I’ve encountered some colorful characters in 2020, in person and over the internet, but none quite like CHARLIE WILSON. Here’s a snippet of the introductory email he sent me early this year: “I had two careers: professional journalist 1979-1990, finance 1990-2002. Have traveled to all 50 states. … Grew up in Milwaukee and have lived in Iowa (3 years); Kansas City (2 years); L.A. (only 8 months); Washington, D.C. (5 years); Boston (11 years); Seattle (16 years); Klickitat County (2½ years). Have traveled to 26 countries. Same-sex married since the Supremes legalized it. Life member NRA, 15 guns and ‘enough’ ammo. Democrat for 40 years, now independent. Write-in vote last time. Changed my mind on gun control and global warming within the past 5 years. Drive an electric car and a 1-ton diesel pickup truck.”
News Flash! Radicalism On The Right!
I’m sorry that I didn’t write more today. I’ve got a hard deadline on a long essay due on Tuesday, and as is usual for me, when I don’t have unlimited length, I have to decide what to cut — and it’s difficult! It is much harder to write 2,500 words than 6,000, because I lack discipline. So it’s always a rush to the last minute to make the thing say what it needs to say. One frenzied morning in 2013, I wrote a 6,000-word blog post about Dante in a single sitting at a Starbucks, over the course of a morning. My wife saw it before I got home, and worried that I had had some kind of mental break. No indeed — when I get into the groove, I go. That blog post was the seed of a book published two years later (a book that because of some publishing snafus, I had to write from start to final version in, get this, three months).
Anyway, something caught my mind this morning, and really annoyed me. It’s a report from NPR on how ex-national security officials are warning of “mass radicalization” on the Right. Hannah Allam is the reporter. Excerpt:
ALLAM: That’s Elizabeth Neumann. She was a Homeland Security official who served until last spring. She talks about the conservative media world as a portal to another reality, one where the election was stolen, the pandemic isn’t a big deal and Democrats aren’t just political opponents but dangerous enemies. Neumann says she has relatives who’ve gone down that rabbit hole.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
NEUMANN: For me personally, I am wrestling with how do I help people that have – unbeknownst to them, they’ve become radicalized in their thought. They hold views that they didn’t hold 10 years ago. I have argued that unless we help them break the deception, we cannot operate with 30% of the country holding the extreme views that they do.
ALLAM: Eventually, the talk turns to solutions – public awareness campaigns, enlisting faith leaders. But for any of this to work, they say, it has to start at the top.
They’re not wrong. I just spent a lot of time writing three lengthy criticisms in this space of right-wing Christian radicalization in the post-election period. These were painful to write in part because I could not avoid criticizing an old friend, Eric Metaxas, a good man who is saying and doing some bad things these days — and who, to my way of seeing it, represents the corruption of the Christian conscience by Trumpism. Let anyone who doubts that I am seriously concerned about this issue of the Right, from the Right, read “Eric Metaxas’s American Apocalypse,” then “What I Saw At The Jericho March,” and finally “A Defense of Jericho March Criticism”.
That said, what appalls about NPR’s coverage of issues like this — and the mainstream media’s coverage in general — is how they completely ignore the simultaneous radicalization of the Left. Or to be more precise, I would say that they ignore how the radicalization of the Right was in some way preceded by the radicalization of the Left. It either does not interest them, or, as is more likely, none of them can see it because it is the water in which they swim.
Consider gay marriage, which is now thoroughly mainstream, and supported by a wide majority of Americans. This is radical social change — to the best of our knowledge, it has never existed in recorded history in any society, ever, even in classical Greece and Rome, which tolerated homosexuality– and it happened virtually overnight. The poll data numbers-cruncher Nate Silver, who is himself gay, wrote in response to the 2015 Obergefell decision legalizing gay marriage:
In the United States, gay marriage has gone from unthinkable to the law of the land in just a couple of decades. Homosexuality has gone from “the love that dare not speak its name” — something that could get you locked up, beat up, ostracized or killed, as is still the case in much of the world — into something that’s out-and-proud, so to speak.
It is so difficult to convey to Millennials and Generation Z people how unthinkable same-sex marriage was prior to 1994, or thereabouts. When Ellen DeGeneres came out on her sitcom in 1997, it made the cover of Time magazine. It was a big, big deal. Younger Americans act like it’s perfectly obvious to anyone that gay marriage is right and just, but this is a very recent development, historically speaking.
After Obergefell, in 2015, Bloomberg did a historical, data-driven look at how fast social change happens in America when a psychosocial dam breaks. It wasn’t just gay marriage, as the graphs show, but other important issues (e.g., women’s suffrage). When this feature was written five years ago, only a handful of states had legalized some form of recreational marijuana. Now many more have, and earlier this month, the House of Representatives voted to legalize weed from coast to coast. This bill is going to die in the Republican Senate, but it’s now just a matter of time. If you had told most Americans a decade ago that in 2020, the House of Representatives would vote to legalize pot, and it would barely make the news, they would have thought you were, well, high.
It is understandable why people who favor gay rights would be thrilled by the Supreme Court’s ruling, and by the societal acceptance and affirmation of gays and lesbians. But you would have to be bonkers to downplay the effect a landmark social event like that would have on social and religious conservatives, of which there are very many in this country, though they are rare in newsrooms. For better or for worse, same-sex marriage smashes the Christian sexual ethic and marital model. And it unavoidably has ramifications for religious liberty, as there is an irreconcilable conflict between religious liberty and gay rights.
Now comes transgenderism, which is far more radical than gay rights, but from which we are told the slightest hesitation to affirm whatever trans activists ask for is evidence of deep-seated bigotry that must be punished. The Today Show and Good Morning America have puffed in recent years a child drag queen, and we are told that to have any qualms about drag queens reading queer story books to little children inside public libraries basically makes you a Nazi. Et cetera, ad nauseam.
Think about race. I was born in 1967, and raised within a popular culture that formed us to embrace and celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of a colorblind America. It is impossible to overstate how everything in schools and pop culture taught this liberal, quintessentially American moral vision. But now, we are told by the Left that it is hateful bigotry — racist, even. To assert as true on many American college campuses today, or in institutional settings, what has been unquestioned gospel — liberal gospel — since the mid-1960s is to set oneself up to be denounced, fired, and hounded by a mob.
About that mob: most of us, since the 1960s, have had the sacrosanct important of free speech hammered into us. Many of us went through Banned Books Week in school, where the spectre of Puritanical right-wing nanny-goats out to take our Judy Blume volumes away from us was trotted out to remind us how important free speech is. All of a sudden, wham, it’s the Left that’s saying people ought to be fired and turned into pariahs for saying or writing the Wrong Thing. Now everybody in middle-class professional settings has to be extremely careful what they say, because the wrong word could mean the destruction of your livelihood.
This is not coming from right-wing nuts, hysterical fundamentalist preachers, or other stock figures in the liberal pantheon of bogeys. This is coming from the kind of people who work in the NPR newsroom, and who do not regard any of this as evidence of radicalization.
But it is. It damned sure is. The only thing standing between the Democratic Party and the end of women’s sports is — I can’t believe I’m writing this — a Republican Senate. Why? Because the Democrats have promised to pass, and Joe Biden has promised to sign, the Equality Act, whose many gifts to society would be to open the door to all women’s athletics to biological males who identify as female.
But go on, tell us about right-wing radicalization.
Politico‘s Tim Alberta has a great feature in which he picked 20 different people he was in touch with during his campaign reporting, who, taken together, give us a picture of America today. These are people of all races, straight and gay, one trans person, Democrats, Republicans, and independents. It’s a depressing picture, as Alberta says straight-up, because it reveals a country anxious, fearful, and deeply divided. These are all fascinating snapshots — the one about the black woman from Detroit who is feistily pro-Trump is an eye-opener — but none are as memorable as this one:
It’s impossible to synopsize the entirety of our exchange, which touched on everything from “rampant” voter fraud to implicit media bias to the parallels between the pre-Civil War “Jacksonian period” and today. (He didn’t explain his vote for Kanye West, though given his disdain for both parties and his asymmetric beliefs, he didn’t need to.) The most provocative passages he sent me—after offering evidence that he’d donated considerable money to Democratic Party before leaving it after the 2012 election—detailed the failures of the modern left.
“What’s especially striking to me is the reversal of the long historical pattern of the Rs representing the well-off and the Ds representing the struggling working people. That has reversed here just as it has nationally: The wealthier someone is around here, the more likely they are to be D,” Wilson wrote. “There is a great deal of laughable moral smugness, unearned intellectual conceit, and offensive economic snobbery that goes with it. The Democratic Party that I knew and supported for 40 years was on the side of the working people, but that just isn’t true now, either legislatively or culturally.”
“There is more diversity of opinion and outlook along the five-mile road between us and the nearest town than there was in all of Seattle, Boston, or Washington, D.C., where I lived and worked for a combined total of 32 years,” he added. “The idea that people in rural areas think alike, and even worse, that they don’t think at all, is widely held on the coasts and especially in the media, and couldn’t possibly be more ignorant and obnoxious.”
Wilson concluded, “I cannot emphasize this strongly enough: If Democrats want to ‘unify’ the country—and I frankly don’t believe that they do—they’d get off their god damned high horses for once, and ditch their overweening, self-declared superiority, and join the human race.”
From Charlie Wilson’s lips to the NPR newsroom, and every newsroom in this country!
Ha ha! That’ll never happen. If I got a phone call or e-mail from a mainstream journalist wanting to talk to me about the radicalization of the Religious Right, I wouldn’t do it. This is not because I have nothing to say about it — I manifestly do, and have spent the last few days writing acres about it. It’s because I don’t want to participate in their sham depiction of religious people and conservative people as dangerous radicals — which some are — when they never write or broadcast anything about how the Left pushes and pushes and pushes, and is never satisfied until they make it damn near impossible for the rest of us to hold jobs, get an education, pursue a livelihood, affirm and seek to live out our religious beliefs in peace, be proud of our ancestors and this country, and on and on.
The media is freaking out about right-wing radicalization, but ignoring the simultaneous rise in left-wing radicalization. But they’ve done something like this before. In 2002, the political scientists Louis Bolce and Gerald De Maio published, in The Public Interest, a version of a political science paper they had done about how the Secular Left rose in influence within the Democratic Party at the same time that the Religious Right rose in influence within the GOP. Part of the story they tell is that the national news media completely missed this story. From the paper:
The most striking finding to emerge from these comparisons is the paucity of news stories and commentaries that identify secularists or the secularist outlook with the Democratic party, particularly when contrasted to the large number of stories and editorials in both papers about the Republican party’s relationship with evangelical and fundamentalist Christians (43 stories and 682 stories, respectively). During this period of increased party polarization along a secularist-traditionalist divide, readers were 16 times more likely to encounter a story about evangelical-fundamentalist clout in the GOP than to find one about secularist clout in the Democratic party. There were more stories published by the [New York] Times about the influence of evangelicals in the Republican party in 1992 alone (93 stories) than were published by both the Times and the Post throughout the entire decade about the importance of secularists to the Democratic party (43 stories).
We found a similar imbalance when we selected stories that associated a fundamentalist or secularist outlook with both a stance toward abortion and a party identification (283 stories versus 16 stories). The skewed coverage, most pronounced during election years, also extended to other issues and controversies–delegates at national party conventions, prayer at football games, partial-birth abortion, school vouchers, gay adoption, judicial or cabinet nominees, and special-purpose activist
groups such as the Christian Coalition or People for the American Way. If a general worldview was mentioned in the story, the [Washington] Post and the Times overwhelmingly emphasized Christian
fundamentalism and missed the secularist side to the story.
The impression conveyed by both newspapers is that traditional religious beliefs motivate people to oppose abortion, back conservative Republican candidates, support conservative social movements, and adopt intolerant attitudes, but that a modernist or secularist outlook apparently has little or no connection to the reasons why someone supports abortion rights, opposes vouchers, joins culturally progressivist organizations, expresses antipathy toward evangelical Christians, and votes for liberal Democratic candidates.
Broadcast news coverage during the 1990s was no better. …
How do Bolce & De Maio, the political scientists, explain this radical imbalance of coverage? Citing other social science work establishing that print and TV journalists are overwhelmingly on the secular left, they theorize that the journalists missed the rise of the Secular Left in the Democratic Party because what they Secular Left wanted looked normal to them. The Religious Right people — those were the weirdos, the threats to the common good, the bad people.
Nothing ever changes with these people, the media.