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The Attack of the Useful Idiots

Guy Reel

You almost have to laugh at the idea of the “marketplace of ideas” when you hear the vast majority of today’s talk radio. What functions in that forum is not a marketplace, but a virtual monopoly — an echo chamber of the same points over and over, where lies and distortions are both commodity and currency.

Of course, the customers and hucksters of right-wing radio would argue that it is in fact a marketplace — it’s just that there is very little market for liberal views. That may be true, although one suspects that the market is attended not by shoppers who want to sample various wares but instead by those who are strictly brand-loyal. It is apparent that these people are uninterested in hearing anything that may challenge their worldview, and thus they amount to a very good market niche for anyone willing to lie to them.

If this seems simplistic, consider the level of “discourse” offered by those who have disrupted the recent town hall meetings on health care. Not only do they not want to hear much about health care, they apparently don’t want to hear anything at all except their own whining and shouting about “taking back our country,” obeying the Constitution and decrying government control, etc.

Some have argued that these protesters are “Astroturf” — fake grass-roots groups bused in for the purpose of shutting down debate. That may be so, but it doesn’t really matter, because there can be no doubting their sincerity. These people may be a minority of voters, and they may not fully understand the issues. But can there be any doubt that these are the same people who fervently believe in the right-wing shouting points heard daily on the radio all over America? They may not be mainstream, but they are real and they must be heard. Just ask them (or don’t — they will gladly shout at you anyway). They have been taught for 30 years or more now that their liberties are being stolen by nefarious traitors and liberals, and that they must fight back or lose their guns, livelihoods, neighborhoods — even their lives. So, when they come to these gatherings, they display a rather telling demeanor — they apparently think these town hall meetings are just another version of right-wing radio. They have no basis for separating normal civil conversation from the daily diatribes of the seemingly endless parade of charlatans, fools, liars and dupes who pass for commentators in every city, town, village and hamlet in the country.

On a recent drive along the East Coast, I listened to dozens of AM (and sometimes FM) talk radio stations in an effort to educate myself about the state of political commentary on public airwaves. Occasionally I could hear the views of an Ed Schultz or the weak signals of an Air America affiliate, but the vast, vast majority of time was filled with endless rantings that often are fact-free but full of ideological contentions (notions that we must be wary of “government takeover” of health care, “socialism,” Nazi-ism and union and ACORN chicanery).

We’re not talking about only the usual Limbaughs, O’Reillys, Hannities, Becks and Savages. Many of these rightist radio hosts are local; others are syndicated to a few markets. For the first time, I heard a pairing from Pittsburgh called Quinn & Rose, who spent at least an hour hammering the “cash for clunkers” program and speculating about President Obama’s citizenship. During breaks I searched in vain for other views. It’s not that Quinn & Rose don’t have the right to say and believe whatever they like; it’s simply that in this medium, there have become almost no other choices.

A bit later in my trip I heard Limbaugh furiously insulting Nancy Pelosi, who had commented on health care protesters bringing Swastikas to the town hall meetings. She wasn’t implying these people were Nazis; instead, she obviously didn’t feel this was an appropriate symbol to bring to an American political discussion on health care. But of course, Limbaugh was in full-bore, saying she opened the door to comparisons of Nazi-ism to liberalism and socialism. In this, Limbaugh showed his trust in Nazi propaganda. (The Nazis were “National Socialists,” you see, which means they were socialists, because of course the Nazis would never lie about who they were or what they represented.)

It was Lenin who supposedly coined the term “useful idiots,” to describe liberal Westerners who were so naïve as to support the Soviet Union. That was probably an apt description for many of them. But the term today could also apply to those town-hall shouters who have been misled for a generation by the endless noise machine of the right. They often argue against their own well being, against policies they in fact use and support (Medicare, for example), at the behest of millionaires who  dominate corporate-controlled public airwaves (through Clear Channel, for example) to serve the interests of for-profit bureaucrats who stand between them and their doctors.

When Lenin used the term, a “useful idiot” seemed like a mild dupe, an irritant to Soviets as well as to those in the West who fought Soviet tyranny. Now, we are faced with people who think Barack Obama is a tyrant, who believe he is out to dismantle America and destroy the economy to replace it with socialism. Never mind the fact that under Obama’s secret plan to destroy capitalism he continued the same Bush policies that gave billions to banks and the auto industry; never mind that destroying the economy might, I don’t know, slightly injure his very intense desire to get re-elected. 

You see, today’s useful idiots aren’t your father’s useful idiots — they are much more disturbing. They fear that Obama’s policies might lead to socialist bailouts of big banks and the car companies, or to a compromising of liberties, or to spying on citizens, or to an optional war, or to huge deficits, or to the spectre of the Justice Department firing U.S. attorneys for political reasons. Oh, wait. That’s what Bush did.

In other words, they fear things that might happen, not the things that already did, under the people they voted for. They fear the very things they supported. And now they are screaming at town hall meanings, wondering what happened to the America they thought they knew. And after the meetings, they go back to their radios or satellite receivers, trying to find the answers to the questions they should have asked for the last eight years. Of course, they can always change the channel — in order to hear the exact same views.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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Guy Reel is an associate professor of mass communication at Winthrop University. He may be reached at

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