Sunday, December 20, 2009

From Dickens to Obermann: "With Growing Amazement and Multiplying Anger the True State of Our Healthcare"

For several months now, MSNBC's Keith Obermann has focused his journalistic eye with laser-like precision on the debates -- and more often, nonsense -- surrounding health care reform efforts, including and up to this week's ongoing debacle of a Senate bill. I have previously lifted up as essential to any thoughtful member of "The Left" (however self-designated membership within its roster may be) Obermann's commentatorial work. Some of my friends like to chide me by saying that Obermann is very often is too seduced by his own rhetoric and presumptive critical voice, citing as the most egregious example of such self-seduction his ongoing usage of Edward R. Murrow's (in)famous tag, "good night, and good luck." I make no recoil when hearing such an attempted rebuke; instead, I embrace it. We need more commentators with the journalistic integrity and social conscience of an Edward Murrow -- a list on which I would happily and proudly append the names of both Keith Obermann and Rachel Maddow.

What I find most powerful in Obermann's commentary on the (failed and failing) attempts at health care reform is the passion of his rhetoric: he speaks not only from the heart of an American social conscience, but most poingantly from the heart of one who has experienced and seen the worry and hurt and sorrow and pain of this country's health care system. It is for this reason that I wish to encourage everyone to listen to the hour-long "special comment" he offered back in October. His words are as vital to hear now as they were more than two months ago. There is so much I could say about his remarks: about how they left me nearly tearing up as they compelled me to recall what it was like four years ago dealing with the doctors at the bedside of my own dying brother. But such reflections must still wait, their rawness still too new even after so much time as passed and the extraordinary comfort of so many has been offered.

I think it's also appropriate for us to recall this comment now for two additional reasons: medievalists will not fail to hear Obermann putting to productive use an analogy with the English Courts of Chancery, and literary critics will not fail to attend to Obermann's powerful evocation of the Victorian era's social conscience, Charles Dickens, and his beloved (and today overly sentimentalized) novella A Christmas Carol, which was published on 19 December 1843.

Embedded below is only the first six minutes of Obermann's commentary. See here to watch the remaining parts, or here to stream the entire episode.


doug eskew said...

I think I understand why you embrace rather than rebuke the charge that Olbermann is seduced by his own rhetoric: you would rather talk about Olbermann's ethical positions and integrity. But I have to say that even if one loves his or her own eloquent words or arguments or even moral positions, even if one is sanctimonious or pompous, these attitudes are rather beside the point. What should matter in our discussions are the veracity of the arguments' claims.

Like you, I really like Olbremann's rhetoric and I usually think his claims are correct. Still, take a look at his latest "special comment," where he is outraged at the Senate bill's requirement that individual's carry insurance. He's outraged because he thinks this mandate will remain even after the medicare buy-in has been removed. The problem is, the HCR bill has yet to be written. That'll come out of the conference committee. His moral outraged was directed at something that didn't exist. The next evening, he had to backtrack. Watch it, because if I'm not mistaken, he never says anything like, I guess I went off a little too hurriedly last night:

loadedrift said...

Very affective post, Nic, and I too hope that journalism may return to some semblance of "watchdoggery", though I think Obermann does show us the best and worst of what the kind of objectivity they espouse as a protected class can create. His sometimes smug arrogance is off-putting (I won't say the same of Maddow who I love!) and has rightly been seen as a symptom of the turn away from more traditional media sources who once claimed to be the single source of truth and preserver of the republic. While I do salute the admiration of these figures, it is also important to recognize that you're fighting the Burkean fight (the losing fight) and that energy might be better spent tracking and contributing to the flows of new, pluralistic media (which this blog does nicely!).

And as for Dickens, many critics actually see him attacking and parodying the interventions you describe, in particular the charity discourse that grows out of liberal consensus (cf. Hard Times). Again the key is the darkly cynical Romantic poet Byron in whose literary field Dickens is operating. Both are suspicious of the imperial moves which capture subjects through the ruse of human rights and 'humanitarian efforts.' I'm thinking now of Foucault's analysis of the state's increasing claim over bodies and the power to make live or die. What are the consequences of the marriage of state and corporate power through mandated healthcare for every body? I won't use the F-word :).