Groupthink Sells

Some liberal ideology just doesn’t push the argument forward

I recently had dinner with a friend who confessed that every time he got into a room filled with liberals, he wanted to express the most far-out right-wing sentiments. My friend is one of the most radically progressive people I know, from his political positions to his social and cultural ones. But his sense of decency transcends narrow politics. He was simply tired of liberals who prescribe conduct for other people that they would never follow themselves. And he was fed up with liberals whose morally opulent rhetoric does nothing to persuade the other side, but does everything to win approval among their group and consolidate their professional status.

Two recent incidents made me recall my happiness at that dinner (I realized that I was not alone!), and aroused my own, long-lived revulsion against smug liberal attitudes. One was the resignation from MSNBC of Keith Olbermann, to whom I say: Goodnight, and Good Riddance. But let’s begin with the recent op-ed in The New York Times by the fiction writer Lorrie Moore, applauding the decision of an obscure Southern publisher to remove the word “nigger” from Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

As Randall Kennedy writes in his sociological masterpiece, Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word(Pantheon, 2002), “monthly, it seems, someone attacks Mark Twain’s most famous book on the grounds that it is racist.” This made the African-American Kennedy, a renowned legal scholar who clerked for Thurgood Marshall and teaches at Harvard, bristle. Responding to the conventional outraged criticism that the word “nigger” appears in the book more than 200 times, Kennedy quotes a typical passage. Sally, Huck’s aunt, asks Huck to explain to her why he is late:

“We blowed a cylinder head.”

“Good gracious! Anybody hurt?”

“No’m. Killed a nigger.”

“Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.”

As Kennedy observes, Huck is using the “n-word” because he has internalized the white-supremacist values that have twisted his conscience and that of Aunt Sally. But Huck also fully comprehends the black slave Jim’s humanity and defends his black friend against the racist forces ranged against him. Huck does this, of course, with the ruthless, ironizing help of Twain himself, who described his novel as “a book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat.” The passage Kennedy cites leads a sound heart to recognize the type of deformed conscience that would segregate “people” who get “hurt” from a black person who is killed. Sure, grasping the meaning of that passage requires a sense of irony, and that requires competent teaching.

By Moore’s standards, there is no end of police work to do among the staples of high school reading. J.D. Salinger’s homophobic portrait of Holden’s English teacher in The Catcher in the Rye might be less egregious than Twain’s incessant “n-word,” and so too the anti-Semitism in The Great Gatsby and “The Wasteland,” as well as the misogyny in Native Son. But these instances also lack Twain’s lacerating irony. Yet if you bowdlerized such books the way Moore wants to expurgate Huckleberry Finn, you could kiss literature goodbye. You could also forget about instilling in students a mature response to life’s gray areas.

Moore’s fundamental complaint is that “Huck’s voice is a complicated amalgam of idioms and perspectives and is not for the inexperienced reader.” However, the only inexperienced reader she worries about is the black reader. You would think that if Huckleberry Finn were as racist and socially destructive as she argues it is, Moore would be even more concerned about its effect on unhinged whites. Yet she never mentions the book’s pernicious influence on anyone but black males. (Strangely, she says not a word about black females.) She ends by suggesting that the book be banned from reading lists until “college—or even graduate school” when, she asserts, students will be mature enough to understand its “complicated amalgam.”

The reality is that for a lot of kids who don’t go on to college—let alone graduate school—high-school English is their only shot at reading great literature. But Moore is not used to thinking outside her narrow context. If she did, she would also see that civil rights in America proceeded, historically speaking, at a rapid pace all through the time Huckleberry Finn was being taught in high school. But, then, liberals’ legendary optimism often depends on a luxurious pessimism about actuality.

Which brings us, of course, to Keith Olbermann, who made a nice living out of presenting America, night after complacent night, as being in the midst of a political apocalypse in which the forces of darkness and light battle it out in the form of two rival television networks. Armageddon, brought to you by Audi.

I could never understand why intelligent people raved about Olbermann’s “honesty” and “courage.” Clearly they had not been reading Paul Krugman, or Bob Herbert, or any print journalists or newspaper articles at all. Olbermann merely repeated what everyone else on the liberal side had been saying ad nauseam. The only difference was that he did it louder and ruder. He turned rational opinion into emotional, vicarious entertainment, thereby uncourageously freeing his like-minded audience from the obligation, not to “think for themselves,” as the boilerplate saying goes, but to try to figure out how the other guy, the hated opposition, thinks. After a hard day at work, the last thing you wanted was to try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, so you watched Olbermann to have your thoughts drowned out and your lack of empathy not only justified, but endorsed.

It’s conventional to attribute Olbermann’s success to the decline of news authority. The media are such cowards, such passive, spineless instruments of the status quo, and here comes Keith Olbermann speaking truth to power! But Olbermann wasn’t the alternative to the contemptuous pundits and talking heads. He was their caricature. He was himself the very spirit of contempt for the media. His winking, transparent allusions to Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite were parodies, not homages. These guys were also histrionic phonies, he histrionically implied. Murrow and Cronkite, lifelong newsmen both, were sincere. Olbermann invented a new style of seeming to scream sincerely in tones of cynical irony.

Just as much as his supposed archrivals at Fox, Olbermann made feeling the touchstone of political reality. I say “supposed archrivals” because without O’Reilly, Beck & Co., Olbermann would never have become so popular, and without Olbermann, his adversaries at Fox would never have grown so virulent. For people who live inside their televisions, Olbermann vs. Fox was the great political conflict of our day. For the rest of us, it was American business as usual. They needed each other the way Goldman needs Sachs. These two monolithic corporations needed each other the way Laurel needed Hardy.

Olbermann, the ex-sportscaster who never stopped childishly, and lucratively, seeing politics as merely a contact sport—and not the high-stakes existential gamble it is—pumped up his zeal in proportion to his lack of real conviction. Like his enemies at Fox, Olbermann perfected the politics of hate out of an insatiable self-love. His ego seems as diseased as the country he and his rivals sought to create in their own image. Yet for his crowd, rejecting Olbermann’s screeching groupthink is the moral equivalent of owning a semiautomatic weapon. No wonder, with the exception of The New York Times’ op-ed page, Mark Twain is having a revival.

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