On Sunday morning, I left my iPod’s audio cable in a rental car in Alabama, which, although not quite like leaving my heart in San Francisco, was nearly as regrettable — given that my plan for the next three days consisted almost solely of driving hundreds of miles across flat Texas in pursuit of a story. It turns out that America is just a tiny bit bigger than England, and, in many of her more rural parts, one can get hold of little more than crackly talk radio. So, when I tired of the sound of the road, I listened to that instead.
In England — as in much of the rest of the world, for that matter — there really is no such thing as polemical talk radio. BBC Radio 4, the government-run “news, drama, comedy, science and history” station that NPR evidently aspires to be, is a national treasure, as is its global counterpart, the BBC World Service. Nevertheless, despite the high quality of their magazine features, politics on these stations is curated, attenuated, and slow. As with its sister stations on the BBC, Radio 4’s current-affairs shows are little more than odes to popular conceit, in which even the slightest departure from political and cultural orthodoxy is either ruthlessly crushed live on air or quietly screened out before the caller or contributor has even had a chance to upset the sensibilities of the audience.
Local and national stations that explicitly cover politics do not fill the talk gap, either. As the London Telegraph’s Janet Daley likes to observe, the BBC’s own Fairness Doctrine has seeped down into the few commercial stations that the state broadcaster has failed to crowd out. The establishment brush has painted the airwaves beige. To comprehend, imagine a country in which no broadcast ever gets more heated or edgy than Meet the Press.
Flicking the sparse AM channels in my rental car, I came across the Infowars show, hosted by conspiracy theorist and professional paranoiac Alex Jones. I must confess that I was somewhat impressed. One doesn’t have to like what it is that Jones is saying to appreciate that it is a healthy thing in a free country that he may speak so stupidly so openly. Yes, the man is almost certainly certifiable, and his show is incoherent, extreme, and bizarre. But, so what? His view of the world clearly does have a constituency, and it is the role neither of the state nor of the elites to decide what is and what is not acceptable to the people.
Indeed, while the American radio waves and the frequencies themselves are not unregulated, what is said on air pretty much is. Here was Jones claiming openly that the planet is, in his own words, a “prison.” In the course of the half-hour that I could stand to drive through, he asserted that a) the country in which he lives, upon whose airwaves he speaks without hindrance, and whose citizenry he addresses is a fascist, imperialist nightmare, whose government b) repeatedly attacks itself to justify its nefarious behavior, and c) is not beyond massacring children in a school to assert control. Then for good measure, he assured listeners that if that government or anybody else came to try and hurt him, he would happily shoot them to death. He said all this, remember, not to his friends in a basement but on a network that consists of between 60 and 70 AM and FM radio stations, a bunch of shortwave-radio operations, and a channel on the satellite-radio provider, XM. In which other country would this be not just tolerated but also largely ignored?
Even the ease with which someone mainstream, such as Rush Limbaugh, operates is remarkable. For a couple of hours, Limbaugh slammed all levels of government, criticizing the president, the Department of Justice, the FBI, the state of Florida, the city of Sanford, and the entire establishment media, charging the federal government with inciting race riots and all but accusing the United States government of promoting tyranny. This is pretty standard for him. And in 20 or so years, the worst thing that has happened to Limbaugh is that the more vehement among his detractors have unsuccessfully spent their time trying to coerce the dull money-losing enterprise that is progressive talk radio into a position of commercial parity. As it stands, he thrives, boasting audience numbers of which the cognoscenti could only dream. Look at the Arbitron charts, and you’ll find similar numbers for Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, and Glenn Beck.
Compare this with Britain, in which Alex Jones was famously cut off by the BBC for his conspiracy mongering, and the white-supremacist leader Nick Griffin was prevented from being exposed on the BBC’s Question Time panel show for the insidious and dangerous charlatan that he is by the BBC’s decision to turn his controversial appearance on the show into a set-piece verbal lynching that managed, somehow, to turn Griffin into the victim. Others perceived as being unacceptable are either prosecuted or kept out of the country altogether.
The presence of edgy players who cannot be denied access to the market by establishment gatekeepers is a rare and beautiful thing, the product not only of a Constitution that guarantees free speech to its citizenry but also of a strikingly healthy culture of open expression within which a significant number of Americans refuse to acquiesce to an establishmentarian center-point that the powers that be have set in aspic. It is thus that casual drivers flicking easily through publicly available radio stations can listen to sentiments that the majority of the world’s governments would almost certainly classify as existential threats. Equally beautiful is the bevy of religious radio stations, which are especially plentiful in the South. Many cosmopolitan types presumably find much of the content of this programming difficult. As a heathen myself, I have little need for them. But, again, so what? This is religious freedom. Diversity is good, right?
Britain has serious problems with its punishment of speech, and the government abuses of free men that I have documented in National Review remain a disgrace to the land of Orwell, Mill, and Locke. Yet I suspect that it is not solely the lack of a First Amendment that explains the lack of a Rush Limbaugh or an Alex Jones but instead a cultural conformity that is partly political, partly cultural, and partly geographical. (America’s size and America’s liberty are linked.) The British do not enjoy as wide a variety of political views as do Americans, and the country does not enjoy as many religions or as many philosophies as do Americans. Nor are the Brits as happy to cut out the middleman and share their opinions as are Americans; for a neat example of this, count the number of bumper stickers in the two countries.
Indeed, what is regarded as acceptable discourse in Britain — and in much of the rest of the world — is limited, and, to the extent that marginal voices exist in Britain, they are to be found in underground organizations rather than on the airwaves.
I understand the reaction of some to extreme or disaffected voices. Like you, I have nothing but disdain for the Westboro Baptist Church or for the Ku Klux Klan — and for Alex Jones, as it happens. Nevertheless, I was thrilled when I first read the decision in 1969’s Brandenburg v. Ohio, which upheld the right of the KKK to march, and the more recent decision in Snyder v. Phelps, which upheld the Westboro Baptist Church’s proper asseveration that, in America, one party can not sue another for saying “outrageous” things on a sidewalk. These extremes, although distressing in and of themselves, are material proof that a country is free. Given that there is no earthly way of establishing absolutely that my views are right and that those held by others are wrong, the presence of voices I dislike in the debate serves virtuously as the guarantee of my capacity to participate with impunity.
I had a friend at Oxford called Jane. For a year or so, Jane lived in America, and she traveled extensively by car for work. Every time she saw a huckster’s sign that predicted that the end of the world was due next week or heard a radio broadcast that offended her or met someone with views she would rather not have heard, Jane’s love for America diminished slightly. I never understood this. True liberty practically invites all of that stuff. But you can make of it what you will. In my way of seeing things, you might as well scream at the television listings in the newspaper for advertising all of the shows you hate. Just switch them off. Switch them off and put on what you want. What I want will never be Alex Jones. But I’m pretty glad he exists out in the open — and, whatever your politics, you should be, too.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.