Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Ending torture: How "torture culture" can infect anti-torture commentary

Keith Olbermann: is snark taking over?

Cynthia Boaz makes some important points in Why Torturing to Prove Torturing is Wrong is Never Okay: A Note to Keith Olbermann 06/08/09. She's criticizing Keith Olbermann for taunting Sean Hannity over waterboarding, daring him to get waterboarded himself. I heard Olbermann Monday night making a similar point about the accused terrorist killer of Dr. George Tiller:

And the man who allegedly killed Dr. George Tiller says there are more attacks planned on abortion targets. Shouldn‘t we be subjecting that man to enhanced interrogation techniques? ...

The alleged terrorist charged with assassinating Dr. George Tiller says more violence is planned. If Mr. Bush were still president, wouldn‘t we be water boarding Scott Roeder to find out what and where? ...

an act which seems to define the term terrorism, an act committed for political and religious reasons, the alleged perpetrator has now threatened more violence. The Number one story in the COUNTDOWN, as the man accused of killing Dr. George Till in the vestibule of his church warns of potential acts of terrorism against abortion providers, why, with a domestic terrorist in our grasp, why are we not treating him as such?

Why is the far right not calling for him to be water boarded to tell against whom the next gun or bomb will be directed?
Uh, because the liberal Keith Olbermann is already doing so?

Olbermann promoted this line all through the show, introducing Denise O'Donnell of the New York Department of Public Safety to talk briefly about the case at the end of his Monday program:

OLBERMANN: Nevertheless, in terms of public understanding of what happened, and what he has said, and what he has done, the semantics as we obviously saw during the last administration, hugely important, given its handling of detainees who were soon to be involved in violence that was, you know, based on religious and political grounds, and which, we were told, were attempts to circumscribe American freedoms.

If Scott Roeder had an Islamic name and was promising to attack more Americans or knew of attacks planned against more Americans, wouldn‘t people at one end of the political spectrum now be saying, in that sort of hyperbolic example, we should use enhanced interrogation techniques to find out what he has planned or what he knows about?

O‘DONNELL: Well, I don‘t think this is really an issue about torture. This individual has been charged. He‘s not being interrogated by the police. But what is important is that the law enforcement community is taking this very, very seriously.
She didn't really need to add "... as opposed to you, Keith, who are using this case to make frivolous 'gotcha' points". She made the point more gently.

This is my concern about the snarky, infotainment style news programs that Olbermann and now Rachel Maddow do. (Maddow seems to be more substantial than Olbermann so far.) Both have done some decent reporting on the torture issue. But the market study that was reported recently showing that some large percentage of conservative think Stephen Colbert is being serious when he spoofs rightwing ranters in his onscreen persona is a telling fact about our current press environment. We've reached a point where some of the best news reporting is being done by comedians. If some significant portion of the viewers of Colbert's comedy show on the Comedy Central channel think he's being serious, I can't help but wonder how many viewers of Olbermann's ostensibly hard-news program take his suggestions about torturing people seriously.

Cynthia Boaz makes several points about Olbermann's clowning around about torture:

By calling-pushing, even-for the water boarding of his rival talk-show host Sean Hannity (who, in a moment of exceptional foolishness volunteered to be water boarded in order to demonstrate that it's "not that bad"), Olbermann gave away the moral high ground on this issue, undermined his otherwise unassailable argument against torture, and trivialized the very thing he wants us all to take so seriously. I would go so far as to say he's "normalized" it, if the ability of Olbermann supporters to twist themselves into logical and moral knots in defense of his campaign is any indication.
And she reminds us in a mild way, that for all his stylistic imitation of the legendary Edward R. Murrow, that Olbermann is really no Edward Murrow:

... I would simply ask Mr. Olbermann to ponder this question: You have been compared- justly in my view- to Edward R. Murrow. Can you honestly imagine that Mr. Murrow would have condoned - much less engaged in - a campaign like the one you've run against Mr. Hannity? Murrow went up against the vilest of the vile, Senator Joe McCarthy, and never once did he reduce his tactics to those of his opponent. He found a way to reveal the logical weaknesses in McCarthy's views and the pathetic and desperate political motives behind it without sacrificing his own integrity. He simply gave McCarthy the rope with which to hang himself.

Trust me, Mr. Olbermann, that is all you need to do. The American people - your audience - want our public figures to help us access the better angels of our natures, not to continue exploiting what mystics call "the lower vibrating emotions"- anger, fear, judgment, envy, and in this case - a voyeuristic sadism wrapped in crude humor. You have apparently called off your campaign against Hannity, but it would be helpful to explain why (beyond noting that Hannity is a coward), and acknowledge that perhaps you were a little too human. That's what Murrow would have done, and it's what the Keith Olbermann I've come to respect would do as well. [my emphasis]
Comedy is a challenging art form. And there are ways to use comedy to criticize torture. But that's the problem with Olbermann's approach - his brand of infotainment is presented as serious news laced with liberal snark, which may or may not be humorous. Boaz has a legitimate point when she writes that Olbermann's approach actually functions to legitimize torture.

I see no reason to believe that is his intent. But he's let snark get the best of his message on this one.

Tags: , , ,

| +Save/Share | |

Links to this post:

Create a Link


"It is the logic of our times
No subject for immortal verse
That we who lived by honest dreams
Defend the bad against the worse."

-- Cecil Day-Lewis from Where Are The War Poets?


  • What is the Blue Voice?
  • Bruce Miller
  • Fdtate
  • Marcia Ellen (on hiatus)
  • Marigolds2
  • Neil
  • Tankwoman
  • Wonky Muse


  • Anne Applebaum's strange take the EU elections
  • It's nice to hear I'm not the only one who thinks ...
  • Ending torture: The witch hunts of early-modern Eu...
  • Far-right violence and "mainstream" extremism
  • The Bad News and the Good?
  • Ending torture: Domestic terrorism and "torture cu...
  • Note on the Republican Party and the anti-abortion...
  • Arkansas terrorist killing
  • The politics of fanaticism
  • Ending torture: "Torture culture"



    [Tip: Point cursor to any comment to see title of post being discussed.]
    www TBV




    Environmental Links
    Gay/Lesbian Links
    News & Media Links
    Organization Links
    Political Links
    Religious Links
    Watchdog Links



    Atom/XML Feed
    Blogarama - Blog Directory
    Blogwise - blog directory



    hits since 06-13-2005

    site design: wonky muse