Another firestorm in the American media, another opportunity to narrow the parameters of debate. Over the last week it has been impossible to escape mainstream and (to a certain extent) alternative media coverage of popular evangelical leader Pat Robertson’s remarks about assassinating Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. From CNN to Fox News, from the top story on Google News to liberal and conservative blog sites, supporters and detractors of Robertson have been engaging in a heated debate over how and whether the Christian fundamentalist should be held accountable for his inflammatory comments, and rightly so.
Among Robertson’s comments was his allegation that Chavez has made Venezuela a “a launching pad for communist infiltration and Muslim extremism all over the continent.”
As Jesse Jackson and Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights have pointed out, if such comments were made by a Muslim cleric in the U.S., they would be immediately labeled as an incitement to terrorism and the speaker of such comments would be investigated and most likely jailed. In terms of widening the debate beyond mere observations of hypocrisy, Jackson has made inroads. In a statement, he said “the FCC launched an investigation when Janet Jackson showed a part of her breast some months ago. We believe that calling for the assassination of a democratically elected world leader is more serious than that, which is why we ask that an investigation be conducted.”
But debate about Robertson’s comments beyond the obvious implications of hypocrisy has been few and far between.
Sections of the alternative media and the mainstream media haven’t taken such grossly negligent statements as an opportunity to question their basis. Instead, sections of the “left” have complained about the evangelical’s history of making inflammatory statements, bringing in “experts” to dissect the character of a man that most logical people would disregard anyway.
On Democracy Now!, discussion about Robertson’s comments centered around his ludicrous statements in the past about gays, lesbians, pro-choice advocates and Muslims. While the discussion was interesting, it seems a golden opportunity was lost. On Al Franken’s show on Air America, it was much the same.
In the mainstream, the ceiling and floor is even closer still. Most sections of the mainstream media have analyzed Robertson’s comments as a political opportunity for Venezuela and Chavez. It is being labeled as a propaganda tool for a head of state that most of the western elite dislikes. But asking the question of why they dislike him, evidence for allegations of dictatorial, undemocratic rule, never seems to reach the level of public discussion.
Why hasn’t anyone confronted Robertson on why he has made these comments about Chavez? What evidence is he using? What information does he have access to? For a member of the Christian Right to make comments about a South American leader even if it the anti-imperialist Chavez is telling in itself, considering most of the global south is relatively inconsequential to the constituency they serve. What is he being fed, and by whom?
And even beyond this, the whole media flurry surrounding this issue should be analyzed within the context of other baseless statements made by people in and associated with the U.S. government about Venezuela. Why does the alternative/progressive/independent media allow this to continue? These seem like golden opportunities to demand evidence, information, reasons. Instead, we are given a tease of what can be so easily accomplished. We are given character profiles and debates about the wider political circles involved with whatever speaker is making whatever illogical argument at the time.
What we are not getting to is the root of the problem: public figures are increasingly getting away with making libelous statements about Chavez and Venezuela that while in the moment may seem ridiculous, are seeping into the public conscience.
Over the past year, allegations that Chavez funds the FARC in Colombia, is allowing Muslim extremists to train in Venezuela and is prepping Latin America to be the next breeding ground for terrorism, go unquestioned. Instead, the mainstream “left” argue about the hypocracy of such statements, while those making the statements meekly, but temporarily back away from such statements, only to make them again later on.
Read the past comments of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld or Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice or ex-secretary of state Colin Powell about Venezuela and in terms of their validity, they are no different than Robertson’s. But they will continue if they aren’t contained by progressives.
Instead of being retaliatory, progressives should be widening the debate, asking the questions in public that we, in private, think we have all the answers to.
CHHANDASI PANDYA is a freelance journalist based in New York. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org