The Sound, Fury, and Contradictions of Bill O'Reilly

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The
O'Reilly Factor

by
Bill O'Reilly
Broadway
Books
New
York: Broadway, 2000. Pp. 1, 214.

Bill
O'Reilly can be one of the most irritating people in the world.
A good example was in late December 1999 when at the end of his
nightly show on the Fox News Channel, The O'Reilly Factor,
he decided to commemorate the approach of the year 2000 by naming
Franklin Delano Roosevelt "Man of the Century." Time
magazine had considered it, but somewhat more wisely chose Albert
Einstein instead. O'Reilly should have been brighter than the editors
of Time. What gave? It turns out, nothing.

After
the broadcast I e-mailed him and to my great surprise the next night
(December 29, 1999) he read a portion of my letter on the air:

"Your
selection of FDR as u2018Hero of the Century' was astoundingly ignorant
and misguided. FDR did NOT save the nation from the Great Depression.
The number of workers unemployed when he was elected in Nov. 1932
was 11.4 million. The number unemployed in May 1938 (after $17 billion
of failed government spending) was 11.8 million."

I
wrote more of course, mentioning the havoc Social Security will
visit on today's young generation and FDR's internment of 100,000
Japanese Americans, but that's all O'Reilly saw fit to air. O'Reilly
replied that my view was "narrow" and then asserted that
FDR brought "calm" to the country after the stock market
crash, "took the country off of the gold standard," and
showed leadership in steering the country through the Great Depression.
Even if those achievements were true – except for the claim about
the gold standard, they're nostalgic fantasy – I'm still puzzled as
to how FDR, the man who appointed an ex-Klansman to the Supreme
Court and imprisoned 100,000 Japanese Americans from 1942-45, can
be given a hero's status by anyone.

This
is the problem with O'Reilly. If you're looking for a consistent
political philosophy from him, you're not going to get it from his
show or this book by the same name. But like his show, what you
will get from his book are many poignant observations and an entertaining
read.

The
first third of the book is concerned with the socioeconomic factors
(no pun intended) that O'Reilly believes are central to an individual's
life in 21st-Century America. The next fifth of the book
is comprised of O'Reilly's views of, and advice on, relationships
with friends and family members. The last half of the book constitutes
O'Reilly's thoughts on various social and cultural phenomena as
well as his lists of the "Good, Bad, and Ridiculous" things
and people in American culture, past and present.

The
book's target audience is unquestionably people who are familiar
with O'Reilly's show on Fox. Each chapter is divided into subdivisions
that match those used on his TV show: "Ridiculous Note,"
"Talking Point," "Viewer Time-Out," "Bulletin,"
and "This Just In." Paragraphs constituting different
trains of thought inside these subdivisions are separated with a
small TV icon. So many subdivisions are superfluous and become annoying
after a while. Books and television shows are different media and
conventions effective on TV aren't necessarily effective, or even
appropriate in books. Even so, O'Reilly's material is still interesting
and the big plus is that it isn't another regurgitation of material
already covered on his show. This was the eminent flaw of Rush Limbaugh's
first book outing, The
Way Things Ought to Be
, a tome filled with material already
worn to pieces on his radio show.

In
the first six chapters Mr. No Spin Zone spins his theory of the
socioeconomic structure of American life. What emerges is not novel,
just pedestrian populism. O'Reilly's Fox-slogan effort to be "fair
and balanced" carries over to his book. He's not a conservative,
liberal, or libertarian because he believes that "the truth
doesn't have labels." (So how can O'Reilly's worldview then
be designated as "truth?"). Thus O'Reilly immediately
runs afoul of the Veblenian contradiction: denigrating taxonomy
only to build his socioeconomic theory around a very simplistic
one.

O'Reilly
tells us that it is "essential that we all look at American
life the way it really is today. If we don't…we're gonna
lose the battles to the frauds, fools, and thieves…" Ironic
in that he next asserts that the central unfairness of American
society stems from its rigid class structure. He then makes the
eyebrow-raising claim that "[p]oliticians don't usually talk
about class." (One wonders where O'Reilly was on Super Tuesday
1992 when Bill Clinton, with a black infant cradled in his arms,
walked the streets of New Orleans promising to get even with "the
rich who didn't pay their fair share in the 1980s." This is
the same man who just pardoned an international fugitive who owed
Uncle Sam more than $40 million in taxes.)

The
effort to bury class importance – at least to O'Reilly – is huge: not
only involving politicians but advertisers and the rich themselves.
Being quite hyperbolic, O'Reilly writes that class "is the
bottom line, in a way, for every problem I talk about in this book."
Then, in his annoyingly persistent attempt to be "fair and
balanced," he follows this subtle egalitarian cheerleading
with the surprising inference that elite attitudes are the source
of "unfair tax laws, government indifference about our terrible
drug problem, or what kind of entertainment" Hollywood puts
out. He adds that elite attitudes also contribute to lax enforcement
of drunk-driving laws and more gun controls which punish law-abiding
citizens. True, but these are hardly ever conclusions reached by
almost all social analysts who believe with O'Reilly that class
is "the bottom line" of most of America's problems. You
can almost hear the Brookings Bolsheviks hissing. Their tack is
to emphasize class differences in order to argue for wealth redistribution,
something O'Reilly largely opposes along with the current tax burden
which he deems oppressive. But he strangely emphasizes class differences
as a eminent problem of American life and offers no solution. This
begs the question of whether class differences are really as problematic
as O'Reilly claims they are. O'Reilly doesn't like the fact that
while he was a student at Marist College, women wanted to date men
from Princeton and Cornell. O'Reilly's childhood friends still live
in Levittown, NY where he grew up. He wonders how many of them would
have been much happier to go to elite schools such as Harvard and
Yale and become physicians and architects.

O'Reilly,
The Great Contradicter, can of course be counted on to undercut
his own thesis. He discusses Jacqueline Kennedy's thrill at discovering
S&H green stamps from a White House employee and buying items
left and right to get the stamps in order to trade them for "free"
goods. He also mentions Sean "Puffy" Combs who hosts parties
at his Hamptons home for the likes of Martha Stewart. "Puffy,"
you'll recall, was recently indicted on charges stemming from a
nightclub shooting. Last of all O'Reilly, Mr. Working Class from
Levittown, discusses his own stint at Harvard's Kennedy School of
Government where he undertook postgraduate study. If class structure
is really so rigid, how did Mr. Levittown get to Harvard? Or has
O'Reilly become a member of that elite he now denounces?

O'Reilly
mentions that many of his Harvard acquaintances were nice and well
intentioned. In fact, many were studying politics to help others,
but they were "generally clueless about the lives…of working-class
Americans." This would be a great theme to develop: the dangers
of single, young, clueless ivy-league wonks making social policy
for a world with which they never interact. But alas, O'Reilly isn't
the one to make it, leaving many crucial stones unturned throughout
his book.

O'Reilly
can hit the nail on the head, but it is brief and incidental. He
points out that federal, state, and local governments are part of
the American system that fight to keep Americans' hard-earned money
away from them. He points out the absurdity of a man he saw on the
Phil Donahue Show some years ago demanding that taxpayers
not pay for wasteful programs but that the government pay for it
instead. "Have we got a problem in communication here?"
O'Reilly asks.

O'Reilly's
prescriptions on sex are thoroughly modern and in strong contradiction
to his strict Catholic upbringing. One of the book's surprises is
the revelation that he is definitely no social conservative, as
most viewers of his TV show might falsely conclude. Abstinence is
"intrustive and ridiculous…Use protection. Make dead sure
that no one else is going to be hurt by this encounter. Respect
your partner before and after." How nice. Sounds just like
Planned Parenthood. He also has a message for "religious fanatics"
(read: genuine Catholics, unlike himself): Scripture is not a reliable
guide to sexual morality because it condones slavery. Huh? I've
never understood the basis of this bizarrely prevalent view. How
anyone could read 1 Cor 7:21 or understand the context of the book
of Philemon and conclude that the Bible endorses slavery is beyond
me.

O'Reilly
observes that "anyone who wants to buy illegal drugs can find
them, as the authorities freely admit." He points out that
getting drunk or high is a cheap fix for dealing with the challenges
of life, hence it's especially attractive. Having unknowingly undermined
the case for restrictions on both supply and demand, he then
proceeds to support the War or Drugs with the same old specious
arguments peddled by Rush Limbaugh. Abusers hurt other people. He
backs this up with a "child abuse agency" statistic which
claims that 75% of all physical abuse against children is committed
by drunken adults. Also, unwanted pregnancies occur and STDs are
spread when people are too drunk to remember to use protection.
O'Reilly claims that legalization failed in "Needle Park"
in Zurich, Switzerland. Last of all, the law is a moral instructor.
If drugs are legal, that sends the message that drug use is okay.

Disregarding
the surely-cooked 75% figure, the rise in unwanted pregnancies and
the spread of STDs correlate not so much to do with alcohol (re-legalized
since 1933) as they do with the beginning of the Sexual Revolution
and the introduction of "morally neutral" sex-ed programs
in the public schools. The perennial "Needle Park" argument
is full of holes as to be laughable. Imagine drugs being legalized
tomorrow, but only in Peoria, Illinois; Peoria becomes the only
legal oasis of hard-drug consumption in North America. It's easy
to imagine how the town would be quickly overrun with the worst
druggies from all over the North American continent. The same thing
happened in "Needle Park" with respect to Europe. As for
the law being a moral instructor, the effectiveness of laws hinges
crucially on the strength of a society's moral consensus. When the
law has to be used to reinforce morality (as opposed to vice versa),
society is in trouble – and ours indeed is.

O'Reilly's
magic bullet to the drug problem? Prison rehab. Since the percentage
of addicts has remained stable over the previous decade, huge inroads
could be made by seizing these people in all 50 states and committing
them to forced rehab for at least a year. This would also do tremendous
financial damage to drug suppliers. Here's O'Reilly's dandy proposal
for just cokers: "Some 7 million Americans buy a total of 331
tons of cocaine each year…[t]ake half of these users off the streets
and place them in forced rehab, and the U.S. coke market would collapse.
You can count on it."

O'Reilly's
empirical basis for believing his plan would work comes from a program
in Alabama. Arrestees are drug tested. If the offender is convicted,
he/she has two choices in terms of prison sentence: a shorter sentence
in prison rehab or a lengthier one among the general prison population.
Unsurprisingly, more than 90% of convicted offenders choose rehab.
Those who have served their time and are released have to still
submit to years of drug testing. If they refuse or test positive,
they go back to prison.

As
an Alabamian, I'm puzzled as to what O'Reilly sees in this program.
O'Reilly glows that of the 5,000 enrollees, twice as many stay off
drugs after release than those who choose the normal prison route.
But the sample size is too small from which to draw any firm and
lasting conclusions. Novice users can be weened much more easily
than seasoned veterans like the Robert Downey Jrs. The statistics
don't contain these breakdowns. Drug tests remain beatable, as workers
submit their children's urine for tests.

Even
if the figures are accurate, they hardly mean anything – the inference
that a national program would produce the same results is the classic
fallacy of composition. Alabama is a mostly rural state with a relatively
undiverse and small population. As the policy is nationalized, the
system is confronted with hundreds of thousands of harder cases
who are intent on gaming the system. Given that drugs have been
impossible to keep out of ordinary prisons, how would they be kept
out of prison rehabs? These questions don't even begin to broach
the outrageous infringement of civil liberties this Maoist policy
portends.

O'Reilly
admits to having no solution with regard to alcohol. Here it becomes
obvious to the more careful reader that his analysis heretofore
is guilty of conflating what he truly believes are
very different issues. (The 75% child abuse stat he used earlier
dealt with alcoholic intoxication, not highs or lows produced
by other drugs. He also forgets that Alabama's program is aimed
at alcohol as well as drugs.) Running aground of tautology, he says
that alcoholism is a different problem because you can't force people
into treatment that weans them away from a legal product. "[A]lcoholics
can emotionally damage their families and drink themselves to death,
but society can do nothing but watch, unless there's physical abuse
or drunk driving." Since the adverse effects of drug abuse
on innocent bystanders are his rationalization for the drug war,
why isn't the collateral damage caused by alcohol abuse a reason
to return to alcohol prohibition? O'Reilly claims that the vast
majority of Americans are able to use alcohol without abusing it.
Maybe so, but the reality of collateral damage doesn't disappear
one iota even if it occurs among a minority of alcohol abusers (who
in total undoubtedly outnumber other drug abusers). Adultery entails
collateral damage as well: assault and battery, bitter divorce and
custody battles, out-of-wedlock children (Waz up, Jesse J.?), and
jealous homicides. Why not jail adulterers and force them into rehab
at the Jimmy Swaggart Ranch? Don't tell me adultery is that different.
Many people can handle it "without abusing it" (unwanted
pregnancies, their spouse finding out). A deservedly former in-law
of mine carried on a 9-year affair with his secretary before he
was discovered. Again, consistency is not something O'Reilly is
very interested in, especially since it so effectively undermines
his arguments.

Some
other instances of questionable judgement/logic:

Abraham
Lincoln: "A deeply kind human being, he showed his concern
for everyday Americans while trying to lead this country through
its greatest crisis so far." Boy, does this guy have a lot
of real history to learn.

Religion:
"It doesn't matter what you believe – as long as you believe
in something." Of course O'Reilly doesn't believe this.
He talks about getting the creeps during a visit to Victoria Falls
in Zambia, where human sacrifices were regularly thrown into the
falls to appease tribal gods. "I got out of there quick,"
says O'Reilly.

It
might be tempting for some libertarians to write off O'Reilly as
another statist blowhard. That would be a mistake since he is a
very effective critic of the liberal press, both Clintons, Alan
Greenspan, wasteful government spending, high taxation, and Jesse
"Flim Flam" Jackson. He is almost alone in the media calling
for an investigation of Jackson's finances and business organization.
Statist lapses aside, he puts forth a lot of keen cultural observations
that ring very true, such as those on:

Today's
"experts:"

Relationship
guru Barbara DeAngelis, who has made millions from her 8-book series
and Cable TV infomercial Making Love Work, who is now "working"
on her fifth marriage.

The
ridiculous expectations today's women have of marriage:

"…a
big house, late-model cars, and expensive "with-it" clothes,
great sex between hard bodies, varied and healthful foods, separate
space but mutual interests, stimulating conversation that helps
each partner "grow," fun parties and swell vacations,
exceptional children who can be bragged about on social occasions
and at the office…" The source of this nonsense? Cosmopolitan,
Glamour and other popular supermarket checkout rags that delude
women into thinking that they can "have it all" and that
every man who can't provide like a Kennedy is a loser.

The
wasteland of Cable TV:

[On
Nick at Night] Rhoda and Mary are mad at Lou because…Click…

VH-1
wants me to understand why onetime teen idol Leif Garrett is depressed
these days. He must be watching cable. Click…

Lifetime
has brought together a gaggle of women who all hate the fact that
men alway…Click…

MSNBC,
Fox, and CNN are all covering the same tornado in Texas. On all
three channels the same fire chief is looking very grim. I sympathize
but…Click…

Bill
Kurtis [on A&E] is investigating some prisons where prisoners
are not very happy. How does Bill find these stories? Have I lost
my competitive edge? Click…

[Back
to Nick at Night] Richie and the Fonz are mad at Chachi because
…Click…

Garth
Brooks…Click…

Racing
cars…Click…

Fake
wresting…Click…

Connie
Stevens…Help!…

O'Reilly
finishes out his book with his lists of the "Good, Bad, and
Ridiculous" people and institutions of American life. O'Reilly's
choices won't be much of a surprise to people who regularly watch
his show, so I won't tediously enumerate them here. But O'Reilly
has piqued me to name one of my own choices for each of these categories,
and my choices don't overlap with O'Reilly's. Here they are:

The
Good:

John
Candy – an American treasure, this great funnyman and actor
is almost forgotten just a few years after his death. Re-rent Planes,
Trains, and Automobiles
or Uncle
Buck
to re-experience this great.

The
Bad:

Paul
Krugman – Every profession has its prostitutes, and this man struts
his stuff with the best of the Washington set. His recent New
York Times "article" (really a collection of baseless
claims) blaming the California power debacle on "deregulation"
was an instant bonehead classic. Not the heir apparent to Galbraith
(whose urbanity and wit the one-dimensional Krugman can only equal
with the most vulgar arrogance) but just one more sign of the intellectual
and moral bankruptcy of today's mainstream economics establishment.

The
Ridiculous:

Laura
Schlessinger – I still remember the phone call that put me on to
this contemptible fraud. It was a young teenage boy who asked Dr.
Whore-a if it was okay for him to put a poster of a bikini-clad
woman on his wall. Whore-a denounced him as a sexist pig and hung
up on him. A few days later she had this to say about Wesley Snipes:
"These muscle-bound black men are just sooo hot." So much
for her crusades against "objectification" and the evils
of lust. The idiotic gay movement protested her TV show and caused
many more people to watch it than would have otherwise. Even so,
it still bombed and thankfully will soon be off the air.

If
you're looking for a light, entertaining read O'Reilly's book is
a good candidate. If you'd like to give him a good poke in the eye
for his political inconsistencies, email him this review at oreilly@foxnews.com.
Oh yeah, don't forget your "Name and town! Name and town!"

February
2, 2000

Dale
Steinreich, PhD, is a consulting economist. He
is also a regular contributor to AgainstTheCrowd.com.

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