Sunday, March 06, 2005

Rush Limbaugh and the Yugoslavization of America
In one of his post election posts on making the Democratic Party competitive in rural areas again, David Neiwert made the following observation about how rural Americans form their attitudes:
People listen to their radios a lot in rural America. Maybe it has something to do with the silence of the vast landscapes where many of them live; radios break that silence, and provide the succor of human voices.

If you drive through these landscapes, getting radio reception can sometimes be iffy at best, especially in the rural West. Often the best you can find on the dial are only one or two stations.

And the chances are that what you'll hear, at nearly any hour, in nearly any locale, is Rush Limbaugh. Or Michael Savage. Or maybe some Sean Hannity. Or maybe some more Limbaugh. Or, if you're really desperate, you can catch one of the many local mini-Limbaughs who populate what remains of the rural dial. In between, of course, there will be a country music station or two.

That's what people in rural areas have been listening to for the past 10 years and more. And nothing has been countering it.

During the 1990's, David C. Barker (now at the University of Pittsburgh) studied the effect of conservative talk radio on opinion formation. He published the results of his study as his dissertation and expanded them into a book Rushed to Judgment: Talk Radio, Persuasion, and American Political Behavior. In his study, Barker focused on Limbaugh as the host with the biggest audience. He was surprised at how direct an effect talk radio hosts have.
The basic conclusion, drawn from survey data, is that persuasion occurs in a variety of ways. First of all, people's opinions, over time, reflected the opinions of the hosts more after listening; second, listeners became more inclined to vote Republican; third, they became more participatory, that is, they're more likely than non-listeners to engage in politics, whether that means talking about issues, voting, contributing to or working for a campaign, sticking a bumper-sticker on their car.

People who listen to talk radio adopt the opinions expressed by the hosts and act on those messages.

Anyone who has been reading Orcinus knows that David Neiwert is very concerned about eliminationist rhetoric in American politics. In his many articles on the growing fascist trend in American politics, Neiwert regularly brings up the growing tendency of the far right to talk about violence toward the left. Ann Coulter says it would be a great thing if the New York Times building would be blown up. Congressman Jim Gibbons of Elko, Nevada says antiwar protestors should be sent to the frontlines in Iraq to act as human body armor for the troops. Coulter, Hannity, and others regularly call anyone who opposes the president, the war, or the far right agenda "traitors." And what's the traditional punishment for treason? Lets not even mention the rabid talk that came out over at Powerline, Little Green Footballs, or NewsMax during the election and continues today. When called on their encouragement of violence, they all claim that they were just joking and liberals have no sense of humor.

So is there a threat? Are we about to see brownshirt street-fighters breaking up Democratic or liberal meetings and protests? Who can say? Let me draw a parallel.

In the summer of 1993 I went to Belgrade, Serbia to interview Milovan Djilas, an old revolutionary, student leader, and partisan general turned apostate to the Party. At this time, the economy of Serbia was in shambles. International sanctions and hyperinflation had produced over 50% unemployment. Organized crime was buying up everything worth owning. The army of an entity calling itself the Serbian Republic of Bosnia was laying siege to Sarajevo and Srebrenica. Paramilitaries openly walked the streets of Belgrade. The hotels were mostly filled with refugees from the war zones in the west. I was the only paying guest at the hotel I ended up in. According to official statistics, there were only eight tourist visas issued for Belgrade that month. I had one.

After conducting my interviews with Djilas, I spent most of the rest of my time checking out the city to try and get a feel for what people thought of their situation. The black-marketeers who hung out in the hotel coffee shop decided I was a reporter and bought me drinks. I interviewed the Foreign Minister of the Kraijina Republic. I bought some books. I went out for coffee with a member of parliament. Most people seemed to me to be shell-shocked and quite baffled as to how this had come to be.

Most of the American press bought into a narrative I called the "ancient animosities." According to this storyline, the peoples of the Balkans have hated each other since time immemorial. Their grudges are intractable and at any given opportunity they will begin massacring each other. Only a strongman like Tito can stop the killing by clamping down equally on everyone.

At its best, the story was simply bad history. For most of their history, the peoples of the Balkans have had no more problem with their neighbors than any other people in the world. Most Balkan wars have been the locals against their various imperial overlords, Turks, Habsburgs, and Nazis. At its worst, the story is crude racism. "Those people" are just savages and nothing can be done about it. In either telling, the narrative denies our common humanity with the people of the Balkans and saves us from thinking the uncomfortable thought that we might behave in a similar manner should the right circumstances arise.

My coffee with the MP turned into beer at a sidewalk cafe. He wanted to defend his people from this charge that they were mindless killing machines programmed to attack the neighbors whenever they can. There was nothing inevitable about the collapse of Yugoslavia or the war between its peoples, he told me. The problem was brought on by the Tito constitution and the power it gave to local nationalist elites.

A brief digression for some background is in order here. Tito was a vain and insecure man and these traits grew worse as he grew older. He wanted to be a unique force in the history of his people and hated the idea of someone else being the "new Tito." In later years, when it became obvious that he would outlive (either physically or politically) all of his presumed heirs, he began to plan a new constitution. This new constitution went into effect just before he died.

To make sure that no one would have the role of unifier, he essentially destroyed the central government. The presidency became a committee of eight men (one from each federal unit). They rotated through the chairmanship every six months. The same principle was used in the all of the federal ministries. This made it impossible for anyone to build a power base in the federal government. The place for ambitious politicians was in each of the six republic governments. In the two largest republics (Serbia and Croatia) nationalist hacks (Milosevic and Tudjeman) took over the government. And with the government came the government news media.

This was the key, my MP told me. Milosevic and Tudjeman shamelessly played the nationalist card. Every day the news was filled with stories emphasizing how their nationality was singled out for discrimination and abuse. Obscure historical anniversaries of victories and defeats were observed and parallels to the present peril drawn. The other nationalities were continually plotting with dark outside forces for their destruction. In every violent crime, the ethnic element was played up. To strike first would be self defense. Surely, the rest of the world would understand that.

Imagine, he said, if the Ku Klux Klan controlled the news in the United States. Imagine if an entire generation grew up only hearing their slant on events. It's not necessary to lie; they can do plenty of damage just by selectively reporting events. When enough fear, feelings of persecution, and division has been engendered, it will only be a matter of time before one group or another strikes out, preemptively to "defend" itself.

You can see where this argument is going. The eliminationist rhetoric of the talk radio right is priming us for conflict and violence. However, I want to say, there is nothing inevitable about that outcome. The nationalist medias in Serbia and Croatia helped drive Yugoslavia into civil war. Other factors helped push the country to that end. At the same time there were forces working for unity and to disarm the situation.

In 1988, most observers assumed South Africa had passed the point of no return and that race war was just matter of when, not if. Somehow, they managed to step back from the precipice. Today, many of us look at the political scene in the US and see it rapidly going to hell. Nothing is inevitable until it has already happened. Sanity could break out at any minute. While it is good to be aware of the dangers we face, we should never give up hope and never stop working for a better outcome.

Update - Ezra has a post up commenting on the same David Neiwert post. Interesting that we would both be compelled to comment on the same three month old post. Ezra posts here, with a follow-up by his weekend guest host, Michael, here.

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