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Default Does Extremist Media Inspire Violence or Curb It?

June 20th, 2009, 17:12
Rather than derail another thread with a virulent Glenn Beck discussion, I thought I'd start a new one on a topic near and dear to my heart: I discovered this article by Reihan Salam at The Daily Beast blog today, and it has a rather refreshing take on a topic that's been bothering me a lot lately: hate speech, right-wing talking heads and their inflammatory rhetoric, and the effect it may have on the unbalanced and violence-prone in our society. He contends it's a valuable and necessary safety valve rather than an incitement to violence. I'm not so sure myself, but I found his ideas quite interesting.

I'm just going to quote it with some bolding to make the points a quick skim for those who find the whole article too long:
How Glenn Beck Saves Lives
Glenn Beck is an American hero. Considered a buffoon at best by his liberal detractors, Beck is in fact a showman par excellence who draws on the passions of a small and alienated minority to create a television program that has done more to keep Americans safe than 10,000 public-service announcements. And for that, he deserves a medal from the Department of Homeland Security.

DHS, you might recall, issued a report in April on the threat posed by right-wing extremists, a report that many conservatives angrily denounced as a crude smear. Michael Savage, a radio host known for his scabrous denunciations of Democrats, liberals, vegans, backgammon enthusiasts, and other sinister elements, went so far as to file suit against the government in a fit of pique. But after a Holocaust Museum security guard was murdered by a deranged white supremacist, many observers loudly wondered if right-wing extremism represented a real and potent threat. After all, the shooting followed the slaying of George Tiller, the Kansas doctor best known for performing controversial late-term abortions. Are the two events a dark potent of a violent domestic terror campaign? The answer is probably no, and credit belongs to that most underappreciated part of the news business: cable talk shows.

Of course, this runs counter to a familiar narrative. Tiller, for example, was frequently derided on The O'Reilly Factor. The Factor is a bizarro inversion of Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, in which the wiseacre host berates an endless stream of alleged pedophiles and punks in lieu of puffing up "A-list" celebrities. Without villains, the show falls apart. And among others, Andrew Sullivan, Michael Tomasky, and Gawker went beyond just condemning O'Reilly for his incendiary language about Tiller, whom he dubbed "Tiller the Baby Killer"; all three suggested a connection between O'Reilly's rhetoric and Tiller's eventual murder. Scott Roeder, the man who actually killed Tiller, seems to have at least contemplated terrorist violence since at least 1996, when he was arrested for keeping an impressive array of bomb-making supplies in his car. One gets the sense he didn't need some cable-news blowhard to inspire him to violence. The obvious rejoinder is that O'Reilly's harsh tone could contribute to a hostile climate in which Internet obsessives can flourish. It's far more likely, however, that in giving voice to strong, harsh views, O'Reilly, like Beck, actually tamps down the threat of violence.

Remember that political violence runs deep in the American tradition. The United States was founded by sober Whigs, but independence was won by wild-eyed insurrectionists. While genteel Bostonian abolitionists protested against the evils of slavery, John Brown plotted a bloody uprising in the American South. The Weather Underground set off bombs to bring fascist AmeriKKKa to its knees and the white nationalist Timothy McVeigh did the same thing, though to far bloodier and more spectacular effect. America has more than its fair share of murderous idealists, and that's no less true today. The question is how we can keep this violent streak under wraps.

One approach is epidemiological. Like the swine flu, extremism should be subject to quarantine. Hateful sentiments should be suppressed to the extent possible, the better to prevent their spread. In Western Europe, neofascist political symbols and rhetoric are tightly regulated on the theory that violent extremism is a bacillus that must be contained. The end result, ironically enough, is that neofascist political movements, ranging from France's National Front to Britain's obnoxiously racist BNP, have had shockingly high levels of electoral success. By marginalizing certain political tendencies, the European approach makes it harder to domesticate them.

A healthier approach is to allow a wide array of screamers to soak up the angry energy of alienated citizens. Following the 2004 presidential election, a number of enraged lefties believed that George W. Bush's presidential campaign had stolen the presidential election by manipulating the vote count in Ohio through the misuse of electronic voting machines. In years past, this might have been ignored as a fringe belief. But it so happens that MSNBC's Keith Olbermann was willing to give the story considerable attention. Because Olbermann was willing to lend credence to the Ohio story, true believers treated him as an honest broker. And when Olbermann eventually moved on, they did too, for the most part.

Glenn Beck does something very similar. During a fascinating live chat with readers of The Washington Post, Beck addressed the question of extremist violence a number of times. One reader asked Beck point blank if he, like many of the commenters on his Web site, advocated a violent revolution. Beck condemned violence, and said that "we need to model ourselves after Martin Luther King and Gandhi." Another reader thoughtfully asked how Beck avoids pushing fringe groups to violence, to which Beck responded that "the fringe groups hate my guts. The fringe groups think I'm a government stooge." And in a sense the fringe groups were right. Rather than stoke the fears of his audience, Beck's occasionally loopy warnings about socialist totalitarianism and the coming American civil war actually inoculate his viewers against truly extreme sentiments. You couldn't invent a better government stooge than Beck.
If you watch some of Beck's more incendiary moments through the eyes of a crank, you get a very different perspective. Back in 2006, when Beck was still on CNN's Headline News, he interviewed newly elected Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to the House of Representatives. After providing numerous caveats about his deep affection for Muslims, Beck said to Ellison: "Prove to me that you are not working with our enemies!" Written down, this sounds rather stark. But in its delivery, wrapped in soothing tones and earnest self-disclosure, it actually comes across as rather winning. Ellison actually chuckled before asserting his patriotic bona fides. To someone who grew up in a diverse big city environment, the question sounds impossibly gauche if not offensive. Beck, however, is speaking for members of his audience who really want to know if Keith Ellison is working with America's enemies. All the diplomatic finesse in the world won't get around the fact that these questions are out there, and in a democracy they deserve to be heard.

I'll admit to a soft spot for Glenn Beck. When a friend made me watch a lengthy Beck segment on the "Bubba Effect," in which angry rednecks revolt against an Obama-led federal government in a climate of total economic collapse, I was meant to laugh at Beck's insanity. Instead, I was struck by how Beck was taking a lot of deep-seated and often unspoken anxieties very seriously. Aside from his weirdly hypnotic eyes—the main reason I'm not a regular viewer of his program—Beck's great strength is that he's a kind of national therapist for some of America's craziest people, few of whom are willing to go in for professional help. Without Beck and O'Reilly and even Olbermann, how exactly would these people let off steam? I don't want to know.

Where there's smoke, there's mirrors.
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June 20th, 2009, 18:04
I suppose kiddie porn is a fantastically socially beneficial thing too, since, by the same argument, it acts a safety valve for violent pedophiles, keeping them from raping and murdering children.

Or, just perhaps, if we suddenly made kiddie porn socially and legally acceptable, it would contribute to a climate that treats children as sex objects, and helped wear down the inhibitions that keep hitherto inactive pedophiles from molesting children.

The author is also seriously mischaracterizing the right-wing populist thing in Europe.

First off, the restrictions on hate speech here aren't nearly as strict as he makes it out.

Second, these movements ARE a safety valve. There are times when the major parties totally lose their mojo — they become completely corrupt, disorganized, inefficient, and generally unpleasant, and consequently they do absurd stuff that pisses people off. As a result, they vote for some populist blowhard who ends up getting up to 20% of the vote somewhere. Eventually the sensible parties get their act together, and the blowhard falls back to single-digit support.

It *works,* and occasionally the populist blowhards even have a point worth making: for example, the immigration policy in my country is a mess, but none of the big parties have been willing to take an ax to it because of the potential blowback. Our blowhard got a lot of votes in the euro-elections just now. That has sparked a substantive discussion about our immigration policy, and there's at least a chance that there will be reforms, making it fairer, more sensible, and generally better.
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June 20th, 2009, 19:26
or you might ask the question, "does the liberal media help liberate or enslave the American people to the ever expanding power of the federal government with its nationalized banks, nationalized insurance, nationalized health care, nationalized auto…?"

One thing I need to clarify…by no means I am endorsing scum Beck

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June 20th, 2009, 19:32
My views on this subject (at least regarding Beck) are known here.

Does he *inspire* or *curb* violence? I honestly don't know. I think it'd be both. Some people would watch and go "Yeah! You tell him, Becky!" and others might go "Yeah! I'm going to go shoot an abortionist!". I think the things he says are extremely dangerous but I don't know if I would "blame" him for anything that happens.

Is he shouting "fire!" in a crowded theater? I don't know.
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June 20th, 2009, 20:36
I notice that nobody is advocating pulling Jesse and Al off the airwaves. Media figures, extreme positions, not too great a stretch to link them to several race riots… But I guess that's OK since they're lefties?

Sorry. No pearls of wisdom in this oyster.
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June 20th, 2009, 20:40
I actually want Jesse and Al Sharpton off.

I'll give you a list of everyone I tag in the same category as Glenn Beck if you want -or were you referring to the media in general?
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June 20th, 2009, 20:45
Originally Posted by Rithrandil View Post
I actually want Jesse and Al Sharpton off.
I'll take that trade if you throw in a minor league leftie to be named later.

Sorry. No pearls of wisdom in this oyster.
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June 20th, 2009, 20:53


Fair enough. My list of people I think are "really bad" and screwing things up: Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Michael Moore, Janene Garofolo (and most other 'political' celebrities who make stupid claims with no evidence), Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Bill O'Reilly, Michelle Malkin.

I'm sure there are others I could throw on there, but I don't like shills for either "side" whose main goal is to get viewers or score political points.

I'm completely fine with *principled* people on either side, or for people who do political humor - Lewis Black, Dennis Miller, Colbert, Stewart, etc.
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June 20th, 2009, 21:03
I don't want any of them off. I do think that the question being asked is worth asking, though, and the people giving them airtime would do well to ask it as well.

And yes, that applies to the folks from the left as much as to the ones from the right.
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June 20th, 2009, 23:16
Originally Posted by dteowner View Post
I notice that nobody is advocating pulling Jesse and Al off the airwaves. Media figures, extreme positions, not too great a stretch to link them to several race riots… But I guess that's OK since they're lefties?
Actually, the article isn't advocating pulling anyone off the air and uses Keith Olbermann and his quest for voter fraud after the 2004 election as an alternate example.

In fact, the idea, Mr. Paranoid, is that having people like Beck or Sharpton ON the air exercises a calming influence on those who might otherwise be rioting in the street.

So I guess you're saying that hate speech and inflammatory rhetoric *does* cause people to act violently, then?

(I pretty much agree with Rith's list, and I'll throw Chris Mathews in as the minor league lefty—he bugs the hell out of me.)

Where there's smoke, there's mirrors.
Last edited by magerette; June 20th, 2009 at 23:52.
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June 20th, 2009, 23:26
Originally Posted by Prime Junta View Post
…The author is also seriously mischaracterizing the right-wing populist thing in Europe.

First off, the restrictions on hate speech here aren't nearly as strict as he makes it out.

Second, these movements ARE a safety valve. There are times when the major parties totally lose their mojo — they become completely corrupt, disorganized, inefficient, and generally unpleasant, and consequently they do absurd stuff that pisses people off. As a result, they vote for some populist blowhard who ends up getting up to 20% of the vote somewhere. Eventually the sensible parties get their act together, and the blowhard falls back to single-digit support.

It *works,* and occasionally the populist blowhards even have a point worth making: for example, the immigration policy in my country is a mess, but none of the big parties have been willing to take an ax to it because of the potential blowback. Our blowhard got a lot of votes in the euro-elections just now. That has sparked a substantive discussion about our immigration policy, and there's at least a chance that there will be reforms, making it fairer, more sensible, and generally better.
Thanks for commenting on the European aspect. Do you think having the full-fledged populist movements you describe is in any way a result of regulating hate speech (ie, supports the author's point that the craziness has to come out one way or another) or would they be worse, more violent and less productive if such speech were more prevalent? I'm thinking the latter myself, but only because I think people don't need much encouragement to let the crazies out in the first place.

Where there's smoke, there's mirrors.
Last edited by magerette; June 20th, 2009 at 23:48.
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June 21st, 2009, 08:05
Originally Posted by magerette View Post
Thanks for commenting on the European aspect. Do you think having the full-fledged populist movements you describe is in any way a result of regulating hate speech (ie, supports the author's point that the craziness has to come out one way or another) or would they be worse, more violent and less productive if such speech were more prevalent? I'm thinking the latter myself, but only because I think people don't need much encouragement to let the crazies out in the first place.
No, I don't think their strength, or lack thereof, has anything to do with *regulating* hate speech.

First, contrary to what the author says, hate speech isn't all that regulated. You can't display Nazi insignia in Germany. In Finland, "incitement against a social group" is a crime. However, these are quite narrowly understood, and our side is just as good at inventing euphemisms as your side.

And second, he's mischaracterizing the right-wing movements. By far the vast majority of them aren't neo-Nazis. They're a lot more like the *mainstream* Republican party than they are like the Nazi party. There are a few holocaust-deniers and neo-Nazis there, for sure, and they get a lot of publicity, but most of them run on the standard (current) Republican platform — anti-immigration, climate-change denial, flag-waving nationalism, protectionism, anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-EU. The actual Beck/Rush/Malkin/Coulter lunatics account for the fringe of the fringe.

So what does account for the populist right? The multi-party system with proportional representation, that's what. The UK doesn't have one — and it has the same winner-take-all system as you do. Countries that permit small parties to emerge and get seats in parliament end up with their share of fringe parties, left (Communists) right (Populists) and center (Liberal Parties). They wax and wane with the times; usually when some other party loses its appeal for some reason. Right now the left is in disarray, which means that lots of the protectionist, anti-EU people from there went with the populist right instead.
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June 21st, 2009, 16:13
Thanks again for explaining, Prime J. It sounds like the system you're describing is pretty unrelated to the problems here this article addresses. The author appears to be drawing a false analogy with Europe's situation. I can't help but wonder if his other point is false as well.

To me, there's a greater danger to legitimizing a group's bigotry and hate—and by that I mean right OR left wing hate and bigotry, because it exists on both sides—and providing it moral support than there is a 'safety valve' effect.

By openly broadcasting the worst fears and praising the most rash impulses of people whose judgment is on the extreme edge of an issue, you encourage them to believe that instead of being on the fringe, they are indeed more in the mainstream, or if not that, are being persecuted by those in the mainstream.

Whatever value blowing off steam over Limbaugh or Sharpton provides for more rational folk, the idea of solidarity combined with the symbolic and rhetorical reinforcement provided by this type of broadcasting and editorializing validates people and allows them to believe that they are actually right to hold the most extreme and black-and-white interpretations of things.

That seems to me nothing but a greater crutch and an implied justification for the unbalanced to lean on to justify their wildest actions.

Where there's smoke, there's mirrors.
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June 22nd, 2009, 21:27
I am into "extremist media" together with some millions of others on a daily basis and we haven't get violent or anything , ok maybe one every 500.000 commit a murder or something but i doubt the percentage is any different in those reading the bible.

The interesting part of the story is how 1 single photo in 4chan generated IP filtering and internet surveillance (almost) all over the globe, on the other hand the shooting of the doc who made abortions didn't cause any church to shut down .

As a bottom comment : who are you to judge what is extremist and what is not? waking up early , going to work , having a car and a family is extremist to me but i am not posting judgemental crap on the media.
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June 22nd, 2009, 21:32
Well, I'm not anybody, really. It's just something that bothers me. It may be because I grew up without it, when the media was less all over the place and in your face. It's something I've seen effect a person I knew very heavily, to the point of making her a very angry and unhappy person. And I worry about people killing other people because of it.

But I apologize if I came off as overly judgmental. What is the 4chan incident you're referring to?

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June 22nd, 2009, 21:41
Originally Posted by Tragos View Post
I am into "extremist media" together with some millions of others on a daily basis and we haven't get violent or anything , ok maybe one every 500.000 commit a murder or something but i doubt the percentage is any different in those reading the bible.
What 'extremist media'? Percentage is probably far higher in those reading the bible, to be honest. Most criminals at least in the States are Christians of some creed.

Originally Posted by Tragos View Post
The interesting part of the story is how 1 single photo in 4chan generated IP filtering and internet surveillance (almost) all over the globe, on the other hand the shooting of the doc who made abortions didn't cause any church to shut down .
What photo was this? I've not heard of this incident.

Originally Posted by Tragos View Post
As a bottom comment : who are you to judge what is extremist and what is not? waking up early , going to work , having a car and a family is extremist to me but i am not posting judgemental crap on the media.
Well, society judges. Societal norms determine what is 'average' and what is 'extreme'. If you think going to work is 'extreme' you're clearly in the minority - since virtually everyone owns a car/has a family/goes to work - hence the 'extreme' (and I'd also ask how you make money or survive, then). You can disagree with the judgment of society or not, but that's how the world works.
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June 22nd, 2009, 21:44
I don't think the government should ever shut anyone down or take them off unless they were doing something illegal. Let the market decide. I also wouldn't call Beck's audience a 'fringe' audience as his show beats most other cable news shows in any time slot.

I think the whole topic about them inciting violence is a joke and just another ploy by one side to silence the other.
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June 22nd, 2009, 21:52
Originally Posted by Oxlar View Post
I don't think the government should ever shut anyone down or take them off unless they were doing something illegal. Let the market decide. I also wouldn't call Beck's audience a 'fringe' audience as his show beats most other cable news shows in any time slot.

I think the whole topic about them inciting violence is a joke and just another ploy by one side to silence the other.
I'm going to shock you by agreeing with you Oxlar—well, mostly. I don't think anyone should be shut down. My question is what is the effect of it all. I'd like to believe, along with the author of the huge article I quoted above, that the effect on people is mostly positive, in giving them an outlet or a voice. But I find these two incidents—the abortion clinic murder and the Holocaust Museum shooting—really scary and worrisome.

And Beck's new book is number one on the charts at that bastion of lefty elitism, Barnes & Noble, so I certainly can't argue with your statement that he's not fringe.

I also agree that there's a lot of polticking in the contention that media incites violence—it's like the familiar refrain of video games causing violence.

So I'm more than open to being persuaded that I'm alarmed about nothing.

Where there's smoke, there's mirrors.
Last edited by magerette; June 22nd, 2009 at 22:02.
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June 22nd, 2009, 21:54
I just think people like Beck hurt the ability for their to be actual discussion. I gave my list of people on both sides I'd like stranded on a desert island, in a pure and just world. Would I want the government to remove them from the air, though? No. I think they have the right to be annoying. I have the right to call them idiots, though.
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June 22nd, 2009, 22:27
That's pretty much my position too. Muzzling them won't do any good. Pointing at them and laughing might. Educating people so they're able to recognize propaganda techniques for what they are certainly ought to, but it'll take quite long to bite.

As Oxlar said, though, as long as there's demand for their sort of venomous stupidity, they'll also be laughing. All the way to the bank.
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