Our Gutless Eviscerators

Keith Olbermann and our vogue for EPIC RANTS are a product of liberalism’s blind spots.

TV Personality Keith Olbermann speaks onstage during the Olbermann panel at the ESPN portion of the 2013 Summer Television Critics Association tour at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on July 24, 2013 in Beverly Hills, California.
Eviscerator-in-chief Keith Olbermann in Beverly Hills, California, on July 24, 2013.

Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

An evisceration is a very specific and very simple procedure: the removal of the viscera. With whatever weapon you might have, you cut someone open across the belly, laboriously pull out all the guts in their wormy coils, red and steaming, and dump them on the ground. Death is inevitable, but excruciatingly slow, unless you choose to speed it up. Human intestines are about 25 feet long, end to end, so it’s possible to get quite inventive here. In one account of the punishment, from the Icelandic Njáls Saga, one end of the victim’s gut is nailed to a tree, and he is then forced at spearpoint to walk around it in slow agonizing circles until his entire intestine is wound around its trunk. Many versions, like the hanging, drawing, and quartering on the books in English law until 1870, also include castration, decapitation, and the removal of the heart—to eviscerate someone is to not just kill them but to utterly destroy them, to show that this was never a human being, not even a body, only some stinking flesh with ideas above its station. No wonder it was most often used for the crime of treason: What it represents first of all is the impotence of bodies before the awesome power of the state. Evisceration is a horrific punishment, which is why it was phased out over the course of the 19th century. But like so many horrors of that age—debtor’s prisons, wars of plunder, long and stultifying literary novels—it’s back.

A couple of headlines, just from the past few weeks: “Watch Elizabeth Warren Eviscerate ‘Gutless’ Wells Fargo CEO,” “Trevor Noah Eviscerates Matt Lauer’s Presidential Forum Performance,” “Soledad O’Brien Eviscerates CNN,” “This Celebrity-Packed Political Ad Eviscerates Donald Trump.” The only other arena that sees nearly as much evisceration is sports, but it’s not even close: Politics has become incredibly dangerous. There must be some kind of brutal revolt in progress, an insurrection in which nobody is so secure and powerful that he might not find his guts suddenly sliding out of a gashed-open belly; the halls of government are blood-flecked and stink of human garum, and politicians wade to work through the dug-out viscera of their fallen colleagues. An incredible massacre, surely.

So where are all the bodies?

Every week brings news of gruesome tortures, but the next day the victims are still there, guts still wobbling happily inside their skin, and still pumping out the same old shit. Wells Fargo is still printing money; CNN is still seeping blather; Donald Trump might still stomp his way to a big, beautiful nuclear arsenal. Nothing is tamer, nothing is more toothless, more flaccid, more uselessly limp and passive and sterile than the click-mediated evisceration. In a recent column, the New York Times’ Ross Douthat writes that various liberal monologists have built a new political consensus, “an echo chamber from which the imagination struggles to escape”—which probably says far more about the powers of Ross Douthat’s imagination than it does about the state of the discourse. Political invective is weak, far weaker now than it’s ever been. Look at the gleeful pornographic slanders of ancient Rome or revolutionary France, Marx tearing into Louis-Napoléon, or Malcolm X declaiming the sins of white America, and try to find even an echo of that caustic fury in a talk-show host raising his eyebrows. It’s not just that these things are ineffective (after all, what have you or I ever actually done to stop the banking system? What could we do?), they’re not even polemical. Instead of exposing the evils of the world, our ranters have resigned themselves to laughing at stupid people. Real polemic surges up from below; these people look down and sneer. The left—and these eviscerations are always almost from something that, at the very least, calls itself the left—has lost something important. It still likes to see itself as an agent of merciless justice, cutting through the stomachs of its enemies, but it’s had a bad turn; it can no longer stand the sight of blood.

Some of this has to do with the limitations of the form. It isn’t entirely the fault of the eviscerators themselves, your Jon Stewarts, John Olivers, Samantha Bees, the whole snide phalanx of late-night takemongers; they’re only doing what they can, being as entertaining as possible with the airtime and the politics they have. They’re not the ones who started talking about evisceration. That word is a function of the 21st century’s legitimized content piracy: TV shows are snipped into little click-worthy segments to be redeployed across the internet and to ramp up engagement on social media. Everyone does it—august press titans as much as shameless media thieves such as the Huffington Post and Slate or the hundreds of algorithmically edited clickbait plankton nets. They need a headline that’ll draw as much interest as possible, and a term as lurid as evisceration is the obvious choice. But as soon as it’s used, it becomes a lie: evisceration is slow, the steady dismantling of a human body; it was a spectator sport, but one you could while away a whole day watching. There’s no such thing as a snappy five-minute evisceration. But in a media economy where everything is always a distraction from something else, there’s no point taking risks on sustained nastiness. And when a company’s survival depends on every post being shared as much as possible, real polemic—the kind that doesn’t make you feel secure in your prejudices but shocks and grates and summons forth the sort of bilious hatred that starts revolutions—is only going to limit your brand engagement potential.

But this is only half the story. To see why these interventions are invariably so weak, it helps to look at them in their most concentrated form, and the most concentrated form is The Closer, with Keith Olbermann. The Closer is a web series put out by GQ in which the liberal rant is stripped down to its barest essentials: There’s no need to slice it apart into fungible snippets; each episode is already only five or so minutes long, a context-less, free-floating slice of sound and anguish. It’s also the most embarrassing thing humanity has ever produced.

Keith Olbermann sits behind a bare desk and in front of what appear to be two giant paint swatches, a cheap square-faced film prophet wearing a three-piece suit and a dense cloud of invisible but suffocating pomposity, endlessly berating Donald Trump—or “Donald John Trump,” as he calls him, affecting the superior tone of some disappointed national dad. This is with the help of some terrible accents—his Trump imitation is, bizarrely, a low, gruff, thuggish grunt, bearing no resemblance whatsoever to the candidate’s actual wheezy petulance—along with some clunky rhetorical grandstanding (“our shock and revulsion have been refracted like light through a prism”), his worrying habit of pretending to read off the clearly blank sheets of paper in his hands rather than the obvious Autocue, and a few jokes, none of which successfully lands, most of which crash screaming into the surrounding wordscape, scattering awkward debris everywhere.

The first episode was shared more than 1 million times in two days and also coincided with a significant dip in Hillary Clinton’s poll ratings. Coincidence? It takes the form of a long exposé listing all Trump’s various misdeeds, but there’s a weird flattening effect here—the genuinely awful stuff, such as Trump’s racism, is placed on the same level as petty partisan bickering (he accused Obama of “having lower approval ratings than Vladimir Putin”), ordinary political gaffes, or bad sartorial choices (he “appeared, in a joint news conference with the president of Mexico, with two bobby pins visible, holding his hairdo in place”), and comments that are actually fairly accurate but impolitic to the Keith Olbermanns of the world (such as when he “attacked the United States of America and claimed it is in a ‘death spiral.’ ”) And it’s all utterly impotent. Stranger things have happened, but it’s almost impossible to imagine a Trump voter, surrounded on all sides by drudgery and decay, the rotting, precarious hell that is life in the 21st century, listening to Olbermann chastise her candidate for being rude to Hillary Clinton, and then concluding that, no, actually, America is already great.

The usual complaint that attends this kind of thing is that it’s geared toward people who already agree with the conclusions. Abetted by the self-affirmative nature of the social media platforms by which it’s disseminated, the evisceration clip functions to reinforce an already existing consensus, rather than to change anyone’s mind. It’s not for a lack of trying, though. Olbermann really is trying to reach out to Trump voters; he’s trying to explain to them why their candidate is a bad choice by listing every bad thing he’s ever said or done, because he thinks they don’t know.

All of these rants are overtly didactic; in the political universe they inhabit, liberals are liberals because they are in possession of all the facts, while people who disagree are not. The notion of politics as a sphere of competing interests has vanished. Instead, political differences are arranged by degrees of knowledge and ignorance. You don’t need to actually offer people anything to induce them to vote the right way; they just need information. And those who persist in making the wrong choice can only be stupid.

Olbermann and his colleagues don’t understand that their own politics rise out of their own narrow interests; their bourgeois ideal has assumed the status of a depoliticized civic universal. A broad consensus—socially inclusive rhetoric at home combined with endless, distant war abroad—has become ingrained in the mainstream, but for such a stupid and contradictory doctrine to function it needs to make itself indistinguishable from the whole truth system of reality itself. It’s not just that, as Marx noted, in every age the ruling ideas are those of the ruling class; as far as the new aristocracy of well-paid but constantly besieged political comedians are concerned, they’re the only ideas worthy of the name. Their rants are so ineffective because they don’t see any opposing ideologies to combat or even real enemies to fight, only a mass of idiots who need to be hectored out of their idiocy. No wonder nobody’s listening; no wonder the left is doing so badly. If progressive politics of any stripe are to have any kind of a chance, we need to ditch the modern style of evisceration, and learn once again how to get nasty.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.