Bill O’Reilly, Law & Order, and Right Wing Immigration Policy in Moderate’s Clothing

Bill O’Reilly was recently offended by some dialogue appearing on the Dec. 9 episode of Law & order: SVU. John Larroquette, guesting as an immigrant-rights advocate, says:

“…Limbaugh, Beck, O’Reilly, all of them. They’re like a cancer spreading ignorance and hate. I mean, they have convinced folks that immigrants are the problem, not corporations that fail to pay a living wage or a broken health care system.”

More on his comments below, but of course O’Reilly denied that he has done any such thing. His ire at the ”defamatory and outrageous” comments was entirely directed at the show’s producer, Dick Wolf, whom he labeled “a liar” and a “coward” and “a despicable human being for distorting and exploiting this very complicated situation.”

Bill O’Reilly: Dry snitchin’ motherfucker

A Weird Conflation

Putting the content of the Larroquette’s statement aside, the really weird thing about O’Reilly’s response is his readiness to equate a fictional character’s position with that of the show’s producer. (Note that by show business rules, Wolf’s “producing” the show need mean nothing more than that he owns it. It doesn’t mean he wrote it or even reviewed the script.) There isn’t any warrant for this. For one, its impossible to make this equation consistently, as different characters on the show adopt different, mutually incompatible positions; they can’t all be speaking for Wolf.

Indeed, Larroquette’s own comments are met with instant disapproval by another character, Det. Tutuola (played by Ice-T), who snaps at him to ”Save the soap box… the cameras are not even running.” Plus, Tutuola is a major, reoccuring character—a sympathetic hero, arguably—versus Larroquette’s one-off. If L&A is a vehicle for Wolf’s views, this function would almost certainly be exercised through the regular lineup.

If his characters are simply mouthing the producer’s own views, Wolf is guilty of far more than mis-paraphrasing a talk show host. For there is probably no vile nor illegal position that has not been voiced on the L&A franchise in the last two decades, as it is a fucking cop show profiling miscreants and wrongdoers of all stripes. Let us neither forget O’Reilly himself has penned a book full of characters more unsavory than savory, including a serial killer. Should we take his depictions of murder and corporate skullduggery in “Those Who Trespass” to mean he advocates these things? And if not, why assume it of Wolf?

Finally, there is nothing in Wolf’s depiction of Larroquette’s character than cannot be explained in terms of simple realism. Fairly or not, the view that O’Reilly “spreads ignorance and hate’” toward the immigrant community is both “out there” and moreover very widespread among immigration-rights activists such as Larroquette portrays. If this view is a misunderstanding, even a ”lie,” be assured it is one shared across the demographic. Surely O’Reilly does not suggest that fiction be populated only by good characters with sound views.

Unpacking O’Reilly’s Defense

O’Reilly’s main defense is that he has always distinguished between the actions of the immigrants themselves and those of the federal government who makes immigration policy, condemning the latter but not the former: “I have consistently defended poor people who only want a better life. If you watch ‘The Factor’ you know my beef is with the federal government not controlling illegal immigration and with violent aliens who wreak havoc once they get here.” O’Reilly illustrated the point with a montage of clips, including those where he declares he would immigrate illegally to the U.S. if he were a “poor Mexican.”

For the record, I have no reason to doubt that O’Reilly has sympathetic feelings toward illegal immigrants in general. What is less clear is how this actually addresses Larroquette’s comments. For it is certainly possible to ”spread ignorance and hate” without being oneself being ignorant and hateful.

Consider an analogy: A common criticism of Affirmative Action from the right is that it breeds resentment—and “hate”—toward its minority and female beneficiaries in the white men who feel unfairly disadvantaged by it. Whether or not you think this is true (I don’t, nor would I care if it were), it is clear that those who make this criticism are not alleging that supporters of AA ”hate” the people of color whom they intend to benefit from it. (Much the opposite, I’m sure.) If AA breeds ”hate” of blacks, it isn’t because its proponents hate blacks. Rather, it is an inadvertent, unintentional effect which operates despite the personal feelings of its proponents.

To repeat, the point is not that right-wing critics of AA are correct, but to illustrate the distinction between the feelings and intentions behind a statement or a position, and the effects of that statement.

* * *

So far, this only shows that O’Reilly’s defense has no teeth. It doesn’t show that some other defense wouldn’t work. That is, it doesn’t show that he is actually guilty of spreading ignorance and hate”—only that his feeling kind toward immigrants doesn’t make it impossible that he could be.

So is O’Reilly responsible for hatred toward immigrants? I’m sure he is—at least, his views are. However, I’m not going to take the space to argue that here. But I want to suggest a way this could work, which doesn’t depend on him having negative feelings toward this group:

Consider O’Reilly’s point that he doesn’t blame immigrants, but rather the U.S. government for not doing enough to block them. First, from a moral standpoint, this is a bogus distinction. It is like saying we don’t have a problem with people owning pets, only with the government for failing to outlaw pet ownership. Clearly, the criticism of the government here implies that the immigrants are doing something wrong. To the extent that O’Reilly says they aren’t, he simply sends a mixed message; the opposite message doesn’t cease to be sent.

It’s a very short step from recognizing that immigrants are wrong for immigrating, to blaming them for all the negative effects of illegal immigration which O’Reilly harps upon night after night. And if I can blame them for “taking my job,” or “raising my taxes,” etc., I can certainly resent, possibly even “hate,” them for this as well.

Whether this progression from O’Reilly’s criticism of the government to “hate” actually takes place is an empirical psycho-sociological point I can’t begin to prove here. The point is that O’Reilly’s personal “feelings” toward immigrants gives us no reason to think it couldn’t.

O’Reillian Moderation is a Mile Wide and an Inch Deep

O’Reilly is fond of saying he’s not a member of the right, even going so far as to claim he’s “not a political guy” at all. Part of why I write this is to show the kind of technique he uses to ‘get away with’ this kind of claim. O’Reilly’s overt sympathies toward poor illegal immigrants seem very un-conservative, and maybe in themselves they are. But they don’t do any real work within his arguments; they don’t mitigate his very conservative conclusions about what immigrants actually do. They coexist with arguments that, I have tried to show, probably “spread…hate” toward this group, or certainly lend themselves to this outcome for anyone willing to follow it through to consistency. In this sense his “nice feelings” are merely trappings, an afterthought serving to soften the swallow.

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