Where, Precisely, Do The Lines Of Propriety Lie?

Martin Bashir, a host on the MSNBC network, resigned yesterday.  His resignation came several weeks after he made an extraordinarily vulgar and offensive comment about Sarah Palin.  In his resignation statement, Bashir described his comment as “ill-judged” and added:  “I deeply regret what was said.”

It’s nice to know that, in a world where popular culture seems to grow irreversibly coarser with each new performance of a song or comedy routine, there are still some lines that can’t be crossed.  Of course, drawing the line at statements that someone should perform a gross anatomical act in the mouth of a political figure doesn’t exactly say a lot about our current cultural boundaries.  Such statements may be off limits — for now, at least — but where does the line lie?  Why didn’t Bashir immediately realize that his contemplated comment was “ill-judged” and then refrain from saying it in the first place?

This isn’t a question of free speech, or rough-and-tumble politics, or rejecting antiquated Victorian notions of correct behavior.  It is a deeper issue that strikes at the core of our society.  It isn’t improper to insist that people treat each other with respect and propriety and recognize that not every public performance or statement needs to push the envelope.  If political figures, Democrat or Republican, have to endure appalling, mean-spirited, over-the-top comments as the price for their involvement in the political world, people who might otherwise help us find our way out of our current predicament aren’t going to throw their hat into the ring.  That’s obviously bad for everyone.  We need to show that we can disagree with each other in ways that are proper and dignified and reflect well on the maturity and fundamental decency of our culture.

I’m glad Martin Bashir realized that he crossed the line with his comment, even if it took him a while to recognize that fact.  I’m hoping that this incident helps to establish a stronger, clearer line that all radio and TV hosts and pundits, regardless of their political affiliation, recognize and respect — a line that falls well short of the crassness, vulgarity, and unseemly personal attacks that we seem to see with increasing frequency these days.

Illuminating The Misogyny

The recent incident in which Rush Limbaugh called a woman who spoke out about contraception policy a “slut” could end up being beneficial in many different ways.  I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

Name-calling is inappropriate.  It’s cheap, thoughtless, and dehumanizing. It adds nothing to the discourse and says a lot more — all of it bad — about the name-caller than it does about the subject of the name-calling.  Limbaugh learned his lesson when his comments provoked outrage and he apologized for his crudeness.  He was right to do so, of course, and I think we should accept his apology as sincere.  If Rush Limbaugh becomes a bit more temperate in his language as a result of this episode, that would be a good thing.

I also think, however, that conservatives make a fair point when they note that a lot of misogynistic language emanates from the political left, be it Bill Maher, or bloggers, or rappers, and that no one seems to care about it or criticize it.

There is a subtle but, I think, important distinction to be made, too, in connection with the conservative focus on the likes of Bill Maher and his insulting, sick comments about conservative women like Sarah Palin.  Pointing out the bad conduct of others in order to excuse your own misdeeds because “everybody does it” is a schoolyard ruse, but recognizing the pervasiveness of a problem because your consciousness has been raised by a particular episode is quite another.  I’m hoping that the current dialogue falls into the latter category.

That’s why I think it’s important for people across the spectrum to call out and condemn people who use misogynistic language and imagery, whether we otherwise agree with the speaker’s politics or not.  If people on the left can make gross jokes about the fertility or sexual practices of conservative women in politics with impunity, people on the right will come to view the misogyny issue as mere politicking and tune it out.

Obviously, we want to make sure that doesn’t happen.  Women should be able to participate in politics without people commenting on their appearance or private lives, just as is the case with men.  If Rush Limbaugh’s ill-advised comments ultimately move us closer to that goal, that would be a good thing — but that’s only going to happen if we all maintain a vigilant, and even-handed, intolerance for misogynistic comments.

Palin Says No, Thanks

Sarah Palin announced today that she won’t be running for President in 2012.  Palin said that her family comes first and added that, by not being a candidate, she would be “unshackled” and could be “even more active.”  I’m not surprised by her decision.  She makes a lot of money and has a lot of freedom in her current role as Fox News contributor, author, and conservative gadfly.  Why give that up?

I imagine that every Republican candidate for President breathed a sigh of relief, too.  Palin is probably the most polarizing American political figure that has existed during my lifetime; I don’t think anyone else even comes close.  People either love her and view her as the modern savior of traditional American values, or hate her with a deadly passion and consider her to be a mean-spirited, blithering idiot.  I’m sure the other Republicans think that the last thing they need is Sarah Palin saying provocative things during debates and campaign experiences and energizing the Democrats and independents who might otherwise vote against President Obama or just stay home.  (Of course, the eventual Republican nominee will be perfectly happy to accept any fundraising help that Palin can provide during the campaign.)

With Palin’s announcement, and Chris Christie’s recent reaffirmation that he will not be a candidate, the gym doors seem to be closed and the sock hop lineup is set.  Republicans will now take a closer look at the field as they try to decide who they want for a dance partner.

Time To Shuck The Titles

Now that we are heading squarely into the 2012 campaign — did a hear a collective groan? — I need to unburden myself about one thing that I just hate:  when politicians who no longer occupy an office still are addressed by the title they once held.

If you see Sarah Palin being interviewed, you’re likely to hear her addressed as “Governor Palin.”  Alan Simpson, once a Senator from Wyoming, still gets called “Senator Simpson.”  Why?  This is America, where we don’t have hereditary titles.  If you occupy an office, of course you should be addressed by the appropriate title.  But if you’ve left the job, in my book you’ve left the title, too.  It’s like the scene in the John Adams mini-series where Adams, having been defeated in his bid for reelection, boards a common coach and tells the surprised fellow passengers that he is just “Mr. Adams” now.  If only the less accomplished members of the modern political class were as willing to assume the role of a mere American citizen again!

So as this campaign season rolls onward, don’t expect to hear me referring to “Governor Romney” or “Governor Pawlenty” or “Governor Huntsman” (or for that matter “Ambassador Huntsman”).  In the land of the free, “Mr.” is what they are, and “Mr.” is what they should be called.

Food Fight

Okay people, does it surprise any one that portly Rush Limbaugh took a cheap shot at Michelle Obama last week after she ate ribs at a restaurant during her skiing vacation. Rush commented that while the first lady advocates healthy eating, she doesn’t look like she follows her own dietary advice and would never be put on the cover of a Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue.

According to the owner of the restaurant the five ounce braised short ribs Michele ate were only 600 calories, not 1,500 as Rush pointed out, besides everyone knows that when your on vacation it’s a time to enjoy oneself and splurge a little.

A word of advice Rush, childhood obesity is a big problem. I just read an article last week that the sharpest increase in strokes was among men age fifteen to thirty four and there have been numerous articles recently pointing to a significant increase in type two diabetes (formerly adult onset) in children. Not to mention the fact that 75% of military aged youth do not qualify for service because they are over weight.

Of course Sarah Palin and Michele Bachman have weighed (no pun intended) in saying that the “Let’s Move” program is big government overreach. Thank goodness two of the more reasonable voices in the Republican party, Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee both said that childhood obesity is a concern and they think it’s a good goal to try to positively encourage kids to eat better.

It’s just my humble opinion, but it seems as though the government just can’t win, if they do nothing and it becomes a really big problem then it’s their fault cause they didn’t do anything, but if they see a developing problem and try to be proactive and address the problem people say they are overstepping their bounds.

So good job Michele Obama, keep on doing what you are doing, I am 100% behind you and your program “Let’s Move” because we all know that what’s now a health issue may soon become an economic issue.

Curse Of The Random Madman (II)

As many people — me included — suspected might be the case, the investigation of Jared Loughner, the Tucson shooting suspect, is indicating that he is just a mentally disturbed young man whose shooting spree was not motivated by any recent campaign rhetoric.

The Christian Science Monitor recently published an article about the disconnect between the facts being uncovered and initial statements by many people that attributed Loughner’s shooting rampage to strong political speech.  And some of Loughner’s truly odd ideas certainly do not reflect any kind of “tea party” or right wing agenda — unless you think that conservatives object to the rules of grammar as a form of mind control, believe that dreams are an alternate reality, or are convinced that the federal government controls us by having a national currency.

I’d still like to reserve judgment until the investigation is concluded.  For now, however, it looks like there is absolutely nothing to the notion that talk radio, Rush Limbaugh, and Sarah Palin, among others, provided any impetus whatsoever for Loughner’s senseless and murderous attack.  Let’s hope that canard gets quickly, and completely, laid to rest.

Time To Dial Back?

A few nights ago Kish and I were channel-surfing and ran across Sarah Palin being interviewed — again.  In the portion of the interview we saw, she was responding to criticisms she and her family had received and her daughter’s intemperate response.  It seemed like a story we had heard many times before.

Palin is a lightning rod, one of those political figures who provokes incredibly strong emotions by both detractors and supporters.  Her detractors think she is a know-nothing idiot who, somewhat inconsistently, has devised a master plan that has vaulted her to national prominence and political power.  They believe she trades on her femininity and her family, mouths meaningless “America First” platitudes, and appeals to backward, simplistic political viewpoints.  Her supporters believe she is a fresh voice who speaks out powerfully about traditional American values and morals and understands that individual liberty is a crucial part of a dynamic, advancing American culture.  They see her as someone who can mobilize people to roll back the tide of increasing government regulation and intrusion into every detail of the lives of American citizens.

Whether you admire Palin or despise her, you have to admit that she is a unique figure on the national political scene.  In my lifetime, at least, no other vice presidential candidate has remained so visible on the national scene after the election was lost.

Nevertheless, I think Palin needs to be cautious about overexposure.  She cannot be dismissed as a mere novelty act; novelty acts don’t last for more than two years.  If she wants to pursue the presidency, however, she can’t always be seen on TV responding to attacks or explaining away her family’s behavior.  I don’t know whether Palin plans to run, but if she does I think she would be well advised to dial back her constant TV appearances and focus on building a nuts-and-bolts political organization in places like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina and beefing up her portfolio and facility with the issues.  For Palin, a thoughtful, well-delivered speech on say, an issue of international affairs will count for a lot more than another appearance on Hannity.

Presidential Elections Are A Choice, Not A Referendum

UJ’s post about what might have happened if John McCain were elected makes a good point.  Although I don’t agree with all of UJ’s conclusions, his comparison is the kind of analysis that voters engage in when they decide how to vote for President.  I think many voters decided McCain wasn’t up to the job when he was knocked off kilter by the economic shock during the 2008 campaign.  He seemed to panic, with his talk about suspending the campaign to go back to Washington, whereas Obama displayed the poise that Americans like to see in their leaders during times of crisis.

Presidential elections are a choice between competing human beings, not an abstract referendum on whether the existing President should be retained.  That is why, in my view, presidential approval polls really don’t mean much.  The fact that President Obama’s poll numbers are low is irrelevant if his 2012 opponent’s poll numbers are lower still, or if that opponent makes a significant misstep during the arduous months of campaigning.

We’re now at the point in our years-long campaign cycle where Republican candidates (and perhaps some fringe Democrats) will finally decide whether they are running for President and then begin raising huge sums of money, visiting Iowa kitchens and New Hampshire political luncheons, and so forth.  The potential Republican candidates — be they likely contestants such as Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, and Sarah Palin, or dark horses like Chris Christie — and their staffs should already have done the same kind of point-by-point analysis that UJ has undertaken.

In that regard, UJ’s list of President Obama’s “accomplishments” is a good place to start.  If you are going to be compared to the President you are trying to unseat, why not begin by distinguishing your position on specific issues that are viewed, by some at least, as that President’s most significant accomplishments?

Sarah Palin In Columbus (Cont.)

Here’s the Columbus Dispatch story on Sarah Palin’s book-signing visit to a local Borders bookstore yesterday, complete with video footage and interviews of some of those who waited in line.

Whatever you might say about Palin, like any good politician she knows her audience.  Appearing in Columbus, Ohio on the eve of the Michigan game, she wisely wore scarlet and a buckeye necklace.

Sarah Palin In Columbus

Sarah Palin is in Columbus today on her book tour, signing books at a local Borders bookstore.  According to a local radio broadcast this morning, people started lining up at the bookstore before noon yesterday.  The bookstore announced that only 1,000 people will be admitted to see the ex-Governor of Alaska, and people lined up early hoping to be one of the lucky few.  Mrs. Palin is supposed to sign books at the store from 6-9 p.m. today.

I’m not sure that I would wait for 30 hours to get a book signed by anyone.  Still, it is interesting that Mrs. Palin excites that kind of interest.  She seems to be the one politician in American life today that most people do not feel neutral about.  People either think she is great and are willing to wait for hours on line to get her signature on a book, or think she is a blithering idiot who exemplifies the worst qualities of know-nothing conservatives.  My guess is that the reality is somewhere between the two polar extremes.

Incidentally, I don’t call her “Governor Palin” because she is no longer a governor.  I think any politician who is no longer in office should go by Mr. or Mrs.  People who have left office are ordinary citizens like the rest of us, and should be addressed as such.

More On The Media

This article tries to link the media’s treatment of Sarah Palin during last year’s election with a general demise of the news media. I’m a bit skeptical of such a broad brush argument, although I do think that the treatment of Governor Palin and her family has been appalling.

I’ve written before on the death spiral of daily newspapers, but I also disagree with the notion that reporters are consciously in the tank for Democrats. I think most reporters are trying to be objective — at least as they understand objectivity — but their primary purpose these days is to come up with stories that sell newspapers, or magazines, in an era when fewer and fewer people get their news through those old-fashioned delivery systems. If selling newspapers means writing about topics that used to be off limits, like a candidate’s sexual activities or those of the candidate’s children, then that is what reporters will do to compete with the internet, bloggers, and 24-hour-a-day cable “news” and commentary shows. The high quality, investigative reporting that wins Pulitzer Prizes takes a lot of time, a lot of research, a lot of legwork, and a lot of sourcing, and the end result may be read only by a handful of subscribers and prize committee judges. How can a boring five-part story about corruption in connection with the award of government contracts compete with a sharp, one-minute on-air rant about whether a politician had an illegitimate affair or looked at the passing rear end of a young woman, or a blog posting on those topics that includes some kind of photoshopped artwork?  That is the dilemma for “legitimate” print reporters and their editors, and there is no real solution.

Good Luck, Sarah and Family

I’m surprised, as I’m sure everyone is, by Sarah Palin’s decision to resign as Governor of Alaska.  It seems as though she made her decision for family-type reasons, and if so I hope people will respect that.  It reminds me of when Kish and I had decided to send the boys to Columbus Academy rather than a neighborhood school.  Some people tried to talk us out of the decision, and my reaction was:  “It’s none of your business.”  Decisions about which school would work best for their kids is a personal decision exclusively reserved to parents.  Sarah Palin’s decision about what is best for her family is her decision, and not something that others really should question or second-guess.

It would be sad if Governor Palin’s decision were motivated in any material way by the harsh treatment she has, at times, received from the media.  Politicians must be thick-skinned, but no politicians should be required to endure mean-spirited comments about that politician’s kids, marriage, and so forth.  In a sense, this is the flip side of the Governor Sanford situation.  We want him to shut up about his affair; we are entitled to his professional execution of his job, and don’t care to hear his comments about his emotional issues.  With Governor Palin, she seemed perfectly willing to be judged on her gubernatorial record, but  some people in the media seemed unwilling to leave her personal life alone.  By stepping away from the limelight, she can better shield her personal life from that kind of withering scrutiny and comment.

I suspect we have not heard the last from Sarah Palin.

Common Decency (Cont.)

I previously noted that I thought David Letterman should feel ashamed about his crude joke about one of Governor Palin’s teenage daughters, so I’m glad to see that he has apologized. I’m also glad to see that Governor Palin accepted his apology.  Finally, I’m glad that his apology didn’t take the now-standard form of the non-apology “apology,” which goes something like this:  “I didn’t intend my [remark/conduct/joke] to offend anyone and did not think anyone would ever construe my [remark/conduct/joke] in that fashion.  To the extent that anyone was offended by my [remark/conduct/joke] I am sorry.”  At least Letterman had the character to offer a true, unconditional apology for his poor judgment.

With any luck, the episode will cause other figures in the entertainment world to recognize that there still are some lines that, as a matter of common decency, should not be crossed.

Common Decency

I think the whole David Letterman-Sarah Palin controversy presents an interesting question of line-drawing in an era where there is increased interaction between political figures and the entertainment world.  When I was a kid it was a notable development when Richard Nixon went on Laugh-In and said “Sock it to me?”  These days, it is common for candidates to go on Saturday Night Live, late-night talk shows or other venues, and earlier this year President Obama appeared, as a sitting president, on The Tonight Show.  Governor Palin herself made a cameo appearance on Saturday Night Live during the recent presidential campaign.

Politicians have long been the target of jokes and humor; it comes with the territory.  As our culture has become coarser, the humor has been coarser as well.  I don’t think Letterman’s comment associating Governor Palin with a “slutty flight attendant” look is either funny or accurate, but I also don’t think it crosses the prevailing line in modern American culture.  (I have to confess that I enjoy “insult humor” and think that “Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog” and South Park are often very funny.)  I think Governor Palin understands that prevailing line, accepts it, and has shown some deftness in deflecting such attempts at humor in a self-deprecating and winning way.

It’s not unfair, however, to insist that entertainers show some common decency in deciding who should be the subject of their barbs.  I think Letterman crossed the line by targeting Governor’s Palin’s daughter for   tasteless humor of a crude sexual nature.  Most teenagers are highly sensitive about themselves; they feel awkward and inadequate by nature.  I can’t imagine the embarrassment Governor Palin’s 14-year-old felt when she heard Letterman’s comments.  I don’t believe Letterman’s excuse that he was talking about Governor Palin’s 18-year-old daughter, but in any case I don’t think that excuse would make any difference even if it were true.  Any children of public figures who do not themselves take steps to affirmatively enter the public eye should be viewed as off limits with respect to any humorous comments — much less comments about sexual activity, appearance, or other highly personal matters.

I therefore don’t have a problem with Governor Palin or others strongly criticizing David Letterman for crossing the line with his comment.  Such criticisms are not a sign of benighted attitudes or a lack of a sense of humor, but rather an effort to protect innocent kids from unfair comments and to keep our public discourse from sinking irreversibly into the mire.  I would not be surprised if Letterman feels shame and perhaps even humiliation at his lack of good judgment.  It would be a good thing for our culture if more entertainers experienced such feelings from time to time when they cross the line, and adjusted their future comments accordingly.