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From Fly Creek

September 27, 2012

The haunting of Bill O'Reilly

COOPERSTOWN — I guess we can stand it, friends: only about a thousand more hours till Election Day. Finally the air will clear somewhat of all the rant, cant, and mud slinging that’s polluted it for — how long? — ever since the last national election. Enough! I’m choking on smarmy, mean-souled stuff; and I’ll bet you are, too.

My tipping point came this last week. I read a short column that had me ready to stand in Fly Creek’s four corners, pounding my head (I can’t tear at my hair, having next to none), and screaming, “I’m mad as hell, and I won’t take any more!”

The column was short, and by a national columnist whose intellect, education and experience I greatly respect. But, by damn, the bozo so patronized and abused his readership with twisted rhetoric that I was enraged. His headline read: “Four more years could mean $8 gas.”

There’s a scare tactic, to start with; one that plays to everybody’s anxiety without really saying anything. (Four more years, after all, COULD bring anything: $8 gas, $16 gas, $3 gas, or a glut so big that it’s even cheaper. It’s the “could,” you see, that is meant to tap our unfocused fears.) And the rest of the column’s opening does the same and worse:

“So there I am, pulling into a gas station in my town. And Tarek is smiling. He owns the station, and right now he’s charging me $4.25 a gallon. American motorists may not be better off than they were four years ago, but Tarek certainly is.”

OK, let’s start at the top. Here’s Bill O’Reilly, wildly successful columnist/millionaire, a man who can wrap abstruse thought in brilliant language, affecting a hometown tone to dupe all us Joes and Janes who live in such places. And it’s “my town” mind you, so easily and warmly associated with “Our Town,” with everybody’s town and with the down-home values we Joes and Janes hold dear.

But wait! The gas station in Bill’s town is owned by somebody named Tarek, and he’s charging Bill $4.25 a gallon. The guy could be named Stan or Fred, but you know why Bill’s named him Tarek.  It’s the lead-in to his next sentence: “American motorists [never mind that Tarek is likely an American citizen — maybe a second- or third-generation one] may not be better off than they were four years ago, but Tarek certainly is.”

Hey, Bill! You surely see how deliberately slanted that paragraph is, how patent is its play on a mindless stereotype (weren’t we to imagine turbaned Tarek, grinning through a black beard?) You’ve got to know how absurdly skewed it is from the facts!

Willie boy, your gas man Tarek is not reaping huge profits from you. (And if that’s really his name, you’d better buy your gas elsewhere or send a chauffeur to it.) Tarek has to raise prices because he’s being gouged by callous forces outside and above him: oil behemoths that watch for excuses to up the prices — you say so yourself, Bill, two paragraphs farther on! If anything, Tarek suffers when gas skyrockets and his slim profit-per-gallon remains the same. Fewer gallons are sold, and Tarek’s part in the American dream suffers proportionately.

But we’re not the think of that. We supposed to stick with that caricature Arab clutching the gas nozzle and smiling evilly.

Then, Billy, come a few paragraphs of pro form a president-bashing, blaming the administration just as much as big oil. “Obama is a green guy” [effective if shameless double-duty slur: inexperienced, and a tree-hugger, to boot!], and he thwarts growth projects and wastes money on alternative energy.

And toward the end comes another presumption of gut response from us ordinary types:

“A few people [not our type] are riding around in electric cars — something that infuriates Tarek — but not many.” (Damn that evil, greedy Tarek!) “Those automobiles are generally expensive, and the plug-in stuff is complicated.” Another attempt to talk our talk: “plug-in stuff,” nothing we ordinary types would waste time or money on.

And then you wind up, Bill, with a couple of boogieman zingers: Probably you don’t want to risk “electrocution is a rainstorm while firing up a Prius. . .” And your climax: Be ready for another, worse explosion: “If Israel attacks Iran over nukes. . . $8 a gallon? Could happen.”

Again, “could.” It’s a favorite word of fear-mongers.

Oh, Bill! Bill! How can you debase your talents to produce such dreck? I know the education you had at Chaminade High School and Marist College. I know the fine brothers teaching at both places assured that you got strong doses of rhetoric and ethics as part of a tough curriculum. How they must blush to read some of your stuff!

I had exactly your kind of education, Bill — from the La Salle Christian Brothers. (We’re also about the same age and, to judge from TV, in the same jowly weight class.) I know those teaching monks presented you the principles of rhetoric, of effective speech. And I know that your ethics profs, like mine, disabused you of the childishly selfish dictum, “The end justifies the means.”

You got the rhetoric part, old pal, though you seemed to have missed out on Aristotle’s warning that persuasive speech can be used perversely as well as for good. And somehow you got ends and means all balled up, with twisted rhetoric justified in your mind by any “good” you’re out to achieve.

If any of those good old monks who taught you are now dead, I hope they aren’t haunting you, Bill.

Though maybe that might help.


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