Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Politics of the R-Word

rahmIn the past few weeks there has been a bit of a kerfuffle in America over the use of the word “retard”. It started when it was revealed that Obama’s Chief of Staff, Rahm Emmanuel, during a meeting asked of a group of left wing health activists who were planning to advertise against Democratic member of congress “are they fucking retarded?!”

When news of this was leaked to the press, there were calls for him to apologise and some called for his resignation. The loudest call of course came from Sarah Palin. I say “of course” because as Palin has a son with Down Syndrome the media thinks her views on mentally disabled issues carry more weight.

What bollocks.

I have a daughter with Down Syndrome, and I can tell you I consider myself woefully unknowledgeable on issues relating to the mentally disabled. I know about things to do with my daughter, but I have no idea if, for eg, the services available in Victoria are better or worse than they are where I live. I am no more qualified to talk about mentally disabled issues than I am to talk about female health issues because I have two daughters, or about education issues because I went to school and my wife is a teacher. Sure I can talk about my own situation, and the issues that affect our family, but on the broader policy picture? I am as ignorant as those who don’t have children or siblings with a disability – all I’ll admit to having is a bit more understanding of the impacts of policy and programs which affect the mentally disabled.

But Sarah Palin waded straight into the debate (via her Facebook page) and called for Emmanuel's head. Obviously it had nothing to do with the fact he works for Obama…. Except that soon after right-wing radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh on the air said this:

I think the big news is the crackup going on. Our politically correct society is acting like some giant insult has taken place by calling a bunch of people who are retards, retards.

I mean, these liberal activists are kooks. They are loony tunes. And I'm not going to apologize for it, I'm just quoting Emanuel. It's in the news. I think the news is that he's out there calling Obama's number one supporters effing retards. So now there's going to be a meeting. There's going to be a retard summit at the White House, much like the beer summit between Obama and Gates and that cop in Cambridge.

From the Wall Street Journal: "Emanuel Steps Up His Apology -- Rahm Emanuel privately apologized last week to the Special Olympics after the Journal reported that he used the word 'retarded' in a derogatory manner.  But advocates for people with disabilities didn’t think that apology, coming in a phone call to Special Olympics head Tim Shriver, was enough.  Now, Emanuel is taking his contrition one step farther -- hosting a delegation of advocates, including two people with mental disabilities, at the White House."  They're going to have a "Retard" Summit just like they had the Beer Summit.  But, folks, let's not forget, Obama insulted the Special Olympics on The Tonight Show.  I haven't forgotten this.  You know, here's the thing.  If you want to look at how this is broken down, Emanuel compares Democrat activists to retarded people, then apologizes to retarded people.  Not to the Democrats. 

Normally if you call somebody a retard, you apologize to them for calling them a retard.

So how did Palin react to that? Did she demand Limbaugh get taken off the air? Hell no! When asked about it she came out with this statement:

"Governor Palin believes crude and demeaning name-calling at the expense of others is disrespectful."

So was this directed at Limbaugh? Hell no! She even got her representative to hurriedly call Limbaugh to explain that the statement did not refer to him or his comments.

A few days later Palin was interviewed on Fox news (who now employs her). The interviewer, Chris Wallace, asked about Limbaugh. Here is her contemptible response:

PALIN: They are kooks, so I agree with Rush Limbaugh. I agree with Rush Limbaugh. He was using satire to politically correct —

WALLACE: He used the “r” word.

PALIN: He used satire. Name-calling by anyone, I teach this to my children and you teach it to your children and grandchildren, too. Name calling by anyone is just unnecessary. It just wastes time. Let’s speak to the issues and — [...]

PALIN: I didn’t hear Rush Limbaugh calling a group of people whom he did not agree with ‘f-ing retards’ and we did know that Rahm Emanuel has been reported, did say that. There is a big difference there.

"Huh? She didn’t hear Limbaugh calling a group of people he didn’t agree with “f-ing retards”? What about this line Sarah:

Our politically correct society is acting like some giant insult has taken place by calling a bunch of people who are retards, retards.

Who was that bunch of people? “I mean, these liberal activists are kooks…a delegation of advocates, including two people with mental disabilities

Sure sounds to me like Limbaugh is calling a group of people he doesn't agree with “f-ing retards” Oh wait, sorry. He didn’t use “f-ing”. Guess that makes it ok then …

And it was all satire????? 

I have to tell you Palin, I actually wrote an English Lit PhD thesis on satire, so this is one issue on which I can claim a certain level of expertise, and I can say there is nothing in what Limbaugh said that is the slightest bit satirical. Saying that a group of people, including two with mental disabilities, are part of a “retard summit” is not satire – it is just being cruel to people you don’t like.

Her inability to criticize Limbaugh (and let’s be honest her complete fear of doing so) on this demonstrates that she is little more the a puppet wielded by the far-right. This weak defence of Limbaugh alone demonstrates her unfitness for higher office. If Palin can’t stand up to Limbaugh on the issue which should be closest to her heart, then she will never stand up to him (or the far right) on any issue.

In response to Palin’s satirical defence, comedian Stephen Colbert absolutely skewered her. After showing the clip of Palin saying Limbaugh used the word satirically so it was ok, Colbert said that since his show was satirical (which it most certainly is – perhaps the best going around) it was ok for him to say “Sarah Palin is a f-ing retard!”

It was a point very strongly made. I have to admit I did not like the reaction of his audience – I felt too many were applauding him calling her it, rather than applauding the satirical point – namely that “satire” is not a get out of jail free card. But satire does often bite – if Palin and others have a problem with Colbert’s use of the word, then they sure as hell should have a problem with her defence of Limbaugh – and that is Colbert’s point (satire you see has a point) – Limbaugh’s point (if you can call it that) was that it is ok to call mentally disabled people retards, and that if anything Emmanuel owed Democrats an apology for calling them retarded. 

The Colbert Report Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Sarah Palin Uses a Hand-O-Prompter
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Skate Expectations

Now I have to say I was more upset by Obama last year comparing his ability at bowling to the Special Olympics than by Rahm Emmanuel’s heat of the moment use of “retarded”. Why Obama would think the Special Olympics is worthy of use as a punch line is beyond me. But I hate the R-word; it is always used as a term of abuse, and it makes fun of people who, because of a condition they were born with, are unable to fight back. There is now a campaign to end the use of the R-Word. It is a campaign I support fully.

Today in the news there was mention of a Family Guy episode that has a character with Down Syndrome saying her mother was “the former Governor of Alaska”. Palin has come out and said the program was heartless. I haven’t seen the full episode, but the bits I have seen don’t denigrate people with DS at all – in fact from the parts I’ve seen it seems to treat the character with DS with respect. About the worst you can say is that the joke implies that Palin’s actual daughter has DS, though I don’t think this is the intent – which is why the joke is pretty unfunny, I’m not sure what point is being made.

I’m not a big fan of Family Guy – mostly because every week it seems to try and offend someone. However, I can recognise its humour (or attempts thereof), but I also recognise the dangers of humour used as a shield – generations of racism were excused by “Oh I was just joking”.

But for Palin to play the victim here is rather disingenuous. You can’t claim people you don’t like are not allowed to make fun of the mentally disabled or use the phrase “retard” as a form of abuse, if you say it is ok when done by people you agree with.

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