I’ve come to believe that there’s a huge disconnect between the world portrayed in the media, and the world of ordinary working people. Case in point: a co-worker—one of the nicest, most patient, most generous people I know—mentioned off-hand to me that she enjoys listening to Michael Savage when driving home from work.
It took me a few seconds to absorb this. Then I shook my head and said softly, but emphatically, “Oh…I don’t like him.”
She seemed slightly taken aback. “Oh, he does exaggerate quite a bit, I guess.”
“He preaches hatred,” I said. “He says that people like me are enemies of
Visibly flustered, she changed the subject.
I had a similar experience with an acquaintance—not quite a friend, but not a stranger—who always showed me a great deal of kindness and concern, expressed his admiration for me, and was supportive during difficult times. In a casual conversation it emerged that he liked Bill O’Reilly.
“Bill O’Reilly!” I said. “He’s a right-wing extremist, and a liar.”
“Well, I don’t want to get into a political debate with you. I just know that I feel grateful for the information I get from his program. He’s a very smart man.”
“So was Goebbels.”
At that point I became speechless, but in any case the particular circumstance was such that it made no sense to pursue the subject.
How often do we run up against these startling incongruities between the positive qualities of someone we know and their political inclinations? I don’t even know in these cases how serious or casual their beliefs might be. It seems the best I could do was express my disapproval of the persons referred to (Savage and O’Reilly) without making it disapproval of the person I was talking to. Why? Because disagreements should be about principles, and not about attacking the person we disagree with. However, this is the very idea that Savage and O’Reilly and the rest of the rightist haters never honor.
Incidents like these make me wonder about the awareness of the media audience. My co-worker is a thousand times the human being that Michael Savage could ever hope to be. So I can’t help but think that she fails to make the connection between a voice on the radio, ranting and raving, and the reality of people’s lives. Perhaps it’s something abstract to her—“other” people out there who are undermining America and need to be stopped (or whatever), and not real people that she might know, that she might like, that might even be in her own family.
I don’t know what percentage of the hate media audience consists of died-in-the-wool wingnuts. But I suspect there’s a good chunk of the viewing/listening group that resembles my co-worker and my acquaintance: people who listen and believe without thinking too hard or suspecting where the beliefs might lead. In our culture politics is made to seem like a kind of entertainment—powerful people doing things in a world from which we are both excluded and insulated. The media is very much like a drug that lulls the mind into a softly pliable, semi-conscious state of passive acquiescence.
What does it take to get through to this limited type of consciousness? But before asking that, I should ask, how do I first break away from this consciousness myself, and in such a way that I can act as a force for understanding rather than reaction? Reaction is understandable for progressives, considering the attacks that have been aimed our way for so long. It’s even necessary and appropriate, to some degree. But when I hear friends say that they love Bill Maher, I realize that the sword does cut both ways. I suppose because Maher hates George Bush, folks nod their head without really listening critically and realizing what an inane and superficial prick he is. On a recent show he asked why the Bush gang even talks about waterboarding—why not just do it and keep it a secret? There’s so many things wrong with this statement that I won’t even try to analyze it, but the point is that there’s a kind of cultural liberalism that pretends to represent an alternative, but in fact doesn’t.
Actual debate with people of a right-wing persuasion is a rare event for me. In the instances I mentioned, the topic came up in awkward situations that didn’t really allow for a meaningful discussion. For the most part, the people I hang out with share my general outlook. More importantly, though, the narcotic nature of the media has made it difficult for many people to even grasp what actual debate would look like anymore. Name-calling, catchphrases, and talking points are not methods of argument, they’re strategies for preventing meaningful discussion.
The only thing I know for sure is that it’s wrong to be silent, to deliberately avoid stating my views on a subject. If someone, no matter how nice, praises Bush or parrots Sean Hannity, or whatever, I’m going to speak my mind. Where it goes from there, however—where it can go, I still don’t know.