I can barely watch Lou Dobbs. His attacks on Latino immigrants continue to escalate, and there is increasing evidence that there is a correlation between anti-Latino media like that of Dobbs and hate crimes against the Latino population.
But we need to watch him, and in this instance I am using “watch” in the sense of keeping an eye on him, and here’s why.
First of all, there is growing pressure from Latino activist groups, especially BastaDobbs.com, to convince CNN to drop his show. Which would be a good thing. But it already seems likely that he will simply move to Fox, probably to Fox Business. So, while I recommend joining the efforts of groups like BastaDobbs.com, it is likely that Dobbs won’t disappear from the media landscape anytime soon.
Secondly, and much more importantly, Dobbs’s media personality seems to offer a complicated set of contradictions as he blends so-called “populist” economics (anti-globalization, anti-outsourcing, pro-middle-class, pro-union) with virulent racism. He represents himself as an independent, referring to his radio show as “The Independent Nation,” and he repeatedly claims that he is disappointed by both parties. He makes much of the fact that his economic policy appeals to some on the “left,” while his anti-immigration, pro-gun stance appeals to the right. Referring to himself during an interview with Larry King as an “unaffiliated independent,” Dobbs appeared to offer CNN a media personality “free” of typical party politics.
Don’t be fooled.
In fact, these two positions coincide to create the perfect post-9/11 pro-US conservative media image. And there is no real contradiction between anti-immigration and economic protectionism. What Dobbs offers is an iconic image for the fearful, xenophobic, capitalist post-9/11 audience that imagine that all of their problems will be solved if the US closes its borders to both people and trade. Reporting on the station that calls itself “The Most Trusted Name in News,” Dobbs trades on the cache of moderate, independent reporting that is part of CNN’s trademark identity. And he uses that platform to project an ideology of racist protectionist capitalism.
BastaDobbs.com reports that “in a total of 140 broadcast hours from January 1 through July 23, 2009, the Lou Dobbs Tonight show had 77 broadcast hours that included briefs, segments, and panel discussions on the topic of immigration.” He has been caught misrepresenting numerous facts about immigration. He falsely stated that 1/3 of the US prison population was illegal immigrants. He helped to promote the myth that Latino immigrants have been flooding the United States with disease, falsely claiming, for example, that Latino immigrants were responsible for an outbreak of 7,000 cases of leprosy in the United States in the past three years. And he has repeatedly referred to what he calls the “reconquista” movement where Mexicans are purportedly attempting to claim lands lost to the Unites States.
Over the course of his show, as he has become increasingly obsessed with immigration and questions of race, Dobbs has created a bit of a scandal for CNN. They do not translate his program into Spanish, and when he appeared to refer to Condoleezza Rice as a “cotton p(icker)” politician, in reference to a speech she had given on the need to address race in the United States, that section of his tape was eliminated from the transcript. Even more recently, amidst outcry from groups like Media Matters over Dobbs’s decision to broadcast his radio show from the hate group Federation for American Immigration Reform or FAIR’s “Hold Their Feet to the Fire” anti-immigrant lobbying days, CNN has largely remained silent. Their recent decision not to air an ad from Media Matters and America’s Voice critical of Dobbs during the National Hispanic Heritage Month series Latino in America further indicates that Dobbs is creating tension at the station.
What doesn’t seem to create much tension, though, is the way that a former economic news reporter has morphed into an anti-immigration pundit. Here is where I think that the story of Dobbs becomes most interesting since it offers us an opportunity to connect the economy of racism to the racism of the economy.
Before I talk about this more, I need to reveal two further details about Dobbs that may be less known. First, his wife Debi Lee Segura de Dobbs is Mexican American, a fact he uses to dispute his so-called Hispanophobia. This detail necessarily leads us to rethink certain features of his racism which seem to be tempered at least a little in the case of privileged people of color but do not detract in any way from its virulence or violence. And second, despite the fact that on his show he critiques multinational corporations that hire workers outside of the US, in a newsletter that he sells to private investors, he typically supports those very same companies that he disparages on his show. As James K. Glassman, a reporter for Capitalism Magazine, explains, “Dobbs is telling investors to buy shares of companies like Boeing and Washington Mutual — both on his most-wanted list of firms guilty of ‘exporting America.'” Of course Glassman and I are coming at this critique from different angles, since he is pro-free trade neoliberalism and I am opposed to it, but the point here is the same. Dobbs has used his show to present an image of himself as an economic protectionist, but in fact he is a neoliberal.
When we begin to recognize the hypocrisy of his mass media-produced economic policy of protectionism and we combine it with his racism, we can see how he has effectively targeted a post-9/11 audience fearful of outsiders and has exacerbated their beliefs that all of their problems are created by immigrants, foreigners, and outsiders. As he espouses a vision of America that must be “unified” and share common traits, he drives his audience to feel more divided from their communities than ever, and more afraid of their neighbors, locally and globally, than ever. The more afraid they are, the more they need to watch his show to know what else they need to fear.
At the heart of Dobb’s mass-mediated racist fear frenzy is what Henry Giroux calls the biopolitics of neoliberalism, which depend on creating whole categories of life that are entirely disposable (see The Terror of Neoliberalism). In this case, illegal immigrants and people of color stand in for all of society’s problems. Or at least most of them. But what Dobbs really trades in is fear. The economy that he supports is an economy of fear, an economy of racism, an economy of xenophobic individualism. Even more importantly Dobbs’s economy distracts from the existing economy, the one that Dobbs himself invests in, trades on, and profits from. It distracts from the actually existing economy that continues to enlarge the gap between privilege and poverty and that has exacerbated the poverty rates for communities of color. It distracts his audience from these realties while it feeds their fears and heightens their urge to violence. And that is why we have to watch Lou Dobbs.
Sophia A. McClennen is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature, Spanish, and Women’s Studies and Graduate Director of Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. This article was first published in The Sanctuary under a Creative Commons license.