'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Sunday, January 23, 2011

A Brief Note About Keith Olbermann 

On Friday night, Keith Olbermann announced during his MSNBC program, Countdown, that it was his last show. There is much speculation that his departure is related to the approval of the merger of NBC and Comcast, as Olbermann was a highly visible public critic of media consolidation. If the Internet reports that I have seen are accurate, he has also frequently engaged in rather strident criticisms of prominent political figures, which, although often legitimate, tend to trouble employers who rely upon these same people to facilitate regulatory approvals.

Although I didn't watch his show very much, and found his Witchfinder General routine with Sarah Palin tiresome, I've always had a fond spot for Olbermann. Back when I used to watch a lot of professional sports on cable back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I enjoyed Olbermann's cool, ironic demeanor on ESPN. Curiously enough, he was low-key when other announcers were hyperbolic and he consciously punctured the machismo stereotypes associated with professional athletes. On a cable network centered around inflating the social significance of professional sporting events to the point of entertainment absurdity, Olbermann went against the grain, implicitly reminding us that, in the end, it's just a game, and, often, a ridiculous one.

So, I wasn't that surprised when ESPN and Olbermann parted company, although his departure was allegedly prompted more by his substance abuse problems and prima donna antics away from the camera. He was an incongruous presence among a stable of predominately male announcers who generally came across as people channeling their failed childhood desires to become professional athletes themselves into sports broadcasting. Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered that Olbermann had resurfaced on MSNBC, infusing American politics with the same exaggerated hysteria that he had so deliberately rejected while working at ESPN.

His supporters called him an heir to the journalistic tradition of Edward R. Murrow, mistaking style for substance, and, even there, Murrow never launched the sort of strident condemnations for which Olbermann became both notorious and wealthy (it is rumored that he will receive the remaining 30 million dollars on his two year contract with MSNBC). In that, they have done Morrow and Olbermann a disservice. For Olbermann, it appears that he lost any sense of restraint as evidenced in his recent commentaries about Palin and, just before he was taken off the air, the upcoming retirement of Joseph Lieberman. Calling one of the most powerful political figures in the US a delusional liar, one known for using his personal influence to punish his perceived enemies, is not a good career move if you want to remain in the the rarified air of high visibility and lucrative compensation.

But, as someone engaging in a rare instance of media criticism from the left, I have a simpler problem with Olbermann, one that has not elicited much comment. His evaluation of Lieberman was misguided, and, as with Palin, obscured the reality of social conflict in the US. Yet again, Olbermann provided us with another characterization of Lieberman as a political rogue, a mercenary who has cynically manipulated the political system to achieve his grotesque goals. Nothing could be further from the truth, as I have explained on several occasions, such as, for example, here and here. Lieberman is no sociopathic rogue, but, rather, a person who has, with the assistance of others, reshaped the Democratic Party in his own image.

Hence, Lieberman can now safely retire, having achieved his life's ambition. US foreign policy remains rabidly pro-Zionist, and continues to pursue policies of regime change (in Iran, Honduras, and Venezuela), with recourse to military force if necessary (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and, possibly, in the near future Iran). It recognizes no legal or national constraints upon its actions, reserving the right to seize, incarcerate and attack people in response to any real or manufactured threat. Domestically, the US has adopted economic policies designed to concentrate consumption in the top 20% of the population, while the remainder of the populace is subjected to more and more insecurity through the evisceration of social welfare spending and job benefits. All of these policies have been implemented by a Democratic President, and, until January 2011, through a Democratic Congress. Going forward, they will be perpetuated through bipartisanship masked by stage managed confrontation between the Republicans and the Democrats.

Instead of addressing this, Olbermann took the easier path: characterizing the problems faced by the US as a consequence of our inability to confront the deranged personalities that we have elevated into positions of authority and influence. Such an approach made for good ratings, and, by extension, good compensation for Olbermann, but failed to engage the pernicious truth about the American socioeconomic system. Perhaps, Olbermann recognized the limitations of working within the mainstream media, and tried to induce us to think in this way as best he could by implication, and if so, I respect the effort. His sort of urbane populism may have been the limit of what can be expressed through the commercial media. Maybe, this will be liberating for Olbermann, but only if he finds a way to take NBC/Comcast's money and discover a new voice for himself outside the commercial mainstream.

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