Sunday, November 05, 2006

Olbermann is Not the Cure (The Debate Continues)

When I wrote about Keith Olbermann’s recent commentary concerning the Bush administration, I received a lot of “yeah, but” reaction (I also received some “you’re an idiot” reactions, but I expected that given I was criticizing one of the left’s beloved pundits). What was interesting was how many people were of the opinion that, sure, Olbermann can be over-the-top but that was ok because 1) he isn’t nearly as bad as Limbaugh or O’Reilly and/or 2) his attacks are necessary to restore the balance of things.

As for the first rationale, it matters little to me that Limbaugh and O’Reilly have been far more outrageous than has Olbermann. That’s a matter of degree not kind. I’ve never much gone for the “at least we’re not as bad as our enemy” defense. If something’s wrong, it’s wrong regardless of degree. Sure, Olbermann hasn’t walked down the path as far as has Limbaugh, but he’s still walking the path—and that’s what I criticize.

As for the second rationale, emulating the worst qualities of your opponent is not restoring the balance of things. That’s just dragging us deeper. Yes, politics is a nasty business and those who are uncomfortable getting their hands dirty shouldn’t play the game. But there’s a difference between playing politics and putting on the kinds of performances Olbermann put on in the clip I referenced.

He’s not trying to do the hard work of maintaining support for his side by harshly calling a foul a foul (although he calls a lot of fouls). Nor is he attempting to swing votes by doing the dirty work of smearing his opponents with half-truths and innuendo (although he does smear). What he’s doing is preaching directly and only to the proverbial choir.

Anyone who is not on the left would be completely turned off by Olbermann’s rant because it’s so over-the-top. He has no intention to change minds through either truth or trickery. His intent is to increase the outrage among those who are already angry. Just the way Limbaugh and O’Reilly do. These guys don’t add to the debate. They’re focused primarily on strengthening their side by keeping the anger burning. After all, angry people don’t base their opinions on considered thought or empirical evidence. They base their opinions and votes on raw emotion. And emotionally charged bases make it easy for the parties to eschew substance and ignore the rest of us.

A lot of people are upset at the Bush administration. They should be. I know I am. But fighting back doesn’t mean increasing the anger. There is only so much outrage a democracy can contain. Simply being a good little citizen and voting is not a very satisfactory outlet when you’re overly angry. People want to do more. But when it comes to “doing more,” angry people rarely help the situation.

Now, I’m not opposed to anger—that’s a normal human emotion. The problem comes when that anger is inflamed. These pundits exploit people’s anger to boost the intensity of their party’s side. No one’s mind is changed. No one is informed of newly relevant facts or given newly useful insights. They are simply given new reasons to become angrier.

In his rant, Olbermann may seem to be giving voice to the people (I’m sure Limbaugh’s listeners argue the same) but what I see is a guy turning up the heat at a time when we’re already overheated. There are more useful ways to fight back. There are ways to win converts rather than just energize those already on your side.

Forgive me if my opinion seems naïve or “amateurish” (as one person claimed). But Olbermann’s rants are not the cure. They’re just the same poison in a different vein.

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Blogger reader_iam said...

Sure, Olbermann hasn’t walked down the path as far as has Limbaugh

Oh, I can think of one instance in which it can be argued that he did, in at least one sense.

In any case, Olbermann's been at it for less time. It's not the "far down," it's the mode of walking, and the motivation, not to mention the cynicism and, ultimately, the underlying contempt for the health of the body politic overall.

The Child is the father of the Man.--William Wordsworth

9:30 PM  
Anonymous Justin Gardner said...

Agreed, agreed, agreed.

And it's telling that just because people agree with Olbermann's politics, they forgive his delivery. There are people on the left who let their anger blind them, just as much as those on the right.

And do know that as a Dem, it's tough for me to see this in my own party. It's hard to admit. But I saw my own ridiculous behavior, stopped it and started Donklephant. I hope that my fellow Dems follow a similar path and quit playing the game that the right-wing noise machine has perfected because it won't make this country any better to have a left-wing noise machine.

10:16 PM  
Anonymous DosPeros said...

"The speculations of journalism seldom go beyond the confines of business and propriety, and its oracles have been quick to assail those who come with disturbing notions-quick and unscrupulous, too, if they sense that the notions contain some necessary truth. In this they bear out the observation of Socrates that society does not mind an individual's being wise; only when he begins to make others wise does it become apprehensive. This is to say that they fear the spread of what has truth and reason on its side. Has any brilliant social critic of the last century received something better than sneer from the pundits of journalism until his appreciation by the thoughtful forced a grudging recognition? A Nietzsche, a Kierkegaard, a Peguy, a Spengler-it is impossible for journalism to take these people seriously. The existence of the one threatens the existence of the other. The proprietors of the Steropticon have a pretty clear idea of the level at which thinking is safe for the established order. They are protecting a materialist civilization growing more insecure and panicky as awareness filters through that it is over an abyss." -- Richard M. Weaver

11:31 PM  
Anonymous DosPeros said...

I would suggest the Olbermann, Limbaugh, O'Reilly, et al. are all puppets in the Steropticon. But some puppet shows are better than other.

11:34 PM  
Anonymous kilroy said...

Carl I agree. At best, both sides are trite. A few of my more left leaning friends (who also rarely listen to his show, but p/u on the web audio clips) believe that Olbermans voice is not as much one of theirs, but a counterweight to the right. Though they usually cannot maintain their moral indignation during our debates, The fact that they can cite nuggets from his rants allows them to essentially say " you quote/cite Limbaugh & Hannity, we'll quote/cite Franken and Olberman".

When we get together, It used to take 2 or 3 cocktails to get past each sides propensity to use their respective sound bite talking points. Now it's more like 1 to 2. Still an hour or so I lose from my life.

I agree, both are extremes. Both are in the end destructive. Both are a hinderence to rational discussion. On the bright side, I usually feel a little better the morning after our get togethers.

6:45 AM  
Blogger M. Takhallus. said...

We have an adversarial system in politics, much as we do in law. Olbermann is the lawyer representing the Left.

We don't live in a "turn the other cheek" world. We live in a "he sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue" world.

Thee other guy hits you, you hit back. It's the political world that Roger Ailes and Karl Rove and Newt Gingrich built. I agree there's something almost middle eastern about it, but the alternative to standing up to bullies is accepting rule by bullies.

Stand up enough and in theory at least you achieve a detente at some point. So you respond to the Kamikazes with the atom bomb, and you respond to the Blitz with the firebombing of Dresden, and you formulate your Mutual Assured Destruction strategy and put the missiles in Europe. You meet force with force.

I don't think you're naive, Alan, but you are an idealist. I think I used to be. But when the very character of our nation is on the line, I'm willing to meet a Limbaugh with an Olbermann as one tactic in a battle I really do wish had not descended to this level.

We are either a nation that believes in the rule of law, and checks and balances, and abhors torture and values liberty, or we're not. An Olbermann is a very small price to pay given what is on the line right now.

9:49 AM  
Blogger Alan Stewart Carl said...

M. Tak,

I guess we see what Olbermann is doing in two different ways. You see him as launching an attack, I see as just inflaming the base without actually damaging the Right.

An attack should injure your enemy--they should lose people or capabilities. Olbermann is not injuring the Right as not a single person on that side is going to listen to Olbermann and suddenly switch opinions.

One of the Big Lies the Left tells itself is that people like Limbaugh have brainwashed listeners and stolen voters away from the Democrats. That's bullshit. The audience for Limbaugh was always there but no one was tapping in. Limbaugh merely exploits what already exists.

Now, that's a useful political weapon in the sense that it uses anger to hold the base together and ensure no one considers switching sides. It worked for the Republicans because it allowed them to take advantage of their numbers and finally get enough turnout to defeat the Democratic machine.

If you think such a tactic can work on the left then, from a raw political standpoint, Olbermann is a decent weapon.

But every study I've seen over the past decade has shown that Americans are a fair amount more conservative than they are liberal. There aren't enough people for Olbermann to rile up to make a difference. Instead, all he's doing is adding to the anger and divisiveness without creating a solution. The Left does not have the troops it needs to engage in this tactic. They need to work on winning new adherrents if they're going to play such games.

I'm only mildly an idealist (in the sense that I still believe if something is wrong, it's wrong, even if it's effective). I understand the necessity of political games and political warfare. But Olbermann offers no net gain for the Left. He does not have the resources to undo enough wrongs to make the damage he does to our culture worth it.

Yeah, I'd still criticize him even if he was making a net possitive difference. But I'd probably not spend blog posts on it.

10:45 AM  
Blogger Alan Stewart Carl said...

One more thing:

As for standing up to bullies, you can't hit back effectively if you lack quick fists. Olbermann's blows are slow because they are cliche. The Left still hasn't found the rhetoric that appeals to anyone outside of those already on their side. Olbermann is throwing the same weak blows, he's just doing it on a bigger stage.

10:53 AM  
Blogger M. Takhallus. said...

As you point out, firing up "the base" is an important if not admirable political necessity. Why is it okay for the GOP base to be fired up and not the Dems? Or are we again saying that the Dems should unilaterally disarm?

As for Olbermann's effectiveness, his ratings have doubled. He's clearly reaching someone, and clearly having an effect. I personally TiVo (or the generic cable company equivalent) his show. Oddly enough, though, I mostly skip his commentaries. (The way the show is laid out it gives him too big a hole to fill so he bloviates when he should just find a way to cut the segment to five minutes.) In fact our usual response around here is to roll our eyes and snark about Keith "doing it again."

I don't get the outrage over Olbermann. No, he's not convincing Republicans in large numbers. But he is rallying the base. Again, when they draw a knife, you draw a gun. And since his numbers are skyrocketing while O'Reilly's are flattening or even declining, I'd have to say the gun seems to be working.

Look at it this way, Alan: there are Republicans dumb enough to take Limbaugh as gospel, and Dems dumb enough to take Olbermann as gospel. I wish the whole world was smarter, but in the meantime, until the eugenics program kicks in, we all play the cards we're dealt.

11:55 AM  
Blogger Alan Stewart Carl said...

M Tak,

O.k., we need a bar and some Scotch to have this discussion properly. But, I'll continue anyway:

From a purely ideological standpoint, I criticize all the O'Limbermanns. I think whatever net gain these guys give their parties is more than erased by the damage they do to society. You might say "so what, that's the way the game is played" but that doesn't mean these guys shouldn't be criticized.

That was the main point of the original two posts. Now we're talking pure politics where the greater distinctions between right and wrong are forgotten. And I still think Olbermann isn't helping.

Here's why: it's one thing to get people riled up about ending segregation or giving women the right to vote or even giving gays the right to marry. That focuses people. It's quite another to just make people pissed off about the other side. There is no there, there. It's all emotion. And emotions are hard to control for long periods of time.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, Limbaugh and company have done this to great effect--but have they really had great effect? Or is there perhaps a correllation between their form of politics and the Republican's quick tumble from power? When your political power is based primarily on making sure your supporters hate the other side, you never really build loyalty. The Democrats were in control for decades because, rather than making people hate the Republicans, they gave people new ideas and programs that created loyal Democrats. They inspired loyalty to the party rather than loyalty in hating the other side.

The only group these Republicans have given reason to be loyal is big business -- all the rest of the votes are from people who simply fear/hate the other side (exageration, but you get the point).

So, Olbermann is, at best, a short-term political advantage. But he ain't the weapon that's needed. He isn't the gun to their knife. He's just another knife. And Democrats will have no lasting power if they only engage in knife fights.

Is it too much to ask for more sophistication from the left? Maybe so. But I don't think parties HAVE to appeal to the lowest common denominator to win in this country. That's a bit too cynical for my tastes.

12:53 PM  
Blogger M. Takhallus. said...

What is this Scotch of which you speak, earthling? I must learn of this Scotch.

1:04 PM  
Blogger Michael Kwiatkowski said...

Clearly you have a problem with people who tell the truth. Like it or not, Olbermann is telling the truth. You can complain all you want about the messenger, but your issue is not with him. Deep down you must know that it is the message itself you can't handle. Unable to knock a hole in it, however, you choose to attack Olbermann.

Let's face facts, shall we? Your entry didn't even try to address the meat of what Olbermann said. You ranted against the messenger, because you've nothing with which to respond to the message itself. In that regard, you discredited your own argument against Keith Olbermann.

12:13 PM  

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