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    Dagbooks: Blowing Smoke – Chapter One - How Bill O'Reilly Saved Christmas

    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.

    Discussion Questions:

    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.







    No one is preventing anyone from saying "Merry Christmas." But if a department store says "Happy Holidays" out of deference to their non-Christian customers, should they be targeted with boycotts? I don't think so. Christmas is the ONLY religious holiday that causes all government functions to grind to a halt, meaning non-Christians have no choice but to go along with it. So don't get upset if non-Christians celebrate it on their own terms.

    ....on their own terms. Yes exactly! Just like these folks:



    Evil genius

    I suspected as much.

    Michael says: I will argue that the extreme ideas expressed by conservative media stars, Tea Party organizers, and some Republican leaders are not random cases of paranoid insanity.  They are part of a growing political movement to cast white, Christian, gun-owning conservatives as the victims of a vicious alliance between liberal elites, blacks, illegal immigrants, homosexuals, and other assorted villains.

    1. I think we could see that coming years ago when the televangelists saw a chance to make names for themselves and add to their coffers by jumping on the paranoia bandwagon when Right Wing radio (long before Rush Limbaugh) began talking up black helicopters and New World Orders, courtesy of Ollie North and the newly-vested Neocons.  Suddenly, the entire Christian world saw commies and socialists and Welfare moms in Cadillacs around every corner, and the poetry of the psalms and beatitudes gave way to a repeat of old fashioned political fire and brimstone. 

    The gun nuts came later, when the NRA saw their chance to make a name for itself and add to their coffers.  Paranoia was (and is) the gift that keeps on giving.  There's always something to be paranoid about, and every other red-blooded American has had a thing for guns  since Gene Autrey (a loyal Republican), Hoppy (he never said) and Fanner 50s in faux-leather holsters.  Add Charlton Heston, the darling of bloody religious movies, and you might as well have recruited God himself.  Nothing's gonna stop them now.

    2. I didn't get that Michael actually thinks the Culture Wars started with Bill O'Reilly.  O'Reilly is a greenhorn in the culture wars.  He might have found a way to promote it to a new audience, but nothing he spouts is especially new.  The liberals have always been "the other".  They were the pinkos and rabble-rousers and folk singers and professors in blue jeans.  They built the unions and gave women the right to vote.  They kept the kids out of factories and voted in FDR any time he wanted to be president.  They were and are the dangerous watchdogs, and you can't have that and still maintain free-market capitalism.

    3. Michael Wolraich:  evil comic.

    I love the idea of a "paranoia safari catching glimpses of the ferocious beasts that populate the wastelands of conservative conscience" ("Visitors are advised to remain within the safety of the vehicle at all times.")  Being liberals, I assume we'll be looking through the lens of a spyglass and not the sight of a gun? 


    Ramona, I think the beauty of Blowing Smoke is that Wolraich (still feels weird to call him that!) traces a clear path of persecution politics through the historical events that you cite. It's been there all this time but we've been looking at it through a short-term lens of unhappiness with whatever the economic issues of the day were/are. But although it's been there all along, I do think O'Reilly may have coined the actual phrase "Culture Wars." 

    I love the safari idea as well. It's a great visual!

    Yes, I do think "persecution politics" is perfect to describe what we've been seeing the last few decades.  As for "Culture Wars", I didn't realize you meant O'Reilly coined the actual phrase.  I didn't know that--and I really hate to give him credit for anything, but it is punchy and it is succinct, and apparently that's all it takes these days.

    It was Pat Buchanan, actually, in his 1992 convention speech. I'm not positive that he coined it, but he popularized it.

    Found this in Wikipedia:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Culture_war

    Guess it doesn't matter where it came from, but somehow it means a lot to me that it didn't originate with O'Reilly.

    I would like to show my appreciation of your writing skill and ability to make audience, read the whole thing to the end. natural mole removal

    The Christmas thing was pretty clever of him.  It's the ultimate, "Now they want to take this away from you too, your own personal Christmas."

    Of course, all that really happened out in the real world is that some businesses that used to close on Christmad day decided to stay open so they can make a buck of people looking for something to do on a day that many consider nice but not religiously sacred.  All that happened was that some people of their own free will, tried to use some more inclusive language.

    So why does the O'Reilly argument work?  What made it effective?  I suspect it's because for some people, a loud minority of the population, to be sure, really can't stand to not have EVERYONE conform to their personal fantasy about how things should be.  For them a "Happy Holidays" is an insult because they damned well want to hear "Happy Jesus' Birthday!"  If you don't give them that, you're taking something away from them.

    To some extent, this argument basically works because some Americans are theocratic jerks.

    I've always had this theory that the people who argue the most for their own point of view while refusing to consider someone else's are the people who are the most insecure about their own ideas. And further, I think this comes from a basic lack of reflection on one's own opinions, whether due to dogmatic brainwashing or a simple inability to reflect.

    So, to my mind, the loud minority you are talking about are the people who can't stand not to have everyone conform to their beliefs because they don't really understand why they conform to those beliefs themselves and it's scary to have them questioned. 

    The right wing echo chamber is the perfect salve to these types of people. It allows them to feel good and to feel right about what they believe without having to examine the beliefs under the surface.

    2nd favorite funny - Orlando nabbed my first:

    † The correlation between golf and moral decay suggests a link between the whacking of small white balls and the war on Christmas.

    3rd favorite funny:

    * "Boston Tea Party".  The gatherings sometimes resemble tours of the Liberty Bell and Constitutional Hall except that the Ben Franklin imitator carries a sign that says "NO Pubic Option [sic]."

    1. Wolraich postulates that the narrators of teh crazy fall back on one or more of the three tatics. Personally, I think he makes the case that all three in one fantasy is best for fuelling paranoid hysteria amongst the eager believers. However, stay tuned for nuances in later chapters.

    2. Agree on both the imagination and the ratings. But as Wolraich goes on to say, the war on Xmas (if I may abbreviate) was not the first or last instance of paranoid insanity from the wingers. The roots go back to the 1970s, long before Fox News first offered fact free opinion disguised as something like news. Looking at the focus group results that are referred to under the Don't Tread on Me heading, I now realize that there has been a vast disconnect between red and blue Americans for quite some time that goes way beyond the big gov't versus small gov't type of discourse. When I talk about social justice, level playing fields and health care for all, apparently a goodly portion of the population hears money for welfare queens, reverse racism and death panels for granny. And according to my read of the election results, as well as the crazy signs that sprout up at the Tea Parties, it's death panels for granny in a landslide win over health care for all.

    3. Pure genius.

    Why are we calling Genghis-Mike, Wolraich?

    Has anyone written a review for Amazon.com lately? My last one was in Nov. 2009 and it popped right up on the screen. Now they are claiming 24-48 hours for moderation to go through?

    So good to see everyone!


    Hi seashell, good to see you here.  Hadn't thought about Amazon reviews, but when I finish the book I'll go over and do it.  Thanks.

    Has anyone heard rumblings about the War on Christmas 2010?  Isn't it about time they got that started?  It's always a high point of the holiday season for me.

    Somewhere around 2007, Bill O'Reilly declared that he'd won the war on Christmas, and we haven't heard much about it since. Go Bill.

    Not exactly related to chapter one, but yesterday I happened across the following article on a train in Germany: Letzte Bastion der Gottesfürchtigen (The Last Bastion of the God-Fearing)

    I'm not sure how badly Google translate is likely to destroy it, but it addresses some of the same points Wolraich explores in depth.  One point brought up by this author is that the modern religious and cultural persecution fears reach back to the founding of the country with the Puritans, who held strictly to their own ideas and suspected anything outside their relatively strange belief structure of conspiring against them.

    I'm too sleepy to answer the other questions.  Maybe next time.... 

    Michael Wolraich: I'd answer this one, but all I can think of are compliments.  And nobody wants to read those!

    I feel like I have an unfair advantage in understanding Michael's thought process, since I'm reading an autographed copy...Ha!


    Well I'm a week late but I just got the book (thanks, Donal!) and will join in at next week's discussion (which, I think will be this week). 

    One thing I'll just add before I start reading it, is that I had a recollection of a moment from my past when I read your words:

    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.

    I couldn't help but remember the book-signing I went to with my sister out on Long Island back in 2001 or so.  O'Reilly was the featured author and he got up at a podium and a large crowd (including my sister and I) sat and listened to him before he started signing books.  At that point in time I still considered myself a conservative Republican and I had seen him on Fox News almost every night, so I was a little awed back then.  He told us of his days growing up on Long Island and he wove many of his stories into his discussion of his book, and I thought at the time he seemed so "real".  So approachable. 

    He is good at drawing people in by seeming humble like that. Only after going through my total swing to the left did I start to notice how he uses that gift for the wrong reasons.  So, long story short, this is going to be a very interesting read. 


    Downloaded the book this weekend (yes I paid for it) and couldn't put it down, therefore got very little done this weekend (damn Genghis!). Very good read. I enjoyed it although my head feels funny from all the crazy quotes I had to endure to get to the solution. I feel saturated with crazy at this point so I won't write much but I wanted to share my thoughts on the book.

    First, as one who lives in a heavily conservative / talk radio / tea party area I think you are spot on. The bully/victim role that the right has managed to develop to an art is very effective and quite difficult to counter. Primarily because you are on the losing end regardless of what you say. They may bully you for differing views and call you naive and tell you that they know the right way to go on, well, everything; but the second you try to explain that there could be a better way you have become an ivory-tower, elitist, hollywood brainwashed marxist who is trying to destroy their way of life with your secularist evil ways. (I get a lot of the secularist derogatory name calling down here.  Many people use that as the catch all word for evil nonconservative.) Also, it is seemingly impossible to convince someone that they are in fact not being persecuted and that all the people they lump together as engaging in some conspiracy are in all likelihood not talking to one another, not colluding with one another and in fact may disagree with one another on many points. The narrative is too enticing as you (and Freud) explain very succinctly in your book.

    I also completely agree with the analysis on why liberal talk radio would not work. The people I know who listed to tr have such a similar take on all subjects and they usually revolve around the idea that liberals are evil spawns of satan. Liberals on the other hand...well, all you have to do it spend about 15 minutes on this site to see that there are many, many, many disagreements. I have always said, stick a million conservatives in a room and bring up a topic and you will get 1 point of view. Put 10 liberals in a room and bring up a topic and you will get 15 POV. Leave them  alone and come back in 3 weeks and the liberals will still be arguing the nuances of the argument. I sometimes come here and wonder what the hell people are arguing about.

    Anyway, more later, perhaps, when I have cleared my head; but just wanted to say good job. I applaud anyone for the perseverance and discipline needed to write a book and - my god man, the research you had to do to get the information for this book, you must be crazy!

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