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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Friday, November 14, 2008

To engage or not to engage

by folkbum

In all my years in the Cheddarsphere, the other side has often been insufferabe. (I'm sure they would say roughly the same thing about me and my side.) However, in all those years, that other side represented the side in power. I cannot even begin to imagine just how much more untethered they will become once Barack Obama is sworn in January 20. The first week or so of president-elect Obama has been pretty rough already.

I remember the the 1990s, when Bill Clinton was president and the conservative media played the role of beleaguered opposition. My mother listened to Rush Limbaugh--I recall Limbaugh's short-lived television program on at the house, too--and G. Gordon Liddy and the like, and had to deal with the misinformation and paranoia that resulted in the house. I remember watching Sunday morning television to see Jerry Falwell hawking video tapes between his rants, tapes that supposedly showed the connection between Clinton and cocaine trafficking with all the murder and other crime associated with it. I recall Ann Coulter on Bill Maher's "Politically Incorrect" (before ABC fired him for being, er, politically incorrect, according to the Bush White House's definition) and being surprised that she could return time after time to spew her nonsense. I've read David Brock.

All of those, of course, happened in mainstream venues with relatively large audiences and, I would hope, some measure of concern for propriety and decency. Yes, even with all the crap flung by the howling right through the Clinton years, I have a feeling that there was a great deal of restraint involved.

Why? Because you're starting to see what an unrestrained out-of-power right-wing movement will look like; take a tour of parts of the right-wing Cheddarsphere (not the parts I generally link to) to see it.

The fringy kooks like Limbaugh and Coulter who we hoped in the 1990s would fade have gone on to become the mainstream faces and voices of Republican and conservative thought. Bullies like Hannity and O'Reilly dominate the discourse where once they would have been consigned to joke status. During the campaign, Obama was repeatedly excoriated for not going to FOX News (where he did eventually sit down with O'Reilly), while no one even seemed to care that John McCain cancelled on Larry King.

But how did the fringe right get so powerful? There are two possibilities: One, the left engaged them and gave them too much credibility (i.e., Maher's use of Coulter). Two, the left chose not to engage and allowed the insanity to take hold. The former view has always made a lot of sense to me; as I said, I do not link to the fringier elements of the conservative Cheddarsphere because I don't feel the need to give them any more attention than they already have. It doesn't seem to matter; consider that in the week since Peter "put a bounty on [Obama's] melon" Digaudio started his new blog, he's already nearing 2000 hits, something that after almost 6 years of blogging is a good week's total for me. Obviously, my ignoring his lunacy has not significantly changed either his writing or his audience.

Or consider this: I have three tabs' worth of Jessica McBride columns open in my browser right now. McBride, off the airwaves for a while now and blogless almost as long, seems to have much less sway in the discourse now. So do I really want to draw attention to the fact that in two columns just before the election (1, 2), McBride calls Barack Obama a "redistributive" "socialist" out-of-the-mainstream candidate ("McCain is a centrist, Obama is not," she wrote)--and in her post election column she leads with, "How can Democrats claim Barack Obama's victory means the country has liberalized when Obama ran as a moderate?" (Note: Some headline writer needs to be fired for calling that column an election "post-partum," rather than a "post-mortem.") How much does pointing out the foolishness and inconsistency really help my side, as opposed to just offering McBride additional credibility?

One more: Pretty much everywhere I go on the righties' blogs these days, "gus" is there (remember him?). He poisons every thread he's on, making them unendurable. It's impossible to have a rational discussion once "gus" hits the comments. See, as a recent example, this post at Badger Blogger, where a few thoughtful liberals try to have a reasonable discussion with a few thoughtful conservatives, and watch how the whole thing falls to hell once "gus" shows up. Do we engage that? How do we engage that? And what good does it do to try to have a conversation if you know that people not already committed to the thread are likely to see "gus" doing his thing and give up reading it?

On the other hand, the latter view, that we failed to engage and allowed the growth of the fringe into the mainstream, is voiced eloquently this week by Dan Shelley, formerly a news director at Milwaukee's WTMJ radio, which is the Wisconsin equivalent of FOX News, with some baseball thrown in. Shelley writes in Milwaukee Magazine how conservative squawkers moved from loony fringe to mainstream:
left WTMJ with some regret [. . .]. In the constant push for ratings, I had seen and helped foster the transformation of AM radio and the rise of conservative hosts. They have a power that is unlikely to decline.

Their rise was also helped by liberals whose ideology, after all, emphasizes tolerance. Their friendly toleration of talk radio merely gave the hosts more credibility. Yet an attitude of intolerance was probably worse: It made the liberals look hypocritical, giving ammunition to talk show hosts who used it with great skill.

But the key reason talk radio succeeds is because its hosts can exploit the fears and perceived victimization of a large swath of conservative-leaning listeners. And they feel victimized because many liberals and moderates have ignored or trivialized their concerns and have stereotyped these Americans as uncaring curmudgeons.
Here, Shelley is clear: By refusing to engage both the hosts' rantings and the listeners' concerns, we liberals let the conservative talk genre thrive. The implied answer is that not only do we have to stand up and engage the arguments head-on, we also have to offer something to the audience--for surely that audience is real, though less powerful than conservatives might like to believe (example)--that allays the fears and offers them a more realistic, more optimistic world view.

When I talk about the influence of this blog--which I maintain is meagre and not something worth touting--I generally talk about the ability to eventually shift the conversation slightly toward (what I see as) the truth, toward a more progressive view of policy and the world in general. For example, my post earlier this week on Obama's "civilian national security force" spent a few days at the top of the google blog search rankings, and I found myself cited as a source to smack-down the paranoia of the right on everything from a classical music usenet group to an ESPN discussion board. Being able to put the facts out there and offer an alternative (and, to some, authoritative) take on a topic is important to me, because it does change the conversation just a little bit. I'm not looking to win the whole game here, just move the ball downfield a yard or two at a time.

But I wouldn't have written that post if I wasn't planning to engage, going directly at some of the local bloggers and their readers who have bought into the idea that Obama was seriously talking about instituting a kind of secret police (some still do buy into that idea).

My ambivalence about this is years old, now, and I don't think I have ever tried to work through it this way before. I think the take-away lesson is that we have to start taking the fights more directly to the fringe. Every day that this kind of paranoia and extremism goes unchecked is a day we've lost the debate. McBride's columns shouldn't linger in open tabs on my computer but ought to be funneled into letter-writing or rebuttals. When the new Peter DiGaudio not only lies about Barack Obama but accuses liberals of being anti-semitic while making some pretty vilely anti-Jewish statements himself (suggesting that 3/4 of American Jews are "really self-hating and [. . .] may have been the type who sold out their fellow Jews to the Nazis in 1930s Germany") he needs to be called on it. By everyone.

So let's engage.

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