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"


  1. Bill.., I to listen to WLS in the 1990's. So help me I cannot remeber the name of that talk show host, but I do remeber him. He was a half decent talk show host and was very much a liberal who would indeed rip into those right-wing callers who came on to his shoe to challenge his views. Maybe it was Bob Lassiter. I hope I got his last name right.

    1. def--you are correct, it was Bob Lassiter! Unfortunately, I also recall that he was asked to scale down the rhetoric and then came up with a codeword system for his insults. Bet that's would never happen to Hannity or Limbaugh.

  2. BH, Glenn Greenwald has an interesting take on Charlie Hebdo: "it is simply not the case that Charlie Hebdo 'were equal opportunity offenders.' Like Bill Maher, Sam Harris and other anti-Islam obsessives, mocking Judaism, Jews and/or Israel is something they will rarely (if ever) do. If forced, they can point to rare and isolated cases where they uttered some criticism of Judaism or Jews, but the vast bulk of their attacks are reserved for Islam and Muslims, not Judaism and Jews. Parody, free speech and secular atheism are the pretexts; anti-Muslim messaging is the primary goal and the outcome. And this messaging – this special affection for offensive anti-Islam speech – just so happens to coincide with, to feed, the militaristic foreign policy agenda of their governments and culture."

    ...Which is not to say "they had it coming," or to defend violent extremism. But it does seem to appear Charlie Hebdo, for all its iconoclastic rep, practiced within a highly normative double standard.

    As for RW dominance in talk radio, I suggest there are additional factors at play. Young people, who trend more liberally, don't listen to radio as much as their generally more conservative elders. Perhaps more importantly, modern day liberalism cannot offer a cogent popular narrative, as did traditional liberalism/leftism with its focus on economic inequality. Modern liberalism pays lip service to economic issues, but the focus remains on identity politics and all the grievances it implies. By definition, this alienates substantial parts of any potential audience.

    1. Greenwald makes a good point, but the Hebdo cartoon showing the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost having anal sex is certainly not Fox News material. :)

      Regarding the talk show hosts, it also may be that people were more likely to listen to a host they disagreed with back in the 1980s. And nowadays, no host who advocated for organized citizen actions against corporations and the big banks, for example, would ever be allowed on the air to prove they could score big ratings.

  3. Bill.., I to listen to WLS in the 1990's I believe the host you are talking about was named Bob Lassiter. I remember him as a pretty decent liberal talk show host. He like many other are now gone, replaced by clones of Rush Limbaugh. To bad, I do not listen to WLS much anymore. I now have a Sony MP3 player that I plug into the radio and just listen to my music at this point.

  4. Heh, I used to listen to Air America back during the reign of the Bogus POTUS and I've got a fair idea of why it folded:

    1 - Financial shenanigans by it's backers.
    B - Trying to short cut their way to an audience.
    III - There was nobody left to scare.

    Nevermind the shady deals that financed AA. It was never much more than the pet project of a few bored millionaires to begin with. What these brainiacs tried to do was quickly build a big audience through teh intarwebs instead of building one slowly like their wingnut radio counterparts. Compounding the problem, by the time these ersatz radio moguls got around to broadcasting their CAF crafted fear mongering bullshit, they found the republitards had already scared almost every Chickenshit American into their own tent!

    Still it wasn't a total loss. Rachel Maddow turned into the MSNBC version of Sean Hannity and Al Franken was parachuted into Minnesota to become the Senator from AIPAC. So, y'know, that's show biz!

    1. If Maddow and Franken are as "leftist" as it gets in the public arena these days, we are well and truly doomed.

    2. As far as mainstream media is concerned, fauxgressives like Maddow & Franken are as far left as it goes. Recently I was cornered by a local news ghoul and asked whether I was a Republican or a Democrat. I said I was a Green. The reporter looked like I'd hit her with a freshly caught walleye. Then said in a small voice "...with envy?"

      tl;dr - yeah, we're doomed alright.

    3. Doomed we may be, but THAT is funny! :)

  5. I confess to an early Sam Harris infatuation. I'm over it. I was green, but not with envy. Now I'm just trying to wipe the faux off my face.