The Winter of Their Discontent

Posted by Dale Marlowe on February 21, 2008 · 8 mins read

dontspinafghanis.pngBill O'Reilly is probably not as big an asshole as he appears to be, but one thing is certain, he does a terrific job playing one on radio and television. For years, Americans have contended with "entertainers-cum-pundits" setting frames around policy debates. O'Reilly's, Limbaugh's, Hannity's and Beck's characters are most likely amplifications of the personalities lying beneath them, and that's bad enough; though, if true, it allows us to hold some hope for their immortal souls. Most actors who plays Iago are not villains off-stage, and may even hold real jobs, or lead otherwise productive lives.

O'Reilly has made his brand (and Fox News's, it must be admitted) by promising unvarnished straight talk to, and about, "secular progressives," (read Jews, Democrats, urbanites, gays, mainline protestants, the educated, agnostics, atheists, women, men, writers, scientists, artists, musicians, teachers, people in Minnesota, the 5.5 billion people living outside the U.S., the literate, ad nauseum) for and on behalf of, "you."

When simply acting the provocateur, O'Reilly and his ilk can be amusing; for instance, a segment on "the failing public schools," might be followed by an "historical expert" on "religious freedom," viciously agreeing with O'Reilly that America was founded on an explicitly Judeo-Christian basis. One suspects O'Reilly, in that case, wouldn't intend to prove his initial point so completely, with himself and his guests as the primary examples.

Yet, one wonders after the evolution of the characters these men play, and what spurs a new turn, and what it must be like, as in the case of Bill O'Reilly, when enthusiasts demand explicit escalation in what has already become a carnival of slander. O'Reilly's knuckle-dragging fans dislike "secular progressives," and believe by refusing to admit nuance, and ceding the superiority of the scientific method over speculation based on hearsay, bigotry and reduction, they are somehow forming a bulwark against America's long, slow slide into effete Europhilia.

That the past twenty-years of Triangulated Democrats and Compassionate Conservatives has literally bankrupted the U.S., demoralized the population, and brought us to the brink of a new Western Dark Age compounds their frustration: why, if not by nefarious means, does reality keep letting them down? O'Reilly's answer seems to be, if one threads his ouvre into a narrative, that an "elite" of "secular progressives" who hate America, and who control the mainstream media, intend to sneak their programs past the majority of the slumbering populace by lies and manipulation.

Of course, Obama and his wife number among the damned. Obama represents something horrible for the professionally piqued: he has refused, stubbornly, to play along with the established horse-race narrative, for one. For another, he has said the unsayable: America is broken, its federal government is broken, and it must be fixed for America, as a people--in the singular--to survive. Michelle Obama, ever the modern candidate's wife, is at her husband's side, if only metaphorically. Physically, she's usually off by herself, urging voters to support her husband.

Recently, she said something true and rude, though rude and true are often synonyms.

"For the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback."

America's media, drawn from its Britney-inspired masturbatory frenzy, took enough time to disseminate the quote; not because it was untrue, not because it was irrational or nonsensical, but because it was something that might offend the kind of people who have made O'Reilly a millionaire many times over. Let's consider the quote--what, exactly, is wrong with what Obama said? Nothing. In fact, it's more of the inspired honesty that seems to forcing an end to the era of Clintonian doublespeak and Bush malfeasance.

Michelle Obama is in her 40's. She's a Gen X-er, born at the generation's 1964 vanguard. Since her birth, data show America losing steam in most metrics that actually matter. While the media ooh and ahh at the high priests waggling a stock-market fetish[link], real wages have declined. Total jobs have grown, yes. That's good, because most Americans have, and need, three of them, as well as a deck of credit cards, to survive. A succession of bubbles set in motion in 1970, by Richard Goddamn Nixon, promise to sink the ship of state, and perhaps the world economy; while it lists and lowers, those who understand loot the infrastructure. Globalization and the free-trade casino reduce once-proud workers to call-center flunkies and Wal-Mart greeters. America projects its awesome military commonly without reason, and often without right. Lone gunmen assassinate prophets, virtually and physically, to the benefit of established interests. Debates on healthcare focus on profit, neglecting people. Americans are dumber, fatter and meaner.

Pardon me, but what the fuck should Michelle Obama be proud of? Some things, surely. But she has plenty of reasons not to feel proud of her country, in her lifetime, and has every right--and perhaps a duty-- to say so. This week Bill O'Reilly gave her another reason to store hope in her husband, and to contrast Obama's inspiring aesthetic with one that has saturated and denuded American society.

O'Reilly showed his largesse by refusing to "go on a lynching party" after Michelle Obama until all the facts were in. It was another case of unintended irony that in serving up an audience-host spit-swap of recumbent poison, his word-choice, in one swipe, reminded viewers of racial difference, recalled slavery, alluded to Jim Crow, invoked white supremacy and the KKK (America's first terrorist organization), suggested dire violence, lowered the level of discourse, insulted viewers, demeaned whatever "ideas" O'Reilly purports to promote, and tickled his audience's prejudices pink by violating that newest of taboos, the noose.

It's what happens when one refuses to work within the narrative provided by the mainstream media--flak starts popping, and not-so-subtle reminders of how tenuous one's place in the scheme of things really arrive at the speed of light, or sound. Michelle Obama should be proud to not be proud. It's O'Reilly, the other shouting heads and those who follow him who should beware: this movie's already been written. It's called Network. Network, a movie released at this nation's bicentennial, featured a news anchor, Howard Beale, whose firing precipitated a kind of truth-telling madness. He begins a nightly populist rant instead of reading his tele-prompter, and his once declining ratings begin to soar. His audience turns his catch phrase--"I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!"--into a national mantra. Projecting its rage on Beale, the country turns him into a messiah of rage and ultimately, Beale decides to kill himself in a reflection of their angst. Beale looks like Lou Dobbs, but he's got O'Reilly's soul; in any case, he's the mold into which Limbaugh, Hannity, et. al, were poured.

Michelle Obama, a class act, will survive, and if she and her husband are true to their rhetoric, they may change America. It's O'Reilly, sitting in Howard Beale's chair, who may find his masters and his minions keep requiring him to up the ante until he has little left to do but consume his own essence, and be left less than a man.


Jessica | February 21, 2008

I think he probably is as big an asshole as he appears to be. I dunno how he can go on television every night and spew the hateful bullshit that he does and then go home and sleep soundly and somehow not be an asshole deep down inside. I'm surprised he still has a job - or at least hasn't been suspended - after what the 'lynching party' comment - says a lot about Fox News really, doesn't it? I'm somewhat new to your blog, by the way. I've been reading for a few months but this is my first time commenting. This is one of the best blogs I've stumbled upon in awhile - great stuff. :)

tsk | February 22, 2008

another fine post, farangi. nicely done. on a similar note, i got tipped to this via chain email. don't forget, indeed.

cc | February 22, 2008

"Michelle Obama, a class act, will survive, and if she and her husband are true to their rhetoric, they may change America." ...while implementing American forces in Pakistan.

Andrew R. | February 23, 2008

Come on, dude. The anemic economic growth of the last six years isn't part of some long sad decline, the Glory Departing from Israel. It's because of high public debt and bleed-off of the manufacturing sector. Neither one of which will be fixed by Obama's magic charisma powers. You're hauntingly elegaic narratives of the decline of America are really part and parcel of the same such treatment provided by folks like O'Reilly. It's more emotionally satisfying to write that They are lurking in the shadows, destroying all that we hold dear for their own vile motives, but all that emotional satisfaction that such a narrative brings pales in effectiveness in comparison to supplying a good helping of Robert Rubin.

sepoy | February 23, 2008


Farangi | February 23, 2008

Second time I've read this response (I think the first was to Franz Ferdinand's Last Sigh), and the second time I heard Bob Rubin quoted as the fix, and the second time I threw up in my mouth. Let me say I take well the criticism that I am of a kind with those I tried to pillory; consider though, that I at least am kind enough to use a nom de plume, which while not an outright admission, at least shows some cognizance of multiple=personality-disorder. As for elegaic narratives, and "They," and "Shadows", I usually try to name names, though sometimes I fall into rhetorical vagueries, admittedly. I also try to take the long view, and I think Nixon's economic shenanigans in the early 1970's, brought on by European mutterings about an American inability to back up Bretton Woods promises with gold reserves, began a series of decade long speculative financial bubbles, accelerated by globalization, that get worse each time they pop. 1980's=cheap corporate debt, 1990's=IPO stock written on charmin+globalized accounting techniques like SIVs, 2000's=real estate & RE backed securites, and God knows what's next. There are respites for those of us who work with our brains and not our backs, while the bubbles inflate, but the decade to decade story is clear to me. There comes a reckoning, a day-after-the-party. Here in Ohio, we're in that now. It's not pretty. From where Rubin sits, and in the company Rubin keeps, globalization and the post-Bretton Woods era seems great. Manhattan is an island, no? But if you lift your eyes from the spreadsheets, and stop thinking of growth and benefits from a human perspective instead of a corporate one, the view get ugly fast. Wall street will out, I'm sure. So I don't follow the Dow to gauge economic health. I look to the Bankruptcy courts, where I practice, and watch common people struggle under a new law written by Rubin's pals at Citigroup, which keeps credit card company profits safe while permitting Multinationals to bail on pension and health care responsibilities so they can compete with China in Rubin's vaunted Earth-wide economic melee. They're coming in droves, with dilapidated 401(k)'s and second mortgages that never should've been approved. Fired by GM, sucker punched by Rubin's Citigroup, they're reduced to paupers and told to feel shame for having shirked their responsibilities to usury. Me: a former conservative, and shards of those bones remain. I believe, mostly, in a free market, but lack of fair regulation, transparency, common sense and public economic literacy has turned our market into something resembling a corporate kakistocracy--do you really have choice what you buy and who from? Where's your lobby in Congress against telecom immunity, or to grant special patent suit immunity, as with check scanners? Congress seems to grant me and mine nothing but liabilities, or cheap $600 bribes, which I gladly take. It's hip to pretend anyone who questions this global order is misinformed or uninformed, or maybe even a "conspiracy theorist." It's comforting, a little ennobling, but a little tired. It smacks of apology, and things are getting squirrely enough that few excuses I can think of will do, and most of those were suggested by the front page of the sorely missed Weekly World News. The time comes when you put good evidence against shocking claims, and maybe they line up pretty nicely. I could be quite wrong, but I feel pretty good about calling bullshit on the current system. 40 years seems long enough, if you want put a life span on bad ideas and bad practice. At any rate, there are bad people with bad ideas galavanting about, Andrew R., as loathe as we are in this pomo world to admit that. And Rubin is one of them. Yet I'm willing to be convinced, despite what I know of his record. I'd also like to see your more optimistic rendering of the major economic and political events of the past half century. You have the floor, and for my part the last word.

Andrew R. | February 23, 2008

Okay, thanks for the response. I'll be the first to admit that I have exactly one semester of High School economics, so you may wind up very easily ripping whatever arguments I have to shreds. That aside... In the first place, I wonder about your assertions that the popped bubbles are getting worse and worse. Neither the 1990-2 recession nor the 2001-3 recessions were anywhere near as traumatic as the 1982 one. As for "lifting one's eyes from the spreadsheets," I recall that, in general, from about 1998 to late 2001 getting a decent-paying job was simply a manner of saying, "I want to get a job." Inflation was low and jobs that paid well were fairly plentiful--entry-level burger flippers were starting at $8.00 an hour. Why don't you think that with Clinton-esque fiscal and regulatory policy, the employment situation of 1994-2001 would be the norm? I want to close by noting that I actually agree with you that it's probably not the best of ideas to move most of the U.S.'s manufacturing base to the PRC. But that ship has long since sailed, and, much as I'd like it to be able to, Obama's winning smile isn't going to change that.

ADM | February 24, 2008

damned eloquent

Leo Africanus | February 24, 2008

The problem with O'Reilly et al, is not only are their 'personalities' a built-in feature of the US media system, but they have watched Network already, got the point, but still persist. Because they are a built-in feature of the media system. How else do you explain obnoxious and objectionable characters like Bill Bennett ('to keep crime down, let's abort black babies') and Pat Buchanan (tattoo HIV+ people on their backsides) on CNN?

Dr Anonymous | March 01, 2008

I want to close by noting that I actually agree with you that it's probably not the best of ideas to move most of the U.S.'s manufacturing base to the PRC. But that ship has long since sailed, and, much as I'd like it to be able to, Obama's winning smile isn't going to change that.
When your empire ends, you have to have an exit plan (besides going nuts and subsequently invading foreign countries). Throwing the people in steerage into the water and taking off on your capital-flow lifeboats is not exactly the ideal solution for most. A lot of political economy people describe the thirty years or so as an extended crisis in capitalism. E.g. Robert Brenner says it's the result of overcapacity of manufacturing. For which only stopgaps have been offered like extending massive amounts of credit thgrough low interest rates and mortgages and other things so people can go into debt buying things and sustaining the economy. Of course, one might suggest actually allowing wages to rise or simply providing people with money or otherwise creating demand rather than supply, but that would have been way unfashinoable from 1980-2008. In any case, although Obama's winning smile or Hillary's unwilling one might not change anything, they're at minimum close to being grown-ups about how to run an empire (though I'm fairly suspicious of Baby Boombers, but she does sound like she knows what she's talking about and if she ditched her asshat husband, I might support her). Whether anyone should be in a position to run an empire is an entirely different question ;)