Monday, March 16, 2009

Happy-talk: right-wing talk radio and its fans

The AM airways are filled with conservative happy-talk. People like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and others have not so much invented something new as they have tapped into an already existing vein of talk. Using buzzwords and catchphrases, they reassure their listeners that their ideas are the right ideas and their feelings, the right feelings. This is especially important because many of those feelings and ideas suffer severe criticism in other arenas.

Happy-talk is primarily a radio phenomenon. The words themselves, not their meanings, have an effect on their listeners. On television, images arouse feelings of fear, revulsion, or amazement. Their impact is more forceful when the images are negative. No one can forget the sight of a commercial airliner crashing into the world trade center.

Happy-talk is subtler than that. It performs the same function as a men's club or prehistoric hunting group. It gives people a sense of belonging, and a feeling that all is well in the world. It does this by creating a nexus of words with positive associations: America, freedom, victory. The talkers themselves create a sense of membership with code words that act like a secret handshake. Limbaugh's fans are “dittoheads”. Their membership greeting is “Megadittos”. This does not imply that they are merely carbon copies for Limbaugh's happy-talk. Instead, the shared greeting indicates that both are members in a wider fellowship whose members all share common values: patriotism, the virtue of hard work, and a belief that wealth is itself something admirable. Limbaugh refers to this group simply as “us”.

Hannity's listeners are “freedom-loving Americans”. His fans greet him by saying, “You're a great American,” a sentiment that he returns.

When you are a member of the club, your understanding of the happy-talk is different from the casual listener. The following phrases have special meaning for insiders.

1. Happy-talkers claim that America is a great country

For conservatives, America is not just a great country, it's the only great country. Ronald Reagan called it a City On A Hill and captured the imagination of many who wish to believe they have some sort of a sacred mission. This is why the right wing applauded when the U. S. ignored the UN and invaded Iraq on his own. There is an arrogance born of power. They believe the U. S. should have special privileges, including the right never to have soldiers under the command of a foreign officer, as in a U. N. peacekeeping mission. The feeling that the U. S. is a great country fills them with pride and the feeling that they, too, share in the greatness. People who point out America's flaws arouse their unreasoning anger.

2. Happy-talkers claim that Liberalism is the problem

Conservatism is the solution to the world's problems, although the mechanism is a little vague. So it follows that Liberalism is the problem. But the liberalism here is not a philosophy of goverment but simply the opposite of everything conservative. So we see all sorts of infamous people--Stalin, Mao, even Sirhan Sirhan--called liberals. Conservatives preach small government and lower taxes, but they don't explain how that can happen in a modern society. Undoubtedly they only yearn for a simpler time, a golden age when governments were small and people did as they pleased. But in this longing they face the same problem as the Russians did when they saw Western countries on tv. The Russians wanted the material goods they saw. People of today want the things they know other countries provide, health care, security, and a happy retirement. When conservatives say they want smaller government, they can't prevent spending that benefits the wealthy backers who elected them. President Bush took care of the pharmaceutical industry with his budget-busting Medicare program, the agriculture business with his ethanol subsidies, and the oil industry by failing to address global climate change and alternative energy development. Although continuance of these policies would ruin the U.S. economy, businessmen are even more afraid of liberals, who would take away their money in taxes.

3. Happy-talkers claim that a free market is the answer to every economic ill.

If the markets puff up like balloons and then go pfluie, it's not the fault of the markets; it's the fault of liberals and their mania for regulation. The markets aren't free enough. If social security is becoming a burden to taxpayers, then we should let people invest their money in stocks or other securities. They will make more money that way, through the magic of the free market. Rising health care costs will be solved by letting providers compete with each other on the free market. That this never happened before is never blamed on the free market, but on the regulators, and especially the poor. Spiraling health care costs are caused by poor people whose government benefits must be paid by the rest of us. The conservative alternative to public health care, as Alan Greyson has pointed out, is for the uninsured not to get sick, and if they do get sick, to die quickly. That will save everyone a lot of money, but is completely immoral.

4. Unbelievably, happy-talkers claim that only African-Americans are racists.

This belief reassures happy-talk fans that their anti-minority opinions are not racist, which would be a bad thing. Instead, happy-talkers preach that white racism ended in the 1970s. Now, the blacks are the racists. Happy-talker Hannity played endless loops of Rev. Jeremiah saying “God damn America”, which he said proved Obama is a racist. From the context, it is clear that Wright was talking about the U. S. Government, not the people, which would exclude the comment from any charge of racism. Anti-Americanism, yes, but not racism. But Hannity and other copycat happy-talkers find it made their listeners feel better to imagine that African Americans, not whites, are racist.

5. Happy-talkers believe that using the government to help the poor is redistribution of wealth.

Redistribution of wealth will lead the poor to be less self-reliant and destroy their work ethic. Why wealth doesn't have this effect on the wealthy is a mystery. If poor people have enough to eat and a roof over their heads, they are likely to become lazy and stop working. Then where would America be? The same thing happens when you train greyhounds to chase a mechanical rabbit. They must never be allowed to catch the rabbit, or the whole game would be ruined.

6. Happy-talkers believe that using the government to help the wealthy is justified.

The best option would be to do away with government altogether. Then the wealthy would be able to keep all their money without interference. Poor people do not pay taxes so they are out of the game. Government's best use is to recycle money to the wealthy in ways that make the rich richer.

7. Happy-talkers believe that preferential hiring of minorities is un-American and therefore wrong.

The only discrimination in America should be in favor of the wealthy. They have always had the best land, the best houses, and the best cars. Their wives wear the best clothing and have the best plastic surgeons. Their children have the best toys and go to the best schools. That is the American way. Any other system is un-American.

8. Happy-talkers believe that European countries are un-American.

Programs that work in Europe, even market-based programs, will not work in America. We can safely ignore anything that happens over there. Whenever an American politician mentions a European country, his patriotism is immediately called into question. Better stick with an idiot who doesn't know where Europe is then take a chance on an intellectual who might have imbibed anti-American ideas on a sojourn abroad. An exception to this happens when an immigrant, like Henry Kissinger, admits that America is the one great country and repudiates everything he learned abroad. Also, certain English conservatives, like Margaret Thatcher, can be considered conservatives. It helps if they knew Ronald Reagan and he said they were okay.

9. Happy-talkers believe that terrorists are cowards who can be tortured or killed without trial.

This is hard for non-conservatives to understand. Someone who attacks the United States of America, armed only with a knife, may be insane but he is not a coward. But he is also a human who should be treated with the same respect we would wish for ourselves. What is the Geneva Convention on torture but an updated version of the Golden Rule? Yet people who call themselves Christians don't understand its importance. It is important for the happy-talk listeners, however, that their own deep-seated desire for revenge receive validation. Their own bloodlust would bother them if they did not hear constant reinforcement.

10. Happy-talkers believe that illegal immigrants should be deported and the border sealed.

This is another impossible dream. Deporting 10 million people would constitute an act of genocide under the Geneva convention, whether we call it ethnic cleansing or just cleaning house. In this area, as in so many others, the hard-core conservative is not deterred by the facts, even of his own experience. History shows us that people will emigrate to the U.S., whether legally or not. Our problem is how to handle the people after they arrive, not how to prevent their arrival.

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