By the time you read this, election day will be over and pundits will have told us all about how the races were a referendum on Barack Obama. But at least one race – for the congressional seat in New York’s upstate 23rd district – was about many peoples’ new national pastime: bullying.
Bombarded by right-wing hate radio, denounced by many in the Republican leadership and vivisected by vitriolic bloggers, moderate Republican Dede Scozzafava ended her bid for the seat three days before Election Day. Attacking Scozzafava as not far right enough, conservatives rallied behind third-party candidate Doug Hoffman, who does not even live in the district, and drove her out of the race.
And consider this. Journalist Amy Wallace published “An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All” in the November issue of Wired magazine. In it, she profiled the pediatrician Paul Offit, who invented the vaccine for retrovirus. Offit emphasizes that any risks from vaccines are vastly outweighed by the risks from diseases kids and others could get if not vaccinated.
Wallace was inundated with hate mail. As she told NPR’s Melissa Block, “I’ve heard a lot of anger. I’ve heard that I’m stupid. I’ve heard that I’m greedy. I’ve heard that I did this to get famous. I’ve heard that I’m a whore, I’m a prostitute.” Well, why not? Anti-vaccine crusaders have sent Dr. Offit threats like, “I will hang you by your neck until you are dead.” This is not about the pros and cons of the vaccine debate: it’s about the bullying, aggressive responses so easily and immediately evoked.
In the past several years, there have been various exposes and concerns about bullying in schools and, of course, cyber-bullying. This phenomenon was made especially famous by the suicide of Megan Meier, who killed herself after getting a post from a neighbor lady posing as a teenage boy, telling her the world would be better off without her.
Bestselling books like Queen Bees and Wannabes and Odd Girl Out about girl-on-girl bullying have inspired intervention programs around the country. Hidden camera reports by local television stations have spurred anti-bullying programs and campaigns in many school systems. If you Google “bullying,” you will find more than 10 million sites, many of them about bully prevention videos, books, games and information programs.
But what a bunch of hypocrites, teaching our kids that bullying is wrong and hurtful, when every day we see how much it works and is rewarded. Who is the current de facto leader of the Republican Party? One of the biggest bullies of them all, Rush Limbaugh. Fox News may only have about 2 million viewers during primetime and an average of 1.2 million viewers in a day, but the vitriol of its uber bullies – Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck – is what extends the station’s reach and influence beyond its limited viewership. And let’s not forget the high-profile female pitbull Ann Coulter, who is amply rewarded for her ferocious verbal assaults. Whose demonstrations get covered in the media: gay rights activists or tea-baggers? Bullying is boffo box office in our country.
Frank Rich of The New York Times and Tom Frank, the heroic liberal who writes a weekly (and very good) column for The Wall Street Journal, have both linked the attack-dog mode of tea-baggers, Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck and the like to a powerful sense of persecution. “Persecution fantasy is Fox News’s lifeblood,” Frank writes; “give it the faintest whiff of the real thing and look out for a gale-force hissy fit.”
Well, Tom Frank should know. You should see his hate mail from right-winger WSJ devotees. His piece about Fox News not being, in fact, a legitimate news channel brought a torrent of abusive comments: “Absolute myopic rubbish, clearly the stuff of wanna be journalism;” “despicable;” “idiocy.”
What alarms so many progressives and liberals is not so much that Obama has been criticized by the right for most of his policies (after all, we criticize him too), but the sheer fury and vehemence that engorges these attacks. The Facebook poll asking whether Obama should be assassinated was typical of this rage.
What the conservative Republicans seem to be counting on in its war over the future of the party is that bullying will work within the party, and by extension, it will work to woo independents back to the fold and destroy Obama’s presidency to boot. Given the very large and seemingly expanding media stage that bullying seems to get, and the rewards it accrues, they may, in the end, be right.
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Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.