Saturday, May 22, 2010

On Freedom of the Press

In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville published his comprehensive analysis of democracy in America. "Liberty of the press," he concluded, "does not affect political opinions alone, but extends to all the opinions of men and modifies customs as well as laws." If Americans have the right to self-determination, then we also have the right to determine those opinions to which we attach ourselves. Yet, without some degree contextualizing that under consideration – of understanding the premises of basic opinions and assumptions – our popular sovereignty falls prey “to the impulses of rage, resentment, jealousy, avarice, and of irregular and violent propensities," as Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist. No. 6.

Fast forward nearly 200 years to July 27, 2008 at Knoxville Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, where - during a youth performance of the play, Annie Jr., Jim David Adkisson entered and began firing a 12-gauge shotgun on the congregation. Two were killed, and seven wounded, before Adkisson was restrained by church members. Still, Adkisson was armed with more than a gun that Sunday morning. He was armed with rage, resentment, avarice, and an irregularly violent propensity - yes, those same detriments forewarned by Hamilton. He held such deep hatred, bitterness, and lethally indiscriminate anger that he was armed in body and spirit.

When Adkisson was sentenced to life in prison, he released what he called his manifesto, a four-page statement he authored before his shooting spree:

"Lately I’ve been feeling helpless in our war on Terrorism. But I realized I could engage the terrorists [sic] allies here in America. The best allies they’ve got. The Democrats! … They’re all a bunch of traitors. … It saddens me to think back on all the bad things that Liberalism has done to this country. The worst problem America faces to is Liberalism. … Liberals have attacked every major institution that made America great. From the boy Scouts to the military, from education to Religion. The major news outlets have become the propaganda arm of the Democrat [sic] Party. Liberals are evil, they embrace the tenets of Karl Marx, they’re Marxist, socialist, Communists. … This was a hate crime. I hate the damn left-wing Liberals [sic]. There is a vast left-wing conspiracy in this country and these liberals are working together to attack every decent and honorable institution in the nation, trying to turn this country into a communist state. … I’m protesting the DNC running such a radical leftist candidate. Osama Hussein Obama, yo Mama. No experience. No brains, a joke. Dangerous to America. … Liberals [are] evil…like termites. Millions of them. Each little bite contributes to the downfall of this great nation. … Who I wanted to kill…was every Democrat in the Senate and House, the 100 people in Bernard Goldbergs [sic] book. … These people were inaccesible [sic] to me. I couldn't get to the generals and high ranking officers of the Marxist movement so I went after the foot soldiers, the chickens**t liberals that vote in these traitorous people."

And that's why it happened. That's how Adkisson calculated his victims - the ones who congregated as "a den of un-American vipers." When police searched his home, they found three books: Liberalism is a Mental Disorder by Michael Savage, Let Freedom Ring: Winning the War of Liberty over Liberalism by Sean Hannity, and The O’Reilly Factor: The Good, the Bad, and the Completely Ridiculous in American Life by Bill O’Reilly.

Some have suggested that Adkisson’s spiritual attitudes – his hatred of liberals and gays – were reinforced by prominent rightwing media figures. Certainly, there exists a plethora of books labeling liberals as evil, unpatriotic, godless, and treasonous. Yet, the actions of Jim David Adkisson speak to more than the labeling of liberal individuals. They speak to the perceived dehumanization of an entire segment of society, and beg the questions, “how” and “why?” Where did Adkisson get the sense that the members of the Knoxville Unitarian Universalist Church congregation were not human? Or, to start, why did Adkisson hate “the liberal movement?”

The books discovered in Adkisson’s apartment share a basic commonality: they each equate liberalism with the demise of the American nation – a fair rhetorical device in any partisan piece of political commentary. Yet, in his Liberalism is a Mental Disorder, Michael Savage announces that liberals are “the enemy within our country;” “an enemy more dangerous than Hitler;” “traitors” who are “dangerous to your survival” and who “should be placed in a straightjacket.” Like Adkisson, Savage accuses liberals of “[tying] the hands of our military.” Savage is more than a bestselling author, though. He also hosts a syndicated radio show, “the Savage Nation,” which reaches more than eight and a quarter million listeners each week. On air, Savage is the same as in print. Tune in to five minutes of any show and hear for yourself if you'd like. Savage is just one, though, in an army of venomous under- (if not un-) educated neo-conservative ideologues who rely too easily and too often on ruffling the feathers of their faithful to keep their cash registers ringing. Micheal Reagan, son of the former president, Neal Boortz, and Glenn Beck march in stride with Savage and his ideas.

"Take them out and shoot them," said Reagan on anyone who claimed 9/11 was a U.S. conspiracy. "They are traitors to this country, and shoot them. Anybody who would do that doesn't deserve to live. You shoot them. Your shoot them. You call them traitors, that's what they are, and you shoot them dead. I'll pay for the bullet..

Neal Boortz found his own comfort going after the victims of Hurricane Katrina: "That wasn't the cries of the downtrodden. That's the cries of the useless, the worthless. New Orleans was a welfare city, a city of parasites, a city of people who could not, and had no desire to feed themselves."

Boortz is most in his element going after Muslims, though: "It's Ramadan and Muslims in your workplace might be offended if they see you eating at your desk. Why? I guess it's because Muslims don't eat during Ramadan. They fast during the day and eat at night. Sort of like cockroaches."

If we begin to remove ourselves from the insulation of a domestic political perspective, we may begin to see the same language in 1994 Rwanda, where talk radio composed a major contribution to nurturing conditions that produced genocide. Hutu radio disc jockeys, too, called their Tutsi enemies “cockroaches” in a similar effort to dehumanize them. Are we so na├»ve to consider ourselves different in our application of parallel tactics and language?

Of course most of these shock-talkers call themselves “entertainers.” Still, their words motivate their listeners to act. Glenn Beck’s 9/12 (2009) Movement was catalyzed and advertised almost exclusively on his program. How are Americans to respond to such directly influential “entertainment,” to cable news talking heads promoting the equation of health care reform and Naziism, and then injecting such ideas into town hall meetings intended for deliberative discourse? American politics have always been a rough game, but that game is changing.

Un-researched books and talking points making non-meritorious assertions based on fictitious interpretations of American history are rising to the top of Bestseller and TV rating lists like never before. So is the Tea Party movement, with several Republican gubernatorial, congressional, and Senate bids being awarded to candidates who back the movement.

The first amendment protection of a free press extends from Michael Savage or Glenn Beck as surely as it does to bloggers like myself. We cannot - and we should not - believe that fairness is a doctrine to be enforced. Rather, we should understand that it's a choice to be made, a responsibility to be honored; and, as others choose to profit from abdicating the most basic responsibilities laced within their right to speak, we must further recognize ours.

Contemporary political discourse - even outside of the shock jock world - has a tendency to frame empirical questions through a politicized, often polarized lens. Yet, upon closer examination these matters present themselves in much more complicated scopes than those assumed by liberal or conservative critics. Professor John Q. Wilson of Harvard puts it simply: "Many people find complexity dull: simple statements are easier to remember; dramatic arguments are more interesting to read." Perhaps Wilson is right - at least for a certain segment of the population. Still, such a claim omits reflection of the majority of voters who don't have the time to educate themselves on all the political issues surrounding their lives. What about the single parent - or couple - raising 2+ children, working 2+ jobs, paying expenses not year to year - but month to month or week to week?

We Americans are finding ourselves in an evermore tangled web of deceit - in a society where elementary truths are disappearing too frequently. With it goes rationality, and rationality follows reason - not faith. Is this because we are choosing to look the other way, or because we are too busy to take the time to look in the first place? When all we desire or have time for - as a nation - are emotionally potent oversimplifications of tremendously complex issues that may actively shape our financial futures (and beyond), we are choosing to frame our existence in terms of propaganda and little more.

Again, fairness in the press's publication of content and the viewer's consumption of that content is a choice to be made and responsibility to be honored. May we all choose wisely.