A right-wing spin machine, influenced by haters like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Michael Savage and Ann Coulter, endlessly spews out a toxic rhetoric in which: all Muslims are defined as jihadists; the homeless are not victims of misfortune but lazy; blacks are not terrorized by a racist criminal justice system, but the main architects of a culture of criminality; the epidemic of obesity has nothing to do with corporations, big agriculture and advertisers selling junk food, but rather the result of “big” government giving people food stamps; the public sphere is largely for white people, which is being threatened by immigrants and people of color, and so it goes. Glenn Beck, the alleged voice of the common man, appearing on the “Fox & Friends” morning show, calls President Obama a “racist” and then accuses him of “having a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture.”  Nationally syndicated radio host Rush Limbaugh unapologetically states that James Early Ray, the confessed killer of Martin Luther King Jr., should be given a posthumous Medal of Honor,  while his counterpart in right-wing hate, talk radio host Michael Savage, states on his show, “You know, when I see a woman walking around with a burqa, I see a Nazi. That’s what I see – how do you like that? – a hateful Nazi who would like to cut your throat and kill your children.”  He also claims that Obama is “surrounded by terrorists” and is “raping America.” This is a variation of a crude theme established by Ann Coulter, who refers to Bill Clinton as a “very good rapist.”  Even worse, Obama is a “neo-Marxist fascist dictator in the making,” who plans to “force children into a paramilitary domestic army.”  And this is just a small sampling of the kind of hate talk that permeates right-wing media. This could be dismissed as loony right-wing political theater if it were not for the low levels of civic literacy displayed by so many Americans who choose to believe and invest in this type of hate talk.  On the contrary, while it may be idiocy, it reveals a powerful set of political, economic and educational forces at work in miseducating the American public while at the same time extending the culture of cruelty. One central task of any viable form of politics is to analyze the culture of cruelty and its overt and covert dimensions of violence, often parading as entertainment.
Underlying the culture of cruelty that reached its apogee during the Bush administration, was the legalization of state violence, such that human suffering was now sanctioned by the law, which no longer served as a summons to justice. But if a legal culture emerged that made violence and human suffering socially acceptable, popular culture rendered such violence pleasurable by commodifying, aestheticizing and spectacularizing it. Rather than being unspoken and unseen, violence in American life had become both visible in its pervasiveness and normalized as a central feature of dominant and popular culture. Americans had grown accustomed to luxuriating in a warm bath of cinematic blood, as young people and adults alike were seduced with commercial and military video games such as “Grand Theft Auto” and “America’s Army,”  the television series “24” and its ongoing Bacchanalian fête of torture, the crude violence on display in World Wrestling Entertainment and Ultimate Fighting Championship, and an endless series of vigilante films such as “The Brave One” (2007) and “Death Sentence” (2007), in which the rule of law is suspended by the viscerally satisfying images of men and women seeking revenge as laudable killing machines – a nod to the permanent state of emergency and war in the United States. Symptomatically, there is the mindless glorification and aestheticization of brutal violence in the most celebrated Hollywood films, including many of Quentin Tarantino’s films, especially the recent “Death Proof” (2007), “Kill Bill” 1 & 2 (2003, 2004), and “Inglorious Bastards” (2009). With the release of Tarantino’s 2009 bloody war film, in fact, the press reported that Dianne Kruger, the co-star of “Inglorious Bastards,” claimed that she “loved being tortured by Brad Pitt [though] she was frustrated she didn’t get an opportunity to get frisky with her co-star, but admits being beaten by Pitt was a satisfying experience.”  This is more than the aestheticization of violence, it is the normalization and glorification of torture itself.
If Hollywood has made gratuitous violence the main staple of its endless parade of blockbuster films, television has tapped into the culture of cruelty in a way that was unimaginable before the attack on the US on September 11. Prime-time television before the attacks had “fewer than four acts of torture” per year, but “now there are more than a hundred.”  Moreover, the people who torture are no longer the villains, but the heroes of prime-time television. The most celebrated is, of course, Jack Bauer, the tragic-ethical hero of the wildly popular Fox TV thriller “24.” Not only is torture the main thread of the plot, often presented “with gusto and no moral compunction,”  but Bauer is portrayed as a patriot, rather than a depraved monster, who tortures in order to protect American lives and national security. Torture, in this scenario, takes society’s ultimate betrayal of human dignity and legitimates the pain and fear it produces as normal, all the while making a “moral sadist” a television celebrity.  The show has over 15 million viewers, and its glamorization of torture has proven so successful that it appears to have not only numbed the public’s reaction to the horrors of torture, but it is so overwhelmingly influential among the US military that the Pentagon sent Brig. Gen. Patrick Finnegan to California to meet with the producers of the show. “He told them that promoting illegal behavior in the series … was having a damaging effect on young troops.”  The pornographic glorification of gratuitous, sadistic violence is also on full display in the popular HBO television series “Dexter,” which portrays a serial killer as a sympathetic, even lovable, character. Visual spectacles steeped in degradation and violence permeate the culture and can be found in various reality TV shows, professional wrestling and the infamous Jerry Springer Show. These programs all trade in fantasy, glamorized violence and escapism. And they share similar values. As Chris Hedges points out in his analysis of professional wrestling, they all mirror the worse dimensions of an unchecked and unregulated market society in which “winning is all that matters. Morality is irrelevant…. It is all about personal pain, vendettas, hedonism and fantasies of revenge, while inflicting pain on others. It is the cult of victimhood.”