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Presented November 8, 2009, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning
We are all shocked and saddened by what happened at Fort Hood on Thursday. The entire country unites together in mourning and we all think about the senselessness of this tragedy and the horrible waste of life and the pain of the families involved. But so soon the common feeling that unites us all gets replaced and we begin to quickly to splinter. Right away right wing talk show hosts begin to mock mainstream media. Mainstream media people don't even tell you the killer was, of course, a Muslim, or they tell you only at the end of the story.
With his history of mental problems and bad reviews, should he have been put in the delicate job? Was it absolutely necessary to deploy him to Afghanistan and was no one worried about how me might respond to this? Is there a lack of concern for the safety of our soldiers?
And do we have to allow handguns that can get off 20 shots without reloading? Armor piercing bullets?
This might seem like a strange question to ask-even here in this church where we talk about pretty much everything-but do you spend much time listening to the radio? Are you very familiar with the choice of radio stations in our area and the various programs available on the radio? Or are you the type of person who never listens to the radio, or who sticks to one station and listens to that all the time and doesn't know anything about any of the other stations? Probably like many of you, I fall more into the latter category and listen nearly all of the time to the college radio station because of NPR.
I'd say about myself that I am not really a big radio listener and certainly don't spend much time listening to talk radio or know much about it. But at the same time I remember driving into Quincy for the first time in my life in 1990 thinking that I might take a job at QU and live here for a year. As I was driving I remember being concerned about one thing: did this town have National Public Radio? So although I would say I am not a big radio listener, obviously getting quality news every day via the radio is very important to me. Like many people in our congregation and Unitarians across the country, if I listen to the radio chances are great that I am listening to NPR.
I do change the radio dial, however, because I like to listen to baseball games when the news is not on. So I do listen to Cubs game and/or Cardinals games. This year the Cardinals games were more meaningful late in the year so I listened to them over WGEM. Between innings I heard over and over again, seemingly hundreds of times, a promo for something called the Neal Bortz Show. In this quick advertisement for his radio program Mr. Bortz was saying over and over again that when Democrats are in office they raise taxes. Anyone who votes for Democrats is voting for higher taxes; that's just obvious, just the way it is. Then a voice: "Listen to the Neal Bortz show from 9:00 to Noon on WGEM." Then back to the baseball game. Most times this obnoxious promo pours over me without thinking about it. Sometimes I actually hear it and think about it. In my life time the national debt ran amok during 2 Republican administrations, the Reagan and the George W. administrations. We just had 8 years of a Republican administration which doubled the national debt and a Republican Vice President who famously assured us "Deficits don't matter." Yet I and everyone else are told over and over again throughout each and every Cardinals game that democrats raise taxes; it's just what they do. Sometimes when I really hear this promo I feel insulted. Sometimes I wonder why the radio station I am listening to for the Cards game needs to or wants to insult me at the same time. Sometimes I wonder how many QU students are listening. They don't know anything about the Reagan administration. They would be shocked to learn that the national debt doubled under Bush. He was a Republican after all, they do know that at least, and Democrats raise taxes. They know that. They have heard that a 100 times.
Just in case you don't know anything about Neil Bortz or his show, here's a recent snippet. . "when I went to bed last night I didn't know the name of the shooter. I told my wife that it was my guess the shooter would turn out to be a Muslim. Well . . . this morning we're treated to the name . . . the shooter was Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan. Doesn't sound like a Deacon in the local Baptist church to me. It seems that Major Hasan had some problems with American foreign policy. So . . . let's just shoot up some soldiers. According to a fellow soldier this Muslim (I'm guessing) goon said that Muslims had a right to rise up attack America."
I think it is fairly easy to imagine the tone of his show on Friday. But when it comes to reactionary talk radio in America today, Neil Bortz is a piker. And when it comes to reactionary talk radio in America today, our community has to say with pride that we get them all.
If you move your radio dial away from WQUB public radio and you are not a baseball fan, your choices are pretty limited. Of course you have a number of music stations but suppose what you wanted was talk radio. Now your choices are political talk and sports talk. If you are not interested in sports talk - something always available anywhere in what one critic dubbed Sports Glut USA - and want political talk, your choice in political talk is exactly nil. Or you could say your choice is between right-wing talk radio and more right-wing talk radio.
This is precisely the choice you have at, say, 11:00 in the morning if you want to listen to talk radio in the area. Our area has 3 talk radio stations, KHMO out of Hannibal and WTAD and WGEM out of Quincy. At 11:00 you can listen to listen to your third hour of Neal Bortz on WGEM or you can listen to your first hour of Rush Limbaugh on WTAD. This is typical of the radio scene in our area throughout the day and evening. Those of you who are not sports fan and are as glad as my wife Dana to see baseball, or what Dana refers to disdainfully as "throw and hit," finally come to an end, have to admit that all those Cubs and Cardinals game and that mind numbing sports talk at least provide a respite from the unrelenting right-wing programs on the radio. In our area we have a great treasure of right-wing radio offered to us. If we want to listen to talk radio that isn't sports, we really have no choice other than right-wing radio. WGEM gives us 3 hours of Neal Bortz but then thankfully doesn't have right-wing radio during the afternoon. It makes up for this, however, by treating us to 3 hours of Laura Ingraham at night. WTAD gives us 3 hours of the top-rated talk show in the country, Rush Limbaugh. Then it gives us 3 more hours of Glen Beck, from 4:00 to 7:00. That is 6 hours every day of extremely right-wing radio on WTAD. WTAD's contribution to our public discourse is outdone by KHMO, which leads the way locally in right-wing radio. KHMO starts its right-wing talk later than the other stations, at noon, but makes up for it by having nothing but right-wing talk throughout the day and evening. Starting at noon it gives us 2 hours of the Dennis Prager Show. Now I had never heard of Dennis Prager so I checked out his website. The first thing I noticed was a side bar with a young woman in a tee-shirt. This was an ad selling a tee shirt. That's innocuous enough but then I notice the tee-shirt reads "I'd rather be . . ." and instead of "I'd rather be golfing" or "I'd rather be listening to Rush," or whatever; the tee shirt says "I'd rather be waterboarding." So one of the many things that upset so many people in this country during the last administration, that we tortured human beings in Guantanamo Bay and other places, is now reduced to a joke on a tee shirt. I just can't wait till I see students at QU walking around with their "I'd rather be waterboarding" tee shirts. But after we have 2 hours of Dennis Prager KHMO then gets even more right-wing with the second most popular talk show in the country, Sean Hannity. Fortunately for all of us, Sean Hannity begins on KHMO just as Rush is finishing on WTAD so you can have six solid hours in the company of Rush and Sean Hannity. Then after Sean, KHMO gives us an even nastier personality who at least is well named, Michael Savage, with four solid hours of "Savage Nation," from 5:00 to 9:00. Then it gives us the self-described right-wing libertarian Jerry Doyle from 9:00 to midnight. So KHMO gives us non-stop right-wing talk radio from Noon until midnight 5 days a week. That is quite a contribution to our community!
I don't know how much you know about these right-wing talk shows or if you ever listen to some of them or all of them. My guess would be that probably most of us don't really know very much about what is said on these programs and by these right-wing talk show hosts. I am certainly not an expert on this myself, but I know enough to be troubled about their affect on what might be considered our public discourse in our democratic society about important issues concerning all of us. For example, one thing our country really needs is intelligent conversation and democratic debate about the health care crisis. Health care costs us all more and more every year; businesses are unfairly saddled with the costs and they try to shift the costs on to their employees whose incomes are not going up to begin with and how can you afford health care if your job doesn't provide it, and then you have to be concerned about gaps in your coverage even if you are lucky enough to have health insurance. We all know the problems and this is certainly a public crisis we need intelligent democratic discussion about, but does this happen on these talk shows that are on every talk station all day? Does this happen when President Obama's attempt to reform the health care system is mockingly referred to over and over again on all these shows and "Obamacare" and all these right-wing talk shows host insist that what is being proposed is a complete government take-over of the health care system and is unconstitutional and going to turn is into either a fascist or a communist society? Does this really help our public discussion about this important public issue or does it prevent it from actually happening?
Or how about another issue just as important: Afghanistan. Should we put additional troops into Afghanistan as General has recommended or are we just getting deeper and deeper into a Viet Nam-like quagmire? We just concluded the most devastating month of our now 8 year war (of course is it a war?) in Afghanistan. 55 of our soldiers lost their lives in Afghanistan in October; 5 British soldiers got killed there just the other day. November promises to be even more deadly than October. Putting more soldiers there may well escalate the casualties. And what about the corrupt election there just concluded with the challenger to Karzai basically giving up because he doesn't think the run-off election would be any less corrupt than the first round. And is increasing our troop strength there to 80 to 90,000 soldiers the best and most effective way for us to combat Al Quaeda? Do we assume that the Taliban will support Al Quaeda as they did before 9/11 or is this one of the unquestioned assumptions that just leads us deeper and deeper into this quagmire and causes to unthinkingly throw away once again more and more precious lives of our soldiers? This is such an important time and such an important issue and we should have a great deal of public, democratic discussion about this. And is this what has been happening on these right-wing talk shows the last few weeks? Do you think Rush and Sean Hannity and Michael Savage and all the rest of them have been encouraging open, intelligent public discourse about the best way to proceed at this important turning point in our now 8 year long intervention in Afghanistan? On these shows the issue for discussion is not whether we should add more troops or not. The issue is why Obama has taken so long to do what the general is saying he should do. Why is Obama such a waffler? Is he completely incompetent as a commander in chief? Is he a traitor? Is he actually working to undermine the clear best interests of his own country? How much greater danger has he caused our troops already over there because of his waffling? How many troops have actually died because Obama cannot make his mind up to add more troops? And who should make this decision anyway, Obama, who does not have military experience, or the generals who do? Our listeners have voted on this and 80% of them have the good sense to say the generals should decide. Does this type of discourse on all these right-wing talk shows all day and evening long, does this help our vital democratic, public discussion about this important issue of Afghanistan or does it actually prevent it from happening? I ask that not as a rhetorical but as a genuine question because I really do not know much about these right wing talk shows and have ventured out to a topic you may know a lot more about than I do.
I will say that this question and this entire topic of right-wing radio makes me think of this great German philosopher who celebrated his 80th birthday this summer, Jurgen Habermas. He is the west's greatest defender of the Enlightenment legacy of the role of reason in deliberative democratic societies and a great champion of public discourse that is always for Habermas at the heart of any thriving democracy. Habermas argues democratic societies make progress through open, informed, public debate. This progress, he says, can happen only when we come to the discussion with honesty and openness and mean what we say, honestly articulate our views and then openly and respectfully listen to the viewpoints of others. When we mean what we say and honestly speak our views, says Habermas, "a small bit of ideality breaks into our everyday lives." Perhaps it is this "small bit of ideality" that happens when we speak our views honestly that then encourages us to wait and actually listen to others and willingly submit our views to open public discussion. For Habermas, truly democratic societies are societies where this must happen in public discourse. People must openly and honestly say what they mean and then remain open to what other honest speakers have to say."
I admit I don't know much about right wing radio, but it seems to me a world where Habermas's "small bit of ideality" is ground into dust. Does Rush Limbaugh openly and freely speak his views and really mean what he says? He began to refer to the economic crisis gripping the world since the Autumn of 2008 as "the Obama recession" even before Obama became president. Is he really saying what he means or is this phrase the Obama recession simply a rhetorical device he intends to use over and over again in hopes that it takes and his 20 million listeners and millions of others will eventually come to think of this recession as Obama's fault? More recently, he has made the ridiculous claim over and over again that the economic stimulus package saved a mere 30,000 jobs, which then enables him to repeat over and over again that several million dollars per job, which just shows you how ridiculous big government is. Does he really believe that the economic stimulus package only created 30,000 jobs or is this a ridiculous figure he simply pulled out of the air to serve his own purely rhetorical purposes?
I don't know much about this world of right-wing radio. As I said, my radio listening is either NPR or the baseball games. I do have the sense that this world of right-wing radio that we are surrounded by even if we don't immerse ourselves in it is something like the opposite of Habermas's ideal speech situation, the saying what you mean, the willingness to listen to the other, the small bit of ideality, all of which democracies need if they are really going to be deliberative democracies that make progress on the challenges that confront them. This world of Neal Bortz and Sean Hannity and Glen Beck seems like a Nietzschean nightmare where you can never know if people really mean what they say, and where all language and all speech is emptied of every last vestige of ideality and is reduced to pure instrumentality. If this world dominates political discussion in our society as much as it appears to if we judge by our local talk radio stations, then we might as well, as Derrida would say ironically, call it a day for democracy.
The Quincy Unitarian Church Home
The list of Selected Sermons.