Very Well, Say ‘Shibboleth’

~by M.A.

Fresh off of reading Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent op-ed concerning the ever-shrinking GOP tent, I had the occasion to sit around for a while listening to one of the local highly-rated talk radio hosts for my area. After about 5 minutes, I decided to grab a notepad, write down the key words and phrases, and start keeping track of how often they were uttered by either the host or call-in guests.

This is all completely unscientific; it is possible it may not be all that representative of the show, being a randomly sampled segment on a random day based on those things I found interesting. Based on the limited listening I do, however, I am reasonably certain it is relatively representative not only of his show, but of a good percentage of right-wing talk radio in general.

Here is what I found:
– In the time I listened, the host referred to President Obama not less than 40 times. When he did refer to the POTUS, it was generally in a long diatribe. The most common (used 25 times) was “the miserable failure and one term muslim president Barack Hussein Obama”, with a special emphasis on the middle name.

– At least 50 times, callers or host referred to the POTUS as either a “socialist” or a “marxist.”

– At least 70 times, the phrases “judeo-christian nation” or “judeo-christian values” were mentioned.

– At least 30 times, homosexuals were referred to as either “abnormal” or “diseased.” This may have been a result of discussions surrounding the Dan Savage controversy and a general “homosexual activists” topic of the day.

– At least 20 times, members of the Tea Party were referred to as “people who love the USA” or “freedom-loving patriots.” By contrast, at least 30 times members of the Occupy Wall Street movement were referred to as “smelly unemployed hippies” or “America-hating communists.”

– At least 10 times, Michelle Obama was referred to as “the America-hating illegitimate first lady.”

Finally and most interesting to me: mentions of banks, business owners, and companies that have shipped thousands of jobs overseas were uniformly referred to as “job creators.” This was true even for companies that in the past few years shut down local operations and put a large number of people out of work in the process.

The ugly reality of this is that it is strong evidence of how far apart the two sides of politics approaching this election really are. To judge by this and by certain national shows, it’s become a daily regimen, somewhat akin to Orwell’s Two Minutes Hate. One national talk radio host tells his listener base “Three hours a day, everyday. That’s all we ask”; my church only asks me for approximately 1 hour per week.

The more I heard the host and his call-in commenters talk, the more I felt he had practiced his various codewords and phrases over and over and over again. There was a practiced mania to the way in which he could unfailingly refer to the current POTUS in sentence-long derogatory phrases. When a young man, presenting himself as an Iraq veteran, told the host that “if you can’t have respect for the man, have respect for the office of President and speak accordingly”, he was dump-buttoned and the host let out one of the most ugly rants of the show, complete with insinuation that the caller was taking stolen valor by falsely representing himself as a US military veteran because “no self-respecting military man would defend this marxist president.”

Now, this isn’t all on one side. There is controversy right now over Dan Savage’s comments towards the Bible, ironically at the same moment as the Mitt Romney campaign expelled an openly and activist homosexual staff member after furor from the extreme-right religious groups. Right-wing religious groups are also running a determined campaign against Jon Stewart and the Daily Show following a sketch satirizing GOP laws and attitudes regarding reproductive rights with the concept of a “vagina manger.” The comedy of Bill Maher regularly involves some pretty derogatory commentary regarding both conservatives in general and specific conservatives of the moment, including words that couldn’t be broadcast over the public airwaves or even on most cable channels. Just as there are “gotcha” cameramen following right wing politicians and news sites like Media Matters scouring the airwaves for incidents when right-wing pundits and politicians cross the line, there are plenty of “gotcha” cameramen and activists from the right wing scouring newsmedia and events for gaffes and comments the equivalent of “if you’re a democrat, you’re my enemy” from the other side. It’s very possible to dredge up a whole host of insults from the left wing towards the right, and even Schwarzenegger’s relatively centrist letter contains a comment about “those whose views, I think, make them sound like cavemen.”

On the whole, I found myself starting to get slightly sick listening to the talk radio show. There was a large amount of signaling, as callers and host alike repeated the key phrases to reinforce membership in the right wing to each other. There was an even larger amount of hate being channeled; membership wasn’t enough, it was important to have a clear and present hatred to those who were not like them. Listeners were told over and over: “we love America: ‘they’ hate America. ‘They’ are trying to destroy America: we are trying to righteously save it.” I had to wonder: how many of these people might I know? Was one of these people calling in to the station, frothing at the mouth while ranting about how the POTUS is really a muslim or a socialist or trying to destroy the country, one of my friends, neighbors, co-workers? Even more innocuous words – fairness, equality, honesty, patriotism, freedom – took on a whole new meaning in the context of the talk radio show. I was shocked to hear arguments that would not have been out of place in the days when the US was gripped by fear of the Red Menace.

Personally, my politics are somewhat left. I enjoy the “new rules” segment of Real Time with Bill Maher while ignoring most of the rest of his show in an attempt to avoid boredom. I enjoy the comedy of Stewart and Colbert while recognizing that if I were the target of some of those jokes, I probably wouldn’t be laughing quite as hard – in fact psychological studies have shown that the reaction would likely be much of what the radio audience seemed to be engaged in, a definitive backfire effect.

I wound up thinking of the biblical story of the Ephraimites. For lack of the ability to pronounce a single word correctly, 42,000 of them were slaughtered. In the context of the political arguments in 2012, how long before good friendships die when someone fails to respond correctly to a code word? How long before someone launches a fist at someone else’s face, based on one of the trigger words programmed into them by hours of talk radio listening each day? How well can friendships and family relationships survive in such a poisonous political atmosphere?

“Shibboleth.”

(Image: ‘Shibboleth’ by Colombian sculptor Doris Salcedo.)

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34 thoughts on “Very Well, Say ‘Shibboleth’

  1. “One national talk radio host tells his listener base “Three hours a day, everyday. That’s all we ask”; my church only asks me for approximately 1 hour per week.”

    This is an amazingly powerful line.

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      • That’s his tag line, but I get from the post that M.A. is listening to a local ‘back bencher’ guy (to borrow someone else’s phrase). (And Hannity is a industrial strength Shibboleth machine himself, but he’s not *that* bad. Or at least that obvious. His code words are more careful chosen, that is).

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        • The one I analyzed is what you’d call a local back bencher, I guess. Not remotely national.

          Yes, the one with the “three hours a day, everyday, that’s all we ask” is Hannity. I don’t buy the “it’s a joke” theory. Maybe an ad campaign? It speaks to an important point as a sizable portion of the population get their news or daily information solely from programs like his.

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  2. In my limited experience with rightwing radio and Fox News, I think what gets me the most is the pure hatred displayed by hosts and guests alike. How can there be any middle ground when you demonize, ad therefore dehumanize, your opponents? Scary stuff.

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          • It’s only the “non-partisan view of politics” if when someone says “tribe” they mean “political party.” I not only believe that politics is usually about tribes, I believe that large numbers of people who are not members of political parties, and swing-voters, are influenced heavily by these things.

            By which I mean, I believe that Person X is a Democrat because Person X believes A, B, and C. I believe that Person X’s views of A, B, and C are heavily influenced by his member in cultural subgroup (“tribe”) P. As it happens, subgroup P aligns with Democrats the vast majority of the time, even though subgroup P is not actually in itself political. Necessarily.

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            • I believe that Person X’s views of A, B, and C are heavily influenced by his member in cultural subgroup (“tribe”) P. </i<

              Maybe. But it begs the question of why they identify as members of sub-group P to begin with. Is it because they broadly align with the values and goals of that group? Or … ?

              Somewhere in this story, we have to give people credit for choosing, rather than being the unwitting victim of, political forces. And I say that as someone who vehemently (VEHEMENTLY!) believes in the power of propaganda.

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              • Not the unwitting victims of political forces. Rather, we (and the political forces themselves!) are influenced really heavily by circumstance, connection, and so on. When choosing one’s peer group, very few have a questionnaire on issues such as SSM or welfare policy. Friendships can be made or lost on the basis of political or religious views, but it’s the exception.

                Instead, you’re more often left with factors such as family, interests, job, geography, circumstance, and so on. Some of these things are in themselves influenced by values in major or tangential ways. Circumstances do inform values and values inform circumstance. But even then, how values transform into policy can be ambiguous (and this is where actual partisanship really does come into play).

                Most people do not have the time or inclination to formulate an actual worldview. You’re doing really good if you have a handful of political positions that you came up with independent of subjective experience or undue outside influence. Yet people take positions on all sorts of issues. Why? Party, often, but often peer groups, family, and the people close to them coming down on one side or the other and, perhaps just as importantly, people in groups they despise coming down on the other side.

                There is a lot of interplay here. I’m not denying that or saying that the path always goes from person to tribe to policy or affiliation. But it happens that way in ways grand and subtle to the point that it strains credulity that any of us can say, with certainty, that we came about our worldview through thought, reason, and values.

                (This is a very, very short look into my views on such things. I had middle schoolers today and have high schoolers tomorrow. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to get into it too much at the moment. I could write a novel on it. I’ve considered doing so.)

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  3. Good post, although I could quibble.

    Just to speak to your final graph, for better or worse, people with opposite views are increasingly not seeing much of one another. They don’t live near each other, they don’t shop with each other, they don’t eat with each other, etc. I have my pet theory about this being the natural state of things, of politics being war by other means; but I won’t subject everyone to that today.

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  4. What I find interesting about talk radio is the vocal tone of the hosts.

    Since the rise of Limbaugh, they all seem to have copied his tone; that sound of exasperation in every sentence, the way he pauses dramatically to tap a paper against the table top, then explosively stress each syllable to make a point.

    This is where we get the accusations of “hate”; it isn’t the printed word, it is the tone of their voice, that signals the anger and frustration they- and their listeners- are experiencing.

    When listening to these guys, whether it is the national figures or local ones, you really get the sense that they are red-faced, and vein-throbbingly furious at whatever the topic happens to be.

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    • That’s not Limbaugh atall. He’s far more sardonic than angry.

      Michael Savage is shunned by the mainstream GOP. Neal Boortz is old-line paleo/libertarian, not GOP. Glenn Beck was pushed out of Fox, held at arm’s length by the GOP, not in not out. But unlike Michael Moore 2004, will not get a seat at the convention.

      Hannity, #1 party line GOP mouthpiece. [Did give Dubya hell on spending, though.] If you hear him smoke & joke with some liberal regulars, he’s not the dragon he seems.

      The one thing the critics forget is that it’s not just info, it’s -tainment, too. What seems to lefties to be frothing rage is done with a twinkle in the eye they can’t see. When they call Obama a socialist, it’s not in the academic sense, it’s in the sense that he has no objection to force-feeding of broccoli.

      [See, that’s a joke too, literal broccoli but…oh, never mind.]

      Salem radio, that’s my line. Hugh Hewitt, straight GOPer, great analyst of elections from the grassroots up. Dennis Prager is more rounded and educated than anyone on the left this side of Dr. Rachel Maddow.

      And if you want to know TVD through this prism, I’m a Michael Medved man. Even lefties hate him the least.

      Medved 24/7 [free]

      http://tunein.com/radio/Michael-Medved-247-s159187/

      3 hours a day, that’s all I ask.

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      • “The one thing the critics forget is that it’s not just info, it’s -tainment, too. What seems to lefties to be frothing rage is done with a twinkle in the eye they can’t see. When they call Obama a socialist, it’s not in the academic sense, it’s in the sense that he has no objection to force-feeding of broccoli.”
        I’ve long suspected this (though I do think Savage might actually have a screw loose). However, I wonder how much the listeners know or think this and share that “twinkle in the eye”. Hannity, like most folks who actually know what the word means, probably doesn’t really think Obama is a socialist. But I’m sure many of his listeners, some who probably have little to no idea what the word means (not a knock on conservatives specifically… I think a lot of people don’t actually understand what socialism is), genuinely do think Obama is a socialist, in part because their favorite radio host is constantly telling them he is.

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        • “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.”

          “…never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.”

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          • Heh. This is where I get confused.
            Do I assume he’s a reasonably intelligent, educated fellow who knows what “socialism” is, recognizes Obama is not a socialist, but calls him one anyway to stir up his listening audience?
            -or-
            Do I assume he doesn’t know what socialism is and honestly mischaracterizes Obama as such?

            I suppose there is a third alternative, in that he does know what “socialism” is and is so myopic in his view that he actually thinks the steps Obama has taken fit the real definition.

            I’m willing to concede Tom’s point that perhaps the hosts themselves don’t believe everything they say, or at least not to the extent that they indicate, because part of me tends to think that is true of most of them. But that still leaves the question as to WHY they say it and why their listeners say it so much. Is it one big inside joke? I can’t believe that. So what is it?

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      • >What seems to lefties to be frothing rage is done with a twinkle in the eye they can’t see. <

        A twinkle and dollar signs. Frothing at the mouth over the mere thought of Obama sells; rationality doesn't. Hannity and his ilk have made buttloads of money peddling anger and resentment. Nice work if you can get it.

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    • “When listening to these guys, whether it is the national figures or local ones, you really get the sense that they are red-faced, and vein-throbbingly furious at whatever the topic happens to be.”

      Which is exactly how I picture Matt Taibbi.

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  5. I frequently drive to my campus, which is about an hour and a half from my house, and so I listen to NPR one way and right-wing talk radio the other way, mainly because I’m strange. Anyway, the thing that always strikes me about the right wing radio, which you touch on here, is just how repetitive it is: points aren’t just reiterated throughout an entire program; they’re often repeated frequently by the next program. The last time I was listening, I got stuck in traffic and heard probably upwards of 50 times that Obama is to blame for high gas prices because he’s a radical environmentalist. It makes me wonder if they’ve found that the average listener only tunes in for short periods and feel they have to make sure key points are repeated every ten minutes, “in case you’re just tuning in.”

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    • One thing I’ve noticed about conservative drivetime talk radio is that there is a really low show:commercial ratio. I’ll drive for 8-10 minutes and hear only commercials, a brief cut in for the news, a teaser with one of the oft-repeated phrases, another commercial, and then a segment with the oft-repeated phrase repeated often. Compared to the other talk radio I listen (also during drive time, but sports themed), it is absurd how little actual content they have. I wonder if that is part of the reason for the approach… folks are not all-that-likely to listen for extended periods because of the constant breaks so they just try to get in with quick hitters.

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  6. I would love to see a comparison between tonight’s hannity and maddow shows using the same criteria.

    Is this a radio thing or a difference in liberal and conservative communication styles.

    Do conservatives like their red meat more? Do they like it served a special way? Is this an artifact of the medium?

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  7. I think this article gets at the heart of what political affiliations do when taken to their extreme. Code words are formulated, on both sides, to deter analysis and dilute the meaning of the words themselves. A friend and I were listening to a rap song, and we noticed something: many rap lyrics are extremely offensive and morally void. However, since slang is employed the meaning just passes you by. “I have money, so let me buy your sex” sounds nothing like “If I ball then we both gonna stunt.” And this is what is happening in politics. “Job-creators” sound a whole lot better than the 0.01%. Political bipartisanship is getting dangerously efficient.

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