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Sidewalks with Tom Deignan
Hate on the Campaign Trail
October 31, 2008
Sidewalks by Tom Deignan
RORY O’Connor knows a thing or two about culture clash. He describes his dad, a former construction worker, as a “patriotic guy” who thought it was wrong to protest America’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
The younger O’Connor believed that loving your country meant, from time to time, criticizing the actions of its leaders.
Things eventually got so bad between father and son that, says Rory, “My dad chased me down the street with a baseball bat.”
Though an extreme example, many New York Irish American families dealt with these generational tensions through the sixties and seventies. The O’Connors of Bellerose (on the Queens/Nassau border) did eventually reconcile. Rory, though, remains an outspoken critic of certain aspects of American political life.
He went on to become a documentary filmmaker and Emmy Award winner. Now, he has written a book about the continuing prevalence of hate speech in American political discourse, particularly among so-called radio shock jocks.
“I abhor the use of loaded language, ethnic slurs and other forms of hate speech, and always have,” O’Connor recently told the Irish Voice. “I started writing about the shock jocks and got a lot of interest.
“But I found that many of those who responded didn’t get the gravity of the situation, and often called for ME to stop ‘stifling free speech,” and ‘censoring’ the First Amendment rights of people like Don Imus and Michael Savage, and telling me if I didn’t like what I heard on the airwaves, I should just change the channel.”
The resulting book is entitled Hate Speech: Shock Jocks and Talk Radio
(AlterNet). It is an unapologetically anti-right wing expose of talk radio jocks whose racist, sexist and otherwise offensive rants, in O’Connor’s mind, poison the political atmosphere.
“I wrote the book out of frustration with the fact that, despite all my blogging and speaking out, a lot of people still didn’t seem to have even the most basic facts about the shock jocks, what they were actually saying, and what we can do about it,” adds O’Connor.
O’Connor attended St. Gregory the Great elementary school and went to high school in Mineola. A “mixed marriage,” he says with a laugh, “was defined as an Irish American marrying an Italian American.”
He adds, “I find it ironic now to discover that a lot of people are giving their children first names that match the last names of everyone I grew up with — Kelly, Brady, Conner and the like!”
More than ethnicity, O’Connor said he was “acutely aware of class distinctions from an early age.”
These interests in race, class, gender and more converge in his book on radio hate speech, which has been praised by, among others, journalism icon Walter Cronkite.
“A shocking number of top radio talk show hosts regularly spout hate speech over our public airwaves,” Cronkite has said, adding that O’Connor’s book is an “intriguing, eye-opening and hugely important work, a must read account of the dangers of blurring opinion, journalism and entertainment — at the expense of our democratic discourse and ideals.”
According to O’Connor, we have seen some of this disturbing behavior on the campaign trail.
Some recent Republican events may be looked back upon as low points in American political history. There have been speeches or rallies where the crowds have shouted things like “terrorist” or “kill him,” perhaps referring to a controversial figure from Senator Barack Obama’s past, or perhaps even the Democratic candidate himself.
Interestingly, O’Connor targets two fellow outspoken Irish Americans – Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. But, just as he clashed with his own dad, it’s clear that the Irish New York experience can produce very different kinds of political thinkers.
Ultimately, O’Connor believes Americans are to set aside suspicions based on race and focus on class and elect Obama next week.
“But everything everyone has said about this campaign already has been wrong,” O’Connor adds with a laugh, “so who knows?”
(Contact Tom at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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