Assassination Fascination

Christianity Today‘s Ted Olsen reports on the Robertson “scandal” the right way: by following the money (scroll down to “Robertson’s Real Power.”) Olsen adds to the drumbeat of evangelical leaders denouncing Robertson’s assassination fascination, with links to denunciations (read: distancing) from evangelical bigs such as Os Guiness, Al Mohler, and Marvin Olasky, coiner of “compassionate conservatism,” who, in so many words, suggests that Robertson is a doddering old fool. An off-key note sounded in this chorus of rebukes comes from Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals. Robertson, says Pastor Ted, was simply “working with some ideas.”

Indeed — ideas he’s been working with for some time, having endorsed assassination as U.S. policy in 2004 and 1999 (I’d link it for you, but Google is overwhelmed by The Chavez Affair). Yesterday I blogged the fact that CNN had invited me to comment on Robertson v. Chavez — for which I made that point, my lone contribution to the tower of high-minded babel built upon Robertson’s words by the mainstream media. Of course, no friends or family saw my CNN debut, because I neglected to tell them — indeed, didn’t know myself — that I was commenting not for CNN, exactly, but for the CNN Headline News program, “Showbiz Tonight.”

Which, of course, is where this “news” belongs. That said, the program — which airs at 7 pm and 11 pm eastern time, effectively displacing the traditional news hours with “showbiz,” managed to de-politicize Robertson. Here’s how CNN deployed my two bits:

[CNN correspondent David]HAFFENREFFER: But was Robertson advocating a new course in U.S. policy, or was he just playing to an audience?

JEFF SHARLET, RELIGION/MEDIA EXPERT: He`s a televangelist. He`s a showman. He’s going to use hyperbolic language.

Indeed — he’s an aging Abbie Hoffman of the religious right. But that doesn’t undermine his words. Life Hoffman, Robertson is a sort of trickster figure, presiding over a mixture of inspiration, cornpone, and politics on “The 700 Club” as if he was hosting a rhetorical vaudeville program. He says extreme things, so extreme that more “reasonable” conservatives get to look moderate by denouncing them — even as Robertson pushes the rightward edge of the rhetorical spectrum a little further. For instance: Robertson merely followed the leads of Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleeza Rice, both of whom have recently denounced Chavez. While Rumsfeld explicitly rejected Robertson’s recommendation, he may be thankful for the televangelist’s foregrounding of a U.S. opponent previously unknown to most of the public. Any action taken against Chavez now that’s short of assassination will seem like a moderate response.

Not according to me, as seen on CNN. A few moments after being identified as an “expert,” my authority was expanded to “some”:

[HAFFENREFFER:]Still, even with Robertson`s influence, some think that extended TV news debates and a diplomatic spat with Venezuela will be the only impact of his rant.

SHARLET: I don`t think there`s much of a chance that some grandma in Virginia is going to watch the show and hop on a plane to Venezuela and try and take Hugo Chavez, the paratrooper, out.

No, probably not — but “Showbiz Tonight”‘s main event that evening demonstrated the potential political impact of Robertson’s words. Remeber, this is a deliberately fluffy entertainment program, not “hard news” — that’s what makes its “conventional wisdom” all the more revealing. The program brought on as live commentators two conservative radio hosts — both veterans of the conservative “Truth” tour of Iraq –to debate Robertson’s remarks.

On the right: Mark Williams, who’s only objection is that Chavez is a “mosquito,” and thus not worthy of execution, unlike, say, “that crazy midget in North Carolina (sic), Kim Song-Il [sic].”

On the left: Martha Zoller, a self-described Christian conservative who thinks Robertson “went a little too far.”

Not much of a spectrum. But then, there’s not much of a debate about what really seems to matter here: Oil. CNN’s “Showbiz Tonight” was unique in evaluating Robertson’s remarks as performance. It’s more respectable news programs devoted the majority of their time to analyzing the alleged threats posed to the U.S. by Chavez.

The fallout of Robertson’s remarks? Pat’s back on the national radar. He strikes an underhanded blow against George W. Bush, a political enemy within the right. Chavez is newly on the national radar, as a man who should either A) be killed; or B) “dealt with” in some other manner. And assassination as a political tool is once again up for debate.

That’s entertainment.

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