Spinning Out of Control

“Don't do it!”

“Are you sure you want to do this?”

“Have you ever watched him?”

“Go read Al Franken's book where he describes what a liar and a prick he is.”

“You should be ready to pull off your mic and walk off. No one's ever had the guts to do that, and it will teach him a lesson.”

“Get a hair cut and wear a nice suit so you have some credibility.”

These are just a few of the responses I got from friends and colleagues recently when I told them I was about to go on The O'Reilly Factor, the right-wing news talk show on cable's Fox News Channel. I appeared on June 18 via satellite from Irvine to discuss the controversy surrounding the wearing of green stoles with religious writing by some Muslim students at UC Irvine's graduation ceremonies.

Apparently, some Jewish students saw the color green and the Arabic calligraphy and automatically thought “terrorist supporter,” and making matters worse, local Jewish leaders who should have known better jumped in to encourage the terrorist interpretation of Islam's most basic statement of faith rather than help the students to work through the implications and realities of their fears. And then host Bill O'Reilly devoted segments of several shows to accusing the Muslim students of wearing “Hamas armbands”—an utter lie (as attested to by none other than the CIA, which was called in to see if the stoles had any terrorist connotations).

By the time I watched O'Reilly “interview” a supposed “security expert” (who sounded like he came from the Abu Ghraib School of Intelligence-Gathering) indict an entire religion of 1.3 billion people as terrorists, my sense of anger and masochism (which, according to my wife, are intimately related) convinced me that I needed to get on this show and set the record straight. I knew that wouldn't be easy, however, since O'Reilly's people hadn't actually invited me or any other professor who knew what was going on at UCI to discuss these issues. So I scammed my way onto the show by calling his production office and explaining I was returning a call from someone whose name I forgot who had specifically invited me to appear to discuss the situation.

As planned, the producer I spoke with was too busy to check my story, answering, “Of course. Thanks so much for getting back to us so fast. Can you appear today?” A few hours later, a brand-new Mercedes arrived at my door to drive me the one mile to the studio.

I'm not sure why everyone I knew was so freaked-out about my going toe-to-toe with someone like O'Reilly. I mean, if after 15 years of studying about and living and working in the Muslim world, I can't hold my own against the likes of him, I might as well give up and become a cab driver. And in fact, O'Reilly wasn't as aggressive as my colleagues had warned me. Perhaps he saw the article I wrote for the OC Weekly last year about my run-in with fellow right-wing talk-show host Dennis Prager [“The Danger of Google History in a Time of War,” March 14, 2003] and how I caught him in several lies; or perhaps he was just in a rare semi-civil mood.

O'Reilly's moods and deliveries are not the main point about his show. Instead it's the level of mis- and disinformation that comes through viewers' televisions each day from a show that masquerades as a “No Spin Zone.” On the show I was on, O'Reilly was spinning out of control. No matter what I said, he kept referring to “Hamas armbands” and the “apparent support for terrorists and suicide bombers” symbolized by the students' wearing of the stoles. When that didn't work, he compared their action to Native Americans coming to graduation wearing swastikas and asked if I, as a Jewish person, would appreciate that.

Whenever conservatives pull out Holocaust references, you know they've run out of arguments. But that wasn't all. When this tack didn't go anywhere, he argued that students had no right to wear religious symbols at a graduation. I guess he'd forgotten the First Amendment or would prefer to live in France—certainly a paradox considering his website has a whole section devoted to France-bashing. “Now I've got you two ways,” he said after trashing the Constitution. But as I pointed out how ludicrous his argument was, he blurted out, “You've got 15 seconds.” It's nice to be playing on your own court. When you know you're going to lose, you just stop the game and go home. Too bad President Bush can't do that in Iraq.

What's most frightening about O'Reilly's method of confusion, distortion and bullying is that it reflects exactly the kind of combination of Orwell and Goerbels that Michael Moore's new movie, Fahrenheit 9/11, brings into focus. And it is the response of critics to Moore's film that points to how dangerous O'Reilly and the radical right-wing press are, as even supposedly liberal news media like The New York Times or New Yorker felt obligated to take potshots at Fahrenheit 9/11. Moore's analysis of the incredibly shady, profitable and immoral relationship between Bush and U.S. military-industrial elites and corrupt and blood-soaked Saudis—which is supported by all the scholarly research I've seen (including my own field work in Baghdad this spring, as I described in an OC Weekly article [“Cash for Chaos,” April 16])—is about the killing of American democracy. As one of my friends lamented after coming out of Fahrenheit 9/11, the liberal media are “a bunch of wimps.”

The realization of just what the media has let the Bush administration get away with is no doubt one reason why I got so many e-mails from colleagues and even strangers thanking me for taking O'Reilly on and for “telling him to shut up,” which I never did, but apparently just refusing to let him cut me off was tantamount to telling him to shut up (of course, I also got dozens of e-mails accusing me of being the same terrorist-loving America-hater as the Muslim students who wore the stoles, and at least one person threatened violence—just as colleagues who'd previously appeared on his show warned me I'd get).

But what really surprised me is that so many progressives watch his show—kind of like being caught admitting they were watching porn, however, most said they just happened to be flipping through the channels and saw me on the show. A couple of friends I teased about this admitted they find The O'Reilly Factorsimultaneously entertaining and sleazy, just like porn. I've never been in a porno movie, so I can't compare porno acting to appearing on The O'Reilly Factor, but I can say it was fun to go mano a mano with someone who strikes such fear in the hearts of people with Ph.Ds. And so to my colleagues who remain too offended or insecure to take on O'Reilly, Limbaugh, Hannity and their hardcore comrades, I say, take a Viagra and join the party. The sleaze washes off after a quick shower.

Mark LeVine is assistant professor of modern Middle Eastern history, culture and Islamist studies at UC Irvine. He is co-editor with Pilar Perez and Viggo Mortensen ofTwilight of Empire: Responses to Occupation (Perceval Press, 2003) and author ofOverthrowing Geography: Jaffa, Tel Aviv and the Struggle for Palestine (UC Press, 2004) andWhy They Don't Hate Us: From Chaos to Culture Jamming in the Global Age (Oneworld Publications, 2004).

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