Last week I was greeted with an uncomfortable curiosity: a brace of hate mail in my inbox, received within a 20-minute span. The first came at 7:26: "You are an uneducated writer! You need to get your fact straight! You are a liberal bastard! You need to get informed!" All arguable propositions, perhaps, but that still left the question: why was this person realizing that precisely now, and why, two minutes later, did "Dr. Anthony" feel moved to inform me, "I've noticed a trend that left-wing extremists tend to be exceedingly ugly & perverse. Living with that ugliness & deviance seems to lead to an aberration of thought as well. I am attempting to formulate the correlation..."
And then, while he did, as if on a schedule, another deluge hit some three hours later, the messages several notches more frightening:
"Your a piece of s---. we will hunt you left wing libs down one by one. you lieing piece of trash."
"So perlstein,whats your problem with Fox and conservatives. you jews should be dancing on the ceilings.you have control of the government,obama,congress, senate...."
"You sir are far more dangerous than Sarah Palin ever will be."
YouTube soon revealed all. Bill O'Reilly had run a segment on an article I published in the July 20 Newsweek, along with a picture—my author photograph—and a description of me—"this Perlstein," who had written "some book no one heard of," spit out with such venom that more than one friend of mine thought of Sasha Baron Cohen's Borat singing about throwing a Jew down a well. I was, Bill O'Reilly explained, an agent of "media corruption." In a subsequent newspaper column, O'Reilly summarized the problem thus: "Under the guise of hard news reporting, the media is pushing rank propaganda on the citizenry. Dr. Joseph Goebbels the Nazi propaganda minister, successfully developed this tactic in the 1930s."
Were I a conservative, and a fan of Sarah Palin, and a viewer of Bill O'Reilly—but not a particularly conscientious reader of Newsweek—I would have been mad at me, too.
What had I written, and what had Newsweek attempted to get away with? Here's how one friendly blogger summarized "Beyond the Palin": "Perlstein's entire article is ... a chronicle of the division within Republican ranks between the party's elites ... and its far more strident base." Any contempt present in the piece, he pointed out, came not in my own voice but those of the elite Republicans I quoted, who "treat part of the base with a certain amount of disdain, courting them with a wink and a nod when necessary, dissociating from them ... when they fail to deliver the electoral goods.... Indeed, Perlstein's article is not so much a liberal elitist sneer at the lumpen proletariat in fly-over country as much as it is a careful examination of conservative elites toward those they regard as such."
In truth the article was a little more than that. I also quoted author and former Bush speechwriter David Frum asking worriedly, "What's happening to Fox News?", and suggested that, in an era of occasional violence from the right-wing fringe, all responsible conservatives should all be asking that question. My friend David Neiwert, a Seattle-based journalist and author of the recent book The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right, explained to me the problem thus: "I'm hearing now, from supposedly mainstream conservative pundits"—he singled out Fox's Glenn Beck, who has been entertaining the notion that Obama might not be a natural-born American citizen—"the kind of extreme rhetorical appeals that I used to hear from militia movement leaders in the early 1990s, talk about how the evil liberal president literally intends to destroy our country."
Again, my point was not to give my personal opinion of Palin or her followers, or O'Reilly, Beck, and theirs, but that of another segment of the Republican coalition, and explore the consequences of this divide for American politics. Maybe I did so effectively, maybe not; that's for the reader to judge. The political phenomenon I described, meanwhile, rolls on: just the other day a town hall held by Rep. Mike Castle of Delaware, a moderate Republican, was disrupted by a constituent who, holding up her own birth certificate in a plastic bag, delivered an impassioned tirade about how congressmen like Castle had failed patriotic Americans by allowing Barack Obama, a "citizen of Kenya," to be inaugurated in the first place. The lion's share of the crowd appeared to support her with cheers, and deride Rep. Castle, who may be running for the Senate, with boos. "He is a citizen of the United States," Castle implored repeatedly, before being drowned out by a spontaneous Pledge of Allegiance from the crowd.
O'Reilly's main point was that since I'm a liberal writer, and even and unabashedly a liberal activist, I couldn't analyze any of this in a fair or useful way. Again, I trust the reader to make that judgment themselves. I never hide my liberal sympathies, as a quick visit to Google will confirm (one of the first articles that will come up is my eulogy for my late friend William F. Buckley, who I describe as my "role model" in striving to make ideologically pointed arguments with civility and intellectual responsibility—and who was among the many conservatives kind in expressing their admiration for the two books I have published on the history of conservatism). O'Reilly says NEWSWEEK misrepresented my piece—this is where the language about "media corruption" comes in—as a straightforward news story. Here he proved himself an inattentive analyst. As NEWSWEEK editor Jon Meacham clearly explained in his recent essay introducing the newly reimagined NEWSWEEK, the section of the magazine labeled "Features"—which is where my article appeared—will include "the argued essay—a piece, grounded in reason and supported by evidence, that makes the case for something." He noted the attendant tradeoff: fewer "straightforward news" pieces.
Bill O'Reilly got a lot wrong. So what? He's entitled; nobody's perfect. But he also did something far harder to excuse. He invented, for his loyal viewers who have invested in him their trust as a man who gives it straight, with "no spin," a villain—someone to hate. He did so in language that was precisely and specifically violent. "This Perlstein," he asked his guest: "Doesn't he have a Web site where he says he wants conservatives to explode or something?" (He doesn't; though he used to write a blog for a D.C.-based liberal think tank entitled "The Big Con," which argued, among other things, that conservative leaders exploited the decent aspirations of conservative citizens.) No wonder one of his followers was willing, on the evidence provided, to call me (this was at 7:46 p.m.) "a homosexual" who should "move to a third world country."
O'Reilly claimed in his column that I, and NEWSWEEK magazine, too, am part of a movement, one that wants "to knock out Judeo-Christian traditions." I suppose he would include in this movement the friendly blogger I quoted above, the one who sympathetically paraphrased my article—even though that writer, Geoffrey Kruse-Safford, a religious liberal from Rockford, Illinois, calls his blog "What's Left in the Church." (Geoffrey's not a minister, but his wife is.) But me, and Geoffrey, and the "citizen of Kenya" Barack Obama, and probably Geoffrey's minister wife: some Americans want to insist we are aliens, that we are other, not really American at all.
They might also say I am trying—it's a frequent trope on Fox, and in my e-mail inbox—to "shut them up" by making the argument. I most certainly am not. My inbox—firstname.lastname@example.org—remains open to them; I try to respond to all comers. I'd love, in fact, to talk about all this with O'Reilly. But I have to draw a bright line first. Bill, please assure your trusting viewers that I'm not interested in "exploding" anyone. And can the claims that this American—any American, really—is trying to destroy America. Everyone, including conservatives who want to see the Republican Party unite and succeed, will all be much better off.