I was listening to talk radio this week and heard Ann Coulter referring to Pres. Obama as a monkey three times in 3 minutes. Then I heard Rush Limbaugh calling the Obama policy in Syria Operation Shuck and Jive twice in just one minute.
Normally I don’t pay attention to this kind of stuff or these kinds of people (that’s hate-speakers, not conservatives) because, well, I’ve learned over the years we have a limited time on Earth and really should pick and choose who and what we spend our time on.
But to not pay attention to this sort of thing is also absolving your responsibility as a thinking member of society. That’s not right and it’s insidious. And the more you ignore the more it becomes a kind of allowable “norm” people can get away with.
George Carlin famously talked of the seven dirtiest words you can’t say on television, all of which you can now say on cable and some of which you can periodically get away with on the networks. (They are: shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits – all of which you can say in a blog!). Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and a long list of many others also challenged us with language that could be deemed offensive.
Don Rickles, the last of the old school Rat Pack-related comedians from the bygone Vegas era of entertainers, pioneered a variation of this kind of thing in the most mainstream way in the sixties when he evoked racial epithets for pretty much any ethnic group you can think of. But part of his success was being an equal opportunity offender – no group, including his own, was safe. Andrew Dice Clay tried another brand of this humor two decades later in the eighties by personifying the most chauvinistic black-leathered jacketed working class asshole from the boroughs or Jersey or anywhere else you can think of. But he quickly faded away, mostly because he almost solely went after women in a very ugly way and partly because he committed the cardinal sin – he wasn’t nearly as funny as his predecessors (Note: ADC portrays a defanged version of this character in Woody Allen’s latest, Blue Jasmine, a performance that probably works a lot better for those who don’t remember the Diceman’s original act).
What do you do with all this? Are words, in themselves, offensive? Why could Richard Pryor (and now Chris Rock) say the “N” word but when I say it, it takes on another meaning.
It’s all about context. And intention.
Moreover, why do Windbag Rush and Annie the Terrible purposely use their offensive terminology in order to provoke favor with like-minded thinkers and non-thinkers alike who are salivating for some new form of socially acceptable hate speak?
It’s all about changing the Norms of Context. And it’s very, very, very intentional.
Also this week, Soviet president Vladimir Putin chastised the US in a NY Times op-ed piece for daring to talk about American “exceptionalism,” concluding with this thought: We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal. Well, that sounds good but some months ago Putin began strictly enforcing new laws that allow his government to exorbitantly fine and arrest anyone who engages in homosexual activity, or even publicly approves of any sort of pro-gay activities. Gays can’t marry, adopt or, if they’re vocal about it, teach (Note to Self: Cancel my trip to Russia). So there goes his written plea for equality for all of God’s creations– right out the Kremlin window and right behind anyone listening to a Bette Midler album. This also begs the question of what he plans to do with Atheists – who don’t ask the Lord for any sort of blessings because they don’t believe a God created anyone. One shudders to even consider the punishment for that.
Forget about context and intention. You now can add truth and hypocrisy to the list.
There are ways to think about our differences and there are ways to exploit them. More importantly, there are many ways to express them. Not all, but many people who are in the public eye are smart enough to know exactly what they are saying. Certainly there is the occasional gaffe and arguably there is nowadays a whole class of speakers who just wander into the spotlight and are uninformed. But you and I usually know who they are. And we certainly know that’s not who we’re speaking about here.
When Putin, Coulter, Limbaugh, Carlin, Clay and all the others speak they know EXACTLY what they’re saying and why. They choose their words for particular reasons because it is their living to do so. They get (or got) paid handsomely for it. And as such, they’ve earned an answer when they go over the line. This is also the case for people in your life, or those within earshot adjacent to your life. They’re not getting paid but they’re occupying your space and opening their mouths. At last check, the US (not Russia) was essentially a freedom-of-speech-loving country where you not only get to say anything but get to be answered back within the confines of the law. Hate speakers don’t get to have a one-sided conversation as they call you out for being too politically correct while they hide behind the mantle of free speech. The latter cuts both ways. If they have the right to speak as they do (and they do), we all have the obligation to call them out when we believe their heinous words and thoughts are polluting the environment in which we must live – both literally and figuratively.
That’s why comedian Richard Belzer was totally justified to call Ann Coulter a fascist party doll in 2006 when he threatened to walk off of Real Time with Bill Maher as Maher began to introduce her. He was reacting to a myriad of Coulter statements that came before this appearance, stuff like My only regret is that Timothy McVeigh (the Oklahoma City bomber) didn’t go into the NY Times building or that the 9-11 widows are reveling in their status as celebrities…I have never seen people enjoying their husband’s deaths so much.
Of course, all of those were said several years before we had our first Black president so Ms. Coulter, a best-selling author in the tens of millions, has had to up her game. How do you answer an educated person who knowingly likens the most famous Black Man in America (nee the WORLD) to a phrase that was commonly used and drawn in the antebellum South to describe the Simian nature of their former slaves???
The correct answer is not: she doesn’t deserve an answer. The correct answer is to tell the Ann Coulter in your life, or the one you overhear, exactly what you think – in a word, or phrase, or something longer (and perhaps, preferably, with something sharper).
Don’t take this for a second to mean that we’re letting Mr. Limbaugh off scot-free. If these are truly our public airwaves, what do you now say to someone who uses the term “shuck and jive” to describe a Black president’s policies? As Mr. Limbaugh understands, that’s a phrase that came into being when black slaves sang and shouted gleefully during corn-shucking season and evolved in common usage as way to indicate Black people who were clowning and lying.
Obama’s a sla-ave, Obama’s a sla-ave, O- ba-ma’s the N word, O-ba-ma’s the N word…,
you can hear Limbaugh taunting.
Well, you can now see why current Senator Al Franken had no other choice than to write:
Rush Limbaugh’s a big fat idiot, Rush Limbaugh’s a big fat idiot!
But that book was almost 10 years ago and Rushbo has gone into entirely new territory here. What do we, or anyone, say back to him now?
No – the correct answer is not to ignore him. Not for this. Not in this case.
Certainly, we all make our own choices in these situations. In 1993, the only African American female Senator in the history of the US Congress was Carol Moseley Braun. (Note: Ms. Moseley Braun served as a senator from Illinois, a seat Barack Obama would 10 years later be elected to). This week, The Rachel Maddow Show reported on a much repeated story of what happened in the Senate elevator at that time when ultra conservative and virulent racial separatist, North Carolina’s five term (that’s 30 years) senator, Jesse Helms, found himself riding up in the elevator with Sen. Moseley Braun. This very white senator from the South looked this very Black senator from the North straight in the eye and began singing “Dixie” (Oh, I wish I were in the land of cotton…)” in the elevator, turning to Utah Sen. Orin Hatch and saying “I’m gong to make her cry. I’m going to keep singing Dixie until I make her cry.”
Yes, this is a true story and it took place in the nineties. And no, it is not about Mr. Helms being a product of another time and place. It is about a particular type of viciousness that needs to be addressed in the moment – or after – not by turning your cheek but by turning into the punch and retorting in some way that you see fit. In the case of CMB, she decided to respond by looking straight back at him, saying: ‘Sen. Helms, your singing would make me cry if you sang ‘Rock of Ages.”
Incidentally, this encounter was supposedly prompted by Sen. Moseley Braun successfully leading a fight on the Senate floor the previous month to defeat an amendment by Helms that would allow the renewal of the patent on the Confederate flag insignia by a group called the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Get the point, yet?
Have times changed in 2013 when a person thought to be a minority (Pres. Obama) chooses to live or govern in a way that a particularly vocally virulent person in the public eye thought to be in the majority (Mr. Limbaugh? Ms. Coulter?) doesn’t want them to live or govern? Clearly not. And what about then Senator Moseley Braun’s response? I, for one don’t think it went nearly far enough. But the deafening silence to Coulter and Limbaugh’s remarks seems to indicate we’ve backtracked from there to a strategy of no answer necessary.
It would be nice to think this is because we’ve come far since then and incidents like these are fading into the woodwork. But I don’t think so. In fact, I think it’s quite the opposite.
For years I had my own response to people like Sen. Helms, who all through his terms (which only ended in 2001) refused to fund AIDS research and was virulently anti-gay (e.g. homosexuals are “weak, morally sick wretches”). As I watched him trying to defund gay artists of any kind from the National Endowment of the Arts (and the entire NEA itself) at a time when I was also watching many gay friends and acquaintances die left and right from AIDS, I signed petitions against him, wrote letters and gave money.
And — in my bathroom for years hung this famous Robbie Conal poster that read ART OFFICIAL with Helm’s hideous image drawn below it. It served as a reminder to me and everyone who ever stepped in front of, on, or near my toilet that Sen. Helms was totally full of shit.
Hey, we all do what we can.
Note: I’ve purposely left out of the conversation Sarah Palin, who has used monkey, shuck and jive and many other terms to describe the first Black president. This is because Cruella (as Aaron Sorkin so aptly labeled her several years ago) has a dwindling audience and now falls into the don’t waste your limited time on Earth category. Well, unless it allows us to bring back Tina…