X: Reaching the Receivers
I was driving around Billings, Montana, in the middle of a nasty blizzard in a cheap little rented car and trying to figure out what in the hell was going on when the Voice On Loan From God hit me.
There are, I suppose, things that you have to admire about Rush Limbaugh, and one of them is his voice. It is absolutely distinctive. I can hear it through a rolled-up car and know who the driver is listening to. But that afternoon in early March 1996 I heard him talk and it came as something of a revelation.
I actually have made a habit over the years of listening to Limbaugh because I want to know what he's saying. More to the point, I spend a lot of time driving around rural backcountry, and you have to know that Limbaugh is just about the only constant thing you can find on the radio out there. There's country music, but in the open range even it can be spotty reception-wise. Rush, however, is everywhere.
He is inescapable. He seems to be on at nearly all times of the day too. And sometimes the country music (especially the gawdawful crap they call 'new country') gets bad, and the tape collection gets old, and listening to Rush rumble away in that nice baritone is not all that bad to listen to, especially if I'm in the mood for the artistry of his awfulness. He makes me laugh, though not in ways he intends, I'm sure.
There wasn't anything new or remarkable about that day's broadcast. It just answered a question I had been trying to understand.
I was in Billings because a few days before, the FBI had arrested two leaders of the Montana Freemen at their compound near Jordan, Montana. I attended their initial hearings at the federal courthouse, drove up to Jordan for a day, then drove back to Billings for more courtroom action at the arraignments.
This was quite a bit of driving, especially with the ice and snow storm that had come through about a week before and was continuing to pile up. However, these had become familiar roads to me. I had been out this way only two months before, talking to people in Roundup and Jordan about the eruption of the Freemen on the local scene and trying to get a sense of what was happening to these rural societies.
Mostly I was trying to get a handle on the seething, venomous hatred of the government that was seeping out in the bile of movements like the Freemen, but was much, much more widespread. Almost literally anyone you talked to in rural America was bitter with their hatred of the "gummint" in nearly all of its forms, particularly the federal one. Certainly it had been on full display in the federal courtroom in Billings, where LeRoy Schweitzer and Dan Petersen had done their best to disrupt the hearings with their insistence that the entire proceedings against them were illegitimate.
I was no stranger to feelings of hatred of the government, for reasons I explained in In God's Country [short version: federal bureaucrats were responsible for the death of a great-aunt with whom I was close]. But this went beyond even that. It was blind, irrational, utterly visceral hatred that went beyond even the worst things I had heard from the mouths of Birchers when I was growing up. In fact, it reminded me of talk I had heard in only one other place previously: the Aryan Nations compound in Hayden Lake. The conspiracy theories, the pseudo-legal 'constitutionalism', as well as the barely concealed race-baiting and anti-Semitism were all present. The only thing missing was the usual accompaniment of Nazi worship and cross-burning.
The thing about government-bashing out West is that nearly anyone who has lived here for any length of time, particularly if they have deep family roots, has directly benefited from government programs that are in fact responsible for their very presence on this land. It's a decidedly mixed bag that has always created a love/hate relationship between the government and the ranchers and farmers who have been its main beneficiaries, and sometimes its victims.
In eastern Montana, for instance, this goes back to the homesteading programs of the post-1910 period sponsored by the federal government, in close cooperation (as it were) with the railroads. These were essentially scams which helped fill out millions of acres of empty space in the West but which more often than not proved financially disastrous for the homesteaders. [For a terrific account of this, read Jonathan Raban's Bad Land: An American Romance.]
The federal government builds our roads, pays for our schools, constructs our water-supply and irrigation systems and the dams that make them go. We're actually terribly dependent on the gummint, which chafes rather nastily against Westerners' own deeply mythologized self-reliance and independence.
The sheer venom that was emerging from the Patriot movement, however, was in another universe. Built around cockamamie theories and wild-eyed fire-breathing rhetoric, and unmoored from any real semblance of reality, it was so wildly out of left field that it was an incongruous thing to be taking root in a place like Montana where common sense was most often the real coin of the realm. It was a disturbing thing to see how many people with ordinary working-class, agricultural backgrounds -- people who before had always been normal contributors to society, sometimes, as in the case of a couple of at least one elderly Freeman, Emmett Clark, with a rock-solid reputation in the community -- were being drawn into the Patriot movement and embracing at least its rhetoric, if not its agenda.
How had this happened? What was encouraging people to make this leap? I was puzzling over this that day in Billings, tootling around in a front-wheel drive Chevy that actually handled the snow just fine, and listening to Rush on the radio.
On that day, I had decided to try listening to Rush as though I were someone like Dan Petersen or some other working-class stiff from Jordan -- not particularly educated, prone to a visceral kind of patriotism and similar politics, and insistent on my identity as an independent Westerner. Doing that, I got an answer, or at least part of one.
Limbaugh was holding forth that day on the subject of federal bureaucrats who he claimed were attempting to ignore the will of the people on matters relating to control of federal lands as well as the tax bureaucracy. At the apex of the rant, Limbaugh began speculating about the motives of these bureaucrats: they didn't care about "democracy"; they would probably just as soon dispose of it, and any kind of responsiveness to the public, altogether if given the opportunity; they would be happier in a dictatorship, which was what they were establishing anyway, Rush informed us.
Suddenly I had a very clear picture about how hatred of the government had reached such illogical and hysterical heights. Americans were being told, relentlessly and repeatedly, that not only was government a bad thing, it was inherently evil, indeed conspiring to take away their freedom and enslave them. The person telling them this was a mainstream conservative. He was giving them essentially the same message being spread by the Freemen and militias, but this time with the mantle of mainstream legitimacy. Rush was taking people up to the edge of Patriot beliefs and more or less introducing his listeners to them. And if they were people like those in Montana (or anywhere else the Patriot movement set up shop, which was largely every corner of the country), who already Patriots for neighbors, they would take the next step themselves.
Limbaugh's defenders, like Ann Coulter's, will no doubt defend this kind of talk as simple hyperbole intended to emphasize his point and inject some humor. That of is utterly disingenuous; why say something if at some level you don't mean it? Moreover, it overlooks the effect that it has on their audiences, who may not be as sophisticated or as inclined to distinguish the hyperbole from the supposedly reasonable discourse. Indeed, the bulk of Limbaughites I have met tend to take his every utterance as virtual Gospel.
Thus, Limbaugh might claim that he's merely being critical of government, but this rhetoric treads beyond such perfectly acceptable (in fact desirable) robust political speech, to the kind that argues for the overthrow and utter dismantling of the system. And that is, if anything, the dividing line between being a politically active citizen and being an extremist, right or left. Limbaugh blurs that line constantly.
It was this kind of irresponsible demagoguery to which President Clinton referred in his remarkable address in Minneapolis a few days after the Oklahoma City bombing:
- In this country we cherish and guard the right of free speech. We know we love it when we put up with people saying things we absolutely deplore. And we must always be willing to defend their right to say things we deplore to the ultimate degree. But we hear so many loud and angry voices in America today whose sole goal seems to be to try to keep some people as paranoid as possible and the rest of us all torn up and upset with each other. They spread hate. They leave the impression that, by their very words, that violence is acceptable. You ought to see -- I'm sure you are now seeing the reports of some things that are regularly said over the airwaves in America today.
Well, people like that who want to share our freedoms must know that their bitter words can have consequences and that freedom has endured in this country for more than two centuries because it was coupled with an enormous sense of responsibility on the part of the American people.
If we are to have freedom to speak, freedom to assemble, and, yes, the freedom to bear arms, we must have responsibility as well. And to those of us who do not agree with the purveyors of hatred and division, with the promoters of paranoia, I remind you that we have freedom of speech, too, and we have responsibilities, too. And some of us have not discharged our responsibilities. It is time we all stood up and spoke against that kind of reckless speech and behavior.
If they insist on being irresponsible with our common liberties, then we must be all the more responsible with our liberties. When they talk of hatred, we must stand against them. When they talk of violence, we must stand against them. When they say things that are irresponsible, that may have egregious consequences, we must call them on it. The exercise of their freedom of speech makes our silence all the more unforgivable. So exercise yours, my fellow Americans. Our country, our future, our way of life is at stake.
Though Clinton certainly never identified Limbaugh as one of those "angry voices," almost immediately Limbaugh responded with cries of censorship and claims that Clinton was attempting to silence him. The protests have continued so steadily that the claim that Clinton blamed Limbaugh has become a stock theme about the supposed perfidy of liberals.
Indeed, Ann Coulter herself continued this meme in her book, nder: Liberal Lies About The American Right,92-93: "When impeached former president Bill Clinton identified Rush Limbaugh as the cause of the Oklahoma City bombing, he unleashed all the typical liberal curse words for conservatives. He blamed 'loud and angry voices' heard 'over the airwaves in America' that were making people 'paranoid' and spreading hate."
The, er, lady doth protest too much, methinks.
Of course, Clinton did not name anyone, even though the voices he probably had more in mind were those belong to the likes G. Gordon "Head Shots" Liddy and some of the more vicious Patriot types like Chuck Harder, who constantly hawked Patriot conspiracy theories outright, alongside a full dose of rhetoric about the violent resistance of federal agents. But in fact Clinton used very general terms probably because he recognized the reality as well, which was that characters like Limbaugh and his fellow movement arch-conservatives have been irresponsible as well -- perhaps not to the same degree, except for the fact that the reach of transmitters like Limbaugh is so massive.
And the bitter truth, for people like Limbaugh, is that Clinton was right: Words have consequences. When you carefully tailor memes and ideas that promote an essentially extremist worldview to fit a mainstream audience, you're spreading poison into the community that can have extremely violent consequences. Anyone who's read American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing has a pretty clear picture of how closely McVeigh's hatred of the government was fanned by both extremist and mainstream voices. And it was to all these voices which Clinton alluded.
Limbaugh's protests notwithstanding, it is not hard to see that while, of course, Limbaugh cannot be blamed directly for Oklahoma City, neither can he be wholly absolved. Whining does not relieve him from the responsibility for his words. Timothy McVeigh, and the wave of Patriot domestic terrorists who followed him, did not occur in a vacuum. They were creatures in a milieu in which Limbaugh and other ostensibly "mainstream" media, political and religious figures helped transmit and reinforce extremist ideas that, when nursed with a violent predisposition, became extremely volatile in real life.
These transmissions have a twofold effect, as I've mentioned earlier: They not only inject extremist ideas into the mainstream, but they brings the two sectors closer together.
Take two neighbors, Joe and Bill. Joe is a good taxpaying family man and a Republican precinct committeeman. Bill is a Patriot who attends Preparedness Expos and "common law court" meetings and has declared his "sovereign citizenship." Now, contrary to popular myths, most Patriots in fact are indistinguishable from any other average American -- they hold jobs, raise kids, carpool, attend church. And so in most respects, Joe and Bill get along fine, as most neighbors might, though Joe thinks Bill's ideas are kooky. Then he starts listening to Limbaugh, and after awhile, he begins to think that maybe his government-hating neighbor isn't so kooky after all.
Meanwhile, Bill listens to the same broadcasts and begins to believe that maybe mainstream Republicans are finally starting to "get it." The next time he and Bill talk over the fence, they find they have more to talk about. Pretty soon Joe is heading off with Bill to a Preparedness Expo, while Bill starts volunteering to work as a "poll watcher" for the Republicans in the next elections.
The result is that right-wing extremists wind up exerting a gravitational pull on mainstream conservatism -- and by extension, the whole political continuum -- that far exceeds their actual size or, for that matter, political viability. That the entire spectrum has shifted steadily rightward in the past 10 years and more could not be more self-evident. And at times, it has come with devastating results, as at Oklahoma City.
If nothing else, Oklahoma City should at least have been a signal to Limbaugh that it was time to tone down the rhetoric, to stop demonizing government employees and federal officials. That, as we have seen, has never occurred. Anti-government bile is still a constant of his radio rants, as anyone reading the transcripts at Web sites like Rush Transcript [http://rushtranscript.blogspot.com] can see for themselves. Certainly it was that day in Billings, which was nearly a year after Oklahoma City.
However, since the election of George W. Bush, Limbaugh's anti-government venom is largely reserved for liberal officials. In general, Limbaugh has now shifted his focus from demonizing the government to demonizing anything liberal. Of course, this sentiment has always been part of his schtick, but in recent months he has been stepping it up another notch. Not only are liberals to be opposed politically, they are in fact treasonous. This was explicit in his attacks on Sen. Tom Daschle, the leader of the Senate Democrats, and was a continuing theme as antiwar protests grew in volume and intensity, referring to dissenters as, among other things, "anti-American, anti-capitalist Marxists and Communists."
This is extremely dangerous talk, and not merely because it is divisive. It actually threatens to simultaneously harden the growing alliance between extremist and mainstream conservatives, and create a milieu in which violence against dissenters becomes acceptable. It is when we see this kind of coalescence that we are in real danger of seeing fascism blossom in America.
Of course, Clinton in fact made abundantly clear that day that the proper response is not to shut down those irresponsible voices, to try to silence them. That would be adopting their tactics, and put us on their moral plane.
Let Limbaugh and his cohorts have their say. And let the rest of us be there to counter his disinformation with facts, his false memes with a clear dose of reality.
But pretending that he's only an "entertainer" -- or for that matter that he really is wholly mainstream -- is no longer an option.
Next: Dualist Receivers