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The Brainwashing Of My Dad

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Mar 18, 2016

When Jen Senko began wondering about major personality changes in her father Frank -- he turned from a kind and loving man into a hostile hothead when he began listening to Rush Limbaugh on his commute to work, and his hostility grew more intense when he began tuning into Fox News -- she decided to research the subject. "It was like he'd joined a cult," Senko says, in her voiceover narration.

What she found, to her horror and grim fascination, was that the changes her father exhibited were taking place in people across the country. Concerned children, spouses, and other family members of people who's drunk the talk radio / Fox News Kool-Aid and turned into raging lunatics reached out to Senko to share their stories, and the way they described the transformations of their loved ones echo similar observations: The afflicted became "disjointed," "bitter and angry," "obsessed," "fact-resistant," "hateful," and eschewed reasonable conversation in favor of one-sided "tirades." One woman described how, when she simply ventured to say that Obama was not so bad, her uncle advanced on her with a gun in his hand, and discharged two warning shots into the floor to underscore his demand that she clear out of his house.

Senko summarizes the dozens of horror stories she heard in these words: "Someone close to us became enraged or unreasonable after listening excessively to right-wing media."

As Senko's documentary "The Brainwashing of My Dad" penetrates layers and layers of history having to do with the takeover of media by six corporations, the repeal of the "Fairness Doctrine" under Reagan, manipulation by right-wing fringe groups and figures such as the Coors family, the John Birch Society, and Roger Ailes (who is a former Nixon advisor and the architect of Fox News), what becomes obvious is that Senko's initial characterization of her father's behavior as being that of a cult member is pretty accurate. Using the same methods that cults employ, right-wing pundits have essentially brainwashed their listeners, speaking to their pre-existing convictions that "others" (women, sexual and racial minorities, terrorists, the poor), rather than themselves, are responsible for their failings and miseries. From that starting point, media-savvy and well-funded forces on the fringe right have constructed "a vast alternative media," which, terrifyingly, has now come to supplant traditional responsible journalism and replaced what once was the nation's mainstream media.

The message that an "other" -- i.e., a person of a different skin tone, sexuality, religion, or national origin -- is out to get you is especially potent among white working-class men, who fear a loss of social and economic status. This anxiety began with women entering the work force in greater numbers and the civil right movement gaining momentum, and continues to this day. The current rash of insane right-wing demagogueries -- blame and persecution of African Americans and the LGBT community, the demonization of women, trigger happy cops, petulant and destructive GOP politicians, the rise of Donald Trump -- is nothing more than the logical outcome of a long-con fringe-right operation to dumb down, terrorize, and lead by the nose an entire demographic. The bid to nudge the nation rightward with a loud and ceaseless barrage of slanted, prejudicial, and blatantly fabricated "news" has succeeded all too well, but if today's disturbing news of violent clashes at Trump rallies pricks at our ease of mind, then get this: As the documentary recollects, a rally of anti-Vietnam war peaceniks was attacked by a violent mob of construction workers who beat the kids with their hard hats. Nixon took the side of the burly, angry thugs who did the pummeling. The film is a reminder that America's politics have long been a blood sport in a very literal sense, and the violence shown by Trump's supporters is nothing new.

That doesn't mean we don't have cause for worry. Things truly have gotten worse in the forty-plus years since Ailes showed Nixon how spoon-feed the masses predigested thought and opinion in the form of the soundbite. The hardcore Fox News-following right has literally become unable to register facts that contradict their wildly inaccurate world views and -- more frighteningly -- they have become physiologically addicted to their rage and fear, to the point that they will do anything -- even work actively against their own interests -- to support the charlatans who have so captivated their minds. That's bad for democracy, but even more to the point it's bad for the physical, moral, and financial security of everyone in the nation. We've reached a point where even conservatives are alarmed at the extremism of the right-wing fringe (though you shouldn't hold your breath waiting for an admission that the inferno we're seeing now stems directly from the right's desire to play with populist fire).

"The Brainwashing of My Dad" sets out, clearly and in detail, exactly how all of this happened; Matthew Modine provides the history lesson in the sections of the film's voice-over work that don't belong to Senko's own, more personal, narrative. The upshot is that wealthy white men, desperate to defend their place at the tiny tip of a very large heap, have lied to us about everything from climate change to the nature and meaning of same-sex marriage, and done it out of purely selfish reasons. Why so many people have fallen for it has been the subject of study, speculation, and many, many books, and the authors of some of those books appear here. The pieces all fit together, and the portrait is terrifying: The media is anything but "liberal," and Fox News, together with talk radio in general, in addition to threatening the very underpinnings of our democracy, represents nothing short of a public health crisis.

There is a cure, however, and it turns out to be sufficient mental space and clarity for people to regain their intrinsic decency. As Senko's father gradually stopped listening to talk radio and Fox News, and when his wife covertly unsubscribed him from a daily torrent of right-wing email blasts, his mind cleared, his anger abated, and he started to think for himself once again. The result? Left to formulate his own opinion, rather than having his thoughts and feelings fed to him by Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, and the rest of the fake news crowd, Frank Senko -- after decades of mental alienation from his family and his former self -- once again became a warm, kind, thoughtful person.

Could it be that the cure for our perplexed, estranged, alienated nation is for concerned friends and relatives to intervene, to turn off the TV and block out hate-filled messages and outrageous lies? Probably. But how likely is it to happen? If we stopped dumping toxic byproducts into rivers and pumping climate-altering pollutants into the air, we'd be better off, too, but the same merchants of falsehood have worked to prevent such common sense steps from being enacted lest they cut into corporate profits. One fears the political climate, too, is only going to get hotter and more extreme.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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