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A Search for Comity in the Intellectual Property Wars: symposium at The New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU, April 28-30, 2006 [slides, audio, transcripts]
download the report [PDF]
Op-Ed Columnist By FRANK RICHPublished: October 24, 2009
FOR a country desperate for good news, the now-deflated “balloon boy” spectacle would seem to be the perfect tonic. As Wolf Blitzer of CNN summed up the nation’s unrestrained joy upon learning that the imperiled boy had never been in any peril whatsoever: “All of us are so excited that little Falcon is fine.”
Then came even better news. After little Falcon revealed to Blitzer that his family “did this for the show,” we could all luxuriate in a warm bath of moral superiority. No matter what our own faults as parents, we could never top Richard Heene, who mercilessly exploited his child for fame and profit. Nor could we ever be as craven as the news media, especially cable television, which dumped a live broadcast of President Obama in New Orleans to track the supersized Jiffy Pop bag floating over Colorado.
Or such are the received lessons of this tale.
Certainly the “balloon boy” incident is a reflection of our time — much as the radio-induced “War of the Worlds” panic dramatized America’s jitters on the eve of World War II, or the national preoccupation with the now-forgotten Congressman Gary Condit signaled America’s pre-9/11 drift into escapism and complacency in the summer of 2001. But to see what “balloon boy” says about 2009, you have to look past the sentimental moral absolutes. You have to muster some sympathy for the devil of the piece, the Bad Dad. And you can’t grant blanket absolution to those in the American audience who smugly blame Heene and television exclusively for the entire embarrassing episode.
It would be lovely, for instance, to believe that cable audiences doubled in size that afternoon because they were rooting for little Falcon’s welfare. But as Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler would say on Weekend Update at “Saturday Night Live,” “Really?!?” Many of those viewers were driven by the same bloodlust that spawns rubberneckers at every highway accident: the hope of witnessing the graphic remains of a crash, not a soft landing.
It would also be nice to think that the “balloon boy” viewers were the innocent victims of a dazzling Houdini-class feat of wizardry — a “massive fraud,” as Bill O’Reilly thundered. But even slightly jaundiced onlookers might have questioned how a balloon could waft buoyantly through the skies for hours with a 6-year-old boy hidden within its contours. That so few did is an indication of how practiced we are at suspending disbelief when watching anything labeled news, whether the subject is W.M.D.’s in Iraq or celebrity gossip in Hollywood.
“They put on a very good show for us, and we bought it,” the local sheriff, Jim Alderden, said last weekend, when he alleged that “balloon boy” was a hoax. His words could stand as the epitaph for an era.
In this case, the show wasn’t even that good. But, as usual, the news media nursed it along, enlisting as sales reps for the smoke and mirrors. While the incident unfolded, most TV anchors hyped rather than questioned the aeronautical viability of a vehicle resembling the flying saucers in Ed Wood’s camp 1950s sci-fi potboiler, “Plan 9 From Outer Space.” But no sooner had the balloon been punctured than the press was caught in another flimflam. Reuters and CNBC delivered the bombshell that the United States Chamber of Commerce had abruptly reversed its intransigent opposition to climate-change legislation. The “spokesperson” source turned out to be the invention of liberal activists who had attempted to stage a prank press conference at Washington’s National Press Club.
This is the latest post from septuagenarian genius bloggers Margaret & Helen, my new favorite blog of all time. They are even conversant in LOLcat. I mean it. (thanx marji!)
Posted by: Helen Philpot | September 17, 2009
Margaret, I haven’t laughed so hard since Katie Couric interviewed Sarah Palin. A few thousand white folks called in sick to work last week so they could parade around the nation’s capital on Saturday and Fox News declares a revolution is underway. My goodness. I don’t know which is more sad – the fact that they couldn’t spell half the words written on their illegible signs or that they all left their white hoods at home. Bring the hippies back. Their protests were much more entertaining.
Just to give you some perspective:
- 1925 - Ku Klux Klan – 35,000 KKK members marched on Washington
- 1963 – March for Freedom with Martin Luther King – 250,000 marched
- 1969 – March to end the Vietnam War – 600,000 marched
- 1993 – Gay and Lesbian Rights – 800,000 marched
- 1995 – Million Man March – 600,000 marched
- 2004 – March for Women’s Lives (Pro-Choice) – over 1 million marched
- 2009 – Obama Inauguration – over 1 million celebrate
- September 12, 2009 – Tea Party Hillbilly Rally - 78,000 marched but only 3 seemed to know what they were marching about.
I’ll tell you what Margaret. You would never know by watching Fox News that 78,000 racists marching on the nation’s capital was cause for concern. You would think we were finally winning the war against the British. Of course, according to Harold’s television set, larger crowds gathered at dozens of football games that day so what the hell do I care.
Let me just say something about the 9-12 Project. On September 12, 2001 everyone was an American. There were no Blue States and no Red States. There were no Black Americans and no White Americans. There were no Europeans, no Asians, no Hispanics, no Africans… The world was standing with America against the evil that is terrorism. The globe was united like never before. And what did our President do when given that moment? He told us all to go shopping while he and his buddies planned a war. And 8 years later the 9-12 project has been reduced to a movement of no Blacks, no Hispanics, no Asians… just 78,000 white people who can’t spell.
But it’s not really these 78,000 marchers that worry me. It’s the media that gives them so much attention. Did anyone else notice that when a million Pro-Choice women marched on Washington and 50 nut-jobs stood on the corner mis-quoting the bible, it was the bible thumping nut-jobs getting more coverage on the evening news? I mean 5 KKK members march down Main Street and the news crew out number the marchers 10 to 1.
69 million people voted for Barack Obama knowing full well that Universal Healthcare was a major issue in his campaign. 78,000 people marched on Washington claiming that America has been stolen. Now I am not an expert, but I have to believe that fancy CNN map of John King’s should be able to figure out that math.
The biggest problem facing America today isn’t the war, the economy, healthcare or even racism. The biggest threat to America is the lack of news coverage in our newscasts. Honestly I don’t give a damn what LaToya Jackson thinks, what Paris Hilton ate, what Hillary Clinton is wearing or who Brad Pitt is dating. And I especially don’t give a rat’s ass what 78,000 peckerwoods with too much time on their hands think about something as complicated as Universal Healthcare.
You know what would have been a good news story? How many of those yahoos marching last weekend actually have health insurance much less a full set of teeth? Did anyone bother to ask that question?
It’s not news. It’s nonsense. Really. I mean it.
WHEN a Fox News anchor, reacting to his own network’s surging e-mail traffic, warns urgently on-camera of a rise in hate-filled, “amped up” Americans who are “taking the extra step and getting the gun out,” maybe we should listen. He has better sources in that underground than most.
The anchor was Shepard Smith, speaking after Wednesday’s mayhem at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Unlike the bloviators at his network and elsewhere on cable, Smith is famous for his highly caffeinated news-reading, not any political agenda. But very occasionally — notably during Hurricane Katrina — he hits the Howard Beale mad-as-hell wall. Joining those at Fox who routinely disregard the network’s “We report, you decide” mantra, he both reported and decided, loudly.
What he reported was this: his e-mail from viewers had “become more and more frightening” in recent months, dating back to the election season. From Wednesday alone, he “could read a hundred” messages spewing “hate that’s not based in fact,” much of it about Barack Obama and some of it sharing the museum gunman’s canard that the president was not a naturally born citizen. These are Americans “out there in a scary place,” Smith said.
Then he brought up another recent gunman: “If you’re one who believes that abortion is murder, at what point do you go out and kill someone who’s performing abortions?” An answer, he said, was provided by Dr. George Tiller’s killer. He went on: “If you are one who believes these sorts of things about the president of the United States ...” He left the rest of that chilling sentence unsaid.
These are extraordinary words to hear on Fox. The network’s highest-rated star, Bill O’Reilly, had assailed Tiller, calling him “Tiller the baby killer” and likening him to the Nazis, on 29 of his shows before the doctor was murdered at his church in Kansas. O’Reilly was unrepentant, stating that only “pro-abortion zealots and Fox News haters” would link him to the crime. But now another Fox star, while stopping short of blaming O’Reilly, was breaching his network’s brand of political correctness: he tied the far-right loners who had gotten their guns out in Wichita and Washington to the mounting fury of Obama haters.
What is this fury about? In his scant 145 days in office, the new president has not remotely matched the Bush record in deficit creation. Nor has he repealed the right to bear arms or exacerbated the wars he inherited. He has tried more than his predecessor ever did to reach across the aisle. But none of that seems to matter. A sizable minority of Americans is irrationally fearful of the fast-moving generational, cultural and racial turnover Obama embodies — indeed, of the 21st century itself. That minority is now getting angrier in inverse relationship to his popularity with the vast majority of the country. Change can be frightening and traumatic, especially if it’s not change you can believe in.
We don’t know whether the tiny subset of domestic terrorists in this crowd is egged on by political or media demagogues — though we do tend to assume that foreign jihadists respond like Pavlov’s dogs to the words of their most fanatical leaders and polemicists. But well before the latest murderers struck — well before another “antigovernment” Obama hater went on a cop-killing rampage in Pittsburgh in April — there have been indications that this rage could spiral out of control.
This was evident during the campaign, when hotheads greeted Obama’s name with “Treason!” and “Terrorist!” at G.O.P. rallies. At first the McCain-Palin campaign fed the anger with accusations that Obama was “palling around with terrorists.” But later John McCain thought better of it and defended his opponent’s honor to a town-hall participant who vented her fears of the Democrats’ “Arab” candidate. Although two neo-Nazi skinheads were arrested in an assassination plot against Obama two weeks before Election Day, the fever broke after McCain exercised leadership.
That honeymoon, if it was one, is over. Conservatives have legitimate ideological beefs with Obama, rightly expressed in sharp language. But the invective in some quarters has unmistakably amped up. The writer Camille Paglia, a political independent and confessed talk-radio fan, detected a shift toward paranoia in the air waves by mid-May. When “the tone darkens toward a rhetoric of purgation and annihilation,” she observed in Salon, “there is reason for alarm.” She cited a “joke” repeated by a Rush Limbaugh fill-in host, a talk-radio jock from Dallas of all places, about how “any U.S. soldier” who found himself with only two bullets in an elevator with Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and Osama bin Laden would use both shots to assassinate Pelosi and then strangle Reid and bin Laden.
This homicide-saturated vituperation is endemic among mini-Limbaughs. Glenn Beck has dipped into O’Reilly’s Holocaust analogies to liken Obama’s policy on stem-cell research to the eugenics that led to “the final solution” and the quest for “a master race.” After James von Brunn’s rampage at the Holocaust museum, Beck rushed onto Fox News to describe the Obama-hating killer as a “lone gunman nutjob.” Yet in the same show Beck also said von Brunn was a symptom that “the pot in America is boiling,” as if Beck himself were not the boiling pot cheering the kettle on.
But hyperbole from the usual suspects in the entertainment arena of TV and radio is not the whole story. What’s startling is the spillover of this poison into the conservative political establishment. Saul Anuzis, a former Michigan G.O.P. chairman who ran for the party’s national chairmanship this year, seriously suggested in April that Republicans should stop calling Obama a socialist because “it no longer has the negative connotation it had 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago.” Anuzis pushed “fascism” instead, because “everybody still thinks that’s a bad thing.” He didn’t seem to grasp that “fascism” is nonsensical as a description of the Obama administration or that there might be a risk in slurring a president with a word that most find “bad” because it evokes a mass-murderer like Hitler.
The Anuzis “fascism” solution to the Obama problem has caught fire. The president’s nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court and his speech in Cairo have only exacerbated the ugliness. The venomous personal attacks on Sotomayor have little to do with the 3,000-plus cases she’s adjudicated in nearly 17 years on the bench or her thoughts about the judgment of “a wise Latina woman.” She has been tarred as a member of “the Latino KKK” (by the former Republican presidential candidate Tom Tancredo), as well as a racist and a David Duke (by Limbaugh), and portrayed, in a bizarre two-for-one ethnic caricature, as a slant-eyed Asian on the cover of National Review. Uniting all these insults is an aggrieved note of white victimization only a shade less explicit than that in von Brunn’s white supremacist screeds.
Obama’s Cairo address, meanwhile, prompted over-the-top accusations reminiscent of those campaign rally cries of “Treason!” It was a prominent former Reagan defense official, Frank Gaffney, not some fringe crackpot, who accused Obama in The Washington Times of engaging “in the most consequential bait-and-switch since Adolf Hitler duped Neville Chamberlain.” He claimed that the president — a lifelong Christian — “may still be” a Muslim and is aligned with “the dangerous global movement known as the Muslim Brotherhood.” Gaffney linked Obama by innuendo with Islamic “charities” that “have been convicted of providing material support for terrorism.”
If this isn’t a handy rationalization for another lone nutjob to take the law into his own hands against a supposed terrorism supporter, what is? Any such nutjob can easily grab a weapon. Gun enthusiasts have been on a shopping spree since the election, with some areas of our country reporting percentage sales increases in the mid-to-high double digits, recession be damned.
The question, Shepard Smith said on Fox last week, is “if there is really a way to put a hold on” those who might run amok. We’re not about to repeal the First or Second Amendments. Hard-core haters resolutely dismiss any “mainstream media” debunking of their conspiracy theories. The only voices that might penetrate their alternative reality — I emphasize might — belong to conservative leaders with the guts and clout to step up as McCain did last fall. Where are they? The genteel public debate in right-leaning intellectual circles about the conservative movement’s future will be buried by history if these insistent alarms are met with silence.
It’s typical of this dereliction of responsibility that when the Department of Homeland Security released a plausible (and, tragically, prescient) report about far-right domestic terrorism two months ago, the conservative response was to trash it as “the height of insult,” in the words of the G.O.P. chairman Michael Steele. But as Smith also said last week, Homeland Security was “warning us for a reason.”
No matter. Last week it was business as usual, as Republican leaders nattered ad infinitum over the juvenile rivalry of Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich at the party’s big Washington fund-raiser. Few if any mentioned, let alone questioned, the ominous script delivered by the actor Jon Voight with the G.O.P. imprimatur at that same event. Voight’s devout wish was to “bring an end to this false prophet Obama.”
This kind of rhetoric, with its pseudo-Scriptural call to action, is toxic. It is getting louder each day of the Obama presidency. No one, not even Fox News viewers, can say they weren’t warned.