The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Crossing the Line

How Wanda Sykes Is and Isn’t Like Dick Cheney

The White House Correspondents’ Association dinner has a long-standing tradition of allowing politicians, including the President of the United States, to relax a little and poke fun at the media and themselves. Still, even with this leniency – not to mention diners leaning askew from the copious amount of booze served – it is possible for a joke to escape the bounds of good taste and cross the line into taboo.

In recent years, the professional comedians brought in to emcee the event have been the lightning rod of greatest controversy, with Steven Colbert’s brilliant but uncomfortable tongue-in-cheek performance several years ago as prime example. Last Saturday, the mantle fell to Wanda Sykes, a performer easily as noted for her liberal activism as her comedic talents.

More than a few conservatives have disparaged her for having crossed the line when she turned her acid tongue loose on the subject of the equally acerbic radio commentator Rush Limbaugh.

“So you’re saying, ‘I hope America fails.’ You’re like, ‘I don’t care about people losing their homes, their jobs or our soldiers in Iraq.’ He just wants our country to fail. To me, that’s treason. He’s not saying anything differently than Osama bin Laden is saying.

“You know you might want to look into this, [Mr. President], because I think Rush Limbaugh was the twentieth hijacker but he was just so strung out on Oxycontin he missed his flight.

“Rush Limbaugh – ‘I hope the country fails.’ I hope his kidneys fail, how about that? He needs a waterboarding, that’s what he needs.”

Conservative scorn was not limited to Sykes alone but extended to President Obama, whom photographers extensively documented grinning at the contentious lines.

“A display that does not speak well of the President's character,” admonished James Taranto in Monday’s Wall Street Journal.

However, liberal pundits and Democratic politicians were quick to jump to Skyes’s defense, as exhibited below –

[ I ] Wanda Skyes certainly doesn't need me defending her and, given the latest dust-up with Rush Limbaugh, I even suspect she's loving this. When Sykes says she hopes his kidneys fail, she's not saying she actually wants Rush Limbaugh to die. She's saying she doesn't like his viewpoints. And she's telling Democrats afraid of not looking bipartisan or moderate to get some backbone and challenge “the same old criticisms” from this commentator. It has nothing to do with the guy espousing free speech, Sykes is saying, just the hateful, unproductive speech he’s espousing.
~ Rachel Maddow, MSNBC

[ II ] Conservative bloggers and columnists are aghast at Skyes for saying that Rush Limbaugh needs a waterboarding. Well, given what Limbaugh is trying to do, I think he needs a waterboarding too. Of course I want this country to be prosperous and safe – who doesn't? But Limbaugh’s agenda is much more audacious. Pretty much every major news outlet in the country has said as a matter of objective analysis that Limbaugh would prefer the economy to continue doing poorly or even get worse rather than see an ideology advanced with which he disagrees. And yet people are shocked that progressives, Skyes included, find Limbaugh repugnant in his efforts? The war on Skyes from the right is a tired rehash.
~ Frank Rich, New York Times

[ III ] “Make no mistake – Anything other than an immediate and compliant, ‘Why no sir, Mr. Limbaugh, of course you have the right to say anything you please,’ is treated as some sort of act of repression, authoritarianism, or political obstructionism,” Patrick said at a political fundraiser attended by 1,200 people. “This is patriotic jingoism run amok.”

Patrick, facing a tough 2010 re-election bid, told the Democratic audience he would “not be brow beaten on this and I will not kowtow to their narrow-mindedness.”

“My answer to the question is very simple – ‘Can Rush Limbaugh say anything against the President of the United Sates?’ It depends on why he is saying it.”
~ Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick

[ IV ] For months, Hill has urged the Democratic Party to turn away from acid-tongued extreme liberals, such as Minnesota Senate contender Al Franken, comedian/actress Janeane Garofalo, and now Sykes.

“I think what Ms. Garofalo and Ms. Skyes do as entertainers diminish the Party and intrudes or inserts into our public life a kind of nastiness that we would be better to do without," Hill said.

“Baron Hill is just another Blue Dog Democrat,” Garofalo retorted. “What Baron Hill needs to do is close the loop and become a Republican.” Garofalo said Hill and other conservative Democrats are “just mad at me because I'm the one person in the country that had the guts to explain conservative criticisms against Obama have nothing to do with his policies or ideology. They are purely and solely based on race.”
~ Representative Baron Hill of Indiana / Janeane Garofalo

For Republicans who think the explanations above are just a load of bunk as well as Democrats who look upon them with self-satisfied contentment, they are actually defenses mounted by conservatives to address attacks by Democrats against Rush Limbaugh for saying he hoped President Obama fails – with some of the words switched around by yours truly to make them fit the present controversy.

[ I ] was actually FOX News commentator Neil Cavuto back on January 28. [ II ] was a March 3 editorial by Jonah Goldberg in the Los Angeles Times. [ III ] were quotes from Republican Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana during a March 24 GOP fundraiser. [ IV ] represented an exchange between former Secretary of State Colin Powell and Rush Limbaugh himself, as reported by the Associated Press on May 11.

It would seem that where each of us draws the line between telling hard truths and atrocious behavior depends on our own biases. The fact is that everybody, politicians included, cross the line sometimes and the First Amendment generally gives them the right to do so. Perhaps more important than the immoderateness of such gaffes are the intent of those making them and the reactions of those hearing them.

As insensitive as Obama’s broad grin may have been, at least it indicated he understood Sykes intended her remarks as jokes. As for Sykes herself, she was simply making the most of a one-night shot entertaining Washington powerbrokers. She will soon fade, like the controversy she created, back into semi-obscurity.

On the other hand, Limbaugh and former Vice-President Dick Cheney, who seem to have appointed themselves co-chairmen of Real Republicans in Loyal Opposition to Obama, have repeatedly confirmed they are deadly serious in their belief that the President has committed treason as well as their desire for his failure at whatever the costs to this nation. Their listeners regard such antagonism with equal gravity and support its ongoing broadcast.

My longstanding credo has been that any subject regarded as impossible to laugh at under any circumstance is one that is fundamentally dangerous to not only U.S. democracy but also human free thought in general. However, the unspoken caveat is that the thing laughed about is genuinely funny.

This is perhaps Sykes’s greatest offense. In just a few short remarks, she crossed the line, explicitly or implicitly, to touch on such taboo subjects as September 11, the homeless, soldiers dying on battlefields in Iraq and elsewhere, treason, Osama Bin Laden comparisons, drug abuse, kidney failure/dialysis, and torture. All this and she was not able to pull out a single genuinely humorous observation. We are supposed to laugh simply out of shared outrage. This is both lazy and gratuitous in the routine of any comic.

Therein lays the real problem for Obama and Democrats over Saturday night’s embarrassment. When you pick as your headliner an entertainer who can be as blunt and offensive as Rush Limbaugh and Dick Cheney without being as funny as either of them, it is a red flag.

As Kathleen Parker observes in today’s Washington Post, “I do think we take ourselves far too seriously – and literally . . . Lost in the frenzy is the more important matter of our thin-skinned intolerance and our reflexive lurch to take offense. We might remind ourselves that it's always the fanatics who can't take a joke.”

Conversely, Democrats do not need to find edgier comedians; they just need to find some with better material. You know, much as they did with Presidential candidates last year.

No comments: