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 wasn’t 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 jury’s 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),
CNN’s 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 MSNBC’s 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 didn’t see on the other networks.

He was absolutely right to do so. Like you, I don’t 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 don’t 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, it’s 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 didn’t. 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 it’s 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
Friday’s 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 I’m tickled by the image of today’s 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 there’s an ongoing debate when, in fact, the scientific community has
no doubts that creationism is bunk.

The right’s attempt to grab power is even more blatant with cultural
issues. Speak up for gay marriage and somebody will snap that you “just
don’t 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 who’ll 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” — won’t stop at simply saying you’re
wrong. He’ll dub you “a God’s people hater.” Actually, I like God’s
people, Doc. I just can’t stand zealots of any stripe, whether it’s would-be
mullahs like you or the Islamic loonies who murdered Dutch filmmaker Theo van

Drunk with success, religious conservatives have even begun mau-mauing
their fellow Republicans. When Pennsylvania’s 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 senator’s
ouster as head of the Judiciary Committee. And Specter was a guy who’d 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 there’s no noise in
Dubya’s echo chamber — so Land’s 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 Condon’s new biopic, Kinsey, in the same hysterical
terms that greeted Alfred Kinsey himself more than half a century ago: Such
immoral subjects shouldn’t be made public. Robert Knight, the (predictably male)
head of the Concerned Women of America’s Culture and Family Institute, compares
Kinsey to the notorious Nazi Dr. Mengele; meanwhile Dobson’s Focus on the Family
Web site savages Condon’s movie and claims Kinsey should have been imprisoned.
Now, that’s 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 it’s 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 people’s
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, don’t want.

But they can’t do it if we don’t let them.

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