I am going to start off by saying, for the record, that I happen to like Bill O’Reilly. I almost never agree with what he has to say, but I almost always find him entertaining. If we can agree that the purpose of television is primarily to entertain (at least in our society), then Bill must be doing something right. As Al Franken correctly points out in his most recent book, Liars, it doesn’t especially matter if we agree or disagree with O’Reilly’s views – watching him rip apart some poor, meek liberal who has chosen to promote a dubious cause is just “good sport.” The whole time, ol’ Bill explains to us that he is not some nutcase on the fringe. He’s just telling it like it is.
The problem arises after this harmless sport, when the pathetic liberal victim and his dubious cause are cited as an example of a broader conflict in American culture. “That’s just ridiculous, Mr. So-and-So,” O’Reilly might hiss, “we all know about the left-wing nuts over at MoveOn.org and what they’re trying to do.” Any and every liberal group, from those who would have our taxes pay for vibrators to those who use DNA evidence to get people off of death row, are written off as part of a wild, godless army who are actively waging war on traditional Americans (like us).
In many cases I agree. I don’t want my tax dollars paying for your vibrators, Ms. So-and-So (at this point the pimply-faced woman with her wild, liberal hairstyle would blush). But by claiming that he is a normal guy, completely middle-of-the-road and impatient with things like semantics and facts, Bill O’Reilly is resorting to one of the oldest rhetorical tricks in the book. Even Cicero knew that by taking the apparent lowbrow position in the dialogue, we are actually just hiding our true political leanings to our own advantage.
The fact of the matter is that all of this nonsense is taking place in the mainstream media. Franken, O’Reilly, Anne Coulter, Michael Moore – all of them are extremely famous and their success is due mostly to their popularity on television. It is therefore misguided to use any of them or their arguments as examples of any particular school of political thought. They may agree or disagree with one another, but they have no business fighting any culture wars for us. The idea of a “culture war” implies that there are large groups of people actively pushing against one another and trying to destroy the other. From what I have been told, we haven’t had that situation since the 1960s, and I don’t think we will have it again anytime soon.
I do not like George W. Bush, but like Bill O’Reilly, Bush is in many ways a brilliant man. His general outlook is a reductive one, and he is proud of it. He delivers a canned product that he knows will sell, regardless of how predictable it may be. This is no different from what the media does. It is useless to label media outlets (or presidents, these days) as “liberal” or “conservative,” because at the end of the day they are all just trying to satisfy a simple consumer demand. A month ago I read a story in the Denver Post about the growing complexity of copyright law in the digital age. An expert was quoted as saying that part of the problem is that Americans don’t just consume media – they mix it up, change it, and create new and useful things. Do they really? Americans may be sufficiently opinionated to discern what they like and what they don’t like, but they certainly don’t often actively change the media they consume. How many kids buy Nelly’s album so they can rush home and remix it with the Lord of the Rings soundtrack?
The supreme irony to emerge from the whole Janet Jackson Super Bowl fiasco is the awkward position in which CBS found itself in the aftermath. MTV is very good at giving teenagers what they want, which as we all know involves lots of flopping, naked titties. CBS has cornered the market on entertaining senior citizens with traditional, feel-good television, which as we all know involves lots of titties tightly wrapped in shiny, stripes-and-stars leotards. Viacom owns both of these networks, so imagine their embarrassment in trying to explain to 80,000 angry old people why a titty had appeared naked and floppy when there was plenty of red, white and blue lycra to go around. In trying to satisfy the largest number of people, thereby selling the widest range of advertisements, the organizers of the CBS Super Bowl extravaganza had forgotten the cardinal rule of television – on days other than Super Bowl Sunday, someone always has the remote, and will watch whatever they want.
So Bill O’Reilly, Republicans, Democrats, conservatives and liberals everywhere can go on television and talk all they want about the culture war raging in our streets, but they will never tell you what is actually happening. “The O’Reilly Factor” is so successful because it sells well as a product on Fox News. There is nothing spectacular about this, or indeed any of what I have said here. The point is that we do not have nearly enough control over our media to be engaged in any kind of a war that the media would ever become aware of. The left wing-right wing dichotomy that is presented to us in the world of television has nothing to do with politics – it has to do with making people watch television. The sad result is that politics has resorted to the same kind of focus-group approach that is so successful in television, and the culture war – if we even wanted to have one – can only be played out in the unreal, titty-peddling world of the popular media.