How many liberals have politically noxious relatives who were once reasonable people until they turned on Rush Limbaugh for their commute to work or ran across Fox as they flipped through their cable channels? Robert Sobel, writing for the Examiner, asked the question, “Why do Americans vote against their own interests?” He concluded that too many Americans are caught in the right wing misinformation echo chamber, whether it is listening to right wing radio, watching Fox News, or reading the conservative blogosphere. Recently, an upcoming documentary, “The Brainwashing of My Dad,” has been gaining attention. For this documentary, Jen Senko traces the history of her father’s transformation from mild-mannered Democrat to angry, racist Republican. As one might guess, this metamorphosis occurred following a change in his routine where he ended up having a long commute to work and tuned into Rush Limbaugh. His seething, bitter personality change only worsened as he dove deeper into right wing media. In her documentary, when it is completed, she intends to show her efforts to “de-program” her father. No doubt everyone will be curious to see how that works out.
Personally, in my family, the worst offenders in terms of personality deterioration following heavy doses of the right wing propaganda mill have been my grandfather and uncle. My late grandfather was a retired chiropractor, had no TV, and sat around his house much of the day listening to the radio. Somewhere along the way, he tuned his radio into Rush Limbaugh in the early 1990s. He was positively relentless from that time forward in his attempts to draw me into listening as well, and the fact that this went on for well over a decade fits well with a brainwashing model.
Where he was once more supportive of women’s rights, suddenly he was using terms like, “feminazi” in his letters to me, which came frequently. Since letters had always been his primary means of contact with me, I can actually line them up in chronological order to see my conservative, but evenhanded grandfather go from a supportive man who supported women’s rights to one who began to constantly degrade poor people, even my own family who had the misfortune to need government assistance.
It was hurtful, and I told him so. He relented for a bit, but forgot his emotional impact, and then started in again with another Limbaugh-inspired rant.
As he cast his Republican vote each time, he voted against his interests, because after that vote he promptly went right to the Salvation Army to eat lunch as he did every day, given that Social Security was his only income. Unfortunately, he struggled with financial problems because he also spent a lot of his money getting swindled by the conservative scam industry which has been built up in this country.
Dishearteningly, this man became a lesser person, a meaner person, and his hours of Limbaugh listening were directly to blame. But if my grandfather softened his rightwing rhetoric when I reminded him that he was actually enraged and bitter about “those” people, and one of “those” people was a group his granddaughter belonged to, not so with my uncle. His hatred knows no bounds. His venom and toxicity is so beyond the scope of my ability to cope, I had to completely shut down that relationship. For example, he railed against the fact that 30 years ago children who received free lunch were eligible to attend a three-day music camp for free in my hometown, so I got to go. Somehow, he had held onto this memory all these years and he spewed out his complaint that his son never got offered a “free ride” to camp. This particular uncle spent time on food stamps in the 1970s, and eventually built a small, but successful trucking magazine business, which he sold for over a million dollars. As one might guess, he spends all of his free time in retirement absorbing Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and the rest of right wing media. I hear his nasty comments secondhand through my mother now, and I never understand how she takes his constant abusive comments about lazy, parasitic poor people, which by extension are also directed at her. I guess everyone’s gotta have a crazy uncle.
Sadly, like an epidemic, the brainwashing spread from one family member to family member until it was nearly impossible to find someone who wasn’t a right-wing conservative with a deep-seated resentment toward minorities, the poor, and even my nuclear family, their own flesh and blood. It is for this reason that I am eager to see Ms. Senko’s film with a particular eye on whether she is successful with deprogramming her father. In all honesty, I have my doubts. Perhaps, she hires a real deprogrammer of cult fame, but they aren’t always successful either, and her father’s had decades to harden his belief system.
To explain her father’s conversion, and the political mutation of so many Americans for the “The Brainwashing of My Dad” documentary, Senko has interviewed cognitive, linguistic, and media experts like Jeff Cohen, George Lakoff and Noam Chomsky. She also intends to interview other experts. No doubt they will all speak of a singular theme: the media has become overly consolidated in the hands of corporations that have a political agenda in their coverage of public affairs. It began with the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine, deregulation of the airwaves with the neutering of the FCC, and brings us to today’s rampant media consolidation (the decision about whether to allow Time-Warner and Comcast to merge into another mammoth media corporation is still pending). The experts will also likely speak to methods of propaganda. Many of these have been highlighted in the documentary, “Outfoxed,” as well. Somehow Americans need to become aware of the manipulative effects of “puppeteer media,” media designed to get people to follow unquestioningly fact-free infotainment and punditry with the purpose of getting them to vote against their best interests. There’s been a mass brainwashing in this country. Since so many of us have watched our loved ones get sucked into this message machine, often with personal harm to our relationships, it has to be a priority to learn how to overcome the effects of well-moneyed misinformation noise.
Deborah is a former social work professor who taught social policy, mental health policy, and human diversity. Proud to be called liberal, she happily pays her taxes after being raised in a home that needed long-term welfare. Contrary to the opinion of many, she is living proof that government investment in children leads them out of poverty having received services from Head Start to Pell Grants. Deborah works with low-income, first generation, and disabled college students who are at high-risk for dropping out of college in a program designed to help them graduate. She lives with her husband, stepson, and an aging cat.