By Patricia Wilson-Smith
I must admit – I have largely been sitting on the sidelines since the election of Barack Obama over seven months ago.
Be it because of election fatigue, or because of being just plain stunned by the sheer enormity of the event, I haven’t lent my voice to a single policy debate, or any other issue since long before the election. With all of the house parties, phone banking and canvassing behind me, I figured it was time for me to hang up my digital bull-horn and take up another, less taxing hobby.
No hobby to speak of yet, but I have enjoyed watching the evolution of Barack Obama from little-known U.S. Senator to Leader of the Free World, though watching him become President was very different than watching him as he executes his duties in office now. During the campaign, I felt closer to the action, having served as a member of the Women for Obama National Leadership team, where I was privileged to participate in a conference call where the now President was the guest speaker, and during which he thanked us for our service. Now of course, he’s a million light years away from that conference call, and can be found at any given time bounding down the steps of Air Force One, with Michelle in lock step. He has taken his place in history, while those of us who fought so hard for his election look on in wonderment.
And look on I have. I’ve been blown away by the meteoric rise of my favorite candidate, by the sudden national fascination with Michelle Obama, and by the endless curiosity for their two young daughters, Sasha and Malia. I’ve been captivated by the overseas press, and what his election has meant to the world. I have reveled in the media coverage of hip White House events, and date nights, and laughed at the Republican attack dogs as they scramble to find a way to tarnish the image of the man or refute his policies. Up to now, it has been easy for me to just kick back and enjoy the show, content in the knowledge that in some infinitesimal way I played a part in making it all happen. Easy that is, until yesterday afternoon, when I heard something that made my blood run cold.
I was listening to the “Neal Boortz Show”. a nationally syndicated talk show hosted by a right-wing, Fair Tax proponent masquerading as an independent thinker hiding behind the Libertarian Party. He was taking calls from listeners who wanted to comment on the Holocaust Museum shooting, and the racism, antisemitism, and intolerance that the heinous act had once again brought to the forefront of our national psyche. I joined the show just as Neal was about to take his next call.
It seemed like a typical call at first, until the caller, quite obviously an African-American male, said in the most chillingly-matter-of-fact way imaginable, the following (paraphrased):
“Someone WILL assassinate Barack Obama. And when they do, it will be because of people like you [Boortz], Rush, and Sean Hannity spreading your hate speech on the airwaves everyday. It will happen, and the sad part is that it will take that tragic event for the American people to finally take steps to get you and others like you off the air for good.”
I was astonished – the caller wasn’t yelling, he wasn’t agitated. He was as calm and as cool as could be. And though his admonishment of Neal sent shivers up my spine, I don’t know which was more chilling – the man’s statement, or Boortz’s swift dismissal of it. He didn’t even acknowledge what the caller said. Not a word. All he offered was a “thank you for the call” and then he was on to the next order of show business.
I have always been a news and talk radio junkie. I’m a life-long Democrat of course, but I’ve always prided myself on my ability to listen to opposing viewpoints, sure that even though many of those who spouted what I thought of as spastic inanities were dead wrong, they at least did so with love of country and what was best for it in mind. I’ve never felt fear over what I’ve heard coming from Neal, Bill, Shawn, and their ilk over the years, not even what I’ve heard from Rush, because I’ve always understood that their views come from their unique perspectives on the world, their experiences and their personal (all be them flawed) opinions.
The problem is this – since the election of Barack Obama, the rhetoric of all these men has taken on a dark and disturbing tone. They have, along with Michael Savage and many other popular conservative talk show hosts, gone mad as a collective quite frankly, and the result is the American public being treated to a daily dose of some of the most outlandish and destructive hate-speech ever to be spewed by ones with such popularity and reach.
It was, for example, Fox News and Bill O’Reilly who over the last several years, and on at least 28 different occasions, reported on George Tiller, the abortion doctor who was recently gunned down while attending church services in Wichita, Kansas by a known anti-abortion extremist. O’Reilly was relentless in his attacks on Tiller, regularly and openly calling him “Tiller the Baby Killer”, calling for the citizens of Kansas to “stop him”, and practically characterizing him as a crazed maniac thirsty for the blood of the unborn.
And then there’s Conservative author Bernard Goldberg, whose book “100 People Who Are Screwing Up America”. featured a list of both liberal and conservative notables who in his opinion are to blame for all that is wrong in America. His book sales likely got a nice boost when James Adkisson, an unemployed Vietnam Veteran with substance abuse problems informed law enforcement in a note that it was indeed his intention to kill “every Democrat in the Senate and the House”, and “everyone in Bernard Goldberg’s book”.
And just this week, Shawn Hannity purposely mis-characterized a specific portion of President Obama’s now historic speech from Cairo to the Muslim world, as “giving voice to 9-11 deniers”. Never mind that in order to make the case, Shawn and Fox News had to cut a paragraph of his speech in half, being careful to play the half comment in a way that supported Shawn’s assertion. I saw the entire speech – President Obama was crystal clear in stating that the death of almost three-thousand Americans that day was fact, not fiction, and yet Hannity and Fox News chose to do a hatchet job on the video clip in order to mine material that could be used to get a rise out of his audience. In the face of growing support for the President’s Mideast policy, all Fox and Hannity can do is resort to out and out lies and misrepresentations. A more blatant or clearer case of calumny I’ve never known, and yet not only is this kind of thing now the norm over at Fox News, there is a constant flow of it seeping from the mouths of all of the aforementioned talk show hosts, who regrettably all still enjoy amazing popularity.
It simply cannot be denied that in the wake of a contentious primary election, during which Republican rally-goers could be heard yelling “Kill him!”, and “He’s a terrorist”, that there are those in this country who wish to do the President harm. And in the wake of the murder of Tiller, the recent shooting at the Holocaust museum of guard Stephen Johns (a black man), and the sharp increase in the number of threats against President Obama, it is clear that somewhere, somehow, the seeds of hatred and intolerance are being sown. And watered, and fertilized, and encouraged to bear fruit.
It all hearkens me back to the early days of the campaign, when so many of my black friends and family openly expressed their fears for then Senator Obama’s safety, going so far as to say that they would not vote for him for fear that he would be assassinated. I was never one to let this particular fear sway me, and I was quick to point out to them that withholding a vote for Obama on this basis was akin to wishing the Civil Rights Era had never happened if we could just get Martin Luther King Jr. back. It’s not that I didn’t share their fears, it’s just that I had a strong conviction, and a desire for the kind of change I felt President Obama would bring. And I didn’t let myself think about what the election of the first African-American to the presidency would mean to the national discourse between liberals and conservatives, because I knew that it was inevitable that conservative talk radio would bring trouble down on the head of whomever was elected to office as long as they were a Democrat.
But even I wasn’t prepared for the noise level that has ensued. Glenn Beck, who I am now ashamed to admit, was once a favorite of mine, has turned into the talk show equivalent of a paranoid wilderness dweller, hoarding freeze-dried food and broadcasting messages of doom from an old CB radio to anyone who will listen. And Michael Savage, who’s anti-everything hate-speech has become so pronounced in recent months that even the government of Great Britain has labeled him an ‘agent of extremism and intolerance’ and blacklisted him along with 22 others, banning him from entering the country. You need only watch the nightly news to get an endless barrage of misstatements, exaggerations, and yes, doomsday pronouncements of the demise of the United States at the hands of Barack Obama, that it is no wonder the Secret Service can hardly keep up with all the threats.
In this country, we have a bad habit of taking what is good and noble about us, what our founding fathers wished for us, and turning it into a scourge. We trumpet our freedoms, to worship as we please, to pursue our dreams, and to say what we feel, and yet seek to silence those who would dare say we are not a Christian nation, question the legitimacy of the birth of a great leader, and use the public airwaves to deceive and instigate acts of violence. It matters not, for instance, that the First Amendment specifically prohibits the establishment of a national religion, if you say in a public forum that we are in fact not solely a Christian nation as President Obama did in his speech in Cairo, you become fodder for right-wing nut jobs in this country who think it’s okay to kill an innocent man whose only crime was waking up one day and going into a modest job guarding a national monument, while labeling those who strap bombs to themselves and kill buses filled with school children terrorists.
Increasingly in this country, being free really means taking liberties with the ideals upon which this nation was founded. I learned years and years ago that freedom of speech has limitations – that I could no more yell fire in a crowded theater for fun than I could knowingly and purposely promote ideas that are meant to cause harm to others, or that encourage those who would do harm to act. Yet when Shawn Hannity uses his bully pullpit to flat out lie to his audience, or when Bill uses code language to encourage anti-abortionist nut cases to “stop” someone, or when Rush uses his vast influence to cultivate conservative extremism, they all in their own way, do a tragic injustice to the Bill of Rights and the Constitution they claim to love so much.
And so I’ve blown the dust off of my laptop, because it’s time to add mine to the chorus of voices that’s needed to drown out Rush’s and Bill’s and Shawn’s. It’s not enough that we know that the majority of the American people love and appreciate their new President, because these guys are working hard to provide a forum for those in this country who are either still mourning the election of a black man to the highest post in the world, or who in their zeal to ‘save America’ want to be fed a regular diet of garbage disguised as political discourse. It is not to say that Bill O’Reilly should be brought up on charges for the actions of Scott Roeder, or that even if a direct connection could be made between the trash-talk of conservative commentators and people who commit acts of cowardly violence that anyone should be legally culpable but the perpetrators themselves. Nevertheless, yelling fire in a racist nation, day after day, week after week, and year after year should and must have consequences – consequences that it is up to us, the reasonable and fair-minded in this country to dispense.