Or, How The Right-Wing Hateocracy Chewed Me Up And Spat Me Out
In 2006 Boston College invited Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to give that year’s commencement address. Author Steve Almond, who was teaching part time at the Catholic college, publicly quit his job in protest. His move attracted the attention of a variety of right-wing radio and television pundits, who invited him on their shows. Almond compares the experience to Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, about a descent into hell.
This is the story of my descent into a modern sort of inferno, so I’m going to start the way Dante did back in the day. As our saga opens, I’m pushing forty, about halfway through my life’s journey. I’m not lost in a dark wood; I’m in Oregon, schlepping my suitcase through the Portland airport, where travelers are granted the foolish pleasure of free Internet access.
I open my account and find an e-mail petition protesting Boston College’s decision to have Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speak at commencement. The Rice invitation has been public knowledge for several weeks, but it’s news to me, because I’m just an adjunct professor at BC, and because I’m on a book tour this term, and because I’m in the midst of trying to buy my first home with my pregnant wife while on a book tour.
My initial reaction is: How could my school do such a thing? This is a rhetorical question. I know exactly why Rice got the nod: it makes BC appear enlightened — look at us, honoring a woman of color! — while also generating the kind of public relations that helps pump dough out of the wealthy alumni. Before I can think better of it, I do something I have pledged never, ever to do: I hit Reply All.
I’m astonished to hear BC has selected Rice as a commencement speaker. It is the sort of decision that leads me to reconsider whether I want to teach at the school.
Rice has been an integral part of a political machine whose values run contrary to virtually every humane tenet expressed in the New Testament and Catholic doctrine. . . .
It’s finally come home to BC. Are we going to respond?
If I were another sort of person — a reasonable person — I’d have stopped it there. I’d rattled my saber. I’d done my best lefty kvetch. Now it was time for a soothing latte. But I am not a reasonable person. The more I thought about the Rice invite, the less reasonable I became. I was having trouble “letting it go,” as the therapists say. I was having trouble because I had grown up in a family where a certain brand of cruelty had been tolerated, and I had never gotten over that injustice; so when the same cruelty played out in the political world, I leapt at the chance to return to the delicious misery of my childhood.
In the Inferno, Virgil is the one who shows Dante the way into hell. I myself did not have the ghost of a dead, world-famous poet close at hand in Portland. But I did have a living, sort-of-famous poet named Julianna Baggott, who had co-written a novel with me. Julianna and I were on this book tour together. When I told her about the Rice invite, and that I was considering resigning in protest, her expression was not one of surprise or dismay. On the contrary. Knowing I am deeply attached to my outrage, she happily nudged me through the gates of hell. “If you’re really that upset,” she said, “why don’t you send your letter of resignation to the Boston Globe?”
Our hotel in Portland was one of the fancy downtown places that dress their doormen up like beefeaters, in the errant belief that this is somehow not humiliating to everyone involved. I headed upstairs, fully intending to draft a letter, but then my lawyer called about some home-buying business, and then one of the seven or so real-estate agents now parasitically affixed to my life called, and then Julianna called and began speaking in the hysterical fashion that signals a writer has located free food.
As it should happen, on that day our hotel was throwing its annual Client Appreciation Buffet. The spread was obscene: a raw bar featuring the entire edible population of Puget Sound; a mountain of malodorous cheeses; strawberries the size of small fists; and, shinily displayed in Lord of the Flies fashion, an entire snout-to-tail suckling pig. Julianna and I ate to excess, then continued eating. All around us consultants and salesmen were devouring fish and fowl, belching ecstatically, and dabbing at their greasy lips.
In the Inferno, before Dante enters hell proper, he sees a swarm of figures referred to as the “opportunists.” These are people who’d led morally unconsidered lives, who’d taken no side between good and evil. And as silly as it might seem, this is what I saw as I stood in that bloated lobby: my fellow Americans (and me) lapping at the trough, gulping down what we could, not for a moment questioning our good fortune, or whether such fortune lay on the side of good or evil.
That night, after the reading, I returned to my room and called my wife. I meant to give her a real-estate update, but the first words out of my mouth were “BC is inviting Condi Rice to speak at graduation, and I’m fucking quitting.”
The next day, on a plane headed to Seattle, I wrote this letter to William Leahy, S.J., the president of Boston College:
Dear Father Leahy,
I am writing to resign my post as an adjunct professor of English at Boston College.
I am doing so — after five years at BC, and with tremendous regret — as a direct result of your decision to invite Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to be the commencement speaker at this year’s graduation.
As you well know, many members of the faculty and student body already have voiced their objection to the invitation, arguing — reasonably, in my view — that Rice’s actions as secretary of state are inconsistent with the broader humanistic values of the university, and the Catholic and Jesuit traditions from which those values derive.
But I am not writing this letter simply because of an objection to the war against Iraq. My concern is more fundamental.
Simply put: Ms. Rice is a liar.
She has lied to the American people knowingly, repeatedly, often extravagantly over the past five years, in an effort to justify a pathologically misguided foreign policy.
The public record of her deceits is extensive. During the ramp-up to the Iraq War, she made twenty-nine false or misleading public statements concerning Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and links to al-Qaeda, according to a congressional investigation by the House Committee on Government Reform. . . .
Like the president whom she serves so faithfully, she refuses to recognize her errors, or the tragic consequences of those errors to the young soldiers and civilians dying in Iraq. She is a diplomat whose central allegiance is not to the democratic cause of this nation, but to absolute power. . . .
I am not questioning her intellectual gifts or academic accomplishments. Nor her potentially inspiring role as a powerful woman of color. But these, after all, are not the factors by which a commencement speaker should be judged. It is the content of one’s character that matters here — the reverence for truth and knowledge that Boston College purports to champion.
Secretary Rice does not personify these values; she repudiates them. Whatever inspiring rhetoric she might present to the graduating class, her actions as a citizen and politician tell a different story.
Honestly, Father Leahy, what lessons do you expect her to impart to impressionable seniors? That hard work in the corporate sector might gain them a spot on the board of Chevron? That they, too, might someday have an oil tanker named after them? That it is acceptable to lie to the American people for political gain? . . .
I cannot, in good conscience, exhort my students to pursue truth and knowledge, then collect a paycheck from an institution that displays such flagrant disregard for both.
I would like to apologize to my students, and prospective students. I would also urge them to investigate the words and actions of Secretary Rice, and to exercise their own First Amendment rights at her speech.
To my mind, the letter showed considerable restraint. I did not mention, for instance, that Rice had been shopping at a Manhattan shoe boutique while thousands of poor people in New Orleans had been trying to avoid drowning after Hurricane Katrina. I simply said my piece and zapped the letter off to some editor at the Globe, who I assumed would be too distracted to read it.
I was more concerned with getting back to Boston, so I could put a down payment on the house my wife and I had decided to buy. But my flight, almost predictably, was canceled due to windstorms in Chicago, and I spent six hours trying to rebook. In the end (by which I mean there was some begging involved) I secured the last seat on a flight to Hartford, Connecticut. At some point in the midst of all this, the Globe called to say they were going to run my letter. I believe my exact words were “Fine.”
I arrived in Boston at four in the morning and didn’t bother to unpack my bags, because as soon as I handed over the down payment, I was flying to Toronto for another reading. The phone began ringing before 8 A.M. It was someone named Brett, or perhaps Brent, calling from a local TV station. He had read my letter in the Globe and wanted to know if I’d be willing to come on the air and talk about what he referred to as, in that unctuous, caffeinated tone favored by TV producers the world over, my “brave decision.”
I told him I was heading out of town.
“Where to?” he said. “We might have an affiliate.”
Now my cellphone began ringing. It showed a New York number I didn’t recognize. I explained to Brent/Brett that I had to go. I answered the cell, and a woman from CNN began speaking with great vehemence. I asked her to call back later and hung up. There was a moment of silence. Then, as if by some previous arrangement, both phones began ringing at the same time.
Though I didn’t quite realize it yet, I was in the midst of an official media feeding frenzy. It was a Friday morning in May, a slow news day, and all over the nation, television-network underlings were scouring the major newspapers to figure out who and what constituted “news” and how to turn these people and events into telegenic brawls that might goose their own careers.
The editors at the Boston Globe — I didn’t know this yet either — had run my letter at the top of the editorial page, under the thoughtful banner headline “Condoleezza Rice at Boston College? I Quit.”
My attack on Bush, Inc. was especially enticing to newshounds because it seemed to reflect what pundits enjoy calling the “national mood.” Yes, it was finally dawning on Americans that their emperor had no clue. His approval rating — 90 percent when he’d stood atop the World Trade Center rubble, 75 percent when he’d declared “mission accomplished,” 60 percent when Saddam Hussein had been captured — had just dipped below 30 percent. A responsible fourth estate might have taken this as an invitation to investigate the integrity of his administration’s words and policies. But that would have been awfully complicated. It was much easier, really, to focus on some wacky part-time professor who — get this — actually quit his job in an effort to question those words and policies.
Dante wrote the Inferno as a warning. He was exhorting his countrymen not to drift into moral turpitude, to find salvation in the performance of righteous acts. But the poem is also a political allegory. Dante was bitter about his exile from Florence at the hands of his political enemies, so he wrote said enemies into hell and subjected them to various colorful degradations.
I would love to report that my resignation was a purely righteous act. Unfortunately it also involved a revenge fantasy of mine, one I’ve inflicted on friends and family with increasing vigor over the past few years: to become a “demagogue of the Left.”
This would involve getting my own radio show, which would start local and, owing to my astonishing eloquence, quickly earn a national following. My success would allow me to expose the sadistic hypocrisies of the right-wing pundit Hateocracy, as well as the abject cowardice of their media enablers, and would culminate in a televised debate with ultraconservative Ann Coulter, during which she would admit that she, like Adolf Hitler, has only one testicle.
I am suggesting, in other words, that I was not merely a noble liberal knight hoping to slay the dragons of the Right, but a willing accomplice in the descent that followed.
The first phone interview I gave was to a local National Public Radio show. I was at the airport by now, about to fly to Toronto. It was a perfectly reasonable conversation. No one shouted. Nonetheless, it marked the formal beginning of my journey into the inferno.
I know this will upset those of you who view NPR as some kind of counterweight to the Hateocracy, but NPR (in its own reasonable way) has no moral compass whatsoever. Surely I can’t be the only one who notices that it dependably dances to whatever tune the Right calls out: immigration, gay marriage, flag burning, all the Goebbels-like spew invoked to distract citizens from more substantive — and failed — policies.
I can’t remember the last time I heard an investigative report on NPR: one about, say, the sitting president’s launching a war based on bogus intelligence, or the vice president’s inviting lobbyists to rewrite our environmental laws, or the Speaker of the House’s turning Capitol Hill into a graft factory. Instead NPR waits until these scandals have become conventional wisdom, then swoops in to mop up.
I used to spend a lot of time at WBUR, the Boston NPR affiliate. The staffers I met there were intelligent and hardworking. They were also tragically demoralized. That’s what happens when your job is to cover the most corrupt, incompetent administration in history, and every day you churn out timid drivel.
So let’s assign NPR to the first circle of hell, where virtuous pagans hang out and bitch about dental deductibles. And let’s put John DePetro in the second circle.
DePetro is the former morning guy on WRKO, Boston’s official AM-radio Hateocracy outlet. He bills himself as “the Independent Man,” an independence he recently affirmed by calling a public official a “fag” on the air.
I’m not sure how many of you have been a guest on a right-wing talk-radio program, but I can tell you exactly what it’s like: it’s like throwing a book at a monkey.
I spoke to DePetro for thirty minutes while waiting at the airport for my flight to Toronto. His central rhetorical strategy was to read various portions of my letter in a sneering voice. I would then say something like “That’s very good, John. Your reading skills are excellent!” And he would screech like a monkey. A number of his listeners called in to screech, too. The consensus was that I was an “elitist,” which is a right-wing term for someone smarter than you. One guy was so incensed he yelled for five minutes straight while I said things like “That’s right, let it out. . . . It’s good for you to let it out.” I was on the jetway by now, and other passengers could hear him ranting through my earpiece. I’m pretty sure they thought I was a social worker.
DePetro asked me, sneeringly, what I thought of antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan. I told him Sheehan was a grief-stricken mother whose son had died in a war she didn’t understand. I wanted to ask DePetro if he had any kids and how he might have felt if one of them had died in a war he didn’t understand. But I had just found my seat, and the woman next to me was a nun, so I hung up.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I was on a radio program.”
I felt a sudden urge to ask the nun if she could take confession from a Jew, if that was allowed in any way, because I had obviously sinned: I had conversed with men of unclean intentions, wantonly, on the public airwaves. But she was immersed in her magazine.
DePetro spent the rest of the week begging me to come back on the show. His appeals were invariably tender and deeply fraudulent. Listening to him plead filled me with pity. Is there anything sadder than a wannabe demagogue, trapped in the outer circles of the inferno, dreaming of a way in?
In Toronto, I turned off my cellphone and slept for six hours. Then I did that stupid thing I so often do: I checked my e-mail.
I had 359 new messages, among them these:
You are the enemy of my country just as much as bin Laden and Zarqawi. I see no difference. Good. Now fucking drop dead.
Fuck you pansy asshole.
It is people like you who get our soldiers killed in Iraq.
I can tell you really don’t like darkies, do you.
I’m a Roman Catholic too and I suport Condoleca [sic] Rice as a brave and magnificent princess who is trying to save the world.
Your family should probably disown you.
I love to hear you liberals squeeeeeeeeallll like pigs.
How is everybody doing? Anybody need a drink?
I probably should have mentioned that the trip down was going to be a little rough in spots. Always is. There are any number of circles where we could put these folks: the seventh circle, which houses the violent, makes the most sense. But there’s a certain touching purity to these e-mails. They are a distillate of the modern conservative movement, which, contrary to popular myth, is not a political philosophy at all but an emotional appeal to the primal negative emotional states of childhood: rage, grievance, fear. And if you listen to the leading orators of the Hateocracy, as I do, what you hear is not the articulation of coherent policy aims, but an almost poignant plea for someone to wash their mouths out with soap. In a mature democracy this would surely happen. But we are living in America, so Time magazine writes fawning cover stories about them.
If you step back for a moment, you will see what hard work these men and women do. It is a remarkable psychological feat to experience a visceral sense of your own victimization while the party you support holds power. It’s the sort of thing that shoves representative democracy toward fascism.
So how do they do it? By tapping into their one inexhaustible resource: self-loathing. They take all the ugliness slithering around inside themselves and project it onto those least likely to fight back. I hope this helps explain why Fox News star Bill O’Reilly (a sexual predator) goes after sexual predators, and why Rush Limbaugh (America’s alpha demagogue) is forever accusing Democrats of demagoguery, and why Ann Coulter (a fame succubus) accuses the 9/11 widows of being “publicity whores.”
You are a racist. You kill our boys in Iraq. You should be disowned. You would be a lot of fun to rape. Where do these intimate notions come from, if not from within the men or women who wrote them? And what else do they reveal if not a map of their authors’ own unbearable fears about themselves?
John Gibson has said many things in his career as a pundit. He has said that whites should have more babies, to prevent Hispanics from becoming a majority in this country. He has called Third World nations “little more than spots on the map.” (Dante would have stashed the guy in the circle reserved for those who sow discord.)
Perhaps the best illustration of the depth of Gibson’s moral vision is his book The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought. I agreed to appear on his Fox News Radio show for one simple reason: I had just murdered nineteen of Santa’s elves in cold blood and wanted to come clean.
Gibson began the interview by focusing on the person he considers central to the entire Iraq War debacle: Bill Clinton. I pointed out that Clinton had actually left office six years earlier. Gibson seemed briefly disoriented. He shifted the discussion to an article in Foreign Affairs Quarterly, which he claimed proved Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). When I insisted on returning to the subject of Condoleezza Rice, Gibson broke into a lovely, full-throated monkey screech.
Gibson: WELL, YOU HAVE CONVINCED YOURSELF THAT SHE’S A LIAR —
Me: I haven’t convinced myself. I’ve researched the facts, John. That’s what you do when you’re a rational adult. You research the facts. You —
Gibson: YOU DON’T SEEM TO WANT TO HEAR ANYTHING NEW. DO YOU WANT TO HEAR ABOUT THE WMDs THAT SADDAM HUSSEIN HAD?
Duty compels me to note two things:
- Gibson’s mike was at least twice as loud as mine.
- Gibson was wrong. I know this because I eventually read the article he was citing, something he apparently didn’t do. “Saddam,” the authors note, “found it impossible to abandon the illusion of having WMDs, especially since it played so well in the Arab world.” (Italics mine; implied screeching Gibson’s.)
Eventually Gibson returned to his default setting — attack Bill Clinton — before proceeding to full meltdown.
Gibson: Did you think [Clinton’s] lying to a judge was a good thing?
Me: Yeah, you know, that’s what all of us lefties advocate. And I’m so glad that you think bullying me, an adjunct professor, is going to distract the American people from the fact that this administration is a disgrace and has conducted a foreign policy that is immoral. I’m so glad you think the American public is that stupid, John.
Gibson: CAN I PRETTY MUCH COUNT ON IT THAT THIS IS WHAT YOU WERE TEACHING YOUR STUDENTS THERE AT BOSTON COLLEGE: THAT WHEN A KID CAME INTO YOUR CLASS, IF HE DIDN’T REPEAT THIS CRAP EXACTLY, YOU WERE GOING TO FAIL THEM? DID YOU FAIL ANY OF THEM IN PARTICULAR?
Yes, John. I failed the Caucasians.
It will have occurred to you by now to wonder whether I was contacted by any members of that liberal media about which we hear so much. Yes. Exactly one. This resulted in an appearance on a radio show based in Texas. The interview went by unremarkably until a man called in and began to tell me about the “international Jesuit conspiracy” that began in 1371 and involved the covert collaboration of the Vatican and something called, I believe, the “Brotherhood of the Orthodox.”
As a Jew, of course, I always find it comforting to hear about nefarious conspiracies that implicate people who are not Jews. Still, I was disappointed that this was the high point of the show. I really had harbored hope that some brave media outlet might use my resignation as a pretext to examine the veracity of my essential claim: that Rice is a liar.
I did receive lots of kind notes from individuals after my resignation letter had been published. People wanted to tell me what a brave guy I was, what a patriot, and so on. These notes were all well-intentioned and thoroughly disheartening. I hadn’t done anything heroic. I had quit my part-time job. It was a testament to the political lethargy in this country that such a pissant gesture would excite adulation. These amens carried no political consequence. They were yet another example of liberals congratulating one another for their noble values, rather than confronting the bullies.
The Associated Press did cover the controversy over Rice’s Boston College address. The article ran in more than fifty newspapers and contained a single quote from me, which had been carefully stripped of its context, so as to neutralize any disturbing side effects: “I think Americans have lost sight of the idea of sacrifice.”
It was my conversation with Margery Egan that convinced me I was, at last, drawing close to the heart of the Hateocracy.
Egan has built a nifty little career out of bland populist indignation. She has a column in the Boston Herald, the city’s official tabloid of the Angry White Male, and a radio show on the lesser of our two hate-talk stations. In fact, Egan had badmouthed me on the air the day my letter had run in the Globe. When she called, I figured she wanted to invite me to appear on her show, but instead she had a vital question for her next column. Are you ready for her vital question?
“How much did you earn as an adjunct at Boston College?”
Egan had devoted her considerable investigative skills to this matter already. “I was told you were paid four thousand dollars per class,” she said gravely, meaning that’s what I earned per course I taught each semester. “Can you confirm that?”
I hope all of you will sleep just a little safer tonight in the knowledge that there are intrepid journalists like Egan who stand prepared to defend your freedom by asking the tough questions, not of this nation’s rulers, but of adjunct professors who quit their jobs without publicly disclosing their salaries. Being the insouciant democracy-wrecker that I am, I refused to confirm or deny.
Not to worry. Egan had a second question ready: “How did your letter of resignation wind up in the Globe?”
“It was an open letter,” I said.
“Right,” she said, trying her best to sound confused. “But it’s addressed to Father Leahy.”
I was so stunned by Egan’s playing dumb that I could say nothing for a few moments. “Do you even know the sort of cowardly hatemonger you are?” I said finally.
Egan was wounded. Why was I so angry at her? She was just doing her job. And part of her job — a big part of it, actually — was to pretend she was a reporter pursuing an actual story related to the public good, rather than a purveyor of poorly manufactured “gotcha” journalism.
Dante would have condemned Egan to wander the eighth circle of hell, with its boiling lake and false prophets, but I found the transparency of her ploy oddly touching. It must have been quite painful for her to face the possibility that someone might perform a genuine act of conscience.
As it turned out — late-inning shocker! — Egan got my salary wrong. I was being paid five thousand dollars per class at the time I quit BC, plus free danish on Fridays. This should tell you a little something about the brutal economic shifts in higher education, which is now stocked to the gills with an academic underclass known as us “dumb-ass adjuncts.” We do not, as a rule, teach for the money. We teach because we enjoy teaching, because we enjoy our students.
When I think of them now, it is with the utmost tenderness: Beth, with her fearless prose and her embarrassed giggling. Donald, with his redolent chicken fingers and perennial bed-head. All of them juiced up on Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and cigs, muffin crumbs caught in the cuffs of their sweaters. How unbearably young they were! How hard they took everything! As I gazed at them, I couldn’t help thinking how cruel it was for any nation to send such soft humans into war, where their deepest needs — to be understood, to be forgiven — would be torn right out of them.
I did more than enjoy my students. I depended on them. They filled me with an irrational hope for the future, just by being so kind to one another, so brave in pursuit of the truth locked inside themselves. Every term, one of them would write a story of such reckless beauty that it would take me a few minutes to recognize I had stopped breathing. That’s what I had sacrificed by quitting my job: that feeling, the honor of that feeling.
By the middle of the week before Rice’s commencement speech, I had grown tired of the hate mail, the slimy reporters, and my own self-righteous blather. Why, then, did I consent to appear on the Fox News TV show Hannity & Colmes? I suppose because, having come this far, I felt compelled to brave that ninth and final circle, which Dante reserved for political traitors. I knew I would never have another chance like this, and that if I didn’t take this chance — to confront these traitors, and to do so on national TV — I would be no different from the rest of the liberal collaborators in this country.
Also, Fox News offered to send a limo.
Hell, why not pay for a limo? There are hardly any other costs. This is the economic secret that helps keep the Hateocracy humming: it’s such cheap entertainment! All you need is a few sociopaths, a studio, and a camera, and you’re in business. None of that tedious news-gathering.
And Fox was offering me a piece of the action: they would promote my short-story collections to their “2 million viewers nationwide,” a producer informed me. Do you understand how completely psyched I was about this? I mean, the folks who watch Hannity & Colmes are fucking monsters when it comes to reading modern short fiction.
For those who have not seen H&C, it features a conservative host (Sean Hannity) and a small liberal punching bag (Alan Colmes). Hannity is the star of the program and, not incidentally, looks like one: Reaganesque slab of hair, broad shoulders, oversized mandible. I hope it will not shock you to learn that Hannity has no journalism experience. In fact, he has very little job experience of any kind, outside of speaking into a microphone. He is untroubled by the moral complexities of the real world precisely because he has spent no time there.
The deal was this: a ten-minute live interview on Monday night, pegged to Rice’s commencement address. I spent the weekend pacing my apartment, rehearsing what I would say when Hannity accused me of being a satanic pornographer.
Monday finally rolled around. The reports from commencement were depressing. A small white plane had circled Alumni Stadium towing a banner that read, YOUR WAR BRINGS DISHONOR, but no one had been seated there to see it. The proceedings were running late because of all the security measures, which included metal detectors, a bomb squad, and, comfortingly, a team of sharpshooters positioned at high points around the stadium. The serious protestors — any who might have publicly challenged Rice — were all kept at a safe distance.
And what did our secretary of state have to say after all this? Mostly she dispensed the sort of tranquilizing bromides required of commencement speakers, though in her case, they came off as inadvertently chilling: “All too often, difference has been used to divide and to dehumanize.” And “It’s possible today to live in an echo chamber that serves only to reinforce your own high opinion of yourself and what you think.” For this she received a standing ovation.
So now Hannity had himself another delicious potential opener: I assume you saw the standing ovation Secretary Rice received this morning? Care to react?
I spent my time in the green room doing breathing exercises and trying to think pleasant thoughts. I had come to an important realization over the past week: I needed, above all else, not to take the bait. Why? Because Hannity was a barroom brawler. He won fights not based on rhetorical skill or facts, but because he operated more effectively than his opponent in the zone of adrenaline. (This is why conservatives tend to stomp liberals on the TV playground: aggression is like Ritalin to them.)
As the time for my segment approached, I was ushered into a small back room and seated at a desk in front of a black screen, upon which an image of the Boston skyline was projected; this way, it looked as if I were high atop some skyscraper, rather than stuffed into a tiny, airless box in some obscure Boston suburb. The technician who led me in asked if I wanted to watch the live feed from the New York studio during my segment.
“Sure,” I said.
“The only thing is, you’ll have a delay.”
“Everything you see will be, like, six seconds behind. Some people find it kind of disorienting.”
“Better not,” I said.
“OK, just stare here.” He pointed to a small black square mounted six feet away, beneath the camera. Then he demurely reached up my shirt, hooked a mike onto my collar, and gave me an earpiece. I stuck the bud in my ear and waited. After a few minutes, an excited voice said, “Professor Almond?”
“Great to have you! Thanks so much for joining us!” There was a lot of commotion in the background: voices, laughter. It was a regular hoedown. I stared at my black square miserably. “We’ve got footage from the speech, then we go to you. OK?”
There were two notable things about this footage: First, H&C provided by far the most thorough coverage I saw of the event. Second, they managed to get the story entirely wrong. They made it look as if Rice had been under siege by rabid liberal hordes when, in fact, the protests had been smaller than anticipated. Such sensational treatment served the greater goal of convincing Fox News viewers that a communist invasion of the United States might be imminent.
Suddenly I heard one of those metallic whooshing sounds, which meant the segment was being thrown back to the studio. Then I heard Sean Hannity’s voice blaring into my ear.
Hannity: Joining us now, Steve Almond. He resigned his position as an adjunct professor of English at Boston College when Secretary Rice was invited to campus. Welcome aboard, sir. Thanks for being with us. Steve, I guess it’s fairly obvious you probably voted for John Kerry in the last election. So: politics play any role in your position here?
Me: I think actually morality plays a role. I just feel public officials shouldn’t lie to us, especially about matters that are as important as war.
Hannity: I got that. But did you — but you are politically a Democrat. You’re politically lefty. You voted for John Kerry, right?
Me: I believe that politicians shouldn’t lie to the American people.
Hannity: I didn’t ask you that. Did you vote for John Kerry, sir?
Me: And I’m telling you that I don’t believe that our public officials should lie, Democrat, Republican, or —
I should confess that this opening salvo caught me off guard, as did the speed with which the discussion degenerated into an inquisition. Had I not been so acclimatized to the noxious atmosphere of the Hateocracy, I’m certain I would have lost it. As it was, I shook my head and chuckled sadly.
Me: What is it that you want to say to me? Are you going to try to establish that I’m a lefty or a Democrat? I believe that public officials shouldn’t lie, and Condoleezza Rice has lied repeatedly.
Hannity: [Yelling.] I already know you voted for John Kerry, but you won’t admit it! Well, I’ll quote John Kerry, the guy that I suspect you voted for. He says, “If you don’t believe Saddam is a threat with nuclear weapons or WMDs, you shouldn’t vote for me.” Is the guy that you voted for a liar?
Me: The secretary of state, who has also been a part of prosecuting this war incredibly ineptly —
Hannity: All right, you can’t even answer a question. Is John Kerry a liar?
On this insinuating note, with Almond against the ropes and Hannity looking ready to devour a forty-ounce steak using just his eyeteeth, Colmes stepped in.
Colmes: Steve, I don’t care whether you voted for Kerry or not —
Me: Thank you. It’s a matter of morality. Not everything is politics. Some of it is basic morality.
Colmes: Let me pursue a different line of questioning here: Why quit your job? Why not turn your back, or speak, or hold a protest rally, or hold an alternate ceremony to put forth your point of view?
Me: Well, there are plenty of ways. . . . For me, you know, it was an act of conscience. I didn’t want to collect a paycheck. It would be as if you worked at a TV station, for instance, and you were a strong advocate for women’s rights, and one of your colleagues, a powerful colleague, sexually harassed his employees. And you didn’t want to stand for that. You didn’t feel the TV station had done enough to punish him, and you might, as a matter of conscience, resign because of that.
Now the silence was profound. Yes, I had dropped the Bill O’Reilly bomb: I had made veiled reference to the Fox News star’s sexual-harassment case, and I had done so during prime time, on his very own network. It was precisely at this point, I like to imagine, that an executive decision was made, which involved a senior producer yelling into his headset something like, Jesus Christ! Code Red! We’ve got a live one on the air! Repeat: Code Red! We’re going to abort. Cue up the next ad block. Now! Go, go, go!
But, of course, it takes a while to cue up the next ad block, so they were stuck with me. Colmes looked at the camera, in that unbearably sexy, quisling way of his.
Colmes: I might, or I might use my platform to speak out, or I might do things behind the scenes to speak out that have nothing to do with what I would do publicly. But you chose to quit.
Me: Well, I don’t think I’m really the issue here. I think Condoleezza Rice and her campaign of deception and this administration’s prosecution of an immoral war is the issue. There are no WMDs, unless you’ve got them there at Fox News under your desk. And we’ve been hearing [about them] for over three years and coming up on twenty thousand casualties, and the American people are getting sick of it —
Hannity: You know what? If that’s the case — and I suspect I’m right, and you voted for Kerry — you voted for a guy that made that exact same case as she did. What would that make you?
Me: I’m sorry, the administration in power is the one that has gotten us into this mess, OK? You’re not going to blame it on Kerry —
Hannity: John Kerry voted for it.
Me: You’re not going to blame it on Clinton —
Suddenly, bizarrely, I lost the audio feed. I assumed this was a simple technical glitch. Then it dawned on me: they had actually pulled the plug. I ripped my earbud out and shouted, “You goddamn losers!”
For a day or so I felt exuberant, as if I had faced down the Hateocracy. The truth dawned on me only after I took a second look at the segment. My promised ten minutes of air time had run 5:16, nearly half of which had been devoted to the footage from Boston College. By the time Hannity had finished his initial cross-examination, less than two minutes had remained. I had spoken for a grand total of twenty-five seconds. Something else I noticed: several seconds after my subtle reference to O’Reilly, the background music that signals a cut to commercial had come on. The producers really had gone Code Red.
This, then, was my great victory: twenty-five seconds of free speech on Fox News.
Dante made his harrowing descent in the hopes he would find a path to paradise. And I do believe that I had some idea of paradise in mind when I resigned from BC and decided to throw my puny weight against the gnashing of the Hateocracy.
Or maybe paradise is too grandiose a word. What I had was more like a hunger for justice, one linked to a specific auditory memory of a 1950s newsreel I’d heard long ago, in which Joseph Welch, an elderly lawyer from Boston, implored communist-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy to stop slandering one of the young lawyers on Welch’s staff. “Let us not assassinate this lad further,” Welch said, in a tone of exhausted despair. “You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
Welch’s statement has always played as the beginning of the end for McCarthy, the moment in which his purported crusade to protect the homeland collapsed, and Americans could see that he was merely trying to make himself a star by turning us against each other. That’s what I was looking for: my Joseph Welch moment.
This, no doubt, has to do with my maternal grandparents, whose lives McCarthy ruined. They held fast to the outrageous notion that the bounty of the earth should be fairly divided among its citizens. They lived in fear because of this belief, and my grandmother lost her job. So I take it personally when I see our democracy being hijacked by McCarthy’s descendants, those who cling to power not by seeking to solve common crises of state, but by demonizing the weak and the just.
I’m sorry to report that my own family of origin suffered from the same essential tyranny. Growing up, my brothers and I lived — as McCarthy did, as the extreme right wing would have us all live — in a shame culture. It was either humiliate or be humiliated: no retreat, no compromise, no apologies. We savaged one another in direct correlation to our own self-loathing. And so I dreamed the dream of every embattled child: that a good and caring father — a Joseph Welch type — would step in and rescue us from our destructive urges, would demand to see our decency, at long last.
Let me say that my father was a good man. He tried to rescue us, but we had him outnumbered and outflanked. We were children, the first true demagogues, and we behaved as children often do, choosing to be cruel to one another when we might have been kind.
It is a choice, after all.
This is the main reason Welch’s words, which resonated so powerfully in the nation’s psyche, have always haunted me: not because he stood up to the bully of his era, but because his question “Have you no decency?” presumed that McCarthy was, for all his monstrous actions, a human being capable of seeing how badly he’d behaved and feeling contrition.
You have done enough.
The precise tragedy of our present circumstance is not that conservatives in this country are incapable of compassion, but just the opposite: that they are capable, yet they choose — as my brothers and I did — to ignore their best impulses day after day. There is no loving father, no Joseph Welch to stop them. And thus they turn to the glowering guardians of the Hateocracy, in the hope that the ecstasy of rage will cleanse their conscience.
In some sense the Left has come to depend on the Hateocracy as much as the Right. They have become convenient scapegoats for our own moral laxity. As Americans we worship the same false gods of convenience and enjoy the same lives of plenty. Maybe this is why the great and decent people of this country continue to allow cruel children to lead them: because if we insisted on adult leaders, we would all have to grow up.
The day after my appearance on H&C a young woman called to invite me on Sean Hannity’s radio show. She promised Hannity would let me speak this time. He wanted to engage in an honest debate. I told her I’d think about it — mostly, I suspect, for the sick pleasure of listening to her beg for the next few days — but I was done. I had spent two weeks absorbing the pathologies of these people, and I felt utterly defeated by the experience. My career as a demagogue of the Left was officially over.
This is what the Hateocracy does: it wears people down into silence or cynicism. William Butler Yeats had it right: “The best lack all conviction and the worst are filled with passionate intensity.” Who else but thugs and buffoons would choose to work within the noxious, self-deluded environment of Washington, D.C.?
I do believe that Americans will someday look back upon this era and discern the seeds of their own ruin. History will regard the conservatism peddled by the Hateocracy as a contagion. But it gives me no joy to say any of this.
After all, I am an American, and so is the daughter my wife and I welcomed into the world last year.
I have only one more story to tell. It does not take place in hell, though it does take place in Salem, Massachusetts, where, at this country’s dawning, the Hateocracy enjoyed a brief and famous outburst. I had come to Salem to read in a small bookstore. This was a few months after my resignation. By then I had slipped back into my normal life of private triumphs and miseries. My descent was coming to seem more and more like some strange fever dream.
After the reading, a young man named Tyler came to get his book signed. He told me he thought maybe he wanted to be a writer. He didn’t know exactly. But he felt certain things when he read books, and he wanted to be able to make other people feel them, too.
I looked at this kid and knew right away that he was one of those students who, had I still been teaching, would have crushed my heart with hope. But other people were waiting behind him, so I just signed his book and handed it back.
“Thanks, man,” he said. He paused for a second and looked down at his shoes. Hair fell into his eyes. “I was supposed to be in your class next year,” he mumbled.
I ’m sorry, Tyler.
I’m sorry about the whole damn shooting match.
“Demagogue Days” is reprinted from Not That You Asked, by Steve Almond. © 2007 by Steve Almond. It appears here by arrangement with Random House, an imprint of Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.