Even as the rightwing shouters get more extreme, with Glenn Beck inciting death threats against liberal academic Frances Fox Piven, MSNBC got rid of its leading progressive voice, showing Keith Olbermann the door on Friday.
These are ominous signs.
Olbermann's star rose when he led MSNBC into its current cable niche as a liberal counterpoint to Fox News. By criticizing the Bush Administration, the Republican Party, and the increasingly nasty and outrageous spokesmen of the far right, Olbermann provided some needed balance on the skewed cable shout-a-thon that has coarsened our national political discourse. He mentored progressive commentator Rachel Maddow, who will continue her show on MSNBC, and left a lasting mark on his colleagues and the nation.
But MSNBC has chastised and suspended Olbermann in recent months--for attacking rightwing bullies like Bill O'Reilly, and, most recently, for contributing money to Democratic candidates in the last election cycle.
It was silly of Olbermann to donate money to candidates, including Gabrielle Giffords (before the terrible shooting rampage that left her incapacitated) and Progressive Caucus co-chair Raul Grijalva, Democrat of Arizona, whom he featured on his show. His individual contributions meant nothing compared with the power of his now-vacant podium. (Never mind that Fox News and the Republican Party have become virtually indistinguishable). Olbermann apologized and returned to the air.
But consider the unfortunate timing of MSNBC's decision to finally, permanently, let Olbermann go.
Immediately after the shootings in Tucson, Olbermann delivered an impassioned monologue on the need for greater civility in our political discourse. He criticized his own use of aggressive language, and called on political commentators on the left and right to tone it down.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the dial, Glenn Beck, who last year said of progressives "you're going to have to shoot them in the head," was gearing up his bizarre campaign against Frances Fox Piven, a welfare advocate and civil rights activist who did groundbreaking work in the 1960s and 1970s and recently wrote in the Nation about organizing a movement of the unemployed.
As everyone who pays any attention at all to politics knows, the current political climate is not exactly a hotbed of 1960s radicalism, particularly when it comes to welfare policy. Beck pulled out quotes from a paper Piven wrote decades ago in order to make a general case that Democrats and progressives want to overthrow capitalism. But ever since President Clinton enacted welfare reform in 1992, there has been precious little support among Democrats for emergency assistance to the poor. President Obama, the biggest recipient of Wall Street campaign contributions in the history of Presidential elections, has shown more willingness to put big banks on the dole than poor people.
But in the alternate reality inhabited by Glenn Beck and his Tea Party cronies, City University of New York professor Piven is responsible for everything from the current recession to Obama's health care reform policies to violence by rightwing extremists. She is, he said over and over on his web site and on the air, a menace to society. In an Orwellian twist, he even connected her to the shootings in Tucson because of her support for civil disobedience.
Frances Fox Piven has written for The Progressive over the years. Her compassionate and carefully documented explorations of poverty, structural inequality, and discrimination were particularly poignant in the early 1990s, when punitive and coercive welfare reform policies were sweeping the nation.
But even Piven's fans would be hard-pressed to argue that she has had a big impact on public policy in the last couple of decades. The 78-year-old professor would be completely unknown to Glenn Beck's audience if he didn't continue beating the drum about her scholarship and claiming that she is an "enemy of the Constitution.” Even after death threats began pouring in, and Piven's lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights asked Beck to stop, he kept on targeting her with his ludicrous accusations.
In this toxic political climate we badly need a check on delusional fantasies of the far right.
MSNBC pulled the plug on Olbermann at exactly the wrong time.
If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Our Gun-Crazy Nation.'"
Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter