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While our homeland remains mired in the greatest division since Vietnam, our future prospects and the nation’s politics are at the mercy of the law of unintended consequences. Likewise when our supreme leader is as inconsistent and erratic as Donald J. Trump—when war and peace depend on the fortuity of his daughter showing him appalling photos of gassed Syrian children—the laws of chance rear their unpredictable heads.
We Yanks now live in Nate Silver’s world: the world of probabilities, not certainties. Because of our durable importance as a nation, so does the rest of our species. All of us inhabit a globe whose daily life, and most of whose anxieties, depend on the whim of one man.
But like the Roman god Janus, Chance is a two-headed deity. And so it is with Fox’ dismissal of Bill O’Reilly as its chief ratings-maker.
O’Reilly’s well-deserved fall—if you can call a $25 million golden parachute a “fall”—could be just a blip in Fox’ Orwellian march toward its current status as human history’s most perniciously effective propaganda machine. Or O’Reilly’s fall could spell the beginning of the end of Fox’ death grip on our national culture and politics.
Fox’ fall in ratings could
mean the salvation of our traditional Yankee “live and let live” way of life. It could presage a return to the inclusive, pragmatic, optimistic ethos of our Founding. In the long run, you don’t mess with the more-than-half of our species primarily responsible for love, practical living and procreation.
It would be impossible to imagine Trump as President without Fox. Sure, Fox was late to endorse him, primarily because no one expected him to win. But isn’t Trump’s style a precise reflection of the style of so-called “newspeople” at Fox?
Reactive, bigoted, opinionated, ignorant and loud: these are the traits of virtually all of Fox’ so-called “newspeople,” with O’Reilly the epitome. If Archie Bunker the TV character came to life and somehow secured a job in TV reporting, they are what you would expect him to be like.
There is, however, one point of difference. The character Archie Bunker, as drawn by creator and writer Norman Lear and played by actor Carroll O’Connor, was bigoted, testy and opinionated. But underneath his reflexive, unexamined bigotry, he often hid a heart of gold. Sometimes his prejudice and bigotry melted into sympathy, just a bit, when he actually met a real human being from a minority group in person. That’s one of the things that made him such an enduringly popular fictional character: he was not entirely bad or unidimensional.
Not so for Fox’ so-called “newspeople.” They are paid to make noise and trouble, because that’s what makes Fox’ ratings. Sensationalism, exaggeration and conflict are their tools. “News” as entertainment, seen through the eyes of prototypical Archie, is their stock in trade. Their ability to see current events through Archie’s eyes pays their salaries. And as author Sinclair Lewis once observed, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
So it was with Bill O’Reilly. He was paid to act, speak and think like a bully. He became rich and famous by becoming a human pit bull. Despite millions paid out in secret settlements with harassed and bullied women, it was too hard for him to unlearn
the behavior that had made him rich and famous in the first place. And maybe he was so good at it because being a bully was and is his natural character.
As Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan wrote, “The times they are a changin’.” Bullying women is no longer in vogue. There are numerous laws against it, at least in the workplace, and numerous lawsuits. As women become more numerous—and more prevalent—in our many workplaces, it is becoming unfashionable.
Even men are coming to realize that there’s nothing sexy or flirtatious about it. Bullying is bullying; it just works differently when men bully women. Men can confuse their bullying with sex or romance, but not for long, and not when they think of their wives, sweethearts, daughters or mothers.
Now, with women occupying nearly 20% of the seats in Congress, there are enough women
in power who understand these points from personal experience to turn the tide. A long-delayed tipping point is coming soon, if not already on us.
If you squint your eyes and put on blinders, you might be able to convince yourself that Fox will survive all this. If you credit the Orwellian notion that Fox’ virulent, macho-based right-wing propaganda is actually “fair and balanced,” you might see a still-glorious future for Fox.
But another probable truth is that the jig is up. Fox’ “secret sauce” was and remains bullying. Its so-called “pundits” bully their “guests” and each other. They bring token progressives on their shows to bully and harrass, like the early Christians thrown to lions in ancient Rome. They bully putatively powerless minorities. In their so-called “analysis,” they even bully major foreign powers like China and Russia, thereby fulfilling the teenage fantasies of much of their audience. They overemphasize military force and underemphasize subtlety and understanding, every time.
All this fulfills the secret fantasies of uneducated, lower-middle-class men who lead Thoreau’s “lives of quiet desperation.” They see themselves as pawns of fate, including globalization. They grasp at the straws of chance to achieve power and influence through bullying, if only vicariously. Isn’t that what built Fox’ media house of cards and put Trump in the White House?
If the truth be told, Fox’ vile culture of bullying has dominated American politics for a generation. But that dominance has been something of an accident. Rupert Murdoch didn’t set out
to create human history’s most vilely effective propaganda machine, let alone by the apotheosis of bullying. He just set out to make himself rich and powerful. Like our Northern Yankee industrialists in the last century, who stumbled upon bigotry and division as a way of fighting the labor movement, Murdoch just stumbled upon bigotry and bullying as means of making money in the “news” business.
After all, prejudice is nearly universal, and most of us have been bullied at some point in our lives. So bigotry and bullying can be entertaining: that was Archie Bunker’s secret. Murdoch just parlayed that unfortunate human truth into a media empire and an accidental right-wing propaganda machine. It didn’t hurt at all that the machine he built gave him and his social class a powerful way to lower their taxes, lessen their regulation, and increase the burdens on everyone else.
But now the jig may really be up. It’s not just the overwhelming support, by men as well as women, for bullied women against O’Reilly. It’s also the coincidental reductio ad absurdum
in the culture of bullying and selfishness
that Fox has so effectively (if coincidentally) instilled in us Yanks.
It’s now increasingly apparent to the dimmest-witted voter that core of GOP policy is to lower taxes on the rich at the expense of poorer health-care for the middle class and increased pollution of the air, water and ground in places where the rich don’t live. No one is fooled by the reported GOP ploy to keep
Obamacare’s popular requirement for including pre-existing conditions in health insurance but to allow insurance companies to charge more for it. With increased premiums pricing many consumers out of the market already, most can see that charging more for pre-existing conditions will condemn many who have them to no or useless insurance, and thereby to suffering and death.
By their acts ye shall know them. The GOP-controlled Congress now may actually pass, and President Trump actually may sign, bills to redistribute wealth upward to the rich
through lower taxes on them and their corporations. It may actually pass so-called “Obamacare reform” that will leave millions without effective health insurance and pass the governmental savings on to their rich bosses through tax cuts.
But women, at least, will not be fooled. They know what bullying and bossism
mean. Bill O’Reilly and Fox have taught them, up close and personal. They will teach the rest of us, not by bullying, but with the love, patience and understanding that are their evolutionary heritage. And we men will learn, if only through the ancient Greek aphorism that “the suffered is the learned.”
Slowly but surely, Fox will lose its cachet and its influence over our American culture. Slowly but surely, bullying and selfishness will lose their prominence among American cultural values. Fox will become just another alleged “news” medium, lost in the sea of facile instant “analysis” and gut reaction that passes for intelligence on TV today. Our youth will turn increasingly to other sources, mostly cooler “print” media, scattered around the Internet—albeit spiced with Russian propaganda and everyone’s “fake news
.” And slowly but surely, Rupert Murdoch and his bastard media will fade into oblivion on the list of history’s most effective and subtle villains.
Although a consummation devoutly to be wished, this outcome is now only a probability. But if it happens, we men should never forget that we will have owed it all to women, as much as to the inevitable overreaching and extremism that eventually bring all bullies down.