Violent Rhetoric, Violent Viewers

05/25/2011 12:15 pm ET

In an alarming trend that has received scant notice from journalists, more and more consumers of right-wing media have started using violent threats to respond to political opinions that differ from their own.  Once a rarity in American political discourse, it has now become commonplace for people who appear on right-wing media to offer dissenting opinions to subsequently receive emails filled with death threats, promises of physical and sexual abuse. 

While it is difficult to pinpoint one cause for this trend, those on the receiving end of these violent threats have commented that the catalyst appears to be the right-wing shows themselves, both on television and radio.

Commenting during a recent appearance on Real Time With Bill Maher, African-American pundit and TV regular Michael Eric Dyson observed:

We see [broadcasters talking] on FOX about 'fair and balanced'--when I go on Bill O'Reilly's show--and I tell him this after the show--I get the worst hate mail ever.  I get the 'n-word' thrown at me, I get email.  And I want Bill O'Reilly to challenge that in public.

(Real Time With Bill Maher, Episode 110, September 30, 2007)

More recently, Brandon Friedman of, appeared on Countdown with Keith Olbermann to discuss the violent threats he had received from Rush Limbaugh listeners.  One email threat sent to Friedman stuck out for the specificity of the violent promise it offered:

It never matters to you Left wing liberal bastards about the truth, but it appears that the control of the future of this country is at
stake and like it or not, we may have to resort to the same tactics as used back in 1860 when this country went to war with itself, North vs South, only this time it's Conservative vs Liberal and I'm ready to join in as soon as the fireworks start.

Just keep up the constant lying and sooner or later it will catch up with you and all those in Move and Media Matters will get what you so richly deserve.

Make no mistake: that is a death threat.  Once upon a time, death threats were spelled out in letters cut from magazine pages.  Now they are typed out on temporary email accounts.  But they are death threats, just the same.

What set this in motion? Friedman's organization made several advertisements, in response to which Limbaugh accused them of hating America. The violent threats from Limbaugh's listeners, however, seemed less in response to the subject of the Iraq war than to the criticism of Limbaugh himself. Indeed, a closer look at the transcript shows how Limbaugh reframed Friedman's criticism into violent rhetoric--recasting what should have remained an argument about politics into a media confrontation set in the language of physical assault and war.

Reading these threats, however, I am always struck by a recurrence of accusations that seem too consistent to be accidental.  Listeners moved to send violent threats invariably accuse the recipient of being 'communist' or 'socialist,' of 'wanting' Islamic terrorists 'to win,' and of being on the opposite side of an impending civil war at home--another 1860.   

What is most alarming about these two accusations showing up over and over again in email death threats--communism, collusion with terrorists, and civil war--is how often these two ideas also show up in books written by right wing pundits.

Most Americans are familiar with Ann Coulter and Bill O'Reilly, whose books Treason and Culture Warrior argue that American liberals are engaged in an ongoing communist conspiracy and hoping for the destruction of America by terrorists, albeit to advance a 'Secular-Progressive' agenda (O'Reilly's phrase) instead of an Islamic one.

Few Americans realize, however, that there is an entire generation of right-wing pundits who echo and repeat these  same arguments constantly on FOX News and the vast radio networks that host the likes of Limbaugh, Hannity, Gibson, Beck.

It is difficult to say whether the right-wing pundits provide the arguments and the media personalities echo them or vice versa.  But either way, when a guest appears on or is the subject of a right-wing talk show--and then they subsequently receive a violent email threat from a viewer--the  arguments presented can be traced back to the right-wing pundits and the media circuit that nurtures them.

What should a country that believes so strongly in freedom of speech do about this problem?  The answer, of course, is not to limit speech, but to first recognize that we have a very serious problem developing and to commit ourselves to dealing with it.

The problem, as the American philosopher John Dewey once observed, is not simply the use of violent rhetoric and the constant demonization of dissenters as 'enemies' of America that we find repeated and repeated in the right-wing media.  The problem is the way this tendency gives rise to a strong social unity amongst those who experience it over an extended period of time:

History shows that more than once social unity has been promoted by the presence, real or alleged, of some hostile group.   It has long been a part of the technique of politicians who wish to maintain themselves in power to foster the idea that the alternative is the danger of being conquered by an enemy...Here also is both a warning and a suggestion to those concerned with cultural conditions which will maintain democratic freedom.  The warning is obvious as to the role of propaganda, which now operates with us in channels less direct and less official.  The suggestion is that the printing press and radio have made the problem of intelligent and honest use of means of communication in behalf of openly declared public ends a matter of fundamental concern

(Freedom and Culture, John Dewey, 1939)

With so much talk about the internet, we often overlook the special relationship between radio and propaganda of which Dewey warned Americans over half a century ago.  The radio and printing press was in his day, as it is in ours, not just a means of propagating fear, but an instrument for creating and maintaining the vast 'social unity' necessary for long-term control of government.  The relevance of Dewey's insight to our current situation is transparent.

It may seem at first that receiving a death threat from a Rush Limbaugh listener is the most alarming part of this story, or perhaps the admission by a leading African-American intellectual that the most vile and shocking email he receives always follow his appearances on the The Factor with Bill O'Reilly.  In fact, the conclusion that Dewey leads us to is far more disturbing:  that behind the death threats there is a broad and growing social unity.

What we face as we look to the America of 2008, 2012, and 2016, in other words, are vast sections of the country held in place by social bonds forged out of anti-Democratic notions such as: violent threats are the best response to dissent.

Acknowledging and refusing to accept this growing problem from this point forward will be, in many ways, far more important than the outcome of any election in the near or distant future.

Either we as a country come together and stop right-wing media from continuing to be the source of violent rhetoric, violent listeners and violent viewers, or America stands to lose far more than a war.

(cross posted from Frameshop)