Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Entertainers and Analysts

Ross Douthat draws a rather sloppy equivalence:

But look - the point of calling Rush an entertainer isn't to say that nobody should ever listen to him or care about what he has to say. The point is that by virtue of being an entertainer, and having the incentives of an entertainer, he's a poor candidate to fill the role of spokesman (and ideological enforcer) for the conservative opposition - a role that he seems eager to take on, and that Barack Obama is very eager to see him occupy. I don't think Limbaugh is a less serious voice for conservatism than Keith Olbermann is for liberalism. But that's because I don't think either of them should be taken all that seriously - because they're media personalities whose primary loyalty is to their image and their audience, and whose primary purpose is to provoke and get attention.
No, the very most important point of calling Rush an entertainer -- the reason why his longstanding opponents, most prominently Keith Olbermann and Al Franken, have taken to labeling him as such, is because Rush himself has so self-labeled many times in the past. This is one of his rhetorical gambits going back as far as you wish: he says something provocatively false, and then when called on it, he declares himself only an entertainer or only a comedian. Olbermann and Franken have kept this claim alive because they see it as a cheap dodge.

John Stewart self-labels as an entertainer and as an analyst, which he certainly is. Same goes for Bill Maher, and same goes for Stephen Colbert. Olbermann has hung up the dopey sportscaster schtick, by and large, and has attempted to remake himself as a serious analyst, although his humor and his analysis continue to intersect. All of the above play a little of the same rhetorical gambit in some form, i.e., duck behind the "entertainer" label or go goofy when the incoming rounds get too close, but Rush pioneered the plea, and -- I say this without the slightest hint of bias -- has made it among the centerpieces of his hypocrisy.

These days, Limbaugh seems to make the plea less frequently, as in the recent case in which he belched forth bullshit during CPAC, was declared a mere entertainer by fellow right-wingers, and proceeded to take umbrage and demand groveling walk-backs from his fellow travelers (which he promptly received). Now, he wants to say, he's a serious analyst. This is a departure.

In any case, there is no necessary tension between being an entertainer and a serious social commentator. This is as commonplace as chewing gum.

Douthat goes on to undercut his own equivalence by laying out some of the significant differences between Olbermann and Limbaugh and how they relate to their respective political factions. Imagine, says Douthat,
... if four months after the worst defeat liberalism had suffered in a generation, an Olbermann (or a Moyers or a Michael Moore or a Bill Maher or whomever) showed up to deliver the keynote address at a liberal equivalent of CPAC, and during the course of his speech he blasted every Democrat who disagrees with him as a miserable sell-out, suggested that conservatives are fascists and conservatism a psychosis, lectured the crowd on the irrelevance of policy ideas to liberalism's political prospects, and insisted that the only blueprint liberals need to win elections is the one that Lyndon Johnson used to rout Barry Goldwater. And then further imagine that both before and after this speech, a series of left-of-center politicians ventured criticisms of Olbermann, only to beat a hasty and apologetic retreat as soon as he turned his fire on them.
No one on the American liberal-left commands the degree or kind of fawning reverence that Limbaugh commands on the American right. This is a curious and suggestive fact about the contemporary scene, but one not explainable by any supposed entertainer-analyst tension.

There is a question of seriousness here. One very promising and straightfoward line of explanation is that the American right has just spent eight years tirelessly discrediting every last one of its tenets and pretensions, thereby invalidating itself as a governing coalition. It now clings ever tighter to the charlatans that have not yet resigned themselves to the unwelcome reality of that collapse. To whatever extent Limbaugh continues to portray himself as serious, he risks going the way of George W. Bush and John McCain.

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