Driving with the enemy

This post was written to prior Don Imus’s unfortunate and racist comments about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team. It seems ironic that he came up with such a good example of what I wrote the essay to talk about.

I am not quite sure when it happened, but sometime in the last ten years, I started listening occasionally to talk radio — not National Public Radio, which hosts multiple radio talk show programs, but generally conservative, often Republican, almost always Christian, far-right-of-center AM talk radio. Although I do not tune in often, I have heard enough over the years to catch the flavor.

I probably started hearing snatches of AM radio when I left the East Coast in 1997 and moved to the West. Having spent the previous ten years in New York, Chicago, and Boston, one of the things I found most frustrating about my new home was the paucity of good radio stations. If I had been a country music devotee or enjoyed the “soft-listening” dregs of the 1970s, I probably would have survived. But driving an economy car without much of a stereo system and listening to music on local radio stations in the days before iPods just about drove me mad. Flipping through channels and changing bandwidths, it is not surprising that I stumbled onto AM talk radio.

What is a surprise is that I decided to stay. As a genuinely liberal, decidedly Democratic female who situates herself far left of center and defines her Christianity in very different terms than the talk show hosts I was discovering, my first instinct was to change the channel before my head exploded. My second instinct was to keep listening.

I say this because after my initial revulsion, I realized that there might be something I could learn from seeing what these talk show hosts had to say. I was living in a conservative community, having dinner with family members and old friends whose (popular) cultural references did not make much sense to me, and whose politics I found difficult to understand. Tuning into talk radio introduced me to some of the voices that were reaching people I cared about. Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Laura Schlessinger made me want to vomit, but when I recognized fragments of their rhetoric or ideological perspective in the comments my neighbors made at church or in the grocery store, it occurred to me that I had stumbled onto a rich — if profoundly troubling — source of media.

Then the former English professor in me got involved. Because the friends and neighbors who listened to talk radio were not stupid, I wanted to understand the appeal of the programs to which they tuned in. I wondered what it was about the rhetoric or content of these programs that kept smart people coming back. So on late night road trips when I needed something besides Diet Coke to keep me from falling asleep, I listened as an intellectual endeavor, trying to parse out why people kept calling Dr. Laura or looking for help with their finances from Christian debt counselors.

Over time, I came to understand something about the discourse of AM-talk radio. Although I am not an expert, my late night driving has led to a few observations about the rhetorical style of these radio shows — and how that rhetoric lends to their appeal. Although a more devoted listener would likely find fault with the following generalizations, the following points about the rhetorical style of talk radio are worth considering:

  • The hosts of most talk radio shows claim to be broadcasting the Truth — not truth, with a little “t,” but the real deal, capital “T” and all.
  • These programs make spectacular use of us/them rhetoric. Some, like Rush Limbaugh, are specific about this, naming “them,” the liberals, as bad, and “us,” his followers, as good. Other hosts are subtle about the us/them distinction, but in most programs there is an implied understanding that in tuning in, you are becoming one of “us.” You are also allying yourself with the host’s perspective, and because it is the Truth, “they,” the others, cannot also be right.
  • Callers to the shows are pawns used to get the host’s message across. You do not have to listen to Dr. Laura for very long to realize that she only has about three answers to all of life’s problems. Callers’ personal crises are shrunk down and handed back to them in a format that allows her to deliver her message — in the form of one of her three answers — over and over again. Similarly, Rush Limbaugh talks over or hangs up on anyone who disagrees with him, or spins callers’ comments into something that represents his perspective. And he always gets the last word.
  • Guests are frequently pawns, too.
  • With callers and guests as pawns, the discourse of these talk shows forms a call-and-response rather than genuine dialogue. Most callers call in, not to offer a different perspective, but to affirm what the host is talking about. The host offers the Truth, and callers call back to say “yes, your truth is True. Here is how I have found it to be true in my life.” The host then says something like “I told you I had the Truth.”
  • In service of promoting the Truth, a favorite device is taking opposing news stories completely out of context. Put another way, many of the hosts are masters of strip-quoting — a trick I was taught the evils of in high school debate, where one quotes a legitimate source, but strips it of its context so as to make it mean something the source never intended.
  • Many of these hosts are also masters of inflammatory language. They can swear without using profanity, and by coining terms like “femi-Nazi,” manage to conflate issues they do not like with genuine evil, redefining good and evil on their own terms in the process.
  • All of the above points are made possible by the charisma and strong personalities of the hosts. These hosts either believe they have the Truth and are self-important enough to think it is their responsibility to share it with the listening world, or they are self-confident and immoral enough not to care about truth and are willing to sell something that looks like truth in order to make a buck.
  • They are willing to sell other things, too. Most hosts peddle their own books or CDs — or the services of colleagues, who in turn share profits with the host. Christian debt counselors sell debt-forgiveness packages and Dr. Laura sells her own books and those of other organizations she supports — and that support her.
  • AM talk-radio is not a self-reflective place. Hosts ignore their own weaknesses (e.g. Rush Limbaugh’s addiction to prescription narcotics) while writing large the foibles of those who do not espouse their ideology.

As someone who disagrees with almost everything I hear on talk radio, sorting it out this way helps me understand its appeal. You do not have to listen for very long before you get a sense of what it would mean to belong to the “us,” instead of the “them.” To a solitary person in a car on a lonely country road or feeling isolated on a busy city street, the idea of belonging to a large audience of people who share your perspective can be pretty exciting. Add to this the notion that belonging also means possessing the Truth, and talk radio is appealing, indeed. Even intoxicating.

Putting all this together in my head, it is easy for me to start feeling superior. I think of all the lonely, simple-minded people that talk radio is deluding. I imagine what a better world it would be if these poor souls would only start thinking for themselves and realize how duped they are by the promise of a (radio) community and of a chance to possess the Truth.

But then all too quickly, I realize that in thinking this way, I have just set up an us/them dichotomy of my own, and that the players have simply switched places. “They” become the conservatives, while I situate myself in an enlightened “us,” of liberalism. Moreover, I find that my friends and I all too often practice the same things that so infuriate me when listening to talk radio: we claim truths of our own, and although I think we listen carefully to each other’s ideas, that is not too difficult since we usually agree. I do not routinely strip-quote sources, but I do have favorite resources for news and am unselfconsciously self-righteous about ignoring others. And while I enjoy a good debate, given all the stress in my life, I am more likely to spend my time off with people who see the world as I do. Preaching to or hanging out with the choir is comforting and usually fun.

Looked at in this way, rather than making me feel superior, critiquing talk radio actually makes me confront the discourse community I carry around in my own head. Made of up snippets from NPR, liberal on-line news magazines and images of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth — and sustained by loyal friends and the politics of my husband’s labor union — the talk radio in my head supports, rather than challenges my perspectives. And while I think a certain amount of support is necessary to mental health, I think I might be due for some airing out — not an abdication of my beliefs for an embrace of others, but simply a facing of people and ideas who see things differently than I do. If this airing out could be followed by a conversation about which ideas are the most convincing and bear the most weight when freed from paralyzing us/them rhetoric, all the better.

In my junior year of high school, the same debate coach who warned against the perils of strip-quoting said something that has stayed with me over the years. We had driven from northern Utah to Brigham Young University — the Mormon-run campus that has been talked about in this forum before — to attend a debate tournament. Enamored of its manicured lawns, its mountain views, and the idea of getting out of my parents’ home, I began talking about applying there for college. A devout Mormon himself, my coach let me go on for a long time. And then — and with apologies to all the broad-minded people who attended BYU and escaped unscathed from what I am about to describe — he said the words I find myself thinking about now. “You don’t want to go there,” he said.

“Why,” I asked, and then pushed back. “It’s a good school, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” he said, “but where everyone thinks alike, no one thinks very much.”

I swallowed. Where everyone thinks alike, no one thinks very much. Where everyone thinks alike, no one thinks very much. Where everyone thinks alike, no one thinks very much, kept running through my head. In a teenage life so-far geared toward fitting in, saying the right thing, and always getting along so as to be part of the right crowd, this conversation represents the first time I ever comprehended dissonance as a virtue — that the more challenged and uncomfortable I was, the more I might be learning. This 40-year-old man completely rocked my world. I have not been the same since.

But it is easy to slip. It is easy for me to get comfortable and confuse hard won truths, with capital “T” “Truth.” Looking for community and company, I sometimes forget that however appealing, my discourse community is not the only one, and that invigorating it with ideas that are new or unfamiliar will only make the language and perspectives of my own community rich and stronger.

This is why I tune occasionally to talk radio — not because I love what I am hearing, but precisely because it makes me uncomfortable. Even more important, it reminds me that the real enemy may not be the one on the radio, but the fat and complacent one living in my own head.

8 responses to “Driving with the enemy”

  1. MarleyFan says:

    Where everyone thinks alike, no one thinks very much. Where everyone thinks alike, no one thinks very much. Where everyone thinks alike, no one thinks very much Where everyone thinks alike, no one thinks very much. Where everyone thinks alike, no one thinks very much. Where everyone thinks alike, no one thinks very much

    Mega dittos Annie.

    Gotta add- I kinda like the Dr. Dean Edell Show.

  2. MF says:

    Annie, this is a beatiful piece.

    It is timely that you have posted it soon after the Imus event.

    I’ve been thinking about how Imus could make such a statement. As deplorable as it is that anyone could say something like that in a public forum, I actually am not very surprised. It’s his job, after all, to have a strong point of view. When a large group of people align fundamentally to a point of view, what they are looking for is someone wth a point of view. They want to hear someone talk who does not waver, someone who will push the limits of acceptability, even of humanity. Because, as you say, when we align to closely with a group/belief, “they” become less than us. Even, in many cases, less than human.

    Thanks for keeping us in line. Next time I’m visiting my sister, I will try to listen differently to Dr. Laura.

  3. MF says:

    oops, just re-read. That was wayyy too many “points of view”
    Oh well, you guys understand what I mean

  4. SE Godfrey says:

    Given all the crazy goons and right wing freakheads out there, I stongly suggest clicking on the link that Barber posted as comment #25 on the Easter post. The peeps will protect us all.

  5. Dave says:

    I used to listen to a fair amount of AM talk radio, back when I drove a car. I loved Art Bell, who had a spooky show about UFOs and such late at night. I listened to some Rush in college, but the pleasure I got from cataloging his fallacies was outweighed by revulsion at his style and toxic politics.

    A couple of years ago I was in Houston on business and, given the endless freeways there, had a lot of time to listen to the new conservative talk shows that I hadn’t heard, stuff like Sean Hannity. These shows functioned in such a different world — they didn’t just have their own opinions about things, they had their own facts, still believing in Saddam’s WMDs, etc.

    Talk radio is such an intimate medium. You feel like it’s just you and the host in your car, driving around, endless miles to bullshit about this or that. (I imagine it’s one of the things that keeps truckers sane.) But I think this sense of intimacy is what makes right-wing radio so perniciously tempting. It invites you not just to listen but to enter a relationship, to make a friend, and the price of admission is buying into all your new friend’s toxic and paranoid views of the world.

    (By the way, anyone see Old Joy? At the screening I went to, the director put a lot of emphasis on the one character’s listening to Air America all the time, depressed, retreating into a world where everyone agrees with him.)

  6. Tim Wager says:

    Hey Annie,

    Thanks for this! I really like the point at which you turn and examine your having set up a “reverse dichotomy.” I hardly ever listen to anything other than NPR or college radio. Next time I’m in the car for a while, I’ll make a point of listening to some right-wing AM talk radio to get myself out of the rut.

    A good friend of mine who is neither Christian nor conservative used to listen almost exclusively to Christian talk radio, for many of the same reasons you state here. It always disturbed me to ride in her car, but it also always got me thinking.

  7. PB says:

    I had a wise friend once who told me all the time, “it is all about the paradox, we learn in the tension between things.” Annie, you are also brilliant and wise. Great post. xox

  8. Ruben Mancillas says:

    Great post but I fear that the call for exposure to other points of view is going to end up a one-way street.

    I’ve read the articles about how liberal Dems need to attend a megachurch or NASCAR and the like and I applaud the impulse. But I just don’t see it being reciporcated. While I’m expanding my horizons by reading the Left Behind series my Jesus Camp friends are becoming even more convinced that my family all have cloven hooves.

    I also get concerned that nice, well educated, liberal relativists are so (often rightly) willing to savage “their own” while the Right will close ranks behind their standard bearer. It’s not pleasant to admit but I have to acknowledge their jackbooted willingness to play for the win as opposed to our occasional tendency toward self defeating litmus test of ideological purity.

    Any thoughts on how satellite radio fits into all of this? I’ll own up to feeling that my Sirius subscription is a rip-off but am enough of a Stern fan to pay the fee for now.