Friday, January 9, 2015
Down the Memory Hole: The Assassination of Alan Berg
In wake of the appalling Charlie Hebdo attack this week, I found it somewhat bemusing to see lots of American right wingers--in their haste to waste no opportunity to smear all Muslims as freedom hating terrorists--valiantly defending a publication they normally would not have stooped to wipe their asses with given that its lampoons of Christianity were every bit as biting as those against Islam. Charlie Hebdo was an equal opportunity basher of religion, and that normally isn't the kind of stance that will get you invited to answer loving, softball type questions as a guest on Fox and Friends.
I frequently make a point on this blog of demonstrating that there is very little difference between America's two major parties, but I will never say the same thing about liberals (however much I loathe mealy-mouthed mainstream liberalism) versus hardcore conservatives, who now unfortunately make up an overwhelming majority of the conservative movement. Because the fact is a liberal will (usually) defend and respect freedom of expression as defined by the Constitution (Congress shall pass no law, etc, etc) whereas far right wingers (who profess to wear the Constitution on their sleeves) often make no bones about how they would love to see those they disagree with silenced by whatever means necessary.
As an example of what I'm saying, one needs to look no further that the most notorious American parallel to the Charlie Hebdo slayings...namely the 1984 (now THERE is irony for you) assassination of liberal Denver radio talk show host Alan Berg. Though it seems difficult to imagine in these times in which talk radio has become a wasteland of rightwing shouters each trying to out-outrage the other, in his day Berg was the liberal equivalent of Rush Limbaugh. His schtick was to spout his unabashed anticonservative views and then rip into those semicoherent callers to his show dumb enough to try and take him on.
Berg must have been quite good at what he did, because he managed to whip up a murderous rage on the part of a white nationalist group called The Order. The group ambushed Berg outside of his home, shooting him twelve times at close range. Two members of The Order were subsequently convicted of the killing. It was by any definition an act of terrorism--one that has sadly been mostly forgotten today despite being fictionalized a few years later in the Oliver Stone movie Talk Radio. Alan Berg was killed for exercising his freedom of expression, just as the staffers of Charlie Hebdo were. Yet the brevity of his Wikipedia page, which doesn't even include the word "terrorism" in the section about his murder, should be an indication of how such acts that do not fit the prevailing narrative get excluded from our national conversation--even at a time when they are quite relevant.
Another aspect of Berg's murder that never gets discussed is whether as an act of terrorism it wasn't actually a huge success. Liberals are always quick to blame corporate media consolidation in the 1990s for the fact that conservatives rule the radio airwaves, and certainly that has been a factor. Conservatives counter that there is no market for liberal radio talk shows as demonstrated by the Air America debacle during the Bush junior years.
I would actually split these arguments. On the one hand corporations are still motivated by profits, and a liberal host who could score big ratings would certainly not be kept off the air. On the other, for some reason the liberal hosts who were on the air in 1990s when media consolidation began failed to survive (there was a halfway decent rabble rouser I used to listen to on WLS when I lived in Chicago in the early 1990s, though I forget his name) just as Air America failed to draw ratings. Why is that?
Could it be that conservative hosts are safe in knowing that they can routinely make base emotional appeals to their audience without worrying about their personal safety? After all, it is hard to imagine a Volvo-driving, Chardonnay drinking, global warming worrying, gun control advocate blowing away Rush Limbaugh. On the flip side, did liberal radio hosts in this country circa 1984 begin to consciously of unconsciously tone down or deliberately intellectualize their arguments after seeing what happened to Alan Berg? And did the resulting lower ratings then give Clear Channel, for example, the excuse it needed to cancel them in favor of another Sean Hannity clone? We'll never know for sure what kind of chilling effect Berg's murder had on his professional colleagues at the time, but it is difficult to imagine that it didn't have any. If I'm right, Berg's death is a major early milestone in the creeping fascism that has been overtaking America these past 35 years.
So RIP, Alan Berg. Unlike the cowards in patriotic guise who killed you, you were a true American hero.
Bonus: "I'm here to lead you by the hand through the dark forest of your own hated and anger and humiliation"