|Illustration by Peter Bennett|
When the jury reached its verdict in the Scott Peterson trial any fertilizer salesman with that many hairstyles had to be guilty you could hear the cable-news honchos cheering all the way from Redwood City. After months of the same old Laci-Scott-Amber triangulation, the story got a new angle. Finally, some must-see TV.
Nobody was more delighted than the folks at Fox News, who cherished the Peterson case because it wasnt about the murder of a mere woman: Why, the bastard killed a fetus! Looking suspiciously like a CGI refugee from The Polar Express, creepy-suave anchor Shepard Smith whiled away the minutes before the jurys announcement by discussing why this particular murder had proved so boffo (pretty people, Christmas Eve, massage therapist). The same issue came up on CNN, where it predictably took on a killjoy tone. After long hours of belaboring the trial (Jeffrey Toobin was airlifted in for the occasion), CNNs house conscience, Aaron Brown, trotted out his trademark shtick interrupting his report on the Peterson verdict to let us know the story was actually beneath his journalistic dignity.
Not that Brown had been knocking himself out to explore stories worthy of his vanity. Although the Internet was ablaze with tales of Election Day fraud and millions of voters were convinced it had happened the only mainstream figure to take the idea seriously was MSNBCs Keith Olbermann. All but sporting a beret and Sierra Maestre beard, this unlikely rebel examined the voting controversy night after night on Countdown, offering interviews and information you didnt see on the other networks.
He was absolutely right to do so. Like you, I dont know whether the election was stolen, but given the circumstances the tens of thousands of voters knocked off the rolls, the hundreds of thousands of disputed ballots, the use of hackable electronic voting machines (manufactured by self-proclaimed Bush supporters) that dont leave paper trails, the startling gap between the official pro-Bush tallies and the pro-Kerry exit polls (which even Republican guru Dick Morris told Fox are famously accurate), not to mention the whole disgraceful history of the 2000 voting in Florida given all this, its hardly unreasonable to have suspicions of jiggery-pokery.
Which makes it all the more unnerving that, Olbermann aside, the big media outlets either ignored the question of electoral malfeasance or went out of their way to mock anyone who didnt. Those supposed bastions of liberal bias, The New York Times and the Washington Post, devoted articles to debunking Internet claims of voter fraud. Indeed, the Post piece ("Latest Conspiracy Theory Kerry Won Hits the Ether") was so nakedly derisive that you would never have guessed that Kerry voters might have any reason to feel concern or that democracy is threatened when computerized machines make recounting votes impossible. Obviously determined to maintain social order (and bitch-slap uppity bloggers), the Post sought to squelch all discussion, thereby setting the limits of what its politically acceptable to say.
These days, the limits on speech are increasingly defined by the right, which never, ever stops pushing. Despite controlling all three branches of government and the machinery of economic power two-thirds of those making over $200,000 voted for Bush conservatives keep playing their tricky double game. Even as they insist that they have been given a mandate (51 percent), they rail that leftist elites are somehow running everything. Accordingly, last Fridays Wall Street Journal featured a hilariously bogus op-ed by Bret Stephens assailing arrogant lefties for assuming they get to decide what ideas are legitimate.
While Im tickled by the image of todays gelatinous liberals browbeating beleaguered conservatives ("You must vatch Ze Vest Ving or else"), precisely the opposite is happening. The current Columbia Journalism Review explains how the right, especially the Bush administration, has hijacked reporting on such scientific issues as global warming (true) and claims that abortion increases the likelihood of breast cancer (false). Even when the scientific consensus points in one direction, news organizations now feel obliged to quote the dissenting opinions of fringe scientists motivated by ideology, theology or corporate financing. Such "phony balance" implies theres an ongoing debate when, in fact, the scientific community has no doubts that creationism is bunk.
The rights attempt to grab power is even more blatant with cultural issues. Speak up for gay marriage and somebody will snap that you "just dont get it" that the left is on the wrong side of the cultural divide that carried Bush to red-state Nirvana. (This sometimes comes, eerily enough, from knock-kneed liberals like New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof, who urges Democrats to "get religion," stop being obstructionist and confirm Supreme Court nominees wholl only "turn the clock back 10 years.") If you insist on the constitutional separation of church and state, extremist Christians like Dr. James Dobson who Andrew Sullivan calls "the social-policy director of the Bush White House" wont stop at simply saying youre wrong. Hell dub you "a Gods people hater." Actually, I like Gods people, Doc. I just cant stand zealots of any stripe, whether its would-be mullahs like you or the Islamic loonies who murdered Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh.
Drunk with success, religious conservatives have even begun mau-mauing their fellow Republicans. When Pennsylvanias Arlen Specter stated that the Senate would be unlikely to confirm anti-choice Supreme Court justices, his words violated the taboos of right-wing political correctness. Truth was no defense. Dobson promptly declared a political fatwa, demanding the senators ouster as head of the Judiciary Committee. And Specter was a guy whod slurred Anita Hill on behalf of Clarence Thomas.
Southern Baptist hotshot Dr. Richard Land was no less peremptory with Kelly Ferguson, executive director of the Republican Majority for Choice. Talking to Warren Olney on To the Point, the good doctor calmly suggested that, like Specter, Ferguson was an anomaly in the Republican Party, a dodo bird whose time had come. Just as the Bush White House has turned into a closed system with kissable Condi replacing standoffish Colin theres no noise in Dubyas echo chamber so Lands GOP allows for no dissenting voices.
Nor is there room, it appears, for anything our cultural guardians may find disturbing. Last week, they orchestrated an e-mail campaign filing formal complaints against ABC for showing a movie that contained dirty words. And what was this piece of filth? Saving Private Ryan, playing in honor of Veterans Day. If anyone ever was entitled to cry "Fuck!" it was surely the men on Omaha Beach. This week, the right-wing police have turned their sights on Bill Condons new biopic, Kinsey, in the same hysterical terms that greeted Alfred Kinsey himself more than half a century ago: Such immoral subjects shouldnt be made public. Robert Knight, the (predictably male) head of the Concerned Women of Americas Culture and Family Institute, compares Kinsey to the notorious Nazi Dr. Mengele; meanwhile Dobsons Focus on the Family Web site savages Condons movie and claims Kinsey should have been imprisoned. Now, thats one big thumbs down.
It is tempting to think that such right-wing extremism will collapse under the weight of its own sometimes comical sanctimony (Land actually wrote a book called Real Homeland Security: The America God Will Bless). After all, most Americans resist any form of radicalism and get pissed when someone messes with the crazy, sexy, violent pop culture that the majority of us adore Kinsey is safely in the theaters. Watching Dobson and Land compete for the role of our own born-again Torquemada, I recall other examples of Radical Right overreach: Newt Gingrich shutting down the government, the Oklahoma City bombing, Pat Buchanan flinging down lightning bolts from atop Bald Mountain and fulminating about the "struggle for the soul of America." Such flamboyant acts delighted hardliners, but they boomeranged, letting liberals reclaim the center.
But only temporarily. Bush is more reactionary than Reagan. Tom DeLay is more reactionary than Gingrich. Backed by government authority, corporate wealth and evangelical zeal, the right has slowly gained more control over our national life than its enjoyed in more than a century. While the Bush administration is corporate in spirit ("I earned capital in the campaign, political capital") and more likely to exploit the Christian right rather than obey it, the current marriage of money and moralizing is a volatile one. Playing on ordinary peoples fear of terrorism, of changing values, of being ill-prepared for the globalizing economy Bush shares with the power-hungry Dr. Dobson a desire to radically remake this country in ways that most Americans, including most evangelical Christians, dont want.
But they cant do it if we dont let them.