Reviewed: “A Bold Fresh Piece of Humanity” by Bill O’ Reilly (Broadway, 2008).
In this slight, self-indulgent memoir, Bill O’Reilly tells us how he got so “bold” and “fresh.” A humble man, he attributes his success to his own innate greatness, with honorable mention going to his solidly rock-headed upbringing in Levittown, N.Y. For all his generous praise of Levittown, O’Reilly is very clear that most of the credit should go to himself: “Looking back, the reason I have succeeded in life is that I relied on myself.”
This typical piece of self-congratulation comes in a bizarre 10-page digression about Hurricane Katrina, in which O’Reilly contrasts his bold, fresh childhood in Levittown 50 years ago with the disastrous government-dependency of those New Orleans residents who spoiled Bush’s presidency by getting themselves drowned: “If I had lived in New Orleans, I would have gotten in my car and driven the hell out of there as soon as the national weather service gave warning.” In case the reader missed the point, Bill says that the dead in New Orleans were “either too dumb, too lazy, too mentally challenged, or too unlucky to have provided themselves with basic protections.”
Stupid and callous as that may sound, it’s the sort of proclamation that helped O’Reilly “succeed in life.” In fact, this sort of non sequitur is the most powerful rhetorical device in O’Reilly’s part of the ideological spectrum. O’Reilly’s real function is to say out loud, on television, this sort of thing — and get away with it. His fans don’t argue; they hate argument or discussion on principle. They simply glory in the fact that O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh have found a way to blurt out their long-nursed spite on national TV and get away with it — in fact, “succeed in life” by doing it. So, the raw boasting that characterizes this book is something that O’Reilly’s nameless fans can share, knowing that O’Reilly’s success, such as it is, represents the fact that their long-choked spite has at last found its voice.
O’Reilly’s notorious catchphrase, “Shut up!” isn’t by any means a mere eruption of bad temper; it’s his ideology. His version of conservatism, which he calls “traditionalism,” emphasizes silent obedience. He proudly recalls learning the habit of not discussing important matters as a child: “My folks knew what was happening in the world, but did not feel compelled to comment.”
The traditionalist view is simple dualism, as O’Reilly explains it: “You either fight active evil, or you accept it.” Of course, without the possibility of real discussion, you might wonder how the traditionalist decides whether a particular cultural phenomenon is evil. O’Reilly’s view is, again, proudly rock-headed: “My view of evil, like just about everything else about me, is simple and straightforward.” To demonstrate that distinguishing good from evil is actually a piece of cake, O’Reilly offers the reader examples from five current controversies. The most interesting question in the O’Reilly Catechism is No. 4: “Terrorists around the world are responsible for killing and injuring thousands of human beings. Are all terrorists evil?”
What makes this question interesting is that in another chapter of his memoir, O’Reilly boasts (and it is a boast) that he worked in El Salvador in 1981. That was a very bloody year in El Salvador, and much of the blood was spilled by U.S.-trained-and-sponsored units of the Salvadoran army. Many of the liberal quibblers O’Reilly deplores said that those massacres made America complicit in terrorist violence.
In this context, it’s surprising to find O’Reilly actually bragging that he went on assignment to the scene of the most notorious of these massacres: “When the CBS News bureau chief asked for volunteers to check out an alleged massacre in the dangerous Morazan Territory, a mountainous region bordering Nicaragua, I willingly went.”
This story is a brief aside in O’Reilly’s long account of all the brave things he’s done in his life. El Salvador gets a couple of paragraphs, whereas his story about quarterbacking the second-string football team against the first-stringers gets four pages of tedious detail. In O’Reilly’s picture of the world, that “alleged” massacre is nothing but a bar boast, another claim to alpha-male status.
Unfortunately, this was no “alleged” massacre. This was the El Mozote massacre, one of the most horrific slaughters of civilians in this hemisphere. For three days in December 1981, the U.S.-trained Atlcalatl Battalion of the El Salvadoran army surrounded the village of El Mozote and its surrounding hamlets, and raped, tortured and killed at least 1,000 villagers suspected of sympathy for the Marxist FMLN.
If O’Reilly really went to El Mozote after the massacre, he saw not an “alleged” abuse but raw “evil,” if that term has any meaning at all. O’Reilly helpfully supplies a definition of evil in his catechism on terrorism: “murdering innocent women and children is the most cowardly act on earth.” Of those killed at El Mozote by American proxies, the vast majority were women and children. Mark Danner’s detailed account of the slaughter in the New Yorkerdescribes the moment when some soldiers balked, briefly, at the prospect of killing all the children:
“Well, we’ve killed all the old men and women,” one [soldier] said. “But there’s still a lot of kids down there. You know, a lot of those kids are really good-looking, really cute. I wouldn’t want to kill all of them. Maybe we can keep some of them, you know — take them with us.”
“What are you talking about?” another soldier answered roughly. “We have to finish everyone; you know that. That’s the colonel’s order. This is anoperativo de tierra arrasada here” — a scorched-earth operation — “and we have to kill the kids as well, or we’ll get it ourselves.”
“Listen, I don’t want to kill kids,” the first soldier said.
“Look,” another said. “We have orders to finish everyone, and we have to complete our orders. That’s it.”
At about this time, up on the hill known as El Pinalito, Capt. Salazar was shrugging off a guide’s timid pleafor the children’s lives. “If we don’t kill them now,” he said angrily, “they’ll just grow up to be guerrillas. We have to take care of the job now.”
By any standards, even O’Reilly’s, this was pure evil. O’Reilly was there. He saw it face to face. And it made no impression on him at all, for the childish, contemptible reason that this particular slaughter of women and children was committed by people on the team he happened to support. So much for the O’Reilly theory of morality. He has none, and more importantly, he doesn’t want to know.
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