Jeffrey Feldman’s Outright Barbarous

In Outright Barbarous: How the Violent Language of the Right Poisons American Democracy, Jeffrey Feldman analyzes the use of violent language by right-wing pundits and how it undermines the American tradition of working together to solve our problems. He looks at the debates on gun control and immigration, the use of September 11th, the language of Bill O’Reilly and James Dobson, as well as the perceived “war against Christmas” in order to illustrate how pervasive the violent framing of civic debate has become.

Feldman’s aim is to “take a longer, more detailed look at what right-wing pundits have said with the goal of understanding the kind of public conversation their words have built.” He calls his readers to action to “refuse to accept it, talk about the important issues it obscures, and work together to improve our civic discourse.”

He believes that America’s “lost passion for discussion in politics and the rise of a mass media with entertainment for profit as its central goal” is enabling the violent framing of political debates to continue without check. The public needs “a media with an interest in that conversation that is prioritized above the bottom-line.”

Feldman offers six suggestions to help re-frame the political debate:

  1. Stop using “war” metaphors.
  2. Revive expository journalism.
  3. Invest in local media.
  4. Increase citizen participation.
  5. Introduce a rating system for political entertainment.
  6. Create new deliberative forums.

Feldman looks to the rise of the Millennials as hope for the creation of new deliberative forums.

In many ways, the generation referred to as the “Millennials” (those born post-1980) is already involved with this task, creating and inhabiting these new forums with regularity and enthusiasm.

The rise of the Millennials is also leading to discussions about “harnessing social networking technology for the practice of government itself.”

Here are some of the questions and thoughts I wrote in the margins of my copy while reading:

  • It is possible that the polemic writing about the failures of the Bush administration are less effective than expository writing about the failures themselves would be. Polemic writing tends to lead readers to believe that the article is biased political propaganda and turns off all but the choir. Writing modeled after Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle could have a much greater effect in reaching and convincing moderate and even right-leaning citizens.
  • What role will expository journalism have on blogging, and conversely, what role will blogging have on expository journalism?
  • We should create public awareness programs on the use of new media and citizen journalism.
  • What will be the role of traditional media companies and larger websites in facilitating citizen journalism. Currently CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, YouTube, and MTV have created such outlets.
  • The use of violent metaphor leads people to believe that solutions are external and are the fault of an enemy. The goal becomes combating the enemy and the only solution is their defeat. It undermines the concept of personal responsibility and the idea that people can work together to create solutions to problems.
  • James Dobson’s violence as authority teachings makes the ability to inflict pain a sign of power and authority. This may lead people to use violence against one another in order to show dominance and feel like it is a perfectly acceptable thing to do.
  • Those Americans whose culture was the monolithic American culture in the past fear the loss of their cultural hegemony in the wake of the new multiculturalism in America. Instead of realizing that their culture is not being damaged or attacked, only joined by others, they believe that the acceptance of any cultures other than their own is a “war” against their own.

Have you read the book? What are your thoughts? If not go pick yourself up a copy and come back to join the conversation.