Thursday, February 18, 2010

Olbermann, Race, and the Right

I'm sometimes asked why I spend my time criticising Keith Olbermann when conservative commentators like Sean Hannity are much more belligerent and over-the-top. The truth is that I can't help but hold pundits on the left to a higher standard of integrity.

To me, a man like Sean Hannity is an obvious parody. His irrationalism is so transparent that it's just not worth illuminating. I don't know anyone who thinks that Sean Hannity is reasonable or intelligent, and perhaps more importantly, I don't know anyone who takes any of his arguments seriously. Even if I did, pointing out that a public option is not socialism would quickly get tiresome, just as the constant run-down of Sarah Palin's distortions came to occupy far too much of Andrew Sullivan's blogging time.

Of course, this doesn't mean that there aren't members of the electorate who eat up every morsel that Sean Hannity and Sarah Palin spit out. It just means that I don't willingly associate with any of those people.

I do, however, routinely associate with people who believe that Keith Olbermann is both intelligent and reasonable. Many of my friends and classmates seem to find Olbermann's arguments extremely seductive. Some even contend that Olbermann's points are "irrefutable."

The clip above -- in which Olbermann casually remarks that "the whole of the anger against government movement" is predicated solely on racism -- illustrates why I continue to go after Olbermann.

Is it really fair to charge that everyone who is angry with the Obama administration -- everyone attending the Tea Party rallies -- is motivated by racism? Does Olbermann really provide the evidence to substantiate such a sweeping charge?

Olbermann's conclusion rests on three central propositions. First, there are undeniably racist sentiments being voiced during many of the Tea Party rallies. Second, the concerns of the those in the Tea Party movement are largely illegitimate. Third, black faces are virtually absent from these protests.

The initial premise obviously does not, on its own, support the conclusion. (This would be an example of the fallacy of composition.)

The second premise is a bit more enticing. Why weren't the people who are now clamoring for deficit reduction acting out during the Bush administration? Does this apparent hypocrisy on its own suggest that racism is lurking beneath the surface? There are a number of sensible reponses to this. You could argue that the deficits during the Bush administration were not even remotely comparable to the projected deficits under President Obama. You could argue that conservatives were more comfortable with wartime deficits than with deficits brought on by stimulus spending and entitlement extensions. But I think the most practical response is that partisan hypocrisy simply does not imply racism. In fact, if partisan double standards are evidence of bigotry, then Keith Olbermann is doesn't come off looking so good.

The final premise is facially absurd. The Tea Party Movement is clearly dominated by conservatives. And while it's true that many black Americans tend to be socially conservative, there hasn't been a strong black presence in the conservative movement for well over two decades. Would anyone expect to see black faces at an anti-Clinton rally during the 1990s? While it may be legitimate to criticize the lack of diversity on the right, there are many reasons why black voters' preferences are no longer aligned with the Republican Party, only some of which have to do with past racial discrimination. Either way, this does not offer any thing like the kind of evidence that Olbermann would need to substantiate his across-the-board accusation.

Olbermann's comments begin sensibly, but ultimately devolve into an unfair assault on an entire group of people. The basic problem is that Olbermann can't seem to bring himself to root out racism where it may exist -- and I believe that it clearly does exists in some corners of the Tea Party Movement -- without extrapolating his arguments far beyond reason. Certainly, we should be condemning the vicious attacks against the president. But is it fair to smear all those who engage in peaceful protests against the administration as racists?

I obviously can't read Olbermann's mind, but I think Olbermann legitimately believes that the right has no meaningful arguments. Olbermann may be smarter than Sean Hannity, but like Sean Hannity, Olbermann believes that he has the One Truth on his side.

It's easy to see why he can't seem to bring himself to acknowledge that any of those who disagree with him could possibly be acting in good faith.


MediaMaven said...

Really good post.

Have to point out, though, that it's Sarah Palin. Even though she's nuts we should spell it right.

I see your criticism as actually more of a journalistic one, because it's a sweeping generalization. At least that's how it came across in a similar scenario in a book I was reading yesterday.

mikhailbakunin said...

Gah. I always spell her first name wrong. Thanks for the correction.