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Do we progressives still like the people? Frustrated minds want to know
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WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH OKLAHOMANS! Do we progressives still like the people? Frustrated minds want to know: // link // print // previous // next //

WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH OKLAHOMANS! Might House Democrats pass the Senate health bill, thus keeping health care reform on track? Last night, Keith Olbermann asked Rep. Lynn Woolsey, a member of the progressive caucus. Below, we see her reply:

OLBERMANN (1/20/10): Congressman Barney Frank has walked back, to some degree, his statement earlier that health care reform is dead, or at least this form of it is. He said that if he’s reassured the bill will be fixed down the line, the old pass what you’ve got now, and then pass fixes for it maneuver, he would vote for that health care bill from the Senate. Is there anything that you and the members of your caucus could get in order to follow that process?

WOOLSEY: Well, what we would—what we want is the House bill to be integrated into the Senate bill and we probably can only do it by having a separate vote. And we want that before we vote on the Senate bill. So that we can incorporate some—much of the good parts of the House bill and take out parts of the Senate bill that we just don’t agree with.

Was that a “no” from Woolsey? So it seemed, but Olbermann didn’t ask. Nor did he ask Woolsey why the Senate bill wouldn’t be acceptable as a last resort, with subsequent policy fixes. He simply moved on to his next question. We’ll have to learn from someone else what someone like Woolsey is thinking.

But so it goes these days on Countdown, our supposed progressive news program. On evenings when Olbermann designs to appear, he thunders and roars with his childish name-calling, but often seems unprepared when it comes to more serious topics. Last night, the name-calling continued—or at least, the attempts to justify same. Olbermann’s recent rants against Scott Brown had been criticized in Dallas. Last night, he explained his claims. We would suggest that you read the whole thing, understanding that you have to fact-check anything Olbermann ever says. But this was part of his explanation:

OLBERMANN: I said Mr. Brown was sexist. Specifically, nine years ago, he said a woman Massachusetts state senator had, quote, "alleged family responsibilities."

I said Mr. Brown was tea-bagging. Specifically, as recently as recently as the second of this month, Mr. Brown was the star of a fund-raiser with the Greater Boston Tea Party group at Westborough Mass.

Then I said Mr. Brown was a supporter of violence against women and against politicians with whom he disagrees. Specifically, this past Sunday, when a man at a Brown rally shouted they should, quote, "shove a curling iron up Martha Coakley’s butt," Brown responded by answering, "We can do this." Or, if that remark was unconnected to the shout, he never refuted, condemned, nor disassociated himself to the call for violence and even sexual assault.

Scott Brown is an irresponsible, homophobic, racist, reactionary, sexist, ex-nude model, tea-bagging supporter of violence against women and against politicians with whom he disagrees. And all the rabid right-wing howling about that only helps prove it. The response to lies is to offer the truth. The respond to truths you don’t like is to simply call them lies.

Leave aside the silly attempts to deal with the logic of the word “lies.” Olbermann knows that Brown is sexist because of a single remark the gentleman made in 2001. On Monday night, he said Brown was a supporter of violence against women because Brown had affirmed a stupid remark someone made at a Brown rally. On Tuesday night, Olbermann said Brown was a supporter of such violence because, while he may not have heard the stupid remark in question, he also hadn’t condemned it.

And yes, Brown was a nude model at age 22! This is the sheer, complete inanity to which progressive TV has devolved.

Is Scott Brown sexist? We have no idea. We do know this: A progressive movement is unlikely to flower if it’s built around the kind of name-calling screeds which have driven much of progressive cable since last April, when Olbermann and Rachel Maddow spent a long week aiming reams of dick jokes at voters with whom they disagree. In December and again this week, the pair have gone on the air with justifications for this prior conduct. The tea-baggers made us do it, the two cable hosts have each said.

Maddow supplied sensible commentary from Boston this week. Olbermann ranted, name-called and wailed. He rarely seems to understand policy. (Down with the mandate!) He rarely seems to understand process. (What could be wrong with reconciliation?) He didn’t seem to understand that Woolsey hadn’t quite answered his question.

But he does know how to name-call and rant, thus personifying long-standing conservative claims about the sneering of liberals.

We liberals have done a lot of name-calling over the past few years. Everyone is a racist but us, as Charles Blow helped us remember this week; now Olbermann, a world-class gender-nut, is naming the big sexists too. It’s hard to build a political movement around the promiscuous use of such charges. If we’re constantly telling the voters they’re racists, why on earth would voters decide to support our own (poorly-explained) causes?

Last weekend, we read a profile of President Clinton (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/18/10). According to UN special envoy Paul Farmer, Clinton is regarded [in Haiti] “as someone who's fundamentally sympathetic to the Haitians, someone who has argued they have a right to dignity and respect.” In reply, we got an e-mail from a well-informed, frustrated reader. His views on Haiti may be accurate. We’d challenge his views on Oklahoma:

E-MAIL (1/18/10): Anti-intellectualism runs so deep in the U.S. that it will not matter in the least if a Cambridge or Upper West Side left-winger is seen to be "fundamentally sympathetic" to an ignorant, superstitious, appallingly uninformed Oklahoman. Education and knowledge are vilified by the other side as attributes of elites. There's no way to counter that strategy, and remain educated and knowledgeable. What Maddow and KO do doesn't matter a damn—they're not watched in Oklahoma. What they watch is Palin, sneering at imaginary elites.Even worse, your own example betrays you. Clinton was terrible on Haiti, insisting on implementing the strangulation of Rubin-Summers neo-liberal economic policy, and all too eager to see Aristide excluded from power, for the sin of putting Haiti's well-being above that of American multi-nationals, and the even worse danger of a good example to other countries in the region.Clinton squeezed blood out of Haiti, and American troops ensured that the country would not be run for the benefit of its citizens.

Our e-mailer may be right on the merits about Clinton and Haiti, a topic on which we may no particular knowledge. But whether a political figure is right or wrong on the merits, he isn’t likely to get a hearing from some population unless he’s viewed as “fundamentally sympathetic.” Which brings us back to our frustrated mailer’s comments about Oklahomans.

No doubt: There is a problem of “anti-intellectualism” in this country. No doubt, there are Oklahomans who are “ignorant, superstitious, appallingly uninformed.” (We’d have to say that similar traits can be found within our own movement.) But how do progressives appeal to Oklahomans (or Massachusetts residents) who aren’t appallingly uninformed? Political success rarely requires persuading 100 percent of the public. Political success is measured in increments. You have to get ten percent more.

Reflexive denigration of the public runs deep in liberal culture. Conservatives have fed off this condescension for decades, as we liberals have generally tried to deny it. Last April, Maddow and Olbermann brought this condescension to prime time TV, as they spent a solid week sneering at voters (not at elites or political leaders), insulting them with childish dick jokes. When liberals behave this way toward average people (not toward political leaders), many other average people feel they’re being name-called too.

Maddow provided perfectly sensible commentary from Boston this week. Olbermann, following Blow, kept insisting that anyone who isn’t him must be a racist and sexist. Once again, it’s truly astounding to see Olbermann trafficking in the latter charge. His explanation last night of the “racist” charge was sad, silly, childish, inane.

Progressives will never win this way—nor would we deserve to. When he wrote The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck described a family of Oklahomans who weren’t especially “informed.” In the hands of Steinbeck (and then of John Ford), they became the image of greatness—of “the people.” (Ma Joad: “We're the people, Pa. We go on forever.”) As modern progressives possessed of vast brilliance, can we really respect other people, unless they’re just like us?

Do we actually like “the people?” If the answer is “no,” that’s OK. But it’s hard to build a politics out of that viewpoint.

And by the way: If we dislike these people so much, why on earth would we want to bring them health care reform? Let’s be candid: All too often, our failure to develop progressive themes out of health care reform comes from our inability—our unwillingness—to think about average people. (“We can afford it,” Ezra Klein said—speaking of the vast overspending dumped on the heads of average people by our ludicrous health care arrangements.)

Shortly before he was killed, Dr. King explained a fact of life about the dignity of regular people, including those who are “uninformed” (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/18/10). Many liberals will never relinquish the great joy of liberalism—the joy that’s felt when we get to assert our own moral and intellectual greatness. Was Dr. King speaking of Oklahomans? At heart, we’d suggest that he was.

We understand the frustration of our e-mailer, who is very smart and very informed. But it’s hard to build a winning political movement if you spend a great deal of time sneering at the people in charge. This week, Massachusetts voters delivered a jolt. Blow had already seemed to say they were racists. Olbermann, a loud clattering nut, took up and ran with the charge.