Susanna J. Sturgis   Martha's Vineyard writer and editor
writer editor born-again horse girl

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June 05, 2009

Until this week, in the wake of George Tiller's murder, all my knowledge of Bill O'Reilly was secondhand. Since I keep referring to him as Rill O'Biley, you might surmise that my first acquaintance with him was through the brilliant Lirty Dies monologues of the late Bill Strauss, co-founder of the Capitol Steps. You would be right. I don't listen to right-wing talk radio. I rarely listen to talk radio of any kind; my main exception is the Commonwealth Journal show on WUMB-FM, and since last November I've been missing even that more often than not because my writers' group meets when it airs on Sunday nights. What I listen to on the radio is music, and what talk there is is about the music.

But plenty of people listen to talk radio, lots of talk radio, lots of inflammatory right-wing talk radio, and since Dr. Tiller was shot to death last Sunday in a Wichita church, the possible links between his death and inflammatory right-wing talk radio have been much discussed. I have read and listened to some of Rill O'Biley's hateful blather. It's sickening. As a writer, I can't believe that anyone who spews that stuff on the airwaves can look himself in the mirror. I can't believe anyone pays him to spew that stuff on the airwaves. I can't believe anyone listens to it voluntarily. Dear Department of Homeland Security: If you want to torture me, forget waterboarding; if you lock me in a cell with Bilious O'Biley blaring from four speakers I'll cave in about five seconds.

For us First Amendment freaks this poses a problem. We really do believe that free speech is in the national interest, even if we know from experience that speech is goddamn expensive and the stuff that gets out there is more likely to be bilious than intelligent, witty, and (gods forbid) liberal. Personally I'd love to charge with O'Biley with inciting to commit murder, but back in the day "inciting to commit" was a favorite charge against antiwar organizers who crossed state lines to organize a demonstration after which the Spartacists and the Civil Disturbance Unit faced off and someone got hurt. The charge was "crossing state lines to incite a riot." When you live in Washington, D.C., with Virginia just across the river and Maryland up the road (several roads), it's often hard to avoid crossing a state line on the way to a meeting.

"When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her," wrote Adrienne Rich in "Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying." True. The opposite is also true: When someone tells lies, s/he creates the possibility for more lies around him or her, more lies and less truth. When someone repeatedly spews lies and hatred in a public forum, truth takes cover and pretty soon no one can remember what it looks like. This has huge implications, repercussions, and consequences for civil society, but civil society -- because it aims to be democratic, not to mention civil -- can't deal with it by fiat or even legislation. What can we do?

When I read O'Biley and saw a tape of him in action my immediate reaction was "Why didn't anyone tell me this guy was a drunk?" Well, maybe he's not an active alcoholic, but he sure acts like a drunk. Pieces fell into place: Coulter, Hannity, all the loonies of the right with diarrhea of the mouth, they're drunks. Drunks take no responsibility for their actions, they sure don't take their own inventory, and if they fall in with enough other drunks they pretty much become their own reality. The other thing about drunks is that some of them can put on a pretty good show. Non-drunks and wannabe drunks take a vicarious thrill in watching drunks do and say all the stuff they don't dare do and say.

So I thought back to another famous drunk who grabbed the limelight and held it for years: Senator Joe McCarthy, Republican from Wisconsin. McCarthy died of alcoholism-related causes before he hit 50 -- how old is O'Reilly, huh? -- but before he died he met his match in Joseph Welch, legal counsel to the U.S. Army in the famous Army-McCarthy hearings. I was only three years old when they took place, but I watched some of them on TV when I was a bit older than that, and you can find some highlights on YouTube. Having listened to McCarthy rant on and on about Communists, pixies, and fairies in the U.S. Army, Welch finally got fed up. "Have you no shame, sir? Have you no shame?"

Why is the emperor parading down the street in his underwear?

We can do this, people. We really can do this.


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