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I am very excited to be hosting Dagblog’s very first book group for various reasons, not the least of which is that we get to discuss a book written by our very own Genghis (Michael Wolraich, for those of you who are new to Dag). We’ll get to the meat of the discussion in just a moment. But first, some ground rules:
1. The plan is to take the book chapter by chapter, discussing the salient points of each chapter as we work our way through. However, this is meant to be a free-flowing discussion so jumping ahead is fine if you feel it helps you make your point.
2. In the blog part of the blog, I’ll be pulling out what I take to be the main points of each chapter. I’ll try to use my own words, but because we are having an in-depth discussion of someone else’s work, I’m certain that I’ll be paraphrasing often. I will only put word-for-word direct quotes in quotation format. However, with the exception of discussion questions, please understand that all content in the blog will be straight from the book. I’m sure Genghis will correct me if misinterpret any of his intended points. I’ll reserve the comments section for my own opinions.
3. Please be civil. Differences of opinion are encouraged. Personal insults directed toward those who disagree are not.
4. Even though it feels a bit weird, I plan to refer to the author by his actual name, just as I would if I were discussing any other brilliant author’s work.
5. I’ll include a few discussion questions at the end of each chapter’s blog in order to get the discussion started. Feel free to answer them. Or, ignore them and ask your own.
And with that, we’re off on what Wolraich himself terms a “paranoia safari.” Hold on tight.
Chapter 1 – How Bill O’Reilly Saved Christmas
Right out of the gate in Blowing Smoke, Michael Wolraich pokes a bit of fun at Bill O’Reilly for O’Reilly’s claim that he employs facts and superior analysis as his weapons in the Culture Wars. Wolraich then goes on, mostly in footnotes, to discredit some of O’Reilly’s own facts, such as the “fact” that the age of consent in Canada is 14 (it’s 16).
But what Wolraich takes seriously is that Bill O’Reilly has happened on a formula that both increases right wing paranoia and assures steady viewership. In Wolraich’s eyes, O’Reilly is a storyteller at heart. The tales he weaves, with traditional hero and villain archetypes and plenty of conflict, keep people on the edge of their couches. In particular, he employs three important elements, which Wolraich illustrates by way of O’Reilly’s “War on Christmas” tale (the language of the quotes belongs to Wolraich—not to O’Reilly).
First, there’s the Slippery Slope:
Today, it’s holiday trees and municipal parades. Tomorrow, it will be legalized drugs, gay marriage, socialism, sex with fourteen-year-olds, and so on. The slippery slope magnifies small issues.
Second, there’s the Secret Plot:
The addition of villainous conspirators made the slippery slope seem both plausible and frightening by suggesting that a sinister hand would guide the nation step by step from “holiday trees” to the “brave new progressive world,” reframing innocent “Season’s Greetings” as an ominous scheme by influential enemies.
Finally, there’s the “Us vs. Them” Persecution Angle:
O’Reilly’s language of persecution turned the conspiracy-driven slippery slope into a pitched battle between traditional Christians fighting for the survival of their religion and secular progressives seeking to destroy it. In game theory, such a conflict is called a zero-sum game, which means that one side’s gain is the other side’s loss.
There is much, much more to Chapter One, of course, but my job here is not to rewrite the book. Go buy it if you want to be highly entertained by Wolraich’s informed, insightful, and humorous analysis. Essentially the point he’s making in the first chapter is that the formula that O’Reilly follows has been used successfully by conservatives for decades. Wolraich terms the strategy “Persecution Politics,” and he promises to spend the rest of the book taking readers on a journey through which we will discover the reasons why the right wing rank and file is so paranoid and the reasons why the left misinterprets the paranoia when we think it might just go away if only there were more jobs.
1. What do you think about the term “Persecution Politics” and the elements Wolraich includes in the definition? Is each element dangerous in its own right or is it only when they are employed together that they become a potent tool for fostering paranoia? Alternatively, do you reject this line of thinking altogether?
2. Wolriach postulates that The Culture Wars, and its villains, the secular progressives, is mostly a product of Bill O’Reilly’s imagination and/or need for ratings. Do you agree? Or, do you feel that there really is a fight for the heart and soul of America that has been raging for a couple of decades? If so, who is winning?
3. Michael Wolraich: comic genius or evil genius?
My favorite funny from the chapter, buried in a footnote:
Oliver Cromwell’s Puritans…banned Christmas trees (too pagan), caroling (too Catholic), and nativity scenes (too idolatrous). Now that’s a war on Christmas.