When Rush Limbaugh reinvented the blindly loyal conformist as a daring, oppressed, truth-seeking revolutionary, he also re-created the mainstream in his image
When Thompson spun out of control, his pieces began to read like self-parody and severely diminished his importance, already diluted by changing times. No author since has emerged as such a pervasive influence on would-be writers.
Now we are witnessing similar activity, but in publications' letter pages (including the Chronicle's). In correspondence defined by an air of smugness and pomposity, dismissive of the positions they dispute, these letter-writers offer a certain world-weary condescension as they deign to point out the ignorance of the writer they attack, eruditely enumerating the flaws in logic and historical ignorance evidenced. Frequently, this is done with the biggest words possible (one hears thesauri being thumbed across the country). At first, this seemed simply a frat-boy political dialogue, but then the source became obvious.
In the way Thompson once influenced renegade writers, Rush Limbaugh is now the literary mainstay of a generation of conservative/Republican/right-wing champions. These letter-writers imagine themselves as dominating, right-wing, radio talk-show hosts engaged in dismissive dialogue with their callers. Gutsy defenders of the status quo, unapologetic apologists for anything this administration does, they simultaneously despise government while wishing they could somehow re-create the far more perfect past. Rush was the modern pioneer of sneering debate in which the unimaginative, sometimes reactionary celebration of the status quo is presented as daringly heroic, renegade individualism. As often as he was imitated, Thompson was unique, with few of the writers most influenced by him attaining popularity. Limbaugh's success has launched more voices than the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
Hosts of shows throughout the country, many syndicated, follow Limbaugh's model (though most would bristle at this description): Passionately supportive of the most hard-right, conservative Republican positions, they are pro-Iraqi invasion, anti-tax, and anti-big-government. Conversely, they are deeply anti-Democrat, finding that party's adherents the traitorous root cause of all contemporary political problems. Inherently distrustful of democracy (they disdain minority views and protections), they almost all claim to be nonpartisan which only means that often even far-right-wing Republicans are not fanatically conservative enough. They share certain stylistic characteristics: contempt and complete disrespect for any opposing position, accompanied by the continual setting up of straw men in order to discredit them. Their positions are tapestries of bits of accepted administration logic, conservative cant, and select historical references woven together with "common sense" assertions. Those who disagree are dishonest, traitorous, stupid, and unquestioning conformists to radical, anti-American ideology.
Often the letter-writers will point out how amused they are by the stupidity of their opponents and their arguments. Invariably, they will sneer and strut. They claim they just want intelligent debate and while deriding others dare you to refute their positions. Don't venture into this quicksand! You'll soon discover that, as they know what is the "truth" and what is a "lie," what is "fact" and what is "distortion," you are fighting air, with your opinions, sources, and information summarily denied.
These letters, as are the talk shows that inspire them, are about attitude rather than ideas. In defining their superiority, politics and ideology are almost incidental, serving the same function as brands of clothes or cars: They are simply to distinguish one from the masses. They don't believe nor are they interested in principled disagreement or sincere discussion aimed at compromise and understanding. They believe in good guys and bad guys; who belongs in each category is a given.
The construction of talk radio encourages this; it is about placing blame rather than offering constructive suggestions. As they brag about their influence and the size of their audiences, radio talk-show hosts insist on their uniqueness, denying the proliferation of such shows. Thus, they attack American media for being mono-voiced and Democrat-controlled while ignoring the existence of not just talk radio but all conservative media. They decry the slanted media coverage of news in the most dishonest terms. Often they will discuss a major story of the day by stating that mainstream media is ignoring it and no one else is talking about it. It is not just that invariably every other talk-show host is talking about the same story, but frequently the story is on the front page of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. They count on their audience's need to feel embattled and the assumption that most don't read those papers.
The Republican right controls Congress and the presidency; they believe God is on their side and that they hold the true vision of this great country in their hearts. Still, they make every argument from the point of view of the besieged, indulging in celebrating their triumphs only as proof of the complicity of God in their cause (as well as oasis-stops of gloating). Alienated righteousness is a potent, protected place to be: You know your beliefs are pure, you know you hold truths, but the easily manipulated masses have voted into power fools who are determined to destroy this nation.
Listen carefully to them: The problem really isn't the stated-as-fact liberal bias of mainstream media; it is that media does not adhere unswervingly to expressing their biases. Demanding "objectivity," they deride any information or position with which they disagree. They claim Fox News is "fair," that Bill O'Reilly is offering a "no-spin zone," and that the American media is overwhelmingly anti-war. Certainly, mainstream media has an urban, homogenized sensibility that reflects the status quo. But try to find a longtime liberal/progressive who believes media reflects/has reflected his beliefs. You won't. Along the same lines is the conservative fiction that this was a liberal-controlled country until the conservatives took it back. It wasn't.
On the other side, a journalism professor chided The New York Times a few weeks back, asking why they just didn't rename it something like "The Administration's Official Position." As if the Bush administration would endorse the Times.
People are actually more pissed about media presenting information they wished it wouldn't, or that they don't want to believe, than they are that it's not presenting enough information. A bottom line is the conviction of all, regardless of political stripe, that news is supporting and reinforcing not just their ideological opposites but the great, unsophisticated, easily manipulated masses, who are not to be trusted. Most complaints about what is lacking in coverage of Iraq concern issues that are being covered. The concern is really emphasis. A reading of a range of easily accessed materials offers a complex, rather than one-sided, view of the situation. There is just the reluctance to trust what you disagree with and the conviction that you are not being told about more of what you do believe is happening.
The most ridiculous were the attacks on media for portraying the war in Iraq as anything but antiseptic. CNN was labeled traitorous for showing destroyed buildings and American casualties, as well as wounded and dead civilians war supporters' arrogant assumption being that most Americans aren't tough enough to deal with the truth, or hardened enough to understand that a war means blood, death, and destruction: "If you just show them a little mayhem, they'll turn against the war." The ridiculous rose to the preposterous with comparisons to D-Day: "If there had been the same kind of reporting then, we would have abandoned the war and all be speaking German now." This is a just plain stupid analogy on so many grounds. Most offensively, it insults the American people, who neither question sacrifice nor are so easily dissuaded by gruesome realities. The problems with Iraq are not dead bodies and bloody children but the question, "Why?" Why is this happening? Why did we invade? What will be the outcome?
Astonishingly, supporters of the war and the aristocratic letter-writers regard themselves as fearless, truth-seeking renegades whose eyes are open to the world, while the liberals are so swamped by sentimental morality, they're essentially blind. Buying the administration's position hook, line, and sinker, they embrace the status quo, accepting government propaganda as gospel while assaulting any legitimate questioning. In superior tones, they advocate positions clearly authored by the government's enormous opinion-manufacturing machinery.
Regardless of specific ideology, we can all grant that all governments heavily slant information with deliberate shading, withholding, excessive control, and outright censorship. By setting up the straw men of liberal media and traitorous Democrats, the right positions this endorsement of propaganda as a courageous, patriotic act of independent thinking. Deeply fearful, this blatant authority-worship is necessarily coupled with disgust at different perspectives. Wrapped up in his own insecurities, feeling embattled and disenfranchised, Limbaugh brilliantly re-created the mainstream, blindly loyal, unquestioning conformist as a daring, oppressed, truth-seeking revolutionary. Now read the letters.