Thursday, February 21, 2008

O'Reilly and lynching

-- by Dave

Suppose, back in 2000, that Joe Lieberman were reported to have said something that right-wingers immediately cast as being anti-American. And in discussing it, someone -- oh, say, Bill O'Reilly -- went on the air and semi-defended him thus:
I don't think we ought to send Joe Lieberman to the gas chambers unless there's evidence, hard facts, that say this is how the man really feels. If that's how he really feels -- that America is a bad country or a flawed nation, whatever -- then that's legit. We'll track it down.

Do you think anyone would have found that acceptable? Do you think he'd have been able to get away with a refusal to apologize for the inappropriateness of the remark?

Because he did essentially the same thing this week in discussing allegedly anti-American remarks made by Michelle Obama:
"I don't want to go on a lynching party against Michelle Obama unless there's evidence, hard facts, that say this is how the woman really feels. If that's how she really feels -- that America is a bad country or a flawed nation, whatever -- then that's legit. We'll track it down."

O'Reilly so far is refusing to back down or apologize, because, as his apologists insist, he was making remarks ostensibly in her defense. His producer put it thus:
"What Bill said was an obvious repudiation of anyone attacking Michelle Obama," he said, via email. "As he has said more than ten times, he is giving her the benefit of the doubt."

Yes -- and doing so by clearly suggesting that if evidence of her alleged anti-American further emerges, he in fact would lead a "lynching party" to get her.

Nevermind that the Klan has vowed to see her husband assassinated.

Nevermind that right now, the white-power haters are coming totally unhinged at the prospect of an Obama presidency.

Nevermind that all this outpouring of hate has played a significant role in the heightened level of security around him.

No, all that seems to matter is Bill O'Reilly's ego, which simply cannot accept the damage that would be inflicted on it by an acknowledgement that making loose references to lynching when discussing African Americans is not just beyond the pale, but one of the ugliest forms of discourse available to Americans.

It's unacceptable for anyone supposedly representing a responsible media organization to be using it -- just as it would be unaacceptable to make Holocaust jokes on the air.

As Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post put it:
There's nothing funny about lynching. There's certainly nothing at all funny or remotely appropriate about the use of a lynching reference to talk about Michelle Obama, and the word "unless," followed by "[w]e'll track it down," is way beyond the pale. It's -- I'm almost speechless, but I have more to say, of course.

We've explained this in some detail previously:
Underlying the stated fear of black rape, moreover, was a broad fear of economic and cultural domination of white Americans by blacks and various other "outsiders," including Jews. These fears were acute in the South, where blacks became a convenient scapegoat for the mesh of poverty that lingered in the decades following the Civil War. Lynching in fact was frequently inspired not by criminality, but by any signs of economic and social advancement by blacks who, in the view of whites, had become too "uppity."

There were, of course, other components of black suppression: segregation in the schools, disenfranchisement of the black vote, and the attendant Jim Crow laws that were common throughout the South. But lynching was the linchpin in the system, so to speak, because it was in effect state-supported terrorism whose stated intent was to suppress blacks and other minorities, in no small part by eliminating non-whites as competitors for economic gain. These combined to give lynching a symbolic value as a manifestation of white supremacy. The lynch mob was not merely condoned but in fact celebrated as an expression of the white community’s will to keep African-Americans in their thrall. As a phrase voiced commonly in the South expressed it, lynching was a highly effective means of "keeping the niggers down."

... Moreover, in addition to the night-riding type of terrorist attacks, mass spectacle lynchings soon appeared. These were ritualistic mob scenes in which prisoners or even men merely suspected of crimes were often torn from the hands of authorities (if not captured beforehand) by large crowds and treated to beatings and torture before being put to death, frequently in the most horrifying fashion possible: people were flayed alive, had their eyes gouged out with corkscrews, and had their bodies mutilated before being doused in oil and burned at the stake. Black men were sometimes forced to eat their own hacked-off genitals. No atrocity was considered too horrible to visit on a black person, and no pain too unimaginable to inflict in the killing. (When whites, by contrast, were lynched, the act almost always was restricted to simple hanging.)

When these remarks were first reported, I assumed it was just a rhetorical slip on O'Reilly's part that he would rectify in short order, as he has in the past. But his refusal to apologize -- and his lame excuse that he was "defending" her when he clearly also threatened her if he eventually determined that she turned out to be insufficiently patriotic -- makes it clear that O'Reilly really doesn't understand just how wrong he was.

For the sake of the health of our public discourse, it's now not only important that he apologize, it's important he do so in a way that helps his audience understand why don't talk about sending "lynch mobs" after African Americans, particularly not prominent ones.

UPDATE: O'Reilly has issued a classic non-apology apology: "I'm sorry if my statement offended anybody. That, of course, was not the intention. Context is everything." No discussion or acknowledgement, of course, of the fact that it was ethically (and morally) outrageous of O'Reilly to make flippant references to lynching.

Just to be clear: If O'Reilly had merely said "I don't want to go on a lynching party against Michelle Obama," that would still be a problem, since it's not merely in bad taste, it's irresponsible and thoughtless; a lesser problem, certainly, than the reality, which is that he then added: "unless there's evidence, hard facts, that say this is how the woman really feels. If that's how she really feels -- that America is a bad country or a flawed nation, whatever -- then that's legit. We'll track it down."

Granted, he didn't say, "We'll track her down," but the implication remains clear: If there were such evidence of her insufficient patriotism, he would be delighted to lead a lynching party against her.

As Skemono adroitly observes:
Here we have the disgusting, senseless uber-patriotism of the right wing laid bare. They have gone beyond "America: right or wrong"; the mantra is now "America is never wrong." The merest suggestion that America is flawed, that it is anything less than perfect, is a crime worthy of organizing a "lynching party."

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