Letterman, Palin, and How the Right Went PC
The phrase "politically correct" has been knocking around for decades. Its wikipedia entry shows the continuing argument over its origins. But the term is best known to normal people by its opposite: politically incorrect. This is generally applied to something that you might want to say -- usually a joke -- but which would put you afoul of the oversensitive "PC police" who have a bug up their ass about race, class, gender, etc, and won't tolerate remarks that most of us might find mildly offensive but still funny.
It stands to reason that politically incorrect jokes have become the definition of a guilty pleasure. Thus, when the makers of South Park brought out their offensively funny Team America: World Police, MSNBC issued a list of "The 10 Least Politically Correct Movies Ever" -- films that break taboos to the delight of their audiences. Books and websites of politically incorrect jokes proliferate. And when something gets denounced and pulled off the air because someone's ox was gored, the standard reaction to such political correctness is usually along the lines of, "Doesn't anyone have a friggin' sense of humor anymore?"
Since liberals are thought to be overprotective (linguistically, anyhow) of women and minority groups, they're usually the ones who take the shots for being politically correct. But in the age of the blogosphere, where outrage is the default reaction, taking offense has become a bi-partisan sport, and the right has been making great strides in political correctness, as we saw in their responses to jokes about teabagging, the White House Correspondents Dinner, and President Obama's "Special Olympics" joke on Leno.
Of course, this last was a joke by a politician, and politicians in our PC era are expected to watch their mouths. But last week the right's PC police got after a late-show talk-show host for making a joke, and in such an absurdly overblown way that they may have just won the PC trophy for their team for a long time to come.
It started on Monday night, when on his CBS show David Letterman made a couple of Sarah Palin jokes -- which, as anyone with a television knows, is par for the course in late night TV. At first rightbloggers focused their wrath on Letterman's Top Ten list, trying in an ordinary way to squeeze some outrage out of it ("Did Letterman just call Palin a hooker?").
That probably would have been that, but a few of the brethren swung over to a joke from Letterman's monologue, in which he referred to "one awkward moment for Sarah Palin at the Yankee game" -- a permanent-campaign appearance with Rudolph Giuliani -- "during the seventh inning, her daughter was knocked up by Alex Rodriguez."
This got a laugh and some applause from the studio audience (and some mildly sour, Bristol-defensive comments from rightbloggers -- at first), and Letterman moved on. But citizen journalists began to research the joke, and Jim Treacher found that though "At first I thought 'her daughter' referred to Bristol" -- as presumably the tickled audience thought as well -- "The thing is, that joke isn't about Bristol: Palin brought her 14-year-old daughter Willow to the Yankees game with her."
Now, at this point an ordinary person might think, okay, Letterman must have missed that detail in the day's events. Treacher did, and the audience probably wouldn't have approved the joke so heartily if it were about a kid. Still, living in this PC age as we do, it might be a good idea for Letterman to clarify his joke for the easily offended -- as he did the next day, insisting he did indeed mean Bristol Palin, and even admitting for good measure that his joke was in "poor taste."
We now take leave of what ordinary people might think and descend into rightblogger world, where the reaction went more like this:
First of all, despite the initial confusion some of them experienced, almost no rightbloggers accepted Letterman's version of events. "David Letterman joked about the statutory rape of a 14-year-old girl, simply because her mother is the Republican governotr of Alaska, Sarah Palin," said Don Surber. "If they are the wrong sort of women and teenagers, i.e., 'fly-over,' 'Christianist,' 'wealthy-not-minority' well, then nothing matters but that they be diminished, de-humanized and destroyed for their choices and their sex lives," interpreted The Anchoress, who seems to have missed Letterman's Paris Hilton jokes.
"Letterman: No no no. I meant to call her OTHER daughter a whore," roared RedState. "Yeesh! Guessing maybe you should have checked on who was at the game then, Dave. OR you did and are walking it back." "That excuse would work," Sundries Shack sniffed, "if it weren't for the fact that the daughter who was at the game, thus the one who was the target of the joke, was Willow, not her older sister, you bitter old buffoon." As proof, SS offered a later joke Letterman made about the trouble Palin had "keeping Eliot Spitzer away from her daughter" -- a joke clearly about the horny ex-governor (and applauded by the audience -- say, come no one gives them a hard time?), but which SS took as "a prostitution 'joke' about the same daughter."
Riehl World View seemed at least to accept the possibility that Letterman was talking about what he said he was talking about, and offered a choice: "Poorly researched and thought out inappropriate joke, or is Letterman even more of a pig for using it?" By now the outrage was so high-pitched that even a joke about knocking up the knocked-up daughter was politically incorrect.
Some wondered: "Why Aren't Feminists Upset With David Letterman?" It would indeed be rich to hoist feminists on this petard, but the National Organization of Women did denounce Letterman. Some were pleased with their new comrades but, as longtime readers will have guessed, it wasn't good enough for others: NewsBusters called NOW's denunciation "a fine example of liberal hypocrisy," because NOW also "took the opportunity to bash conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh... Couldn't just chastise a fellow liberal without bringing up a conservative?" Michelle Malkin denounced NOW's "holier-than-thou potshot of its own." So NOW's response, however critical, just wasn't politically correct enough.
Longtime readers will not be surprised to learn that Barack Obama got hauled into it. Ace of Spades asked, "Obama's older daughter is approaching [Willow's] age. Can we expect similar knocked-up jokes for her?" He then answered his own question: "Dan Riehl notes the 'Chelsea Clinton Rule' seems to only apply to Chelsea Clinton. And Obama's kids, I'm certain." "Sarah Palin is an open target from Hollywood, New York and the news media," said RightPundits, "and people can take cheapshots at her without consequences in the Obama era."
Believe it or not, mainstream media conservatives got on this and improved on it. S.E. Cupp actually blamed Obama "because he allowed his surrogates in the media and Hollywood and everyone else on the left to do this dirty talking for him." And Sarah Palin herself, on the Today Show to denounce Letterman, talked about the "double standard that has been applied here" because "Barack Obama said the family's off-limits -- you don't talk about my family. And the candidate who must be obeyed -- everybody adhered to that and left his family."
Obama actually specifically included Palin's family in his remarks about families, but unlike late-night jokes, this thing was getting too big for a fact-check. Emboldened by the coverage their outrage generated, rightbloggers set themselves a more ambitious goal: getting Letterman thrown off the air for his inappropriate joke.
"This is gaining steam and the excuse that this was 'comedy' simply won't fly," said Macsmind. "Either Letterman is suspended or CBS can toss what's left of it's credibility." "Should he be fired for it?" asked Say Anything. "My first impulse, because of the sheer stupid and vulgar nature of what passes for 'comedy' these days and the clear double standards of the media, was to say, yes, he should. Get rid of him. He deserves it." Later he relented and said Letterman should only be "sanctioned or suspended." "CBS SHOULD TAKE LETTERMAN OFF THE AIR OR LETTERMAN SHOULD RESIGN," cried Reliapundit. "OR THEY SHOULD ALL ADMIT THEY'RE BIASED LEFT-WING SCUM."
Other prescribed different punishments. "The Palins Should Sue Letterman," said Bernie Quigly. While Letterman -- "still boyish at 62, which should tell you something right there" -- claimed "he was talking about the 18-year-old Bristol and not the 14-year-old Willow... It still publicly injures and shames a child who is only 18."
"Angry fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and grandparents of young girls are putting pressure on the sponsors, the network and their local CBS stations," claimed RedState. "It's working."
It actually seems unlikely, as CBS has just signed Letterman to a contract extension through 2012. But the rightbloggers are still in there pitching, organizing a Fire David Letterman rally for this Tuesday outside the Ed Sullivan Theater. And they have help from a New York Republican assemblyman, who also called for Letterman to be fired.
You might wonder why Palin is feeding this thing. Probably it's because sideshows like this are the best way for her to keep her profile high and her base riled ("Letterman dustup shows Palin still has political star power").
As for the rightbloggers, they got their story promoted, which in their guild rates merit badges all around. And they continue to dream of Letterman's scalp, which would be an even bigger trophy -- up there with that of Dan Rather, their last big kill. Now, you might make a distinction between Rather, who as a newsman had at least has an overt connection to politics, and Letterman, a TV comedian who makes fun of celebrities. But that's because you don't have your PC thinking cap on. Letterman's famous. If they can knock him off the air, they will have created an example for the others. It'll be like Don Imus getting knocked off the air for his comments about the Rutgers women's basketball team -- only this time they'll get the credit. And people will think twice about messing with the rightwing PC police.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.
- 'Convicting Peter Liang Is Not a Conviction of the NYPD,' Prosecutor Concludes
Tue., Feb. 16, 7:00pm
Wed., Feb. 17, 7:00pm
Wed., Feb. 17, 8:00pm
Wed., Feb. 17, 8:00pm
- Group for Homeless LGBT Youth Moves a Step Closer to Buying Terrible Anti-Gay Church...
- Voice Letters: Readers Share Their Energy Service Company Horror Stories