Monday, August 09, 2004

Just like the Klan

I happened to have the TV on in my hotel room tuned to the exchange between Bill O'Reilly and Paul Krugman on Tim Russert's CNBC show.

What was especially striking about it (and isn't really clear in the transcript) is the way O'Reilly behaved during the whole interview. O'Reilly is big on insisting on placing his remarks "in context," and the context here was significant. He didn't argue: he bellowed, he jabbed his finger, he threatened and intimidated. Krugman looked a little shaken, and frankly, I don't blame him. This wasn't debate -- it was an exercise in verbal thuggery. And the "fair minded" Russert just sat there and watched.

In keeping with this MO, O'Reilly at no point made what could be called a logical argument, engaging instead in what can best be described as a combination of two of the chief logical fallacies, the ad hominem and the appeal to authority. O'Reilly basically berated Krugman for having obtained perfectly accurate information from David Brock's Media Matters -- as though a source's partisanship somehow negated the factual correctness of what it reported. And in this instance, it didn't.

O'Reilly refused to respond to the substance of Krugman's critique or even acknowledge the accuracy of the quotes in question. Instead, he called Media Matters a "liberal hate group" -- the conservative movement's latest Newspeak coinage. Considering that "hate group" as a term refers almost strictly to groups that malign, attack and otherwise engage in efforts to exclude and eliminate entire classes of their fellow citizens from the fruits of American citizenship, usually based on immutable characteristics, Media Matters doesn't even come close to fitting the description. (In contrast to, say, certain cable networks that employ hosts who write books comparing liberals to terrorists as one of the three great evils threatening America.)

This culminated in O'Reilly comparing Media Matters to the Klan. As Pandagon and Atrios have already noted, this is an absurd comparison on its face -- and a deeply troubling one at its core.

Jesse already has remarked on the differences between the two organizations. But it goes beyond mere appearances.

The Ku Klux Klan has existed through multiple incarnations for over 150 years in America. The first of these was, according to Robert Paxton, the first historical emanation of fascism, the Reconstruction Klan. Here is its record, according to Philip Dray in At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America:
Richard Maxwell Brown's comprehensive study of vigilante violence in America estimates that in the four years 1868-71 there were more than four hundred Klan lynchings in the South, Union general Phil Sheridan calculated that 3,500 whites and blacks were killed between 1865 and 1875, Ida Wells-Barnett, writing in the 1890s, put the number of Negroes killed by whites since 1865 at 10,000, with only three white men executed for crimes against blacks in that period. … Author Dorothy Sterling, who combed through man thousands of documents and oral histories in her preparation of a noted compendium on the Reconstruction era, cited 20,000 as the number killed by the Klan just in the four years 1868-71.

The Klan revived in 1916 after years of dormancy and was responsible for a broad range of lynchings, "race riots" and anti-black purges in the South over the ensuing 15 years or so. It was at the forefront of the so-called "lynching era" (1880-1930), when some 3,400 black people were summarily and brutally killed. And it has continued to be associated even today with an array of hate crimes and heinous acts of terrorism against various minorities.

I'm sure Bill O'Reilly considers his hurt feelings comparable to the deaths of about 25,000 black people. But not many of the rest of us do.

Of course, O'Reilly's analogy is absurd on its face. But it's important to observe what is achieved by putting it out there.

Not only does O'Reilly smear one of his political nemeses -- he soft-pedals what real hate groups stand for. When he compares Media Matters to the Klan, he's not only telling his audience that the former is full of hateful vitriol that poisons the public well, he tells them that the Klan is a reasonably legitimate organization that mostly is engaged in mere political partisanship.

And that makes O'Reilly appear not only ridiculous, but genuinely dangerous.

No comments: