"I'm Sorry. I Forgot to Compare KO to O'Reilly."

>> Friday, January 22, 2010

Just logged on and checked out the comments thread on this post. Good gods, people. Most of you seem to think I equated Olbermann's substantive views with those of Beck or Limbaugh, missing my point entirely. The others want to argue that there is a significant difference rhetorically between a right wing racist / homophobe using slurs to make his political point and a leftwing anti-racist anti-homophobe using slurs to make his point. Newsflash: the slurs are the point.

It's a lot like just war theory. You can be perfectly justified in going to war, but that still doesn't excuse murdering prisoners or slaughtering civilians. The ends do not always justify the means. And there is nothing traitorous to "the cause" in pointing that out.

Like most of you, I like Olbermann's message plenty. Unlike most of you, I don't like his polemics. He makes reasonable arguments often through unreasonable means, using many of the same rhetorical devices - repetition, name-calling, shmarm, vitriol - that we associate with the narrow-minded propagandists on the right. [Demagogue, definition: "a political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular passions and prejudices."]

As an exemplar of democratic dissent (reputed according to Stewart for arguments 'based in fact and saturated with reason'), KO IMHO has in fact long set a bad example to my children. He lowers the discourse with petty ad hominems and encourages all of us who agree with him to do the same because face it, we love what comes out of his mouth and he's a celebrity. The time we spend listening to him because it feels good should not be (but often is) confused with time spent thinking seriously about political issues. This is especially dangerous because we agree with him. In short he lowers our expectations of what might be considered functional political discourse.

Does he lower those expectations to precisely the same degree as Rush or Glenn or O'Reilly or any other name I might pull out of the hat in expressing an opinion? Who bloody well knows? To answer that question empirically you would need a random sample of clips from an equivalent range of show-dates, and a team of objective coders trained to independently annotate the clips for some measure of "uncivil political rhetoric" according to a codebook defined in such a way as to be intelligible to anyone replicating the analysis, with an inter-rater reliability score of at least .80 or better.

Oh, make no mistake. I'm perfectly capable of doing precisely this when challenged to empirically support an opinion expressed in a blog post. But I simply don't have the time this weekend, as my son has back to back soccer games and we may be getting a puppy.

Of course, I'm confident that if I wanted to I could. I'm confident because (in case it's not glaringly obvious) Jon Stewart has already lined up the supporting evidence for me. (Actually, based on these comments I'm wondering if any of you has actually watched the clip. How can you be reminded of the kinds of sexist names KO has called women commentators and still argue he behaves with more high-minded pro-feminist rhetorical restraint than his enemies? On this point, I say he is no different than any other commentator who wields a haughty pro-woman stance as a weapon against other men when it's profitable while behaving as a sexist when, er, it's profitable. "But KO is pro-choice!" you would say. "He supports hospital care for rape victims!" Sure. I never said his politics are as bad for women as those of the right. My whole point is you can agree with the positions he takes and still be critical of the way in which he takes them.)

But the other reason I don't need to provide generalizable supporting evidence is because I'm not actually making a statement of fact. I'm not offering an empirical analysis of the relationship between his rhetoric and Limbaugh's. This wasn't a scholarly treatise or a discourse analysis - for pity's sake, this was a throwaway post where I'm offering my opinion. And that opinion isn't based on coding or kappa scores. It's based on a) growing up in a house where Rush Limbaugh was listened to religiously, and learning to despise how he talked, regardless of what he was saying and b) living in a house where KO is watched religiously and being just as irritated just as regularly for just the same reason, regardless of the fact that I agree with most of what he's saying.

And here's why, folks. I believe in deliberative democracy. I believe in expressing political conviction on the basis of reason and in forging common ground with those you disagree with. I reject the "cross-fire-esque" black and whiteness of today's political discourse. I reject name-calling, character assassination and invective. And unlike many of those on the left today, with whom I fervently agree on many political issues, I hold "my" commentators to the same standard as those on the other side. Not to a higher standard. To the same standard.

Not because it feels good (it doesn't).

Not even on principle (though there is an important one here).

No, out of sheer, Machiavellian self-interest. Olbermann is speaking for you and for me, and he shoots us in the feet when he puts his feet in his mouth. I like my feet, dammit. Need those feet.

Do liberals need Keith? Probably. Do we also need people like Jon reminding us of liberal ideals? Most definitely.

I stand firm in my admiration of Jon Stewart for standing up to Olbermann just as he does to those with whom he disagrees politically. Like Jon, I won't shy away from challenging the conventional wisdom in my own political community as easily as I launch barbs at those on the other side of the fence. That's my egg-headed opinion, and I'm sticking to it.

Frakkin' deal with it.


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