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18 June 2009 2:24 PM

On Discourse

Talk Radio Rants Cont. -- Response to Comments, Additional Examples

In a prior post about the way political ideas spread, I argued that conservative talk radio hosts like Mark Levin aren't merely doing damage to public discourse -- they are ill-serving their most loyal listeners, and by extension conservatism itself. This is so for several reasons, I said, promising to cite specific examples to back up my assertions. The post linked above includes a monologue wherein Mr. Levin provides negligent, demonstrably wrongheaded analysis to his audience. The segment is a waste of time at best. More likely, it persuaded some listeners, leading them astray from reality and inhibiting their ability to participate in reality based arguments. In this way, they are marginalized.

Insofar as I've seen, responses to my post offer no defense of Mr. Levin's analysis. It is telling that even my least forgiving critics are reduced to attacking me for writing in a pretentious style. This series of posts is written more formally than is my habit. I am making an effort to bring more light than heat to a subject where the opposite is more often true. Were I being outrageously pretension in tone, however, it would hardly refute the substance of my argument.

Another critique I've seen is that only someone who misunderstands the medium of talk radio would write as I've done. 

Friedersdorf, like most journalists, doesn't really understand talk radio. Talk show hosts aren't employed to run on-air education and organizing efforts; they are paid to attract and hold the largest possible audience.  Showmanship plays a big part in achieving that objective.  Talk  pioneer Willis Duff once said that talk radio is like bullfighting.  People appreciate the cape work -- but they come to see the bull get killed. And no one kills the bull like Mark Levin.
But my argument isn't that Mark Levin is an unsuccessful radio host -- I grant that he measures success by the size of his audience, and that he has a sizable number of listeners who come for what he provides. What I contend is that the effect of Mr. Levin's least defensible tics -- whether or not they attract market share -- is to damage public discourse and ill-serve his listeners in the realm of politics. The Roman Coliseum packed in audience members. That didn't make the entertainment on offer good for the republic.

Finally, some readers wonder whether the monologue I quoted is representative of the analysis offered by Mr. Levin. In my judgment, it is -- many other monologues are flawed in the same ways. In fact, it is fair to say that Mr. Levin frequently questions the motives of his ideological adversaries as a substitute for rational discussion. Perhaps a couple brief illustrations will be instructive.

On May 18, 2009, the following exchange occurred on Mr. Levin's program:

CALLER: Hi Mark. I was listening to some of the shows over the weekend and I saw one of the pollsters on and he was predicting that Democrats are liable to pick up 10 more seats in 2010. I don't know how you guys expect to have a conservative resurgence if you can't get anyone elected.

MR. LEVIN: What's it like hating your children. What's it like hating your children, bankrupting, stealing from them, ensuring that they'll have sub-quality health care, the kind that you enjoy at your ripe old age. What's it like punishing your children. What did they ever do to you Steve?

CALLER: You know it's funny, Mark--

MR. LEVIN: GET OFF THE PHONE YOU BIG DOPE. Where was I before I was rudely interrupted by Steve from the so-called state of Vermont?
The so-called state of Vermont? Angry outbursts impair even the capacity for insults that make sense. But that's merely an aside. The main point is that Mr. Levin is constructing a world where those who disagree with him and the policies he advocates -- well, they hate their children. Is that a healthy narrative for a political movement to buy into? Or is it an immature fiction likely to impair judgment?

Mr. Levin uttered an even more egregious fiction in the same show. The context is a political battle over climate change and carbon emissions shaping up right now. Are we going to tax carbon? Or institute cap and trade? Barack Obama and many Democrats would like to do just that. So far, I am persuaded by Jim Manzi's analysis that the costs don't outweigh the benefits (and that Waxman-Markey is terrible legislation)... but I am open to being convinced that the costs of climate change, and the likelihood that they'll come to bear, justify some action. This is a complicated subject that hinges on empirical questions that are difficult if not impossible to answer conclusively. Reasonable people can and do disagree.

Unfortunately, Mr. Levin frames debate in the most unreasonable way imaginable.

MR. LEVIN: By the way, do you know that without greenhouse gasses, America and all the other countries, the globe, would turn to ice? We need greenhouse gasses. Greenhouse gasses include water vapor. Water vapor is the biggest part of greenhouse gasses. Do you know why it's called green house? Because without these gasses, there would be no plants, there would be no life. And yet they turn it around like it's a chemical. 'We've got all these greenhouse gasses.' And without them you would be dead as a door nob. It's called the atmosphere. We need these greenhouse gasses. But they haven't figured out how to regulate water vapor yet. 'Eh. We're working on it.'

But carbon dioxide, they think they've figured that out. But it does not matter. It is a new way to tax. And they're linking one to the other. They're trying to figure out how to massively increase taxes called cap and trade on industry and hence the consumer, you and me, anywhere from $1,500 to $3,000 a year. It would go to the federal government, which would presumably be used for socialist health care.
In the world as Mr. Levin portrays it, we know excessive greenhouse gasses don't threaten to warm the globe because absent any greenhouse gasses we'd all die. Is that quality of logic helpful or destructive as conservatives wage this debate? His is also a world where all the people who are worried about climate change are pretending -- their actual motive is a desire to raise taxes to pay for socialist health care. Convincing some number of conservatives to approach climate change in this nonsensical way is damaging to public discourse and to the people in question--and Mr. Levin conducts himself the same way with regard to other issues, though we haven't room here to explore every indefensible example of this kind, not least because my next post on this subject will turn to other kinds of errors.

UPDATE: Though I'm unable to link directly to the excerpts I've transcribed, someone at Mr. Levin's fan site urges me to link the page where his 3 hour long shows can be downloaded should anyone want to do so. That's here. I've asked whether he is willing to provide an excerpt of what I've transcribed so that I can link it directly. I'll post it here should I be provided one. Absent that, I do urge readers to get a taste of Mr. Levin's voice. The angry tone is impossible to convey in print.


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Comments (17)

Here in Kansas City, we had a decent conservative radio program called Shanin and Parks. They did pretty well during the "after Bill O'Reilly segment" in the afternoon. Once O'Reilly went off the air and to TV only, the station decided to give them an additional hour because they were popular.
In my opinion this was a colossal mistake. Not only did they not have the creativity to produce 4 hours of material in a medium market city like Kansas City, but in lieu of 3 hours of decent conservative opinions, they created four hours of lightly dispersed material filled with angry rants against President Obama and Nancy Pelosi and yelling at callers for dissenting.
The point is, it is difficult for any talk show host to fill their time with quality, thought-out material, day after day, and it seems the easiest outlet for the uncreative hosts is to just trash on dissenting callers or grossly hyperbolize issues to make their enemies look like buffoons and pat themselves on the back for their awe inspiring command of the english language.

A pundit commenting on areas he doesn't know much about - what is new about this? Levin does have one good point; cap and trade is not cost free to consumers. Obama never mentions this.

Questioning the motives of opponents - listen to what the left says to anyone who has any doubts about affirmative action, "diversity" or high levels of unskilled immigrants.

I am not a fan of Levin's style but I think he is most damaging to conservatives when he opposes any deviation from failed dogmas. Bush Jr practiced supply side economics and the results were a failure to most Americans. Iraq is still far from the utopia the neocons predicted and not worth the expense to most Americans. Levin is smart but refuses to see what has happened since 2001.

”Insofar as I've seen, responses to my post offer no defense of Mr. Levin's analysis.

Well, one commenter did anyway. He argued that you mistook an argument on politics for an argument on economics.

“Mr. Levin is not arguing that Mr. Obama’s policies make sense economically. They do not make sense economically. That is his point. The sense they make is political in nature.”

Not that it was a particularly powerful response, but it did address Mr. Levin’s analysis and was certainly not an attempt to attack the author of the post.

I must admit that I have never listened to Mark Levin’s radio show, but in the examples you bring forth I consistently have the perception that you are not understanding the underlying principles behind what he is saying. You seem to take his words at face value without reflecting what they are really getting at, as I pointed out in the comment referred to above. It may come down to a difference between the spoken word and the written word. (And I understand that in saying that I am quite exposed). Nevertheless, that is my perception from reading through your comments.

For what it’s worth (and its worth a good deal to me) the comments and discussion off your earlier post were well considered and civil. This was a significant departure from comments earlier at another site, and in my view more closely reflect the tone of debate that you have been trying to encourage. Kudos are do you and your readers for that.

"What principle underlies the argument that it's silly to worry about greenhouse gasses,"

I have not heard enough of Levin but I have heard Rush talk about environmentalists. He would say something like this: The left doesn't want average Americans to live in houses with big vehicles and want people to live in apartments and take mass transit. Global warming is used to justify making people change their lifestyles to environmentalists preferences.

I don't agree that global warming is wrong but I think there is a lot of truth to what he says about environmentalists motives.

If the left were consistent about climate change they would object strongly to rebuilding the sections of New Orleans that are below sea level. Have you heard any object? Many of the leading climate change advocates, like Tom Friedman, also have lavish lifestyles inconsistent with their message.

Well, you have me there.

No question you are a prolific writer, and talented. I very much enjoyed your piece on marriage.

Of course, if you are interested in writing on discourse you should do so. It’s your show, Conor.

From my perspective, there is much to be said about what has been going on in the world today. Try to remember that there are more than a few keen to hear what you might have to say.


I'm glad, at least, that you have dropped your case against Rush and Hannity. As for Levin, he's a character...his schtick is hyperbole. But his hyperbole on global warming is nothing compared with that of supposedly measured advocates government action in squelching supposed greenhouse gasses. As Michael Crichton has explained, global warming is connected to C02 expansion in the same way that putting on my bathing suit and going to the beach is connected to the advent of Summer. Yes, their connected, but their relationship is the opposite of that claimed by the alarmists.

As for the costs of stopping climate change (as though climate has ever been stable), there's really only one way to curb so called greenhouse gasses to the extent we're told is necessary: curb the global population. And the only way to do that to the extent that is supposed to be necessary in the next hundred years is genocide. That's not hyperbole. It's just an inconvenient truth.

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