Olbermann, New Atheists and Self-Righteousness

By now you have no doubt heard that MSNBC, apparently fretting that their ratings were not low enough, has fired Keith Olbermann. Brilliant move! They have replaced him with the milquetoast, CW spouting Laurence O'Donnell, meaning that reruns of NCIS are probably now the best option for weeknights at eight (except for Mondays, of course, when everyone should be watching House).

Of course, Olbermann's ouster has brought out the self-righteous set, here represented by Laurie Fendrich over at the Chronicle blog:

Self-proclaimed left-leaning Democrat though I am, I could barely tolerate the angry, mean-talking lefter-more-liberal-than-thou Keith Olbermann, who, for reasons that remain unclear (my bets lie with those who think he was fired), abruptly quit MSNBC last night. With its Dracula organ music, its swift, nasty verbal assaults, and its dizzying graphics, Olbermann's Countdown was always more performance than politics, more yelling than analysis, and more about Olbermann's contorted face and impassioned, run-on sentences, which frequently left him out of breath, than about any sort of reasoned persuasion or argument.

...Watching Olbermann was never any different from watching Glenn Beck or listening to Rush Limbaugh. A pox on all their houses.

Beck and Limbaugh are lying most of the time their mouths are open. They frame their arguments in the most incendiary terms, specifically appealing to the worst in people. Olbermann's great sin, by contrast, is that he's kind of pompous. Truly it's hard to discern the differences between them.

Of course, this sort of attitude is de rigeur among the academic left. Here is another example, this time from Jacques Berlinerblau, also at the Chronicle blog:

The Atheist movement, now overrun by New Atheist worldview, is aces at selling books and putting up provocative billboards. It is far less adept at identifying funding sources, building campaign networks, training activists, and fielding candidates.

Either American atheists start thinking realistically about their numbers, toning down their rhetoric, and making shrewd political decisions or they will continue to make the Jordan Sekulows of the world very happy.

The occasion for this banal bit of posturing is the release of a survey showing that -- surprise! -- not one of the 535 members of Congress self-identifies as an atheist. Certainly there is much to say about that, but I would focus instead on Berlinerblau's remark about “the New Atheist worldview.”

The New Atheists are not stopping anyone from engaging in the activities on Berlinerblau's little list. Public contempt for atheists was at a fever pitch long before the NA's arrived on the scene. It used to be, though, that in addition to being largely mistrusted we were also invisible. The NA's fixed that, and I fail to see how that could possibly be a bad thing.

Progressives are not better off for having lost Olbermann, and atheists were not better off before Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris. The level of obtuseness it takes to liken Olbermann's organ music and bloated prose to Beck and Limbaugh's malicious lies is incomprehensible to me. Likewise for the notion that atheists are at a political disadvantage now that they have a few prominent and eloquent spokesmen. (Being aces at selling books is no small accomplishment, especially when no one anticipated just how many books they would sell.) Reading this sort of nonsense makes me appreciate why academics are often thought to live in ivory towers, and why left-wingers are commonly perceived as being fond of smug self-righteousness.


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Olbermann's Countdown was always more performance than politics, more yelling than analysis, and more about Olbermann's contorted face and impassioned, run-on sentences, which frequently left him out of breath, than about any sort of reasoned persuasion or argument.

I don't actually think this is an unfair characterization of Olbermann. Still, how could a sane progressive-thinking person compare him to Beck or Limbaugh? Doesn't being right count for anything anymore?! Or is it just how you say it? Oh wait, yeah, "framing", I forgot, it is just how you say it...

Granted, Olbermann was sometimes off the deep end due to the "performance over politics" format of his show. So? Is there not a place for this? Is it not a necessity? Does this ivory tower-inhabiting person really think that "reasoned persuasion" is the most effective tool at convincing a cable TV audience? Really?!?

Granted, if your side doesn't have anybody doing reasoned argumentation, that's a problem. *cough*GOP*cough* But is it really so bad to, you know, cover all the bases?


I only occasionally watch Rachel or others on MSNBC, but while I usually agreed with what Olbermann would say, he was too shrill for my taste. Moreover, it seems to me that you are being a bit unfair in your criticism of O'Donnell. His Wikipedia page gives the following quote:

"[U]nlike you, I am not a progressive. I am not a liberal who is so afraid of the word that I had to change my name to progressive. Liberals amuse me. I am a socialist. I live to the extreme left, the extreme left of you mere liberals ..."

By Bob Carlson (not verified) on 27 Jan 2011 #permalink

And you know what? The folks in academia who today cast a judgmental eye at Olbermann's occasional hyperbole, would have probably done the same to H.L. Mencken---who was not above exaggeration to make an important point.

Also I think James Sweet's (#2) point is a good one: "Doesn't being right count for anything anymore?!" Olbermann's "Special Comment" segments---especially during the Bush-Cheney administration---were very often just plain right. Profoundly right. Right about some very important topics (like torture, and warrantless surveillance). And I for one and glad, glad I tell you, that someone on my side of the political spectrum didn't take those topics sitting down. I'm grateful for his passion, even if it was sometimes misplaced or over the top. The difference between what Olbermann did with his (sometimes over the top but ultimately laudable) program and what Bill O'Reilly does with his (bileous, rather knuckle-headed) program, should be obvious to anyone with eyes.

I think the main problem when people compare Olbermann to Limbaugh is that they simply haven't listened to both of them, or they're indulging in the lazy "two sides" comparison. Oh, Olbermann's a firebrand of the left, ergo he must be identical to Limbaugh, firebrand of the right. Juvenile thinking from embittered nobodies.

Norwegian Shooter: Pete Stark (D-Oakland, CA) is a self-described atheist.

True; Berlinerblau probably didn't look closely at the Pew Forum data, but only second hand reports on it. While an atheist (which the Pew Forum noted), Stark identifies as a Unitarian ("What do you call an Atheist who has kids?") which falls in "Other Faiths", as opposed to falling into the Unaffiliated "Nones" - those only identifying as Atheist, Agnostic, or (religious or secular leaning) Nothing In Particular.

There's also a half dozen or so who fell into the "Don't Know/Refused" category - mostly fairly liberal. I'd expect that at least one of those is a member of the "Nones" who due to political/electoral motives simply doesn't care to out themselves. (Pete Stark's district runs D+40ish on a bad year; probably about the only thing he could do to seriously threaten his re-election prospects would be to sexually molest an alpaca on the floor of the House.)

Damn you, New Atheists, for scaring people into throwing all those nonbelievers out of Congress! Wait a minuteâ¦

I've never read such a hateful lie in all my life. NCIS is terrible. Shame on you for ever suggesting it.

By Drivebyposter (not verified) on 27 Jan 2011 #permalink

Wow, just look the downward slope of this graph! Those New Atheists really screwed things up.

Atheists in                            Atheists in
Congress                              Congress
before                                 after
New Atheists                        New Atheists

We don't know how many atheists are in Congress. Probably more than a few. You have to put on a facade in order to get elected. Unless maybe you district has, like, five people or something. (Maybe if your district has two people, and they are your mom and your cousin Biff, then you don't have to put on a facade, but that's sill kinda iffy.)

#11: I don't remember where I read it, probably in Dispatches, but I recall someone from a Congressperson's office, speaking anonymously, saying that several congresspersons where atheists, had asked Nancy Pelosi what they should say about it, and were told by Pelosi that they should keep it under wraps.

I'm sure there are plenty of republicans doing the same thing, only with 50% more sleaze.

By valhar2000 (not verified) on 28 Jan 2011 #permalink

Once I'd seen Olbermann give a Special Comment with which I strongly disagreed, it was hard to feel the same about him again. I still watched, but it wasn't the same. The theatrics had become transparent and obvious.

Let us not forget how the anti-vaxers played Keith for a total patsy in re Andrew Wakefield and Brian Deer. Clearly, his hatred for Rupert Murdoch blinded him to the truth in that matter, and he's never AFAIK apologized to Deer. I hate Murdoch, too, but not to the point of assuming a priori that everything printed or broadcast by any of his media properties is a lie.

I'll miss him, but Rachel Maddow is much more my style.

It always amuses me when the accomodationists act like atheist and skeptic struggles in the public sphere began in 2006.

Olbermann pissed me off when he jumped strongly on the Obama bandwagon and started dissing Hillary Clinton night after night. I don't remember the specifics, but at one point he did a Special Comment in which he made some infelicitous phrasing on Hillary's part into some sort of assassination threat against Obama.

Olbermann was far from perfect, and he certainly was not above stretching the truth a bit to make for better rhetoric. But for all of that he was orders of magnitude better than virtually anyone else on cable news and he was right a whole lot more often than he was wrong.

Thanks for informing me of this sad news. Keith Olbermann has definitely added value to my life.

It would be ridiculous to compare Keith Olbermann with Glenn Beck or Bill O'Reilly. He was an important voice for truth as well as progressive/liberal values. We watched Olbermann faithfully for a couple of years, but eventually grew tired of what seemed like an increasingly smug, opinionated persona who was taking himself a little too seriously. And I really couldn't stand the run-on sentences. I imagine he was above letting anyone else edit his copy, but he could have benefited from a good editor. I'm also happy that he helped launch the TV career of Rachel Maddow.

By Jeanmarie (not verified) on 29 Jan 2011 #permalink

I used to watch for the "Worst Person in the World" segment. The rest of the show seemed poorly done to me. Still he got me through the GWB administration, so I'll always be grateful to him for that. Rachel Maddow should have an hour show (but not every night, say MWF) and hire him just to do his WPitW segment.

Who can account for taste?
I thought Keith was good at challenging FOX and other Republicans with good sense reason, and challenging Obama for his failure to stand up for the values he got elected upon.

What I hated, was his Worst Person skits. He always chose situations, people and ideas which deserved derision, but for their content, not attacks on the person.

In that, he was like the FOXes, and gave them room to squeeze out of their ad hominem laden attacks on Obama, Democrats and Liberals/Progressives, with "so's your old man! The liberals do it too!"

The crazy ideas should have been, and still should be called to task. The ideas are enough to criticize and to show why. With the Best Congress That Money Can Buy, there's still lots to make fun of and criticize, without the distracting showmanship.


"I'm grateful for his passion, even if it was sometimes misplaced or over the top."

It's HIS passion. He places it where HE wants, so all you can say is you consider it over the top.

If you want passion placed somewhere else, bring your own and play it on the table.

One thing that selling all those books did is show that there's a market for writings by atheists, and that in turn shows that a lot of people are interested in it. This was not really thought to be the case beforehand. The realization that atheists exist in significant numbers even in places like the USA is a good thing, and selling those books makes it harder to ignore.

By anthrosciguy (not verified) on 04 Feb 2011 #permalink

How is Olberman a "Truth teller"? Has anyone actually compiled a list of his truth vs lies? I wouldn't be surprised if Limbaugh/Beck told the truth more often then this Edward R. Murrow imitator.

Crusader, Keith has issues. Glenn Beck (take the "keith-olbermann" from that link and replace it with "glenn-beck") occassionally gets basic facts right, but the runs to "false" or "pants on fire" when the story gets in to Beckland. Rush (replace name with "rush-limbaugh") has the same fault, but in Rushland.

"I wouldn't be surprised if Limbaugh/Beck told the truth more often then this Edward R. Murrow imitator."

Your lack of surprise is, however, no proof of the conjecture. It IS proof of your bias, however.