulter had lost a close friend in one of the planes that crashed on 9/11. Angry rhetoric in response to personal loss was a form of expression that most Americans understood, even as they felt uncomfortable with it. Nonetheless, Coulter's violent language took mainstream American media to a place it had not been since at least the 1950s, if not the 1930s. Another important step was about to be taken, however, and in this case it would be prominent pundits in the media who took the lead.

Whereas Bush had turned to violent language as a technique for dehumanizing the enemy -- talking about terrorists as if they were animals to be hunted and exterminated -- right-wing pundits on radio, television and in print slowly infused violent language into domestic political debate. Radicalized right-wing activists calling Democrats "murderers" had been a familiar, albeit disturbing, aspect of the abortion right's debate. What changed, however, was the sudden linking of violent death in 9/11 to issues that had hitherto been discussed solely in terms of competing social agendas. Speaking in the days after the events of 9/11 on the 700 Club, the flagship daily broadcast of his Christian Broadcast Network, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell blamed the death and destruction on liberal groups in America:

FALWELL: The ACLU's got to take a lot of blame for this.

ROBERTSON: Well, yes.

FALWELL: And, I know that I'll hear from them for this. But, throwing God out successfully with the help of the federal court system, throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools. The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say, "You helped this happen."

ROBERTSON: Well, I totally concur, and the problem is we have adopted that agenda at the highest levels of our government. And so we're responsible as a free society for what the top people do. And, the top people, of course, is the court system.

Falwell's idea that "we make God mad so God uses terrorists to exact revenge" found its correlate in equally shocking attempts by left-wing pundits and intellectuals to somehow blame the murders of 9/11 on social and economic conservatives. Political activist and professor Ward Churchill, for example, claimed infamously that the victims of the attacks were somehow responsible for their own deaths by virtue of their employment in a capitalist society and was deservedly excoriated for doing so. Nonetheless, the limited amount of violent rhetoric from the left that followed 9/11 quickly dissipated. Falwell's and Robertson's exchange, by contrast, nudged open a door that more and more pundits in the right-wing media began to walk through because of two additional factors that had set up a tectonic shift in right-wing rhetoric.

The first factor was that Falwell's and Robertson's comments happened in a post-2000 America where key evangelical leaders wield unprecedented national influence. Most notable among these evangelical leaders is James Dobson, founder and chairman of the Christian parenting organization Focus on the Family and a best-selling right-wing author who writes and speaks about the importance of using physical violence as a technique for disciplining children. Dobson played a prominent role in turning out the vote in the 2000 presidential election, and as a result, his authoritarian writing on parenting is now widely discussed in the mainstream media. In the period immediately after 9/11, however, the influence of Dobson went far beyond the question of raising children to the much broader issue of how the terrain of political debate in America had shifted in the months prior to the attacks of 2001. The Dobson era in the Republican Party, in other words, heralded a newfound comfort with the use of violent terms on a host of social issues, including homosexuality, the family and education.

The second factor was the resurgence of the National Rifle Association as a political force in right-wing politics. Most prominent of all, then NRA Vice President Wayne LaPierre had already employed violent language to argue against gun control laws in the year prior to Sept. 11. In mid-2000, for example, LaPierre accused Bill Clinton of having blood on his hands for not enforcing gun laws, pushing the argument that Democrats allowed violent crime to happen in order advance a liberal agenda to deny gun owners their constitutional rights. LaPierre's rhetoric was so inflammatory that even then NRA president, Charlton Heston, felt the need to redress him. Nonetheless, with the election of George W. Bush, LaPierre emerged as the premier author and TV pundit on gun issues. The dual rise of authoritarian evangelicals and NRA leadership in the Republican Party and the media prepared American civic debate to acquiesce to a higher level of violent rhetoric in domestic politics.

The run up to the 2004 presidential election further increased the volume and frequency of violent rhetoric in right-wing media -- a key transformation in the Republican Party that became embodied in the words and persona of Dick Cheney. Caught in a cycle of bad news from Iraq, human rights abuses, tales of secret prisons, and mounting corruption scandals, the Republican Party launched a PR campaign to equate a Democratic return to the White House with increased terrorist attacks. Speaking to a packed crowd in Des Moines, Iowa on Sept. 9, 2004, Cheney brought violence to the heart of his campaign rhetoric: It's absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on Nov. 2, we make the right choice. Because if we make the wrong choice, then the danger is that we'll get hit again, that we'll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States, and that we'll fall back into the pre-9/11 mindset, if you will, that in fact these terrorist attacks are just criminal acts and that we're not really at war. I think that would be a terrible mistake for us. We have to understand it is a war.

Cheney proffered his violent theme to persuade voters. Rather than tone down his speeches in response to criticism, Cheney steeled his resolve and rallied the party faithful. By 2006, arguing that electoral victory for the Democrats would lead to the mass death of Americans by terrorists had became the core election strategy of the Republican Party. As election day neared, then Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman commissioned a political ad called "The Stakes," combining a ticking bomb soundtrack, images of Osama Bin Laden, video clips from terrorist training films and shots of exploding nuclear bombs. The violent message of the ad was that a vote for the Democrats was a vote for mass annihilation at the hands of nuclear-armed Al Qaeda terrorists. The arc that had begun with President Bush using violence to dehumanize terrorists was now complete.

At this point in the discussion, many people often mistake a concern for violent rhetoric with attempts to censor political speech or limit freedom of expression. It is an understandable reaction brought on by the deep affection Americans hold for the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Freedom of speech -- no matter how obscene, offensive or threatening that speech may be -- cannot be limited, curtailed or regulated without violating civil rights, or so the argument goes.

In general, the American system recognizes that speech is not to be limited up to the point that it presents "a clear and present danger of action of the kind the state is empowered to prevent and punish."Shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater, which we are not free to do, is the classic example. If we walk into a theater and cause mass hysteria by yelling "Fire!" without due cause, there will be a penalty for our destructive action. If someone says to a friend "Shoot that man there," and he does so -- that speech is part of the crime and, thus falls under the criminal statutes against murder. Moreover, what we all too often forget in our rush to assert freedom of expression is the other side of the First Amendment, a side that is in many ways even more important: freedom from compulsion. Compelling individuals to speak or express themselves in a specific way, particularly by the state, damages the First Amendment as much if not more than limiting individual expression. If, for example, a newspaper editor were compelled to print the news each morning according to the dictates of the White House communications director, that compulsion would infringe upon the First Amendment rights of far more people than just the editor. Anyone who read or heard about the information in that paper -- as government had compelled the editor to include it -- would be deprived of his or her First Amendment rights. Moreover, when it comes to violence in speech, context is everything. Violent language appears in the Bible, in Homer's works and in fairy tales, for example, but our system would never tolerate laws limiting the circulation or reading of The Book of Job , The Iliad or Little Red Riding Hood .

Following these basic principles, the U.S. federal government and court system have treated broadcast media, with its unrivalled ability to penetrate every aspect of American life, as a medium with potential for endangering certain individuals if left completely unregulated. In 2007, for example, the Federal Communications Commission issued a report studying the effects of violent television on America's children. The FCC came to the conclusion that efforts should be made to "channel" violent programming into those times of the day when children were least likely to be exposed to it and, wherever possible, to notify viewers in advance of violent content through a ratings system. Most of us benefit from this two-pronged approach without even thinking about it. When it is time for certain entertainment shows to start, a viewer discretion screen appears long enough to alert us to any violent content, language or otherwise, and in that moment we decide whether to continue watching or to choose another program. Most importantly, if we have children, that warning gives us a chance to decide if the content of the show is appropriate for our families.

As much as our system cares about protecting children from unwittingly coming into content with violent language in entertainment, the American system bends over backwards to make sure that none of the same measures infringe upon political speech. When it comes to political speech, the concern over compulsion is so deeply rooted in our culture that most scheduling restrictions or viewer advisories are held at bay. The exception to that rule, of course, are political shows that step clearly into a potential danger zone by virtue of their use of adult language -- i.e., swear words. The best example of a political show that has been time channeled and includes viewer advisories is Real Time with Bill Maher . Clearly, there are commercial disadvantages to airing a political talk show after 11 p.m., but they are balanced by the benefits of helping parents protect their children. That is not to say that Bill Maher's language is "bad" for children, but only that the content of the discussions he leads are widely viewed as inappropriate for audiences under a certain age. Viewer advisories and time channeling are widely seen as helpful precisely because it is so difficult to define "violence" in such a way that would allow producers of content to predictably comply with regulations limiting it.

While not a source of violent rhetoric, Bill Maher's show includes many adult themes. As such, it points to a question about political media rarely asked in discussions of regulatory efforts with respect to violent language in broadcast TV: Are most political talk shows news or entertainment? Maher's show, with its signature combination of comedy monologue and celebrity roundtable discussion, is clearly a form of entertainment designed to challenge viewers to think critically about politics. Its content is political, but Real Time is entertainment. For many other political talk shows on TV, particularly those on Fox News, the line between news and entertainment becomes blurry if not invisible altogether. For example, in April of 2007, on an episode of The O'Reilly Factor , host Bill O'Reilly and his guest Geraldo Rivera discussed the issue of drunk driving, crime and illegal immigration through an exchange of violent rhetoric that many viewers described as unprecedented on a "news" broadcast. Given how disconcerted so many viewers were in response to this particular episode of O'Reilly's show, it suggests that the type of violent exchange it featured warranted a viewer discretion advisory and time channeling required of a show more explicitly presented as entertainment. The question, in other words, is not one of censorship, but of the best way to protect viewers given the unprecedented power of broadcast media in our society and the number of political talk shows that inhabit the gray zone between news and entertainment.

Jeffrey Feldman is editor-in-chief of Frameshop and author of Outright Barbarous: How the Violent Language of the Right Poisons American Democracy (Ig Publishing, 2008).

 
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