I love Keith Olbermann, but I don’t have to work with him. As of last night, neither do the staff at MSNBC, who abruptly cut the tether with their basso profundo heir to Edward R. Murrow. Olbermann reminded us in his closing program notes of “Network” and Peter Finch’s famous “Mad as hell” catch phrase as he signed off for the last time and contemplated his departure, using the spare elegant Occam’s Razor-worthy prose for which he’s known. His life would have been easier if he used that trombone-like voice to sell commemorative plates and soap sculptures and gold coins. Instead he used it to civilize us.
So goes the man who finally carved out a space for liberalism in the liberal media. When I think of Olbermann and the way he situated himself in the nightly pundit game, I think of a Josef Albers painting in which shades of whites are contrasted with other whites or a greens with greens. If the media is really so “liberal,” shouldn’t liberal Olbermann have gotten lost in the green screen background like so many Costa Rican macaws in their almendro trees? He didn’t. Instead, he came about as a trenchant and refreshing rhetorical answer to CNN, at a time when that supposedly liberal network was regularly offering up Iraq War coverage under the rubric “War on Terror”–reinforcing the central fiction of the war for less astute viewers and playing right into the hands of the folksy Mr. Haney who operated our country at the time.
Liberals in this country are a bit like Canadians–we’re always apologizing for something we didn’t do wrong. (Sorry, Canadian friends, but I’m quoting one of your fellow Canucks here.) Perhaps libs don’t like to win, as some introspective pundits like to say. Or perhaps we see more sides of an issue, and thus seem ready to yield to people who take pride in knowing one thing so well. Perhaps we’re just all impressed by ruddy faced conviction. Red-staters are so, so, so emotional about the wrong things they believe. That’s why we lie down when the debate turns silly. Anybody who would seriously debate the question “Is America going socialist” is already being suckered and making medicine with quacks. America has been “socialist,” as the right defines it, since long before 99% of Americans were born (and before we were, children worked 12 hours a day in indentured servitude and many workers were locked into their offices). The real question is why is America going down the road of plutocracy. You might see meretricious rules of rhetoric in that, but that’s because the game has been defined by the crazy people in the tricorn hats and those selling gold on late night television to poor conservative suckers. Are they, we ought to ask, plutocrats or anarchists or have they managed to find a horrifying nexus of both as they finally get around to learning only half what they couldn’t bother with in high school civics?”
Across the discursive gap strode Mr. Olbermann eight years ago, with his arrogant “Yes, I’m liberal and I know what I’m talking about so fuck you,” right into prime time television. It’s like what happens when a great new restaurant opens on a block that used to be full of closed-down warehouses. The block has now been spruced up a bit for newcomers, and I doubt Keith Olbermann’s termination will make that much difference. Salon even suggested that his colleague Rachel Maddow, with her cool Vulcan nerve pinches on stupidity, has stolen the march on her pal in liberal popularity. Nobody seems to be worried about a chill in political dissent so much as speculating about how much of an ungrateful and arrogant prick Olbermann was to his bosses. I guess we could roast him for that, but then you might also have to agree that a lot of polite people are ineffective hypocrites who run you down behind your back. Keith is dealing with you in front, where you cause all the trouble.
“Wouldn’t it be funny if Olbermann went to Fox News?” That’s what I thought at first, and it seemed stupid, but now I hear other people saying the same thing. Roger Ailes seems to have a soft spot for house lefties. He gets to co-opt them and further shield his franchise from its image as being more insulated, weepy-eyed, deluded and prima donna-ish than the cast of Glee. And at Fox there seems to be no real problem with “reporters” contributing a bit to politicians, the activity that got Olbermann in trouble at MSNBC a few months ago. Maybe that would be attractive, maybe not. Maybe Keith Olbermann can just start to enjoy his celebrity and sell out at Fox News. Others have done it.
When Olbermann referenced Network and “I’m mad as hell …” , he dropped the reference with such winning self-deprecation I think people missed the satiric undercurrent in that too-much-abused movie reference. Because Keith Olbermann is better compared to Shane, and it’s Glenn Beck who is actually the Peter Finch character, Howard Beale, a man who capably finds an audience that doesn’t know the difference between discourse and showmanship, snake oil and antibiotics. Even when Beck gets around to coming up with an actual fact, he’s usually quick to move beyond it to the real attraction–exorcism. He’s giving his viewers the nightly purging they need when they feel alienated from the political process, powerless to stop forces beyond their control like money and power and recession and unemployment and foreclosure and failure. When there’s blood in the streets, people need a crazy man like Beck to reflect the perversity of their spirit. Maybe Keith Olbermann hates a bit too much too. He even said as much after Gabrielle Giffords was shot and he asked for a tone of civility.
It’s awfully hard to keep calling for civility, of course, when you’ve just been unceremoniously shit-canned. But Keith Olbermann somehow did it with his elegance and basso profundo. Maybe that’s good for an exorcism too.
Come back, Shane. Come back.