Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The airwaves are crawling with annoying blowhards, comb-over windbags, and other assorted noisy trolls

I have a grand theory that explains everything. Well, maybe it’s not my theory so much as it’s a bunch of previously-voiced theories that I’ve been bunched up and then glued together with chewing gum and boogers. And maybe it doesn’t explain everything, but it explains one thing pretty well: the phenomenon of the angry asshole pundit, or what I like to call the “talking dickhead”. This is a species apart from your conventional televised/radio-broadcasted opinion-maker. This breed came be distinguished by their stacked-deck confrontational style, their fondness for fury, their unearned sense of omniscience, and their insistence that “common sense” is actually a series of dumb prejudices best expressed through empty bluster. Their usual domain is the drive-time talk radio show, where they alternate dim commentary on current events with the sort of humor that people ought to outgrow somewhere around their eleventh birthday. Some of them, however, have graduated into the big leagues and been granted their won syndicated programs or, for the luckiest of the lucky, their own cable television show. Bill O’Reilly is the biggest and worst of these, but there’s a pretty deep bench to back him up: Michael Savage, Sean Hannity, Tom Leykis, and the latest man to get a show on CNN even though he’s never said anything remotely interesting, original or amusing, Glenn Beck.

Most of these people are men, but not all of them. Similarly, most are conservatives, although there are many whose only ideological allegiance is to the juvenile and obnoxious. Their political philosophy isn’t what’s important. If liberalism encouraged the same sort of cheap shots and knee-jerk thunder, they would be liberals. In fact, one could argue that several Air America deejays fit the bill nicely. No, the people I’m talking about are conservative because, for a variety of reasons, a certain strand of right-wingness meshes well with their schtick and the situation their audience finds themselves in. Here’s where my theory comes in: the talking dickhead movement has arisen as a small part of the general societal reaction to two separate things: (1) feminism and (2) the United State’s peculiar understanding of class dynamics.

I’ll take the second of these first. For my entire life, the U.S. has endured a particular set of assumptions about economic life. For one, we assume that prosperity is permanent. For another, we assume that we as individuals are the sole arbiters of our economic fates. So a great many of us, the lucky ones, enter into a world of prosperity and prosper in it, simultaneously convinced that this is both the way the world works and somehow a reflection of our individual character. This makes us arrogant, true, but it also makes us anxious. While we may be doing well, globally speaking, we can also see people doing even better than us. They’ve got a bigger boat, a fancier deck, a newer Hummer, nicer khakis, and so on and so forth. We take this personally because we take the economy personally. Instead of ascribing a difference in income to the usual array of class factors, we ascribe it to nebulous things like “initiative”, “pluck”, “ambition” or “will”. The lack of these things is a personal problem, not an economic problem. There are no economic problems in the United States.

My guess is that this whole set-up leads to massive middle-class insecurity and, for many, a strange form of hostility. This is an anger which cannot be vented at systems or theories, but must instead fall upon less abstract villains. Luckily, your radio and television are teeming with guys willing to beat up on others on your behalf. It’s the bad form of populism. Some of the time, they’ll direct their audience’s latent wrath towards the usual collection of boogeymen: Arabs, Muslims, ghetto dwellers, the French, sexual minorities, etc., etc. This is a bonding thing, the kind of rhetoric that allows an atomized culture to unite against something nebulous and different. But, to borrow jihadi terminology, with these sorts there is the far enemy and then there is the near enemy. In the end, ragging on Syria nonstop isn’t going to garner the Arbitron ratings. That’s what they majority of the talking dickhead’s airtime is spent enumerating, excoriating and belittling the supposed faults of those middle-class Americans who ought to be righteous and holy, but fall short because they’re so goddamn stupid. So if the focus is conservatism, you’ll hear all about the effete, traitorous liberals who don’t have the balls to win the War on Terror. If the focus is more on pranks and low comedy, the butts of it will usually be the stuck-up, the strange, the foreign or the feminine. The important thing isn’t the nature of the accusation or the childishness of the humor, it’s the nullification of anxiety based on tenuous class and social positioning into something a lot less fraught. Being in the in-group—the American middle-class, if you will—then has little to do with how much you earn and a lot to do with the prejudices you hold and what jokes you’re willing to laugh at. In other words, classless punditry is part of manufacturing the illusion of a classless society.

But there’s also a sexual aspect to all of this. Because, while a couple notable talking dickheads are women, the intended audience for their ravings is very much male. This is where feminism comes in. Or, more accurately, this is where contemporary masculinity comes in. Even though by now there have been several generations that have grown up amid feminism’s influence, such a vast shift in human relations never happens easily or quickly. Our culture is still adjusting to feminism, even as feminism continues to refine itself. You see, for a very long time, white men had a pretty easy time of it when it came to proving their masculinity. There was most often a war for them to fight in if they felt they needed to demonstrate their courage and, since there were few women or minorities in the workforce, professional life became their exclusive peacock macho stomping grounds. When this scheme ended thanks to the efforts of civil rights and women’s advocates, the beneficiaries of that restricted playing field had to find new ways of being masculine. Some became new age reactionaries, bellowing about men’s rights and their duty to keep their wild souls free from the domesticating, womanly modern world. Some simply got confused, but many eventually figured out that it was all for the best and that masculinity could exist without dominance, violence or unearned privilege.

Still, for a lot of men, this understanding coexists uneasily with more atavistic impulses. There are no worthy battles in the cubicle farms where they toil; their professional and their personal lives are just the two edges of life’s neutering knife for them. They feel trapped and oppressed, shuffling through an existence shorn of vitality and power. They may be right, but their escape is all wrong. It’s far too easy. They turn on their radio or their television set and get their manly rebellion as passively as possible. There isn’t a lot in the way of conflict or drama in their lives, but they can cheer on Bill O’Reilly’s latest crusade against something or other. They long to be dominant, but they settle for watching Sean Hannity slap around Alan Colmes one more time. They dream of being take-no-crap men of action, but the closest they can come to this is joining the pack of some alpha male with a radio show. It’s kind of sad, I think.

But maybe I’m overintellectualizing my personal dislikes. Maybe it’s just a “different strokes” sort of thing. I mean, shit, I like French pop and god knows that isn’t for everyone. What do you people think? Any O’Reilly fans out there want to explain his appeal in a way that doesn’t involve calling me a leftist jackass? I mean, I don’t give a shit if you call me a leftist jackass, but that doesn’t explain why someone would want to spend a perfectly good hour listening to some angry jag-off bellow on and on, does it? I’m curious. I want to know.