Wednesday, January 12, 2011

America, where you can hate with impunity

Before I launch into a vitriolic attack on some parts of American society and politics I would like to make something clear, I like America.  We take many of our holidays in the USA and we have travelled extensively in the country, we've been to Vegas, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Napa & Sonoma, New York, New Orleans and the areas around these large cities, and everywhere we have been we have met nice people, polite, helpful and considerate people, we have had a great time everywhere.

Why is it then that when I turn on the radio in my hire car in the USA, or flick on the television, I come across programmes filled with hate and venom the likes of which would almost never be heard on the UK airwaves.  For some Americans, the right to free speech has become the right to verbally assault, denigrate and humiliate those who do not hold your particular political persuasion, the shock jocks are allowed to say things every day which here in the UK would bring complaint and censure upon them.  It isn't just the shock jocks either, ordinary members of the public, who in other circumstances are probably the very same people I find so charming and pleasant, phone up these stations and add their own hate filled prose to the brew.

The USA is a strange place when it comes to politics, with only two parties that have any chance of returning either a President or a majority in either house it can be argued that the USA is one of the least democratic of the modern democratic nations.  The fabulous amounts of money required to get officials into their elected positions seems to ensure that the two current political behemoths will rule the government for some time to come.

American politics though is a bit like being a British football fan, it isn't enough to love your own side, you have to hate the opposition just as much.  Take the recent debate over President Obama's efforts to broaden American health provision, there were politicians and political commentators who I must assume are actually quite intelligent people, who called Obama and his supporters socialists, even the word communists was bandied about. In demonstrations against the policies quite ordinary folk were seen waving placards that compared Obama to Hitler and when interviewed people claimed that Obama was trying to destroy America, that he was an agent working for foreign powers (or perhaps even a foreign religion) to bring the mighty USA to its knees.

Here in Europe, we look upon this sort of political debate in despair, how is it that the citizens of our most important political, military and business ally can behave in such a manner.  People around the world see how Americans speak about other and it worries them.  Last year's large scale oil spill was seized upon by the US government, right up to its very highest office, as an excuse to make political ground against British companies as a whole, no matter that the company in question employs more people and generates more tax revenue and wealth in the USA than it does in the UK. When we were planning our annual holiday last year, we watched the news, commiserated with the people who have lost their livelihoods, then watched a bit more in shock as people turned the event into a general attack on all things British.  We saw people saying that they would never buy anything British made ever again and then we thought, 'South Africa, we could spend our hard earned tourist money there, they'll appreciate it more.'

Back to debate radio and television though.  Here in the UK political debate is carried out largely, although I admit not completely, on the issues, and to indulge in a personal attack on a person's beliefs and convictions would not only be seen as rude but would make the attacker seem less worthy in the eyes of the electorate.  On some US radio hate speech is openly encouraged, and some presenters not only attack the political ideology of those that oppose them, but openly attack them personally, pouring scorn upon their opinions and questioning their intelligence and often their loyalty to the USA for daring to have such opinions.

You don't have to be the sharpest knife in the drawer to be a US shock jock, but you do have to be able to shout louder than your opponent, and it seems that the more extreme and vile your rhetoric is, the more listeners and followers you will gain.

There was a large, cross spectrum, political rally in Washington last year, The Rally To Restore Sanity/Fear when tens of thousands of Americans turned out to protest against the way political discussion is handled in the USA.  These people, and millions of others, recognise that you can disagree with your political opponent with hating and demonising them, that you can engage in structured political debate without having to personally attack those of opposing beliefs.

There is a problem in part of American society and politics, that problem is exemplified by people like Glenn Beck and his supporters who think that hate, fear, bullying and intimidation is a reasonable way to behave in life and politics.  Here at home, I may not like or agree with the policies of David Cameron, but his views don't make him evil, he's just a married bloke with kids doing a job, much like the rest of us, and I can disagree with his supporters on a political level without thinking any less of them as people.


  1. Most Americans are not really comfortable with the level of discourse here, but most of us are not comfortable with making it illegal either. Studies show that only 2% of talk radio listeners actually call the show. It is a mostly vocal minority that goes overboard about things. Most Americans I know are just trying to work and live their lives. I do have a co-worker who is very worked up about politics all the time, but even he can be civil about it. The one thing I've learned as both sides do the same thing to each other. The Republicans are militant right-wing thugs who want to make a theocracy (or have rich corporations run everything depending on what you fear) and the Democrats are leftists who want to take away everyone's freedom and money.

    I don't know how to fix our political discourse just like I don't know how to fix hateful things people write on the Internet. But, being someone who enjoys freedom, I would hate to see some law being passed to limit what you can say just because it offends someone or is deemed hateful.

  2. Anonymous4:35 am

    Don't believe all you read fella. Glenn Beck is not pushing "hate, fear, bullying and intimidation". Americans on the right of the spectrum are rightfully very wary of a President who wants to "fundamentally transform America".