Very Well, Say ‘Shibboleth’
Fresh off of reading Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent op-ed concerning the ever-shrinking GOP tent, I had the occasion to sit around for a while listening to one of the local highly-rated talk radio hosts for my area. After about 5 minutes, I decided to grab a notepad, write down the key words and phrases, and start keeping track of how often they were uttered by either the host or call-in guests.
This is all completely unscientific; it is possible it may not be all that representative of the show, being a randomly sampled segment on a random day based on those things I found interesting. Based on the limited listening I do, however, I am reasonably certain it is relatively representative not only of his show, but of a good percentage of right-wing talk radio in general.
Here is what I found:
– In the time I listened, the host referred to President Obama not less than 40 times. When he did refer to the POTUS, it was generally in a long diatribe. The most common (used 25 times) was “the miserable failure and one term muslim president Barack Hussein Obama”, with a special emphasis on the middle name.
– At least 50 times, callers or host referred to the POTUS as either a “socialist” or a “marxist.”
– At least 70 times, the phrases “judeo-christian nation” or “judeo-christian values” were mentioned.
– At least 30 times, homosexuals were referred to as either “abnormal” or “diseased.” This may have been a result of discussions surrounding the Dan Savage controversy and a general “homosexual activists” topic of the day.
– At least 20 times, members of the Tea Party were referred to as “people who love the USA” or “freedom-loving patriots.” By contrast, at least 30 times members of the Occupy Wall Street movement were referred to as “smelly unemployed hippies” or “America-hating communists.”
– At least 10 times, Michelle Obama was referred to as “the America-hating illegitimate first lady.”
Finally and most interesting to me: mentions of banks, business owners, and companies that have shipped thousands of jobs overseas were uniformly referred to as “job creators.” This was true even for companies that in the past few years shut down local operations and put a large number of people out of work in the process.
The ugly reality of this is that it is strong evidence of how far apart the two sides of politics approaching this election really are. To judge by this and by certain national shows, it’s become a daily regimen, somewhat akin to Orwell’s Two Minutes Hate. One national talk radio host tells his listener base “Three hours a day, everyday. That’s all we ask”; my church only asks me for approximately 1 hour per week.
The more I heard the host and his call-in commenters talk, the more I felt he had practiced his various codewords and phrases over and over and over again. There was a practiced mania to the way in which he could unfailingly refer to the current POTUS in sentence-long derogatory phrases. When a young man, presenting himself as an Iraq veteran, told the host that “if you can’t have respect for the man, have respect for the office of President and speak accordingly”, he was dump-buttoned and the host let out one of the most ugly rants of the show, complete with insinuation that the caller was taking stolen valor by falsely representing himself as a US military veteran because “no self-respecting military man would defend this marxist president.”
Now, this isn’t all on one side. There is controversy right now over Dan Savage’s comments towards the Bible, ironically at the same moment as the Mitt Romney campaign expelled an openly and activist homosexual staff member after furor from the extreme-right religious groups. Right-wing religious groups are also running a determined campaign against Jon Stewart and the Daily Show following a sketch satirizing GOP laws and attitudes regarding reproductive rights with the concept of a “vagina manger.” The comedy of Bill Maher regularly involves some pretty derogatory commentary regarding both conservatives in general and specific conservatives of the moment, including words that couldn’t be broadcast over the public airwaves or even on most cable channels. Just as there are “gotcha” cameramen following right wing politicians and news sites like Media Matters scouring the airwaves for incidents when right-wing pundits and politicians cross the line, there are plenty of “gotcha” cameramen and activists from the right wing scouring newsmedia and events for gaffes and comments the equivalent of “if you’re a democrat, you’re my enemy” from the other side. It’s very possible to dredge up a whole host of insults from the left wing towards the right, and even Schwarzenegger’s relatively centrist letter contains a comment about “those whose views, I think, make them sound like cavemen.”
On the whole, I found myself starting to get slightly sick listening to the talk radio show. There was a large amount of signaling, as callers and host alike repeated the key phrases to reinforce membership in the right wing to each other. There was an even larger amount of hate being channeled; membership wasn’t enough, it was important to have a clear and present hatred to those who were not like them. Listeners were told over and over: “we love America: ‘they’ hate America. ‘They’ are trying to destroy America: we are trying to righteously save it.” I had to wonder: how many of these people might I know? Was one of these people calling in to the station, frothing at the mouth while ranting about how the POTUS is really a muslim or a socialist or trying to destroy the country, one of my friends, neighbors, co-workers? Even more innocuous words – fairness, equality, honesty, patriotism, freedom – took on a whole new meaning in the context of the talk radio show. I was shocked to hear arguments that would not have been out of place in the days when the US was gripped by fear of the Red Menace.
Personally, my politics are somewhat left. I enjoy the “new rules” segment of Real Time with Bill Maher while ignoring most of the rest of his show in an attempt to avoid boredom. I enjoy the comedy of Stewart and Colbert while recognizing that if I were the target of some of those jokes, I probably wouldn’t be laughing quite as hard – in fact psychological studies have shown that the reaction would likely be much of what the radio audience seemed to be engaged in, a definitive backfire effect.
I wound up thinking of the biblical story of the Ephraimites. For lack of the ability to pronounce a single word correctly, 42,000 of them were slaughtered. In the context of the political arguments in 2012, how long before good friendships die when someone fails to respond correctly to a code word? How long before someone launches a fist at someone else’s face, based on one of the trigger words programmed into them by hours of talk radio listening each day? How well can friendships and family relationships survive in such a poisonous political atmosphere?
(Image: ‘Shibboleth’ by Colombian sculptor Doris Salcedo.)