Soothing the Savage Beast

The August 3 issue of the New Yorker includes an only-in-the-New-Yorker-length profile (seven full pages) of right-wing radio host Michael Savage. Savage’s fiercely ugly anti-gay and other extremist rhetoric has often been spotlighted by Media Matters, earning the group a special place in the pantheon of things Savage hates. Savage has called Media Matters “evil” and “Stalinists” and is currently engaged in a ludicrous campaign to challenge the group’s nonprofit status.

While Savage loves to hate the media and Media Matters, he’s found a friend in Kelefa Sanneh, author of the New Yorker profile (subscription required), which feels like a many-thousand word promo for Savage’s radio show. Sanneh is smitten with Savage, “more days than not, a marvelous storyteller, a quirky thinker, and an incorrigible free-associator.” He calls Savage’s show “one of the most addictive programs on radio, and one of the least predictable.”

Sanneh doesn’t ignore that Savage has a well-documented hatred of gays and that his central thesis is “that lefties are ruining the world, or trying to,” and quotes some of Savage’s memorable moments, such as the one that got him thrown off MSNBC, when he told a caller “Oh, you’re one of the sodomites. You should only get AIDS and die, you pig.”

But Sanneh finds Savage so weirdly charming and entertaining (he ruminates about death!) that he is quick to dismiss the host’s virulent rhetoric. Here’s Sanneh:

“The immoderate quotes meticulously catalogued by the liberal media-watchdog site are accurate but misleading, insofar as they reduce a willfully erratic broadcast to a series of political brickbats.”

“Immoderate” is an extraordinarily moderate word to apply to Savage’s serial attacks on gay people, which includes such charges as “[t]he radical homosexual agenda will not stop until religion is outlawed in this county,” and that gay people “threaten your very survival.” Gays, he says, “want full and total subjugation of this society to their agenda.” Savage has also promoted right-wing lies about Obama being born in Kenya and being a Muslim, and said during the campaign:

“I think he was hand-picked by some very powerful forces both within and outside the United State of America to drag this country into a hell that it has not seen since the Civil War of the middle of the 19th century.”

In a podcast interview posted on the New Yorker site, Sanneh said that people from the left and right do “a pretty good job of getting offended at the other people’s pundits.” Sanneh draws a stunning sort of moral equivalence between Savage, the kind of guy liberals “get all worked up about,” and Al Franken , who some conservatives would consider “an angry, hateful guy.”

Sanneh seems uninterested in considering whether the kind of political rhetoric Savage specializes in has the potential to fuel hatred and violence. Savage’s liberal-hating books were among those found on the shelves of the Tennessee man who opened fire in a Unitarian Universalist church last year to vent his hatred of liberals who he said were destroying the country. Sanneh says that Savage’s best-selling books are “political polemics” but says “none capture the freewheeling sensibility of the show or the complicated personality of the man.”