Olbermann to Rumsfeld: The Danger is Your Certainty!

In March of 1954 the great American journalist, Edward R. Morrow, took on Senator Joe McCarthy in a series of episodes of the weekly "See It Now" program that he hosted on CBS.  Murrow's courage in taking on McCarthy's crusade against communism, where enemies everywhere and those in dissent were aiding and abetting the communists who wanted to control the U.S. government, is now well known and accepted as one of the greatest moments in journalism.

Keith Olbermann's show-ending commentary yesterday (8/30/2006) on MSNBC's "Countdown" evoked Murrow both directly and indirectly as the host took on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his speech to the American legion convention on Tuesday, in which he evoked the days before World War II, comparing current critics of the Bush Administration's Iraq actions with how Neville Chamberlain infamously dealt with Hitler and the fascist threat through what is now called appeasement.  Olbermann's commentary was not only a beautifully reasoned stinging rebuke to Rumsfeld's attacks, but reminded me how we have lost appreciation for the artful use of the English language in this era of the shouting pundit masses on cable news networks and, yes, even on blogs.

Before getting to Olbermann's insightful and eloquent comments, I want to point out the relevant parts of Rumsfeld's speech.   If you want to read it in its entirety it is HERE.

Rumsfeld raises the specter of WWII to draw the parallel between the Nazism of its era to the fundamentalist Islamic fascism of the current era:

I recount that history because once again we face similar challenges in efforts to confront the rising threat of a new type of fascism. Today -- another enemy, a different kind of enemy -- has made clear its intentions with attacks in places like New York and Washington, D.C., Bali, London, Madrid, Moscow and so many other places. But some seem not to have learned history's lessons.

So Rumsfeld is both the teacher and watchman, alerting us to those in our midst whose ignorance is causing dangers flame rather than dissipate.  He then lays out what he views as "The central questions of our time" that his critics are answering with either ignorant or sinister malice:

*    With the growing lethality and the increasing availability of weapons, can we truly afford to believe that somehow, some way, vicious extremists can be appeased?
*    Can folks really continue to think that free countries can negotiate a separate peace with terrorists?
*    Can we afford the luxury of pretending that the threats today are simply law enforcement problems, like robbing a bank or stealing a car; rather than threats of a fundamentally different nature requiring fundamentally different approaches?
*    And can we really afford to return to the destructive view that America, not the enemy, but America, is the source of the world's troubles?

Putting aside the fact that few consider the first three so-called critical questions are in any way representative of those who are criticizing this Administration - the question is not one of negotiating or appeasing the terrorists, but one of a good, effective strategy - The fourth question, I believe, is the kind of question that the Administration hears its critics asking - or rather asserting its implied conclusion.  Most Americans, I would guess, wouldn't believe that the United States is the source of the world's troubles, but rather this Administration has exacerbated them to such an extent that their origins are now clouded and intertwined with the foreign and military policy of the current United States government.  Rumsfeld then remarks:

We hear every day of new plans, new efforts to murder Americans and other free people. Indeed, the plot that was discovered in London that would have killed hundreds -- possibly thousands -- of innocent men, women and children on aircraft flying from London to the United States should remind us that this enemy is serious, lethal, and relentless.

   But this is still not well recognized or fully understood. It seems that in some quarters there's more of a focus on dividing our country than acting with unity against the gathering threats.

So then, it is not the incompetent planning and poor execution of the War in Iraq... it is not the stretching of our military resources or the fact that this Administration ignored terrorism as an issue before September 11th - the problem is that by merely criticizing this Administration, the goal of critics is to divide the country, weakening the ability of this nation's assets to counter those who threaten us.  The obvious conclusion to this is that criticism is in itself dangerous to the country and its interests.

Rumsfeld then attacks the media (and Amnesty International) for what he perceives as an emphasis on the negative:

It's a strange time:
*    When a database search of America's leading newspapers turns up literally 10 times as many mentions of one of the soldiers who has been punished for misconduct -- 10 times more -- than the mentions of Sergeant First Class Paul Ray Smith, the first recipient of the Medal of Honor in the Global War on Terror;
*    Or when a senior editor at Newsweek disparagingly refers to the brave volunteers in our armed forces -- the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the Marines, the Coast Guard -- as a "mercenary army;"
*    When the former head of CNN accuses the American military of deliberately targeting journalists; and the once CNN Baghdad bureau chief finally admits that as bureau chief in Baghdad, he concealed reports of Saddam Hussein's crimes when he was in charge there so that CNN could keep on reporting selective news;
*    And it's a time when Amnesty International refers to the military facility at Guantanamo Bay -- which holds terrorists who have vowed to kill Americans and which is arguably the best run and most scrutinized detention facility in the history of warfare -- "the gulag of our times." It's inexcusable.
Those who know the truth need to speak out against these kinds of myths and distortions that are being told about our troops and about our country. America is not what's wrong with the world.

So now these groups are also part of those who wish to divide us - those whose activities are aiding the enemy.  Again, Rumsfeld is not criticizing any actions except the exercise of free speech as contained in the First Amendment.  The actual critique of the statements is fine - and he could be making good points about these specific examples, except that he then extrapolates that these outlets are, from these examples, somehow concluding that "America is what's wrong with the world" - and with that strawman concludes, boldly, that it is not.

Then Rumsfeld brings the Legionnaires to his main point:

Your watchdog role is particularly important today in a war that is to a great extent fought in the media on a global stage, a role to not allow the distortions and myths be repeated without challenge so that at the least the second or third draft of history will be more accurate than the first quick allegations we see.

   You know from experience personally that in every war there have been mistakes, setbacks, and casualties. War is, as Clemenceau said, "a series of catastrophes that result in victory."

   And in every army, there are occasional bad actors, the ones who dominate the headlines today, who don't live up to the standards of the oath and of our country. But you also know that they are a very, very small percentage of the literally hundreds of thousands of honorable men and women in all theaters in this struggle who are serving our country with humanity, with decency, with professionalism, and with courage in the face of continuous provocation. (Applause.)

   And that is important in any long struggle or long war, where any kind of moral or intellectual confusion about who and what is right or wrong, can weaken the ability of free societies to persevere.

That last line is what has gotten most  of the attention - one where critics are not merely in disagreement, but "morally and intellectually" confused, unlike the moral and intellectual clarity that Rumsfeld and his ilk must view as the hallmarks of this Administration's foreign policy, the evidence be damned.  The problems are not on the ground, where the  honorable soldier's sacrifices and goodwill take place, but rather in the media, which focus on the bad eggs and where the moral and intellectual confusion of this Adminsitration's critics reigns.

Enter Olbermann.  To get the full force of his counter-Rumsfeldian commentary, you need to see it in all its perturbed glory, but you can read the transcript HERE.

HERE is the YouTube version if you want to see and hear the full commentary (Which I recommend)

Olbermann's brilliance here is not just in the erudite and playful words and arguments, but in the way Olbermann recasts the debate - one in which those who are certain of their certainty are the true enemies of democracy.  Olbermann's main task, turning the WWII analogy back against Rumsfeld and the Administration is one in which only a person who is both smart and has a thorough knowledge of the historical facts can accomplish.  He then can explain that is Rumsfeld and his cronies who are the ones who are truly confused:

That, about which Mr. Rumsfeld is confused is simply this: This is a Democracy. Still. Sometimes just barely.
And, as such, all voices count -- not just his.
Had he or his president perhaps proven any of their prior claims of omniscience -- about Osama Bin Laden's plans five years ago, about Saddam Hussein's weapons four years ago, about Hurricane Katrina's impact one year ago -- we all might be able to swallow hard, and accept their "omniscience" as a bearable, even useful recipe, of fact, plus ego.
But, to date, this government has proved little besides its own arrogance, and its own hubris.
Mr. Rumsfeld is also personally confused, morally or intellectually, about his own standing in this matter. From Iraq to Katrina, to the entire "Fog of Fear" which continues to envelop this nation, he, Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney, and their cronies have -- inadvertently or intentionally -- profited and benefited, both personally, and politically.
And yet he can stand up, in public, and question the morality and the intellect of those of us who dare ask just for the receipt for the Emperor's New Clothes?
In what country was Mr. Rumsfeld raised? As a child, of whose heroism did he read? On what side of the battle for freedom did he dream one day to fight? With what country has he confused the United States of America?

Olbermann's rhetorical flourishes are beautiful to hear, both in logic and delivery.  We often complain about how the news media have let this administration off the hook too often on a host of issues and actions.  But let's acknowledge the great work of Olbermann and give kudos to MSNBC for allowing "Keith to be Keith."

I was reminded during Olbermann's commentary of a quote that, while attributed to Huey Long, really has no certain origin:  "When fascism comes to America it will be called anti-fascism." Rumsfeld's speech has shown us that whoever originally wrote or spoke those words had this Administration in mind.

Olbermann makes this point himself near the end of his commentary:

And about Mr. Rumsfeld's other main assertion, that this country faces a "new type of fascism."
As he was correct to remind us how a government that knew everything could get everything wrong, so too was he right when he said that -- though probably not in the way he thought he meant it.  
This country faces a new type of fascism - indeed.
Although I presumptuously use his sign-off each night, in feeble tribute, I have utterly no claim to the words of the exemplary journalist Edward R. Murrow.
But never in the trial of a thousand years of writing could I come close to matching how he phrased a warning to an earlier generation of us, at a time when other politicians thought they (and they alone) knew everything, and branded those who disagreed: "confused" or "immoral."
Thus, forgive me, for reading Murrow, in full:
"We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty," he said, in 1954. "We must remember always that accusation is not proof, and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law.
"We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men, not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were for the moment unpopular."
And so good night, and good luck.

Yes... good luck to us all.

Tags: Iraq, McCarthy, Media, Murrow, Olbermann, rumsfeld (all tags)


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