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This Just In...
August 2, 2003
By Pamela Troy

One of the great sketch comedians of the 1960s was The Carol Burnett Show's Tim Conway. His persona, presented with flawless comic timing, was almost always that of a man whose reactions were, to put it kindly, a little slow. "Don't tear that," he'd say, his brow suddenly contracting in alarm after he'd spent several seconds placidly watching a bratty kid shred a document into tiny bits. In one memorable skit in which his character took a fall from a fifth story window, the audience saw Conway disappear over the sill and heard a series of horrendous crashes ending in a sickening thud. Only then, after a moment of silence, came the despairing wail, "I'm FAAAAAALLLLLLING!"

And that, in a nutshell, describes mainstream American press coverage of the rise of the far right.

What brought all this to mind was a recent piece in Salon about a rally of young Republicans in Washington. In her article, Michelle Goldberg makes what Salon apparently considers the red-hot revelation that many in the upcoming crop of young Republicans are not only callous, jingoistic, and overtly racist, but regard Democrats and liberals as enemies practically on a par with Mid-East terrorists. She quotes speaker Paul Erickson describing a liberal as "someone who at their root, at their core, hates everything this country stands for but doesn't hate it enough to leave," and the next speaker, right-wing lobbyist Jack Abramoff equating Democrats with "the ascension of evil, the bad guys, the Bolsheviks'"

It's hardly surprising that the young Republicans attending this rally and lapping up such garbage denounce Clinton as more dangerous than Osama bin Laden and boast about a contempt for liberals that seems more personal than political. As Goldberg observes midway through the piece, "Ann Coulter's latest book, Treason, which tarred virtually all Democrats as traitors, may have been denounced by conservative intellectuals, but its message has pervaded the party."

I have no problem with the concern Goldberg expresses in her account. I agree with her that the quotes she's offered, from both the speakers at this rally and the attendees, go beyond the kind of rivalry one would expect in a two party system. In fact, these conservatives' equation of Democrats with treason, bolshevism, evil itself, veers dangerously close to an outright rejection of the American conception of political diversity. What does annoy me quite profoundly is that the "troubling dark side" to modern conservatism Goldberg describes has been around far too long for her piece to qualify as a revelation.

None of the ugly remarks quoted in it are likely to surprise anyone who has frequented online conservative chat-rooms or Internet bulletin boards for the past three years. Nor should they be news to anyone who has read and noted the popularity not just of Ann Coulter, but the likes of Bill O'Reilly, William Bennett and Rush Limbaugh. The time for the mainstream press to notice that a great many conservatives reject, not just the ideas, but the very legitimacy of liberalism and/or the Democratic Party was three years ago when rioting Republicans shut down a legal vote at the Miami Dade Courthouse. Or, at the very latest, well over a year ago, when Coulter made her famous comment about the need to "physically intimidate liberals" to an enthusiastic crowd at a Conservative rally.

For roughly two decades our mass media has covered the standard bearers for the far right's current revival of McCarthyism as if these pundits operated in a vacuum. The religious right's insinuation into mainstream politics, the popularity of Rush Limbaugh, the bestseller status of Ann Coulter's nauseating books, have been treated as amusing sideshows or at worst, gross breaches of taste, their troubling implications ignored. Important questions about the agenda these people represent, and the extent to which it has been tacitly embraced both by a major political party and a significant portion of the American public have gone largely unasked and unanswered.

Mainstream journalists seem intent on overlooking the fact that when someone equates being a Democrat with treason, or being a liberal with depravity, they are not talking about abstracts. They are talking about individuals. They are describing American citizens who work, vote, fight in our wars, raise families, and teach in our schools and universities. They are declaring that these American citizens are, by virtue of their beliefs, evil, disloyal, even criminal. And when they say these things to cheering throngs, publish them in best-selling books, and form committees intent on acting on these assumptions, they warrant far more serious and thoughtful attention than the current press seems willing to give them.

It's nice that Michelle Goldberg is concerned. It's nice that Salon published her article. It would have been even nicer if, in the course of researching her article Goldberg had actually asked the conservatives at this rally a few of the questions that positively screamed to be asked, like "If Democrats are traitors, should they be treated as traitors? Should they be arrested for treason?" or "If you want to bring back the blacklist, what form would it take? Do you want to drive all liberal teachers out of public schools and universities? All liberals out of government? All liberals out of any position of trust?"

Nowhere, of course, is there any indication in the article that Goldberg posed any of these important and potentially revealing questions, even though she describes attending a hotel-room bull session with some of the attendees that would have offered her a dandy opportunity. It would be an interesting question in itself to ask her why she didn't or, if she did, why she didn't consider the answers she got worth sharing with the rest of us.

If sometime in the future the "beautiful young shock troops" Goldberg describes start acting on their visceral hatred for liberals/Democrats with blacklists, legal sanctions or even occasional vigilante violence against such "traitors," it's not hard to foresee the American press' reaction. In that event, we can expect articles from some mainstream journalists evincing a bland astonishment, as if this repression from the right were a development that no knowledgeable watcher of the political scene could have foreseen.

In the meantime, check out the recent Salon interview with Ann Coulter. David Bowman really comes to grips with Coulter's taste in movies and novels, and mercilessly examines whether or not Coulter, in her endless round of dating, is likely to ever find that one special someone.

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