“It is not the rhetoric that creates the conflict, but the conflict that gives voice to the rhetoric”
From “The quotations of Chairman Joe”
Late last August, on the Capitol Mall, telebuffoon Glenn Beck of Fox Noise held a rally at the Lincoln monument. Originally billed as a political event, then as an attempt to “take back the civil rights movement” it morphed into a quasi-religious affair in which the great howler toned down his rhetoric and delivered a much less menacing message than is customarily the case on his daily talk shows.
In response comedians Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert held a much larger and less partisan rally at the same place in early October hoping to restore ‘sanity’ to political discourse. Stewart made reference to the vitriolic and divisive political speech that has taken control demanding that we return to some modicum of civilized discourse. It was a bold and perhaps pointless exercise.
Three years ago CSPAN televised a forum at the University of Oklahoma featuring, among others, the likes of Mayor Bloomberg of New York, Former Senator John Danforth of Missouri, Gary Hart and former Sam Nunn of Georgia. The topic was political discourse with the general consensus being that partisan politics have poisoned the well making it difficult to govern in the United States.
In the wake of Stewart’s criticisms, Keith Olbermann modified his Worst Persons segment on his “Countdown” program to read “not really Worst Persons”. But equating MSNBC with Fox Noise appears, on closer inspection, almost laughable. Bill Mahr, asked to comment pointed out the false equivalence. “Look,” he said “Olbermann at least deals with facts, there is an objective reality. Beck, on the other hand, is just short of playing in his own poop”. Nevertheless the point stands. Much of the tone of this column is in reaction to the idiot wrong and the vitriolic nonsense constantly coming from the likes of Limbaugh, Beck, Coulter and company. As with Olbermann, some of us have taken to the internet, or in his case the cable channels, to give the cons and the neo-cons a bit of their own medicine. To do otherwise would be unilateral disarmament and only succeed in confirming—by lack of response—the public view that those on the left are simply wimps.
But let’s be clear about this. The rhetoric, such as it is now, is a product of the right-wing smear machine and the left’s reaction to it. As an old friend of mine used to say “if you want to kill the rats, you have to crawl down in the sewer”.
Well that’s not completely accurate. In fact the stridency and the vitriol are mere reflections of the suffering of the middle and working classes as they grapple with the death grip that the controlling interests in this country have over the economy. The cries of agony are met with even more strident condemnations from the economic royalists about class warfare and the politics of envy. Cast between the bookends of the politics of envy vs. the politics of greed lies the great chasm left by the ever embattled middle class.
Let’s be clear about this: the political divisions within this country are not the result of the political vitriol coursing through the veins of American politics. Rather it is precisely the opposite. The vitriol that presently permeates the internet, the airwaves, cable news and opinion is merely an expression of the deep divisions within this country. More precisely it is a direct result of the destruction of the relative power—economic and, therefore, political—of the middle class. If speech has become rough it is because Johnny Carson’s “Miss Priscilla Goodbody” –the mythical librarian censor at NBC—has been fired due to corporate restructuring. That is, the middle class is no longer strong enough to act as a referee; it no longer has the economic and—therefore—the political power to reign in on the extremes. As a case in point: simply suggest in an open forum the return of the ‘fairness doctrine’ to broadcast and internet content and see what happens.
Last Saturday morning at a strip mall in Tuscon Arizona, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot along with 19 others while holding an open-air town hall meeting with her constituents. Many, including MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann and Joe Scarborough have warned that the heated rhetoric falling on troubled minds would result in such tragedy. Clearly, if the town-hall demonstrations of 2009 are any indication, the ability to excite beyond reason a segment of the population that is clearly unstable will lead—given the availability of weapons in this country—to precisely these outcomes. It is a tragedy we have witnessed all too often, and the middle class, unable to reign in the excesses of even the National Rifle Association, is now powerless to stop it.
Jon Stewart may have been trying to function as the fictional “Miss Pricilla Goodbody” but he doesn’t have near as much control.