Outright Barbarous: How The Violent Language of the Right Poisons American Democracy For weeks, now, Rush Limbaugh has been trying to incite political violence by giving on-air military-sounding orders, effectively 'commanding' his listeners to wage war against the U.S. electoral...
For weeks, now, Rush Limbaugh has been trying to incite political violence by giving on-air military-sounding orders, effectively 'commanding' his listeners to wage war against the U.S. electoral system.
The right-wing pundit's 'orders' to his Republican listeners have been clear: vote in the Democratic primaries as a coordinated tactic for sowing division in the opposition party. The goal of such 'chaos,' Limbaugh has stated explicitly, is to foment hatred between different parts of the Democratic Party leading, ultimately, to street riots during the Denver convention.
The ongoing incident raises a serious question:
How does Limbaugh's bid to incite political violence with radio broadcasts differ from previous instances where radio has been used to that end (e.g., Rwanda)
Most Americans would agree that using radio to incite political violence is not only wrong, but the attempt itself represents a massive failure in our democracy. How Limbaugh's broadcasts differ from, say, radio broadcasts that incited violence in Rwanda and Kenya, for example, can help us to understand exactly what Limbaugh was doing and the exact danger it poses.
Calls To Incite Violence vs. Calls For Acts of Violence
During the Rwandan genocide of 1994, radio broadcasts called for direct acts of violence to be committed by one faction of the Rwandan public against another. These broadcasts drew considerable attention because (1) radio was the major source of information for the listeners in question, (2) the audience was largely non-literate, and (3) there was an ongoing nationalist struggle into which the broadcasts fed (emphasis mine):
In March 1992, Radio Rwanda was first used in directly promoting the killing of Tutsi in a place called Bugesera, south of the national capital. On 3 March, the radio repeatedly broadcast a communiqué supposedly sent by a human rights group based in Nairobi warning that Hutu in Bugesera would be attacked by Tutsi. Local officials built on the radio announcement to convince Hutu that they needed to protect themselves by attacking first. Led by soldiers from a nearby military base, Hutu civilians, members of the Interahamwe, a militia attached to the MRND party, and local Hutu civilians attacked and killed hundreds of Tutsi (International Commission 1993: 13–14).
(from "Hate Media in Rwanda")
The broadcasts in Rwanda, thus, were directly engaged using false reports as propaganda, the goal of which was to encourage listeners to commit acts of violence. The effort worked, and subsequent investigations linked the violent language to the actual deaths, thereby including the broadcasts within the framework of the genocidal action both legally and morally.
In stark contrast, Limbaugh's broadcasts were removed from encouraging direct acts of violence, focusing instead on creating the conditions for violence--what Limbaugh described as 'chaos.' In this transcript (Apr 23, 2008), Limbaugh explains how his broadcasts are intended to incite political violence. Notice how he describes creating conditions for violence rather than actual violence (emphasis mine):
This is about chaos. This is why it's called Operation Chaos! It's not called Operation Save Hillary. It's not called Operation Nominate Obama. It's called Operation Chaos! The dream end... I mean, if people say what's your exit strategery, the dream end of this is that this keeps up to the convention and that we have a replay of Chicago 1968, with burning cars, protests, fires, literal riots, and all of that. That's the objective here. And there has been nothing that's happened on the battlefield for my vision of this to change just because Hillary won. We got what we wanted last night, and people want me to change course now? "We got what we wanted, okay, now time to support Obama." No. If Obama runs the table with the rest of these primaries, it's over, and the superdelegates are going to have a much easier choice choosing him, because he'll end up with a big lead.
(from "Why It's Called Operation Chaos")
So the goal of the 'operation' for Limbaugh is not to encourage his listeners to commit acts of violence, but encourage his listeners to commit acts of politics that 'end' in Democrats committing acts of violence on each other.
Even though the violence is one step removed for Limbaugh in comparison to the 1990s broadcasts in Rwanda, Limbaugh clearly includes the eruption of political violence as an ideal goal of his rhetoric.
Framing the Opposition As A Violent Threat, 'Self-Defense'
Interestingly, even though Limbaugh's attempt to incite violence differs from the Rwandan example, his framing of the political opposition shows a striking similarity.
Namely, while Limbaugh defines the American Left as a clear, violent threat to the well being of his listeners. The broadcasts, in other words, are framed as an effort to incite violence amongst the Left as a larger strategy for preventing that so-called Left from committing acts of violence on his listeners (emphasis mine):
We don't burn our cars. We don't burn down our houses. We don't kill our children. We don't do half the things the American left does. We need the American left -- and this is another great thing about Operation Chaos; nothing to do with my ego. We need as many ignorant Americans to wake up and find out exactly who the modern-day Democrat Party is as dominated by the far left in this country. We need that to be seen. Now, I am not inspiring or inciting riots. I'm dreaming. (singing to the tune of White Christmas) "I'm dreaming of riots in Denver." Remember 1968? And which party did that? It was the radicals in that party, the anti-war radicals, the same bunch of clowns that are running around defining the Democrat Party today.
(from "Screw the World! Riot in Denver!")
The violence in Limbaugh's broadcasts, in other words, is not just the attempt to incite riots, but also a way of defining the Left as destructive murderers of children--as a violent threat to the American people.
In Rwanda, the radio broadcasts did not just invoke Hutu to kill Tutsi's, but did so by claiming falsely that Tutsi's had killed large numbers of Hutu and that, therefore, Hutu must form self-defense groups to prevent Tutsi from killing again. Defining Tutsi as murderers, in other words, was a crucial part of violent Hutu broadcasts that led to the genocide of Tutsi.
Disturbingly, Limbaugh is not alone in using broadcast media to repeatedly define the American Left as a violent threat to American citizens, but is helped in this effort by a large cohort of right-wing TV pundits.
The final point of comparison is the role of nationalism in the broadcasts, and in particular the relationship between calls for violence and civil war.
In Rwanda, the radio broadcasts explicitly called for the start of a civil war, using an explicit language of genocide and defining the act of a killing as an 'extermination' of 'cockroaches':
After 6 April, RTLM called on all Hutu to 'rise up as a single man' to defend their country in what was said to be the 'final' war. One announcer predicted that the war 'would exterminate the Tutsi from the globe ... make them disappear once and for all' (Chrétien et al. 1995: 205). RTLM staff carried forward all the themes so vigorously developed in previous months, emphasizing the cruelty and ruthlessness of the Tutsi (RTLM transcripts: 15 May; 9, 14, 19, 20 June 1994). As one announcer said, using the term inyenzi or cockroach to refer to the RPF and its supporters, 'the cruelty of the inyenzi can be cured only by their total extermination' (Chrétien et al. 1995: 204; RTLM transcript: 3 June 1994).
(from "Hate Media in Rwanda - Incitement")
As mentioned above, Limbaugh does not use any rhetoric in his broadcasts that call for direct violence, but instead calls for his listeners to create the conditions for violence. Nonetheless, Limbaugh introduces and dwells on the question of civil war.
Consider, for example, this extended discussion between Limbaugh and a caller from his May 6, 2008 show. Notice Limbaugh's argument in response to the caller's attempt to define 'operation chaos' as a violation of the American tradition of civil debate:
CALLER: Well, my point is that I try and keep -- I try to listen to different points of view, and I can't say that I always agree with you, but I still like to listen, all right? And I think that the problem right now in this country is the uncivil discourse.
RUSH: That's not the problem
CALLER: You know, I -- I had a whole bunch of signs down by my road --
RUSH: Look, Chris, I'm getting up to it on time here. I --
CALLER: Okay, well, I'll let you go, Rush. It's not --
RUSH: No, I want you to listen to this one more thing here. I don't mean to be rude, here. I really don't.
RUSH: But the problem is not the discourse. Go back and read how people spoke to one another in the days of the founding, some of the early days around the Civil War.
CALLER: And it was that bad?
RUSH: Oh, it was worse! It was worse. The problem is not "discourse." Discourse is productive. It's people debating ideas. The problem in America is too much liberalism. The problem in America is too many liberals, too many people are ignorant. Our most expensive commodity in this country is ignorance, not discourse, not uncivil discourse. There are too many ignorant people who have been short-changed by our education system. In a more balanced and educated society, liberalism would be but 20% of the elected seats in this country. But they have for 50 years weaned a bunch of people away from self-reliance, created a bunch of dependents among every demographic group out there, and that's how they profess to get elected. But they are destroying the country. They are destroying the institutions and traditions that made the country great. Everything liberals try to fix gets worse. The most recent example, we are now producing food for fuel, and we have food riots around the world. We have starvation around the world.
Limbaugh's argument here is profoundly disturbing. While he invokes the Civil War to claims that his efforts to incite violence are all part of good healthy debate of ideas, he then suggests that Liberal ideas have led to the destruction of American institutions and mass starvation--an situation his listener might naturally interpret as a pretext for civil war.
Limbaugh's argument, in other words, is simple: it is not his broadcasts that incite violence, but Liberal ideas.
Conclusion: Limbaugh Broadcasts Violence
When a prominent radio figure begins systematically calling for his listeners to engage in acts that intended to bring about political violence, citizens have a responsibility to examine the implications of such a development.
In Limbaugh's case, the comparison to Rwandan hate radio shows the right-wing pundit's differences and similarities to past uses of broadcast media to incite violence. Limbaugh does not call for direct violent action, but he defines the American Left in ways that suggest violent action against them may be warranted.
Moreover, Limbaugh specifically claims that calling for citizens to create chaos leading to violence is a healthy part of the Democratic process, but that holding Liberal political views is a threat to democracy's survival--thereby leading his listeners to see the political opposition as a civil enemy.
Should Limbaugh be free to continue these broadcasts? Of course. But that freedom does not release journalists from analyzing Limbaugh's violent-rhetoric in a broader context and discussing the implications it holds for Americans.
© 2008 Jeffrey Feldman, Frameshop