Voice of America?

The cover of the September 28 New York magazine has a picture of President Obama’s face overlaid with the suddenly common currency of our “national debate”: Parasite-in-Chief. Hitler. Liar. Impostor. Stalin. Nazi. Socialist. Muslim. Kenya-born.

That these labels are incoherent is clearly not what matters. That they are untrue means even less. The president’s Christianity is no match for the power of his imaginary Muslim doppelgänger. What the healthcare bill actually says is much less exciting than the fantasy of Grandma’s last gurgle as she is tossed into the tumbrel. Official documentation of Obama’s citizenship and place of birth means nothing to those who apparently need to have seen it before they’ll believe it. (As one commentator on the Drudge Report wrote in a parody of birthers: “We also demand a mason jar filled with the actual afterbirth, a copy of the birth filmed in HD, satellite imagery of the hospital, a record of the comings and goings of both parents from the moment of conception to birth, and a sworn statement from G-d. Is that really too much to ask for?”) That the president pursues solidly centrist economic policies is of no import to those who entertain themselves scribbling little mustaches on his portraits.

It is clear that common notions of reality are not what motivate or inform the rabidly hateful calls for revolt that have overtaken our national discourse. By no measure of the real world is Obama evil or a mass murderer or an “alien” or even just a socialist. As Barney Frank put it–on what planet do these people spend most of their time?

The answer to that, of course, means taking a serious look at the narrative worlds created by Fox News and AM radio, where Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck are the reigning kings. This is a world in which the president is not really American. The presidency has been stolen. The president does not believe in a Christian God. He takes his orders from a cave in Afghanistan. He wants to take away your guns, impoverish your children and kill your elders. If this balloon of fear were not bad enough, it’s supplemented by repeated calls to “retake” America, to “regain” a golden past, to “revolt” against the kleptocracy.

This is not the kind of speech that can be shrugged off by calling for “more speech.” And no, I am not suggesting censorship. But I do think we need to take the growing power of this fear-fueled, alternative, imaginary universe more seriously. It has consequences for the physical world in which our real bodies reside. If one really believes that Obama is the Antichrist, then one goes out and starts arming oneself; and violence directed against those perceived as less than all-American begins to be justified as “pre-emptive” self-defense.

We know that incendiary media can foment terrible consequences. We all know that Stalin propagandized against “counterrevolutionary infiltrators.” Similarly, Goebbels used mass media to incite resentments against Poles, Jews and “friends of the left,” coolly trading on fears that German civilization was being debased, its government overtaken by “parasites” and “degenerates” and that true Germans must defend themselves against such forces or be annihilated. “It is not propaganda’s task to be intelligent,” he once observed. Rather, “its task is to lead to success.”

My point is not to compare birthers and tea baggers to Goebbels–there’s been enough of that ping-pong already. So lest the Nazi example evoke more than I mean, there are plenty of more recent instances. Argentina leading up to the junta, for example. Or Rwanda, where Human Rights Watch has documented how well-coordinated radio broadcasts systematically created the illusion that the Tutsi minority were internal traitors; gave out lists of names to be targeted; and instructed Hutus to “kill them before they kill you.” Yet Radio-Television Libre des Milles-Collines, one of the most bilious stations, also aired good music and lively interviews with ordinary folk, populist chatter that sounded like “a conversation among Rwandans who knew each other well and were relaxing over some banana beer or a bottle of Primus.” The poison was packaged appealingly, and as the killing escalated, radio talking heads vaunted it all as “self-defense.” As then-commander of the UN peacekeeping force, Roméo Dallaire, put it, “replacing [the broadcasts] with messages of peace and reconciliation would have had a significant impact on the course of events.”

Professor Frank Chalk, of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, has documented some of the ingredients that can tip a society from expressive speech into excessive fulmination and then into full-scale repression or violence. They include: demonization of an identified or target audience, accusations of treason and blaming one’s neighbors or leaders for conspiring or sympathizing with foreign enemies. In addition, the media can exploit “widespread perception that a crisis exists…a public with little knowledge of the situation from other sources of information…and a deep-seated habit of obeying authority among the target audience.”

I know this will be misread, so let me underscore my meaning. I am not urging censorship. As Professor Chalk points out, mass media can be just as easily used to spread the messages of human rights. Nor am I without a sense of proportion: I do not believe we are on the cusp of chaos or genocide. Rather, I’m concerned about what Argentine journalist Jacobo Timerman described as “a bad hangover of [a] bygone period, and a forewarning that these hangovers still prevail and can recur, time and again.” I do believe, therefore, that it is high time we all anticipate and grapple lucidly with the sustained, long-term effect of crazy proselytizing by Glenn Beck, Lou Dobbs and Rush Limbaugh. Their influence is growing, not waning. They represent a force that resorts to dehumanizing neighbors, fellow citizens and, in the embodiment of President Obama, the American Dream.