Michael Savage: Mr Angry
He's been put on Britain's unwanted list, but the outspoken American talk-show host is not your average radio rabble-rouser
Saturday 09 May 2009
A cacophony of voices greeted listeners to Michael Savage's afternoon radio show this week. In between Winston Churchill's wartime speeches, he broadcast the Sex Pistols singing "God Save the Queen", a Darth Vader soundbite from Star Wars, and, on several dozen occasions, the provincial drone of our Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith.
The eclectic mixture was intended to make various points. Churchill illustrated the sad decline of a Britain that is no longer "great". The Sex Pistols sang of Her Majesty's "fascist regime". Darth Vader, meanwhile, famously demonstrated that "if you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine".
Savage drew inspiration from them all, as he huffed and puffed about Smith's decision to add his name to a list of 22 terrorists, murderers and other extremists banned from the UK because they have allegedly "fallen into the category of fomenting hatred".
He saved his greatest outrage, however, for the Home Secretary, telling the 10 million listeners who tune in to The Savage Nation on one of the 250-odd radio stations where it is syndicated each weekday that Smith is a "lunatic", "witch", "monster", "Bolshevik", and "lowlife", as well as a "tin-pot dictator" and "beer-swilling mutt".
It was classic Savage: loud, provocative, relentlessly angry. It interspersed loaded rhetoric about freedom of speech with low-rent bar-room insults, combined populist rabble-rousing with casual, borderline racism (he mocked Britain's "superior dental work and cuisine"), and made for cracking pantomime entertainment.
When the noise died down, it also illustrated a pressing point: like a Darth Vader of the airwaves, the American "shock jock" Michael Savage feeds on conflict. Until Jacqui Smith came along, he was just a right-wing radio host who'd achieved notoriety broadcasting to the small but significant proportion of Americans who like hearing conservative commentators reinforce their various preconceptions. Now he has a righteous wind in his sails, casting himself as an innocent victim of a politically correct nation which has scant regard for freedom of speech. Like the founding fathers, with their Declaration of Independence, Savage has declared himself at war with the "oppressive" British Government.
Already, he is suing Ms Smith for defamation, claiming she has wrongly linked him to murderers and "painted a target on my back". (Most legal experts reckon he has a decent case.) He's also calling on listeners to cancel their summer holidays in the UK and boycott goods such as "Jaguar" and the "pint".
Savage certainly makes a formidable opponent. He styles himself as being "to the right of Rush (Limbaugh) and to the left of God", and in a 15-year radio career has attacked immigrants, Islam and homosexuality (or "anal rights", as he puts it) to build up the third biggest following of US talk radio hosts. Guests on his show have included the then vice-president Dick Cheney. Listeners are fiercely loyal, and have turned the six political books he has published, including The Death of the White Male and Liberalism Is a Mental Disorder, into bestsellers. The 67-year-old former academic speaks to angry white conservatives who believe their America of God and guns are under daily attack from the homosexual mafia.
"Oh, you're one of the sodomites," he once informed a caller who took issue with his attacks on homosexuals. "You should only get Aids and die, you pig. How's that? Why don't you see if you can sue me, you pig. You got nothing better than to put me down, you piece of garbage. You have got nothing to do today, go eat a sausage and choke on it. Get trichinosis."
Savage also boasts robust views on immigration, which occasionally drift into the realm of bigotry. Last week, he was advising listeners to avoid Mexican restaurants, in case illegal workers on their payroll spread swine flu. In the past, he has taken similarly colourful attitudes towards Koreans.
"Maybe you think I'm paranoid when I say we must not allow immigrants to come here and impose their cultural trappings on us," he wrote in The Savage Nation: Saving America from the Liberal Assault on Our Borders, Language and Culture. "Fine. You're entitled to be wrong. The next time you're in your backyard grilling hot dogs, don't be surprised if your Korean neighbor is actually grilling his dog. That's the way things are done in Korea."
The Catholic church has been dubbed "rotten from top to bottom" for supporting charities that help Hispanic immigrants. Muslims, or at least Muslim extremists (in the style of Martin Amis, Savage brands them "Islamists"), are invited to "take your religion and shove it up your behind".
Yet, while it's simple to cherry-pick outrageous quotes from the thousands of hours of airtime that Savage fills each year, it's also like shooting at an open goal. Behind the casual bigotry and anger lies a strangely complex individual who followed a winding path to notoriety.
He was born Michael Alan Weiner, to a Jewish family in wartime New York, and spent the first 52 years of his life working as a medical expert who wrote more than 19 books that advised Americans of how to use alternative medicines and organic diets. As Weiner, he studied at the University of Hawaii, and spent years in the South Pacific documenting the plant life in Fijian rainforests. He married, divorced, and later moved to Berkeley to get a PhD, where he pursued friendships with local left-wingers, including Beat poets such as Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Alan Ginsberg. Friends say he once dreamed of becoming a stand-up comedian.
Savage's left-wing background distinguishes him from his rivals. He is one of the few supporters of environmentalism in conservative circles, and an advocate of animal rights. He lives in San Francisco, one of the US's most liberal cities. When he gets off his political high horse, Savage can also be very funny: on Thursday, he interrupted his criticisms of Jacqui Smith to launch into a hilarious diatribe against middle-aged drivers of convertible cars. It offered a glimpse of the comic talent that once led him to believe that he could become the next Lenny Bruce.
Between 1975 and 1994, he'd published a string of books under the name Michael Weiner, with titles such as Man's Useful Plants and Getting off Cocaine. He was among the first nutritionists to advise using coffee enemas to treat cocaine addiction and pioneered the use of massive doses of vitamin C to treat the then new disease of Aids.
His political "conversion", so to speak, occurred in the Reagan era. The boom of the 1980s taught him the benefits of trickle-down economics. And he began to take issue with left-leaning friends. His academic work became politicised, and he experienced huge hostility from the gay community when he publicly advocated the closure of gay saunas to combat the spread of Aids. The tipping point came in 1994, when he wrote a book called Immigrants and Epidemics, claiming that unchecked migration was bringing potentially deadly diseases to the US. The tone of some passages was considered inflammatory, and it failed to find a publisher.
In response to what he saw as censorship, Weiner embarked on a "re-branding" exercise. He renamed himself Michael Savage (taken from the 19th-century explorer Charles Savage) and tape-recorded a sample radio chat show, which he mailed to 250 radio stations. In March that year, he was hired by KGO, a San Francisco talk station. Within months, he had become the city's most popular drivetime host. In 1999, his show was picked up by Talk Radio Network, which began syndicating it across the country.
The show has turned Savage into a hugely wealthy man. He has used the cheap AM airwaves to reach millions of Americans, with all the advertising revenue they entail, from a small recording studio near the comfortable home he shares with wife Janet, who works for his son Russell, founder of the Rockstar drinks company. It has also seen him hired, and fired, by MSNBC for homophobic comments during a TV show. Last year, it also sparked a consumer boycott of his radio show, when he dubbed autistic children "brats who haven't been told to cut their act out".
Now, according to the British Government, this angry man with a colourful turn of phrase is one of the world's 22 most dangerous people. "Today it's me, tomorrow it's someone else," he glibly told reporters this week. "But if I didn't have an audience yesterday, I certainly will today."
A life in brief
Born: Michael Alan Weiner in New York, 31 March 1942.
Family: Married first, at the age of 22, to Carol Ely. Weiner met his second (and current) wife, Janet, in 1967. Their son, Russell, is the founder of Rockstar energy drinks.
Career: Queens College, New York (BA, education and sociology), University of Hawaii (MA, enthnobotany and anthropology), University of California Berkeley (PhD, nutritional ethnomedicine, 1978). As a nutritionist Weiner wrote 19 books between 1975 and 1994, before reinventing himself as chat-show host Michael Savage.
He says: "For this lunatic Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary of England, to link me with skinheads or killing people in Russia, to put me in league with Hamas murderers who kill Jews on buses, is defamation."
They say: "He has fallen into the category of fomenting hatred, of such extreme views and expressing them in such a way that it is actually likely to cause inter-community tension or even violence... He is not your sort of Terry Wogan type character..." – Jacqui Smith
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