Lionel – Don’t Call Him Liberal
DON’T CALL HIM LIBERAL
BY RONALD SKLAR
On radio, Lionel is the anti-talk-show talk-show host. His three-hours of truth and critical thinking now makes its new home on the new Air America network (check your local radio listings or log on to http://www.airamerica.com.).
As well, a book featuring his unique views of politics and life will be published by Hyperion Books later this year (we’ll be sure to keep you posted on that).
Lionel, a former prosecutor, started his career in radio as a caller himself. His quick wit and rational, methodological thinking challenged the status quo of the hysterical-style format known as conservative talk radio.
This successful but copycatted formula was the saving grace of AM radio for over twenty years, even though boldly individual opinions and interesting originality took a back seat to Republican talking points and cookie-cutter personalities (think of such Republican Party tools as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity).
Lionel introduced something revolutionary to this tiresome recipe: thinking for yourself on an issue-by-issue basis! It caused a quiet stir and a slowly swirling counter storm as he took on the same-old same-old.
He grew his audience from a local station in his native Florida to – eventually – the giant WABC and then WOR in New York City, and then on to national syndication.
No crackpot tirades like Michael Savage, no Republican goose-stepping like Glenn Beck; instead, just cool, calm reasoning with a healthy dose of you-get-it-or-you-don’t humor. A very loyal fan base smiled and followed this pied piper – people who couldn’t take another moment of right-wing rah-rah, people who yearn to breathe Lionel’s logical air.
As they say on Fox News, “get this:” Lionel labels himself neither a liberal nor a conservative; he truly tackles each issue from absolute scratch. Listen as he thinks it through. Unlike predictable talkers like Limbaugh and Hannity, you truly never know what Lionel is going to say or think next.
He’s against gun control, for instance (surprise!). And he questions the motives of Reverend Al Sharpton (liberal? We think not).
He’ll also talk about sex in the way that Howard Stern never could. And where most Republican conservatives fear sex, Lionel invites everyone into the pool. He talks to transgender people not to tease them but to learn something about them. And he’ll request the most neglected group of people in all of talk radio – African Americans – to call in and tell white America what they’re truly, truly feeling.
It’s radio at its most compelling, and it sure beats the incessant tom-toms of conservative radio’s war cry of “better to fight them there than to fight them here.”
His growing audience savors this boldly different flavor, even though he barely suffers fools gladly (the term “thank you for taking my call” or calling September 11th “nine-one-one” make him cringe).
Talk radio is changing, at long last. The days of all-conservative programming are becoming as clichéd and as outdated as a minstrel show. Right wingers are scrambling to make sense of their leader, this George Bush fella, for whom they seem to have a blind obedience. These talkers seemed to have sworn an oath to him early on, and now they cannot reasonably explain their way out of it. Listeners are getting hip to it. And although Air America is coming out swinging for Round Two, Lionel is just what their doctor ordered. No labels. No brands. No predictability.
Recently, I had the ultimate pleasure of speaking with Lionel at his favorite Irish pub in Manhattan. Here, I’ll share with you his general views, but make sure you tune in or podcast his daily show, so you can get the full monty.
What is your opinion of talk radio today? What do you listen to yourself?
Before Air America, I hated talk radio which was virtually all conservative claptrap. I cannot take this monotonous WRNC programming. I do not listen to it. It’s so conventional, so predictable, so replicated. It tends to be all Rush [Limbaugh] wannabes. Rush came along in the late eighties – that caught on, and everybody wanted to be the next Rush. And that momentum never lost steam. And now, there’s a new day. (Cue the tympani.) Air America!
Lack of creativity. But note that what made Rush great was his originality and humor. Though I never would consider him hysterically funny, his approach was at least unique. He took the label “conservative” and branded it. Thereafter, the wannabe’s thought incorrectly that they could just deliver the same old message, the same refrain. But without Rush’s touch it was ersatz. It’s the messenger, stupid! Not the message.
Who listens to talk radio?
The target audience is 25-54 ideally. Who they are – people who really like talk radio – are people who like hearing a voice. To some people, it’s almost like radio white noise, a voice in the background. It’s a quick way to pass the time. Maybe time goes by faster; maybe it’s an illusion. A radio tempus fugit. Callers (as opposed to listeners) love to compliment hosts with “You make me think.” Sorry, honey, that’s a no-brainer. (Was that a pun?) That’s like saying, “You make me breathe.” Thinking should come naturally, last time I checked. But I don’t know. Talk radio – with some exceptions like Air America – is pretty much the same today, I’m sorry to say. Talk radio can’t be formulated and packaged. Each host is unique, for better or worse. Drive across the country. Tune into music radio and hear a seemingly endless stream of Zoos, Magics and “whatevers.” It’s homogenized and formulaic. Talk radio as opposed music formats is unique as is the host. By the way, music radio is dead, moribund. Can you say “iPod”?
Why is conservative talk radio so successful?
People look at Rush’s success as the formula. The idea that talk radio is dependent upon who is in power is ridiculous. You can always find something to say. The thing with Rush is that he has lost a lot of his [original] sense of humor. He now sounds like the floor of the Senate. [You listen to him and you wonder what he wants you to do]: “Do you want me to vote or leave the country or kill myself? What should I do?”
Rush is first and foremost a broadcaster. [His show at the beginning] was entertaining; it was different. It was so politically incorrect. So instead of people saying, “we need another Rush,” they said, “we’ll out-Rush Rush.”
Don’t get me wrong, Rush is obscenely successful and is long from gone. The problem he’ll have, though, is that as his audience may remain the same, the country is changing. He frankly reflects a bumper sticker Republican viewpoint that resonates with fewer people. Not to mention, he’s more strident and frankly has lost a lot of his humor. Come on, making fun of Michael J. Fox’s Parkinson’s disease! He thought it was funny to suggest that Fox was laying off his meds to exacerbate the physical symptoms. He was even seen flailing about, mocking Fox. Think again, El Rushbo. No one thought that was remotely funny. Could Rush really be that vehemently against embryonic stem cell research? What if it was proven to cure deafness?
Do these right-wing conservative talk-show hosts have to power the sway elections?
Absolutely not. That’s a myth.
When you listen to talk radio, you probably vote anyway. You probably listen to Rush because you love him, or you hate him. The chance of you saying, “you know, I just don’t know what to do…” is slim. With most people, you can’t get them to vote at all. So, the idea that he’s making a difference, that he inspires people to vote, is nonsense. It’s representative of nothing. Those who love Rush will vote most probably the way Rush does, not because of Rush. Those who loathe him will vote contrary to what Rush recommends. Look, Rush endorsed Bush 41 and Bob Dole and railed against Clinton. Need I point out Rush’s efficacy in swaying elections? If I did, I’d probably suggest that you not have Rush endorse you should you care to win. And Dubya was the first court-appointed President. Look at the last midterms. Rush effective at swaying votes? Right.
Rush isn’t a conservative; he is a Republican. Whoever the Republican candidate is, that’s his guy. Today, Bush is neither a conservative nor a Republican, and these poor guys [conservative talk show hosts] are lost. Rush is a counterfeit conservative. An RNC echo chamber. And a hypocrite. He demanded that drug traffickers should be sent up the river, but when he found himself the object of a drug prosecution, he changed his mind. He was a victim of an overzealous prosecutor. Puh-leze. You can’t have it both ways, Rusty.
I don’t blame [conservative talk show hosts] for their hypocrisy. I don’t really think quite frankly that a lot of these guys know what they’re talking about. I don’t think they’re that smart. I don’t think they understand when they are off point. They’re virtually handed scripts by the RNC. Their refrain is almost verbatim. They rant in concert. I’m not going to mention any specific names, but – trust me – some of these people couldn’t spell stem cell research much less comprehend it. They’re instant experts in subjects that are way beyond their intellectual ken. Evolution, Darwinian mechanics, neurology (a la Terri Schiavo), name it. These autodidacts astound me with the breadth of their ignorance yet they’re so self-assured.
When you start pigeon-holing yourself, or using labels, you are going to be wrong 99% of the time, because it doesn’t explain anything. So, the state of talk radio today is in sad need of a change. And here I am!
You often emphasize the importance of critical thinking when it comes to important issues, and you lament that most people don’t use critical thinking when it comes down to addressing a subject. What exactly is critical thinking, and why are we missing the point?
I know people who react to an issue based on how they think they should react. It’s based on the type of image that they think they have or the perception of what they think the ideology is. Or they react as a conservative would act or in concert with the conservative playbook. Some “liberals” do the same. Ignorance knows no political inclination.
For example, there are people who listen to the radio who love to say they are conservative. When you hear somebody start up a conversation with, “you know, I’m a conservative…” it’s as good as saying, “you know, I’m left handed.”
My prediction is that ten years from now, the term conservative will lose its cache. [To conservatives, that term is supposed to mean] “good, old-fashioned, Republican.” But as issues become more and more complex, that doesn’t make any sense any more.
Critical thinking? In law school, there is this mnemonic we use called IRAC. It means issues, rules, analysis, conclusion. What are the facts? Analyze them. Compare and contrast facts with issues, analyze the matter and conclude accordingly. This is critical thinking. But people don’t really think this way.
People don’t really ask, “What is the real issue here?” Instead, they’ll say, “As a Catholic…,” “As a Jew…,” “As a conservative…” The operative term here [should be] “what do you think?” Not just coming to a conclusion and then working the facts around it or avoiding the facts altogether.
And critical to critical thinking is having the wherewithal and guts to say, “I don’t know anything about this.” It’s OK. Your audience will love you. “No, I know nothing about punctuated equilibrium.” “I have no idea what a stem cell is.” “I don’t possess a passport or even own a globe.” Just admit what you don’t know.
But, er, that would eliminate about 75% of conservative programming.
Again, it’s the danger of hiding behind labels, such as liberal and conservative.
Imagine you’re on the fifty-yard line of a football field, and that’s considered dead-center moderate. You say, “I’m against the death penalty,” and you move a yard to the left. Now you’re a liberal. Then you say, “But I’m against gun control,” and you move a yard to the right. Then you say, “I’m for a woman’s right to choose,” and you move a yard to the left. How far do you stray in one direction or the other that will cause you to lose either label? How do you wind up in the middle if all your opinions balance out?
The Pope is against the death penalty. Do you think he’s a liberal? He’s against abortion. Natch. He also believes in the Devil and exorcisms. What’s he? I’m a retired Catholic, and Catholics love rules. But [the common perception is that] liberals hate rules. Some conservative geniuses suggested that the Virginia Tech shooter was a liberal because he made disparaging comments about rich kids. See, liberals hate the rich. But he had a gun and most play book conservatives love guns, so was he a conservative? One conservative pundit suggested the victims were to blame as they were taught the liberal ideology of passivity. I’d like to see Rush disarm a maniac with a pistol.
Labels mean nothing. Most people are on a case-by-case issue analysis. Most people are pro-choice. Most people think they’re for the death penalty – they are just angry. And nobody wants “big government.” Everybody hates crime and now hates the war. Conservatives co-opted our fears and shoved 9/11 and their ridiculous neocon policies down our throats. It was for our own good. We had to be protected.
Right-wing radio is a type of label that doesn’t work anymore. It’s this one-time way of thinking. We’re moving on now. We don’t use these terms anymore. We don’t speak in this shorthand anymore. Mark my words, in less than 10 years “conservative” will go the way of “groovy.” Besides, the era of the erudite and learned conservative, say, a George Will or Bill Buckley, has given way to Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter and Michelle Malkin. Their ostensible mission: Who can say the most outrageous comment?
Regarding September 11, 2001, you have begun asking questions about some of the events of that morning. All you are doing is asking some very logical questions, but it is causing a storm of controversy, with people jumping to all kinds of conclusions about what you are asking. Why?
People do not want to think. It hurts them. They get brain cramps. It bothers them. My favorite question is “Where is the plane” [regarding Flight 93, which reportedly went down in Pennsylvania that morning, but there seems to be no trace of it]. I know that astounds people because they swear, they saw a plane and its debris. Start off with that question, and immediately people say, “What are you getting at? What are you a conspiracy nut?” No, I just asked where the plane is.
The question of “Where is the plane?” is what got me interested. The debris was reported in The Washington Post as being eight miles away, in a place called New Baltimore, Pennsylvania. Eight miles! That’s weird. Also, a place called Indian Lake. In both cases miles away. Tell me, doesn’t that pique your curiosity? I’m just asking a simple question. That’s it. Where’s the plane? One caller said, “Well, there was a breeze that day.” I kid you not.
If you get into an accident and they find your head rest a mile away from here, don’t you think somebody in the police department would say, “that’s odd.”
There are people in this country who are conspiracy-philes: they’ll say we never landed on the moon. UFOs. Loch Ness Monster. Elvis is alive. And of this group [9/11 “truth seekers”], some are just plain crazy. They think I’m “plane” crazy. I’ve never imputed a conspiracy on or against anyone. Never.
I call it the “your parents are having sex” phenomenon. Your parents had sex to conceive you. You just don’t want to think about it. The idea of Mom in a French maid’s outfit shocks the conscience.
[The difference between the conspiracy theorists and myself is that] I’ll just stop and say, “isn’t that interesting?” Other people will say, “It was Israel. It was the Mossad. It was Bush. It was Karl Rove. Or al Qaeda” They are missing the point. Investigating, curiosity and exploring facts never hurt anyone.
For some people, it boggles their mind when they look at DNA and babies being born and celestial occurrences. Rather than wonder, they say, “It’s God. Next question.” They don’t like thinking.
Most Americans think in an “auto-complete” way. Much like your computer, type in a few key words and it THINKS you mean to suggest something. That’s what people say if you dare question the official story of 9/11. Ask anything and they’ll auto-complete your thoughts. I must admit that I’m not that keen on the subject anymore as I’ve yet to find an audience that is sentient and mature enough to even give the issue any thought without going nuts. This also goes for those who believe Bush is responsible for everything from the miserable Yankees season to Sanjaya’s apotheosis.
What we’re doing is giving future rogue governments the blueprint to do anything in front of people and [the public] won’t ask questions. That’s what we’re telling people, [that if we question anything], we will just be called crazy. Or un-American. You can’t even ask a question.
Most people remember 9/11 differently. We were just immersed in so much data that day. We don’t remember who said what. If we ask questions, it will make our world untidy. We don’t want to think about it.
We’re a country that’s basically incurious. We don’t travel. We don’t read. We don’t vote. We use words like “terrorists.” Who are they? [And the conservative answer will be:] “You know, the bad guys.” Let’s bomb “them.” Who are they? “I dunno. Them!” And bomb them where? “There.” Where’s there? “I dunno. There!”
There are people in this country who think the earth is six-thousand years old. There are people who are told that it is a liberal postulate to believe in evolution, that it’s just a “theory.” Well, like gravity and light, it’s a theory AND fact. And if you want to maintain the label of conservatism, you have to adopt these concepts. I know people who are against evolution and they can’t even tell you why. Just ask three specific Republican presidential candidates.
Conservatives hate certain people who challenge their beliefs. And because they ask questions and challenge them, they are labeled as un-American. Who are these people?
Susan Sarandon. Tim Robbins. Ed Asner. Mike Farrell. Jane Fonda. Sean Penn. Nancy Pelosi. Air America. The French. Alec Baldwin. Rosie O’ Donnell. And, my favorite, Bill O’Reilly’s new-fangled bogeyman, the secular-progressive.
You consider yourself a bright. What does that term mean?
In the past ten years, the people who have not enjoyed a belief system in religion or God were lumped into the term “atheists.” Most people do not believe in anything. True. They have a rudimentary understanding of something they think they think they believe – the Higher Power. Most people don’t go to church or temple or the mosque. They don’t really pray. For most people, the Trinity does not come into their lives. They’ve never read the Bible. They pay lip service to “faith.”
Again, as part of this label system, they fancy themselves as Christians. They also make up a history that never existed. For example, they’ll say that this country was based on Judeo-Christian ideology. No way. They swear that the Ten Commandments is the basis for all known laws. Apparently, no one ever thought of proscribing theft and murder until the Big 10. They forget that our forebears were mostly deists if not flat-out atheists. They are a repository of anecdotal nonsense that just isn’t so.
A couple of teachers in California came up with this idea of being a Bright. Not that you are bright, but that you are a Bright. A Bright is somebody who does not have a supernatural or mystical belief system. Period. That’s a Bright. And there are loads of these people. Whether you call yourself an atheist, agnostic, secular humanist, skeptic – you are a Bright.
When you don’t believe in something, that doesn’t mean anything. A non-belief in something is not a negative endorsement. For example, if you introduce me to your wife and say that you love her, that’s great. I believe you. [If I say that I don’t love her], that doesn’t mean that I am calling into question your love of her. I also don’t speak French. That doesn’t mean that the French language doesn’t exist. I simply don’t speak French.
A Bright is someone for whom religion plays no role, and that drives people crazy. For those who don’t believe in anything, we are perceived as being a liberal, an atheist. It is often asked why people wouldn’t kill or steal from others if there were no God. Because we simply don’t want to.
Some said that if atheism is a religion, then not collecting stamps is a hobby. The term “atheist” is also unnecessary. I can’t recall who said this, but I love it: There’s no need for the word “atheist” as there’s no need for a word describing not believing in witchcraft.
Ann Coulter says that liberals are godless. But is Rudy Giuliani truly a Catholic? Is George Bush truly a Christian? Rush? Come on! Which country would Jesus bomb? Last time I checked, Jesus spoke incessantly about the poor. They are counterfeit Christians – counterfeit conservatives. It’s all shtick. They’re phonies and people can see through them.
Your opinions are often unexpected and fresh, but I think many people would be surprised by your stand on gun control. How did you arrive at this view?
Years ago, I liked to pistol shoot. Never hunted in my life. Never grew up with guns in my house. I liked the idea of being able to put a bullet in a target. There is an art involved in it, like archery, darts.
I don’t push guns, but if you want one and to carry one and you show a basic proficiency, I don’t see any reason why you can’t have one. The Second Amendment guarantees no one the right to pack heat. This is where I disagree with many gun rights proponents. You have no right to have a gun just like you have no right to have a TV. The government can’t keep you from having a TV, though. Fingerprint prospective owners, conduct background checks, have a cooling off period – fine. But the government has no right to tell me, a taxpaying non-felon of reasonable sanity that I can’t possess a firearm for WHATEVER reason I want.
I’m comfortable with [guns]. I don’t want to hunt. On the right, they say, “I’m for guns,” because it’s in their playbook. On the left, they say, “I hate guns. I just do. I think there are too many of them.” Both sides, by virtue of playing a role, are either for them or against them. But neither side knows what they are talking about. They can’t really articulate why. Rosie O’Donnell’s a rabid anti-gun advocate. But I’ll bet her bodyguard’s armed.
I’m not blasting – no pun intended – people who are afraid of guns or who think there are too many of them. I’d be hard pressed to say, “there’s not enough of them out there.” I can understand people’s positions on capital punishment, abortion, the war. But every idea I come up with is because I think it makes sense. I am not adapting a certain ideology. No, no. I just feel what I feel. I’ve thought through each issue and am willing to change my mind if facts or conditions change. I’m for a woman’s reproductive rights yet loathe the idea of abortion. I feel it’s indeed a human life, perhaps a precursor to a viable human life, but a human life, nonetheless. The government has no right to tell a woman, sorry we care not what you think. That’s a tough decision where the government should butt out. But there are gradations to issues. Nothing ever is black or white. I’m against the death penalty because we’ve killed the wrong people and will most probably do it again. That simple. There’s no big moral issue here. I just think it’s a good idea to at least make sure someone’s guilty before you expunge them permanently. After all, you can’t appeal an execution. And if I found that women in labor at maternity hospitals were erroneously being sent to the abortion suite, I think I’d reconsider my position on reproductive rights. Now think about that one!
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