Monday, November 3, 2008

Olbermann's paranoid style

Of the many things that "Saturday Night Live" writers got right in their parody of Keith Olbermann -- the angry certainty, the hyperbole, the self-righteous indignation -- none was more right than Olbermann's penchant for the elaborately long sentence. Ben Affleck opens his Olbermann diatribe with this 92-word rambler:
That he is the worst president in our nation's 220-year existence, indeed, that he is the worst president ever to head a government of any kind in the whole of human history is beyond dispute, but even Mr. Bush's harshest critics had until this week credited him with a modicum of human decency, a decency utterly belied by the tape you are presently to see, a tape in which, at a White House press conference, Mr. Bush abruptly launches into a stream of ugly racist invective that would embarrass even David Duke.

Note the backward construction of the sentence. You go 33 words before you get to "is beyond dispute," without encountering an antecedent for the pronoun "he" en route. Affleck/Olbermann then pivots on "but" and goes off in another direction for 48 words.

This show-off, self-conciously "smart" type of discourse is the intellectual equivalent of the nouveau riche ostentation of wealth. I know rich people whom you'd never suspect were rich if you were to meet them in the stands at a ballgame. They're not some Thurston Howell III stereotype. In the same way, geniuses don't generally declaim in entire paragraphs full of GMAT vocabulary words.

What Olbermann does with his "aren't I smart" style is to play on his audience's conviction that liberalism is smarter than conservatism. They're like chess-club nerds, sneering at the jocks and preppies. Olbermann is reinforcing their smug condescension, and they love him for it.

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