Conor Friedersdorf remembers what a pain it was to live with a liberal roommate who watched Keith Olbermann every night, and would subsequently sulk around in a pissed-off mood. Friedersdorf too got a negative contact buzz from the show. He writes: “It seems to me that Olbermann’s show often brought out the worst impulses in people: petulance, self-righteousness, and blind anger at ‘the other side.’”
Sounds familiar to me, though from the other side. Except in my case, it’s not my liberal roommate. It’s my conservative parents – and maybe yours too.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve been keeping track of a trend among friends around my age (late thirties to mid-forties). Eight of us (so far) share something in common besides our conservatism: a deep frustration over how our parents have become impossible to take on the subject of politics. Without fail, it turns out that our folks have all been sitting at home watching Fox News Channel all day – especially Glenn Beck’s program.
Used to be I would call my mom and get updated on news from the neighborhood, her garden, the grandchildren, hometown gossip, and so forth. I’ve always been interested in politics, but never had the occasion to talk about them with her. She just doesn’t care.
Or didn’t. I don’t know when it happened, exactly, but she began peppering our conversation with red-hot remarks about President Obama. I would try to engage her, but unless I shared her particular judgment, and her outrage, she apparently thought that I was a dupe or a RINO. Finally I asked my father privately why Mom, who as far as I know never before had a political thought, was so worked up about Obama all the time.
“She’s been like that ever since she started watching Glenn Beck,” Dad said.
A few months later, she roped him into watching Beck, which had the same effect. Even though we’re all conservatives, I found myself having to steer our phone conversations away from politics and current events. It wasn’t that I disagreed with their opinions – though I often did – but rather that I found the vehemence with which they expressed those opinions to be so off-putting.
Then I flew out for a visit, and observed that their television was on all day long, even if no one was watching it. What channel was playing? Fox. Spending a few days in the company of the channel – especially Glenn Beck — it all became clear to me. If Fox was the window through which I saw the wider world, for hours every day, I’d be perpetually pissed off too.
Back home, I mentioned to a friend over beers how much Fox my mom and dad watched, and how angry they now were about politics.
“Yours too?!” he said. “I’ve noticed the same thing with mine. They weren’t always like this, but since they retired, they’ve gotten into Fox, and you can’t even talk to them anymore without hearing them read the riot act about Obama.”
I started to wonder how common this Fox Geezer Syndrome was. I began to poll conservative friends of my generation who had right-wing parents. At least eight different people – not an Obama voter among them, and one of them actually a George W. Bush political appointee in Washington – told me that yes, they had observed a correlation between the fevered emotionalism of their elderly parents’ politics, and increased exposure to Fox News.
After the Tucson shootings, Fox chief Roger Ailes said he had told his crew to “tone it down.” I’m skeptical, but I hope he succeeds. One of the great advantages of a conservative disposition is a suspicion of emotions, and emotionalism. The dumbest decisions I’ve ever made, about politics and everything else, were executed while I was worked up about something, and trusted my emotional response. Passion is inevitable – we are only human, after all – and can be constructive when properly channeled. But passion is the enemy of clear thought and, when given free reign, is the prerequisite for mob rule.
Unbridled anger at the deserving enemies is a danger to the civil order, and ultimately to ourselves. Remember Thomas More’s warning to the hotheaded William Roper in A Man For All Seasons, when Roper accused More of going easy on a scoundrel who hadn’t (yet) broken the law. Roper charged More with wanting to give the Devil the benefit of the law.
“This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s!” More responded. “And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?”
More adds that he would give the Devil the benefit of the law “for my own safety’s sake.” There’s a profound conservative truth in this, a warning that even passion for righteousness can be turned to evil, precisely because it is passion.
The popularity of vigorous rage merchants like Beck and Olbermann are not a sign of our political culture’s vitality, but rather its decadence. We live in a time and place that puts high value on emotion, and that views emotions as self-validating. To feel something is thought by many to be sufficient evidence of its truthfulness, or at least its authenticity. This is a mark of the barbarian. I understand why post-Sixties liberals make the mistake of believing that nonsense. But conservatives?
I love my own Fox Geezers, who are big-hearted, salt-of-the-earth folks when they’re not talking about politics. But they are living proof that growing older doesn’t always mean growing wiser.
Richmond Ramsey is the pseudonym of an executive who lives and works in Blue America.