Friday, February 22, 2013

Debating with the Radical Right

I wanted to call attention to this account by WB Reeves of an on-air debate he had with Sean Hannity back before Hannity hit the big FOX time: The Nature of the Beast: My Sean Hannity Adventure Talk To Action 02/16/2013. Reeves is a new regular contributor to the Talk To Action blog and in the 1990s part of a local Georgia group called the Neighbors Network that documented and organized against hate group activity in their area.

He doesn't give the exact date of his appearance on Hannity's radio show of the time. But it came some time just after a 1994 report issued by his group, so presumably took place in 1994 or 1995. It's a good account of someone with experience understanding rightwing hate groups and in directly taking on the arguments they and their defenders of various sorts make. I encourage you to read the whole account in which he describes his confrontation with Hannity and a Christian Reconstructionist, Gary DeMar, on Hannity's radio show during an hour-long debate.

This is his conclusion:

So what's the moral of this story? I don't know that there is one but I do have some observations. Hannity is, I think, a mix of careerist and true believer. I don't think anyone motivated purely by self interest would put himself at risk by uncritically regurgitating propaganda funneled from extremist outfits. The fact that Hannity was prepared to coerce DeMar's participation suggests that any trust between them was ephemeral. At the same time it shows the lengths to which he'd go to shift responsibility away from himself and unto others. I don't think Hannity is unique. Most of the RW talkers I've heard strike me as being a similar mix.

More importantly, I think Hannity is representative in another regard. I think most of these RW talkers are wholly unprepared to deal with anyone who's ready mix it up and play hard ball. It's not impossible to beat these guy's [sic], even in their own house.

Lastly, if you're going up against scheming, devious, bastards, it's helpful to be a bit of a scheming, devious, bastard yourself.
I wish the Democrats in Congress would require every one of their caucus members to listen to a talke by WB Reeves on the same subject.

This also relates to something Rick Perlstein says in a very helpful post on dealing with local far-right groups with an ideological agenda who emphasize their identities as ordinary people who were suddenly outraged over something they discovered was going on, Nothing New Under the Wingnut Sun: 'Textbook Wars' The Nation 02/11/2013. He is discussing a particular local textbook controversy in West Virginia in the 1970s that led to some pretty serious Ku Klux Klan type violence. The one part of his article that I found troubling was this:

Kevin Bacon [in the 1984 movie Footloose], playing the out-of-town cosmopolitan kid who liberates the town from reactionary ways, taken aback, assures them it’s "a classic" — another familiar trope in these scripts: the smarter-than-thou sanctimony of the liberals. A father says, "Maybe in another town it’s a classic.” A mother insists, “Tom Sawyer is a classic!" (A clever little fillip, for as the screenwriter was surely getting at, Tom Sawyer’s sequel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, with its unflinching portrayal of racial wickedness and use of the "N" word — better to shelter kids from such unpleasantness, the logic went — has been a familiar a banning target, too, including, the Post reported last week, in Fairfax County.)

The mocking of the stupid philistines by the Kevin Bacon character, whom the audience is meant to identify with, against parents who wants to ban a book without even reading it, is both understandable and problematic. It feels really good to lord one's intellectual superiority and sophistication over another. It’s problematic to pass judgeent [sic] on a book you haven’t read. But in these fights intellectual arrogance might also be a temptation to be avoided. I wrote this in Nixonland about the 1960s, but it also applies to the 1970s—and our own time as well: "liberals get in the biggest political trouble ... when they presume a reform is an inevitable concomitant of progress. It is then they are the most likely to establish their reforms by top-down bureaucratic means. A blindsiding backlash often ensues."
That's good advice. Coming off as an arrogant snot is usually not the best way to persuade people to side with you in a conflict.

But then just how do people directly confronting far-right activists in particular political conflicts deal with the fact that no matter what style the "liberal" side of a controversy uses, the far right can always be expected to portray them as arrogant snobs with contempt for the regular folks? Oh, and as liars and degenerates, to boot.

Reeves' article provides us with a practical example. Key takeaways for me would be getting familiar as much as possible with your opponents' actual positions; expect evasive positions from the far-right opponent designed to make the "liberal" side look like liars; and, adopt an approach appropriate to the setting.

In Reeves' example, he prepared for the confrontation by identifying passages in DeMar's own publications that he expected DeMar to try to obfuscate in this particular confrontation. He anticipated that DeMar would try to weasel his way around a key point at issue, which was whether DeMar advocated the death penalty for homosexuals. And he knew that a confrontation on Hannity's radio show would not play out according to the rules of a League of Women Voters candidates' debate or an academic conference or a PBS documentary. As Reeves summed it up, "if you're going up against scheming, devious, bastards, it's helpful to be a bit of a scheming, devious, bastard yourself."

It's worth noting, though, that by "devious" in the example he uses, Reeves means acting in ways that you opponents may not expect. For instance, he assumed "that Hannity and DeMar would be expecting the stereotypical Liberal of their fantasies," and he planned ways to defy that expectation. And he wasn't expecting good faith or good will from Hannity or DeMar, since he understood from their records that he had no reason to expect either.

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