Monday, August 24, 2009

Sticks and Stones Can Break Your Bones--But Words Can Get You Killed

We all grew up being told to be very fearful of sticks, stones, and other threats to our physical safety but not so much of words which we were assured could never hurt us.

Like many childhood sayings, this one was never true. As my dear friend and teacher Rabbi Joseph Telushkin points out in his wonderful book Words That Hurt, Words That Heal, the greatest pain most of us suffer in our lives comes from mean and inconsiderate words--not from physical injury.

But there's a big difference between mean and hateful. Mean words can hurt your feelings. Hatespeech can get you killed.

As I recently wrote, most criticism is not hatespeech. In all healthy, vibrant democracies it is essential that good people feel free to openly criticize decisions made by political leaders. But there are lines of civility, honesty, and decency that shouldn't and can't be crossed without turning healthy dissent into something very toxic and potentially deadly.

Reports from both the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (prepared during the Bush administration) and the Southern Poverty Law Center have indicated a startling rise in both the number and activity level of Right wing militias and groups promoting domestic terrorism in the name of Conservative values.

As hatespeech, lies, and racism have become the dominant language of the Right wing in our country, it is depressingly reminiscent of what happened in Israel 15 years ago. The comparisons are becoming more frightening all the time.

In 1993, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo Accords. He agreed to turn parts of Gaza and the West Bank over to the Palestinians and freeze the growth of Israeli settlements in exchange for Yasir Arafat's pledge to renounce violence and recognize the right of Israel to exist.

The move was hailed as a major breakthrough in much of Israel and around the world. Rabin. a former general and war hero, was hailed as a visionary who allowed hope to supersede his military past and his first-hand knowledge of Arafat's legacy of terror and broken promises. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and the Ronald Reagan Freedom Award in 1994.

But not all Jews were happy. The ultra-orthodox leadership in Israel and Brooklyn were outraged. Just as Obama has been branded by the Right wing as a racist, a terrorist, and a Nazi who wants to destroy the American way of life, Rabin was demonized by the religious Right in Israel and America as a traitor who was destroying the Jewish state by ceding holy land to Palestinians.

As is the case in America today, lies and hatespeech took over the conversation and squeezed out reason and truth. Rabbis in America and Israel put a death curse on Rabin invoking the long obsolete notion of din rodef--a religious death sentence placed on the head of one who hands over his people or their land to the enemy.

Anti-Rabin rallies (town hall meetings? tea parties?) were held outside his residence and in Right wing strongholds including Jerusalem. Most Israelis dismissed these frightening activities as the actions of a handful of kooks, crazies and whack jobs. Sound familiar?

Not wanting to waste a political opportunity, Likud leader Benyamin Netanyahu spoke at a major anti-Rabin rally in Jerusalem in October, 1995 where he was cheered by a mob screaming "death to Rabin" and carrying posters showing Rabin dressed as Hitler, and Rabin wearing a Nazi SS uniform.

As Bibi slammed Rabin for "giving away parts of our homeland." Housing Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer reportedly pleaded with Netanyahu to "restrain your people. Settlers have gone crazy. Someone will get murdered--if not today then soon."

Rabin was angered by the tactics but apparently not that concerned about his safety. He refused to wear a bullet-proof vest at a peace rally in Tel Aviv weeks later when a Right wing Jewish rabbinic student--a follower of the rabbis who had called for Rabin's assassination--murdered him with two gunshots fired at point blank range.

The murderer Yigal Amir was about as far away from Rabin as Scott Roeder was from Dr. George Tiller when he walked up to him in his Kansas church in May and murdered him at point blank range.

Dr. Tiller had been vilified by Fox News host Bill O'Reilly dozens of times over a period of years. O'Reilly repeatedly referred to him as "Tiller the Baby Killer" and "a man with blood on his hands" since Tiller had a long history of performing controversial (but legal) late-term abortions in his Wichita clinic.

Today, 14 years after Rabin's murder, Amir remains unrepentant and is considered a hero by a large segment of Israel's religious community, many of whom still hold rallies in his honor. He was allowed to marry and father a child in prison and polls show that his eventual pardon is supported by 30 percent of all Israelis and more than half of those who describe themselves as "religious."

Today, months after Tiller's murder, his assassin remains unrepentant and is considered a hero by a large segment of America's pro-life community. Leaders of the pro-life movement reportedly communicate with and visit him in prison on a regular basis.

In each case, hatespeech-inspired murder seems to have accomplished its goals. Tiller's clinic was permanently closed a few weeks after his killing and there is no plan to reopen in Kansas or anywhere else. Netanyahu was elected Prime Minister of Israel less than a year after Rabin's murder and the peace process was dealt a blow from which it has yet to recover.

Like O'Reilly, Netanyahu insists to this day that his demonization of the ultimate murder victim had nothing to do with the way things played out.

When I met with Leah Rabin, the prime minister's widow, in her Tel Aviv apartment one year after his death, she made it clear that she personally blamed Netanyahu for the role she felt he played in whipping up angry mobs who had vowed to kill her husband.

"He incited them against my husband," she said. "I will never forgive him."

Mrs. Rabin was also critical of the majority of Israelis who stood by and did nothing as the hatespeech grew in volume. "They were too silent when the handwriting was on the wall," she said. "We now know it is no longer possible to remain silent."

Today, as then, we are too anxious to call these people crazy and say they are kooks but they are neither. They are evil and they are very focused.

When Glenn Beck calls Barack Obama a racist who hates white people or a Nazi who wants to destroy American way of life, he is either lying or he should hail as a hero anyone who would take the initiative to go after our President. Rush Limbaugh compares Obama to Hitler. Is there any Jew or patriotic American who wouldn't have taken Hitler out before he had the chance to murder millions of innocent people?

This is hatespeech pure and simple crafted to encourage true believers--an American version of Yigal Amir to do the right thing--the patriotic thing--and remove this liberal, socialist, death panel forming, terrorist, Nazi cancer from our midst.

In recent weeks, the hatred and threats against Obama have become less subtle. When a town hall audience member in California proudly declared himself to be "a proud Right wing terrorist," Republican Congressman Wally Herger said "Amen. God Bless You. There's a great American." When an Iowa town hall audience member said Obama is "acting like a little Hitler" and stated he would "take a gun to Washington if enough of you would go with me, Republican Senator Charles Grassley said nothing to discourage him. Kansas Congresswoman Lynn Jenkins said last week that what the Republican party needs most is "a Great White Hope"--a phrase first used by racists 100 years ago referring to their desire to find a white man to unseat Black boxing champion Jack Johnson.

Could the message be any clearer? What a disturbing and growing number of people on the Right wing want is some patriot with the courage to step up and do what needs to be done to restore control of our country to it's rightful owners. A Black president from Kenya? A Puerto Rican woman as a Supreme Court justice? What the hell has happened to our country? We need to take it back!

Sticks and stones? That's child's play. We're talking about toxic words--potentially fatal hatespeech--being invoked by people who claim to be true patriots but who are in reality potential accomplices to the unwinding of our democracy.

The only question is if and when the rest of us will stop calling these evil people "crazy" and start fighting back.

We live in a free country. People are entitled to their opinions. But they do not have a constitutional right to air them on television and radio channels that claim to be reporting news. And the sponsors of those programs certainly don't have the right to be exempt from blame for making that possible.

Those of us who still care about decency and healthy debate need to exercise our right to take our country back from the lying, angry haters who seem determined to pollute and distort public dialogue.

Some of them would clearly like nothing better than to see our duly elected leader meet the same fate as the late Israeli leader--a man who symbolized hope and "change you could believe in" to so many but who made the mistake of assuming those who despised him were a crazy fringe group of harmless lunatics.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

It Was Never Fair and Balanced--Now It's Not Even News

We are all painfully familiar with the many casualties of the deep economic decline that has ravaged the value of our homes, businesses, and investment accounts.

Another less obvious victim of the economic crisis has been the truth. Hatespeech and lies have been on the rise in politics and the media while fact checking has almost disappeared. The actions of those with a political agenda are reprehensible but at least easy to understand.

But I have always assumed that the real journalists would step in at some point and refuse to cover the rantings of crazy people, fanatics and liars as though they were actually news. For decades these types have stood on street corners handing out pamphlets and screaming about the coming end of the American way of life but none of them ever showed up on the national news or was written up in real newspapers.

But that has all changed in a big time hurry. Forget about "Fair and Balanced" or "News You Can Believe In." What we now see on cable TV is nothing resembling news. The entertainers who pose as newsmen now routinely spew lies, distortions, and biased opinions or provide a platforms of legitimacy to the sociopaths who do.

It's all right to have personal opinions expressed on television or the radio. Just label them appropriately.

There is a guy who sits near me at the University of Arizona games who starts screaming at the referees at the opening jump ball and never stops for a minute throughout the game. He and the other fans don't want the game called fairly--they just want their team to win. You certainly wouldn't ask the president of the Booster Club to be the referee. He would have no interest in being fair and balanced and could never be objective.

But that's what we now have on cable news. People who are on the payrolls of or involved with partisan groups or political parties are introduced as "analysts" with no disclosure of their obvious conflicts of interest.

For years Fox News has been the unofficial network of the Right wing and Republican party while hilariously calling it's coverage "fair and balanced." If Bill O'Reilly or Sean Hannity were actually fair and balanced then none of the Fox viewers would watch them--and they know it.

But during the last year, Glenn Beck has taken hatred, bias, and unabashed lying and demonization to a level that Hannity and O'Reilly could only dream about.

Last month, Beck went on the air and called President Obama "a racist--who hates white people" without giving any support or documentation for his claim. He also did not explain if Obama's hatred of white people extended to his own mother and white family members of the hundreds of white people he has chosen to advise and represent our country in his administration.

Just a few days ago, Beck came up with a blatant lie claiming that Mark Lloyd, the newly appointed FCC Diversity Chief will levy exorbitant taxes against Right wing radio stations with the proceeds slated to go to public radio, The fact is that Lloyd has neither the plans nor the authority to do any such thing. Non-Beck watchers should view this link as Beck and his guest talk in very specific terms about a complete falsehood.

When this happened, I was at the Aspen Institute FOCAS conference with 40 media leaders from around the U.S.

When the News Corp (the parent company of Fox) people at the Aspen conference were asked about how Beck could keep his job given his record of blatant fabrications and racist rants they admitted that they were personally embarrassed by his behavior. But they confessed that Fox has made so much money by pandering to the hateful Right wing that nothing is going to change in the foreseeable future. Maybe the fact that many of Beck's sponsors have recently cancelled their advertising on his show will make a difference.

The unfair and unbalanced hatemeisters of Fox have been recently joined by Lou Dobbs of CNN ("The Most Trusted Name in News") who for years has railed on a daily basis about how Americans are being victimized by foreign countries and undocumented immigrants who come here in search of a better life. In recent weeks, Dobbs became of hero of the Right wing with his endorsement of the Birther movement.

Apparently Dobbs and a many Republicans believe that Americans should not have had the right to vote for the man they wanted to be their next president because he was born in Kenya. The Birther movement is a thinly veiled racist effort to undo the will of the American people that has been promoted by a depressingly large group of people who simply can't deal with the notion that we have elected a Black president by an overwhelming margin.

The management of CNN, like the leaders of Fox, have not been able to turn their backs on the revenues that have accompanied the journalistic malpractice that in the past would have caused Dobbs to be fired. Today, the truth is apparently just a matter of opinion and it's just fine for a newsman to call the President of the United States a traitor, socialist, Nazi, Kenyan, and such with no evidence or supporting facts.

Chris Matthews of MSNBC provides a more troubling case study. Matthews has repeatedly questioned the sincerity and "grass roots" credentials of protesters at the health care town meetings and the sanity of the Birthers accurately claiming that they are either paid or political stooges or well meaning real people who have fallen under the influence of the political operatives who are trying to bring Obama down.

He has referred to the Birthers and the anti-health care reform mercenaries and liars as "whack-jobs, crazies, and nut cases." But then he invites these very people to be guests on his show to state their cases.

He does not seem to understand that once you provide liars, haters and people who bring loaded guns to presidential meetings with a platform, you have already lost the battle. If a person is crazy or hateful, they should get no platform at all. Once you start presenting "both sides" of an issue where one side feels free to rant and lie you have already lost.

There was a time when we could have expected our most respected journalists and news reporters to be an effective filter and only present us with issues and stories that had real merit. But the economic crisis facing all types of journalism have put us in a different place.

During the three days I spent with a broad range of print, internet, and media managers and contributors in Aspen, most of the conversation focused on financial survival and ways to monetize the variety of information services being provided and how to keep from going broke in a very challenging environment. Many were mourning the imminent loss of print journalism. Few were grieving over the ongoing loss of journalism itself.

I came away from this experience with a better understanding of what is going on and why. It didn't make me happier. Even in a tough environment, there is no way to excuse the blatant lying, distortion, and almost complete absence of fact-checking that is now business as usual at media organizations that claim to be reporting news.

It's just plain wrong to call it "Fair and Balanced" or "News You Can Believe In" and it has been for quite a while.

Now there's no way to justify calling it "news" at all.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Difference Between Criticism and Hatespeech

A number of friends and readers have called me to task in recent weeks claiming that I have been unfair to Republicans or that I have been giving the "crazies" way too much attention and actually helping their cause by getting so upset. Others have said that my strong level of disgust with the migration of the Right to hate, lies, and slander that I have become every bit as much a hater as those I have criticized.

But I got an email from my friend Ricky today that turned on a light bulb and brought the difference between criticism into clear focus.

It was a link to an article in Harper's by Linda Bilmes and Joseph Stiglitz entitled The $10 Trillion Hangover. It explains--using real facts, charts and figures--just how badly the Bush administration's policies--or lack thereof--damaged our society, our economy, and exploded our national debt. I urge you to click on the link and read it.

It documents how during eight years of Bush, every aspect of government spending exploded, our national debt doubled from $5 trillion to $10 trillion, and how 95 percent of all income growth went to the richest 10 percent of Americans due to fiscal and tax policies designed to produce that result. Despite the huge government deficits and stimulus, at the end of Bush's eight years virtually every aspect of our economy had collapsed.

It was a critical piece but unlike most of what we read today, it dealt with established facts and used footnotes to back it's conclusions. There was nothing hateful about it. Bush wasn't called names or demonized. He was criticized for things he actually did.

It stands in sharp contrast to what is flowing more and more freely from the Right wing and the Republicans every day. I know I have written about this before, but it's getting worse and squeezing what's left of truth and logic out and replacing it with hatred, anger, and lies.

In a recent piece, "business columnist" (actually no more since he was just fired by the New York Times for being a shill for a credit reporting agency that exploits poor people) Ben Stein gave his most recent toxic assessment of our president, Barack Obama.

During one short piece, he referred to Obama as "cunning, anti-American, anti-white, ultra-left with a total zero academic record, completely lacking in scholarship, not a fan of this country, way too cozy with terrorists in the Middle East, someone who gave Iran a complete go-ahead to have nuclear weapons--complete betrayer of our country, and a man dedicated to taking away all our freedoms."

The piece was long on frightening and demonizing adjectives and completely devoid of facts, links to source materials, and examples.

The same was true of popular Right wing Fox News personality Glenn Beck who recently called Obama "a racist--a man who hates white people." while again failing to cite a single example or fact to back this slur.

The same was true of self-proclaimed super-Republican Rush Limbaugh who joined the chorus of those on the Right who have compared Obama to Adolf Hitler but, again, have provided all heat and no light.

The same is true of Congresswoman Virginia Foxx and others in Congress who have announced on the floor of the House that they are opposed to Obama's health care reform because they are "pro-life and refuse to support a plan that would put our senior citizens to death." Ms. Foxx then sat down without giving anyone a clue regarding what facts she had to support that claim. That's because there are none.

The same is true of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin (recently critical the media for "makin' things up") who said she fears the "Obama death panels" that would have the power to kill her parents and son Trig (who has Down Syndrome) if the president's health care plan passes.

The same is true of the "grass roots protesters" who are really well-funded and organized Right Wing shock troops that announced weeks ago that they had a game plan to disrupt town hall meetings in Congressional districts to make sure nothing could be discussed and no questions could be asked or answered.

The same is true regarding the leaders of the "birther" movement who claim that Obama was born in Kenya and is therefore not qualified to be president. Buoyed by support from Republican members of Congress and CNN "newsman" Lou Dobbs, radio hatemonger Mark Levin, these liars now have a majority of Republicans nationwide doubting Obama's citizenship and a large majority of all Southern Whites saying they're either certain or doubtful that Obama was not born in this country.

If these racists, bigots, liars, and nut jobs were truly part of some lunatic fringe as some of my friends have suggested, I would probably comply with their requests that I just back off the whole subject of hatespeech and media irresponsibility and move on. But the problem is getting worse, not better, and it's becoming clear that these people are no longer on the fringe.

They are whack jobs or hard-wired haters, but their influence and numbers are growing among what's left of the Republican party, the news media, and the former Confederacy. More important, there is an increased reluctance among "good" Republicans to publicly distance themselves from these people--to tell them that they bring discredit to and are killing the party with their hatred, bigotry, and lies.

Meanwhile, the GOP is cultivating the future by electing a Louisiana woman chairman of the Young Republicans after she supported a man who called Obama "a commie and a coon" on her webpage. After the incident, she won 60 percent of the vote on the first ballot and is now setting the tone and running the show for future Republican leaders.

It's the people who want to have a fact-based discussion regarding what's best for our country that are now on the fringe. And those who don't realize it are the true lunatics.