The radicalizing effect of Dr. Laura
First Amendment. Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of the Christian religion; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. All but the first of the foregoing clauses may be refudiated in times of dire Emergency. Most importantly, the right of conservatives to speak without being criticized for their views shall be respected at all times.
Emphasis mine. Schlessinger made it clear she thought that her First Amendment rights were being trampled if people criticized her for yelling racial slurs at a black caller who had the audacity to think Schlessinger was a nice person who would offer advice. Of course, as Jamelle Bouie points out, everyone focuses on specific words to the detriment of noticing their context, and he dryly joked in his post title, “When Racial Slurs are the Least Racist Thing About Your Rant, It’s a Pretty Racist Rant.” I personally get bonkers when the focus is strictly on taboo words, because that means that bigots and misogynists get to claim innocence for promoting rancid ideas so long as they do so without stepping on taboo words. Often, they just do this by making up new slurs, as Mark Williams has demonstrated a lot of initiative in doing. It concerns me that Dr. Laura would have gotten off without much, if any criticism if she’d just avoiding the “N-word”, but said every other awful, racist thing she said to the woman who called her in good faith, asking for advice.
But I come not to repeat the same old condemnations of Schlessinger. I want to address something else Jamelle said in his post: “I was surprised to learn that Dr. Laura still had a radio show.” I was well aware that Dr. Laura had a radio show, because the feminist media pays attention to her while most liberal media focuses its awe and outrage on mostly male figureheads like Limbaugh and Beck that are overtly political. It’s interesting, because I think by putting most of our attention on overtly political talk radio, we’re actually missing out on a huge part of right wing media that is just as powerful—in many ways, more powerful and influential—than even the overt screaming political talk show hosts. To really understand the conservative movement, you have to understand the self help/religious/family-oriented media. They are the yin to the Limbaugh/Fox News yang. Without them, the conservative movement would be nothing.
Here’s why: They are extremely good at radicalizing the troops, in ways that even the more overt right wing media isn’t. They do so by positioning themselves as folks who are just trying to help. They’re probably even more instrumental than the Limbaugh types in allowing their conservative followers to imagine themselves as the salt-of-the-earth humble rural types they imagine that they are. The geographic stronghold of the right is the suburbs, of course, and that’s a way of living that is more isolated from your neighbors than either bona fide small town life or city life. You have a lot of conservative types who have big houses with no real front yard and certainly no porch to speak of. Most of their journeys outside of their home don’t even involve breathing the air around their homes—they hop into their car in the garage and pull out into the street, creating an actual physical boundary between them and their supposed communities at all times. While this isn’t the cause of their isolation, it really tends to drive home how isolated they are. But this actual, experienced isolation conflicts with their self-image as old-fashioned Americans with small town values. Actual small towns are places where everyone is up everyone else’s ass all the time, and there’s not a lot of being isolated from the community, for better or for worse. The old systems of enforcing sexual and social control through gossip are removed from the suburban existence. It’s hard to gossip about people you don’t know.
In steps folks like Dr. Laura, who create a virtual gossip mill that creates the illusion of being able to participate in that kind of judging your neighbors that is part of small town life. Dr. Laura is a big one, but you have other advice shows and entire industries set up for it, like Focus on the Family. And these media outlets can be radicalizing for a couple of reasons. One is that they substitute for community judgments the judgment of the host. There’s no cultural back-and-forth where more liberal members of a community can mediate the harsh judgments of the bigger assholes in a community. And second of all, despite the intimate feeling of listening to the radio, the people on it are basically strangers. When they call in or their stories are discussed, you aren’t privy to the various details of their life that might make their situations and decisions more understandable. For example, in the beauty salon we used to hang out in the small town I grew up in, a discussion about whether or not to put a teenage girl on the birth control pill was mediated by the people involved knowing the girl, knowing her boyfriend, and sincerely caring enough about her future that the idea of her getting pregnant seemed more daunting than some abstract fears of sexy girls getting out of control. On the radio, you have no such influences, so you can picture the situation in the most scandalous terms possible, and get crazy judgmental. The consensus reached is often very different in these cases. In my direct experience, the first situation is one where the general consensus was that there’s no reason not to put the girl on the pill, and in the second, well, there is no consensus. The host will simply crack the whip and the people at home will nod along, furious at Girls These Days.
I used to have to work out in the suburbs in a job where I was spending a lot of time in my car at hours that weren’t the usual hours for the flaming asshole right wing talk show radio hosts, but were obviously considered the womanly hours. And I would listen a lot to shows like Dr. Laura’s, out of masochism, boredom and curiosity. What really impressed me was the full court press from not just the show, but the advertisers to emulate this kind of folksy, small town vibe. Again, as I’m actually from a small town, it created dissonance for me because the whole thing was missing that je nais se quoi of real small town life, but it was clear to me that was what they were going for. Dr. Laura tries to project this vibe as if she’s simply the president of the Junior League, except that she accidentally stepped into a radio show. (I think this was part of why I thought that they failed at the vibe they were going for, because in real small towns, the big haired ladies who run everything are a completely different group from the people who you turn to for advice and solace. But like most of country music, right wing radio is about projecting an image, not emulating a reality.) The ads usually featured actors having conversations that were clearly meant to evoke the same kind of image that Sarah Palin would have you believe her family life is like—kids coming and going, neighbors dropping in, a community where everyone knows everyone.
But some of the assumptions that were in play in these discussions didn’t resemble anything like the ones that would have been in play in my actual small town life with people coming and going. I remember one ad in particular that always struck me as weird, radical and not at all like the world I grew up in that they were trying to invoke for their audience. It was an ad for some kind of acne pill or medication, and the premise was that a mother and daughter are talking about it. We’re meant to assume they live in a tight-knit community, one where the mother knew the girl’s classmates, even if they weren’t the girl’s actual friends. And the girl mentions someone—maybe a teenager, but possibly not—who takes a pill to control her acne. The mother is aghast, because she assumes it’s the birth control pill. But it’s not, it’s some other pill, the product being hawked. End commercial.
I found this commercial baffling, because while in my small town you probably didn’t trumpet going on the pill as a teenager for contraceptive use, there wasn’t any shame in using it to control your acne. The implication of the ad is that a good mother wouldn’t simply let her daughter go on the pill just because her face is exploding in zits that will scar her for life—and that a mother who let her daughter go on the pill to control her acne would be the subject of gossip. In my lived experience, however, a mother who didn’t take care of her daughter’s looks would have been the real object of scandalized gossip. Making sure your daughter wasn’t the object of mockery because of her horrible acne would have been considered a number one priority for a mother. This isn’t necessarily admirable (though you’re hardly some shallow monster if you don’t want a bunch of acne scars), because the obsession with looks got way out of hand some times, but it is what it is—the right wing fanatics that denied their daughters hair dressers, razors, fashionable clothes, or make-up, especially after a certain age, got the tongues clucking. But this ad was normalizing the idea that contraception was so evil you couldn’t even it allow it in your house for the laudable goal of being considered attractive. It’s just one example of how the premises of this specific kind of talk radio helped promote radical right wing ideas, by packaging them up as something “just folks” believe. Even when, in real life, they didn’t.