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Barr & Bee Boorish, Should Both Bear Blame

01 Jun 2018

Rosanne Barr, the comedienne, was fresh off the announcement her resurrected show, Roseanne, had been renewed for a second season. She traveled from obscurity to oblivion and back again when ABC decided to try a rebooted version of her once popular sitcom. It was something of a ratings smash, which necessitated the renewal. The perception, which may or may not have been accurate, was that her title character’s affiliation for Donald Trump was at least part of the reason for the show’s popularity. Trump himself congratulated her on HUGE ratings.

Barr brought her revival down with what can only be described as a racist tweet targeting Valerie Jarrett, Obama confidante and pillar of his administration. ABC acted swiftly and terminated the show in spite of its success.

Barr’s firing provoked a social media storm, some of it in her defense. The primary arguments in her favor were based on free speech or they compared her tweet to other objectionable speech that did not result in termination by media companies. The View, Joy Reid, Bill Maher, and numerous others were mentioned as equally deserving of scorn and removal.

Samantha Bee, another comedienne, hosts Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, a weekly rant in the mold of the Daily Show and the Colbert Report. After Ivanka Trump posted a photo of herself and her son in a tender moment, Bee attacker her for her father’s immigration policies, which were dividing families. Bee then labeled her with a shocking obscenity. Bee has not yet been fired, though some sponsors have chosen to suspend advertising.

Bee’s statement has also created a media firestorm. Some progressives have come to her defense, mostly people in the entertainment industry. They imply simply that Bee is correct, that she should have First Amendment rights to say what she did, or that her slur is an order of magnitude different from Barr’s racist tweet, so she does not deserve to be fired.

Five quick comments. There is a difference between a racist assertion and a vulgar slur, and the difference is rooted in society’s determination that race is out-of-bounds. Society has, clearly, made no such determination about vulgarity. There is a kind of “time, place, and manner” approach to vulgarity, but even those boundaries are shifting. I am not saying this is right or wrong, it just how our current mores tend to function.

Both sets of comments are vile and uncivil. Our standard should be much higher for discourse. Arguably, Barr’s tweet does not count as “discourse,” but her celebrity status pushes it into that category. Bee’s television program is, to a degree, built around public affairs, even if its approach is comic. In either case, the comments should be declared out-of-bounds by anything resembling a civil society. Can’t we agree that BOTH were wrong and whatever happens to them is deserved? In fact, I think if TBS does nothing to Bee, beyond a simple reprimand, it has failed to set a reasonable standard and should be criticized.

If people are unable to recognize the vile nature of both, they are, I would assume, trapped in their own tribal understanding of what is proper or not. Some things are simply wrong no matter who says them. Surely these two comments qualify.

The fact that two comediennes are in the headlines because of either a racist take on politics, or a vulgar slur connected to politics shows the degree to which politics has not only seeped into so many areas of our lives, but the degree to which we rely on such sources for political information, opinion, or cues. This is not a new trend, of course, and the modern media, social and otherwise, allows such views to emerge front-and-center in a way they would not have if Bee’s bit, for example, was simply a set in a smoke-filled club. A few decades ago, Barr’s ignorance would have been displayed only to her closest friends and allies and not to the world.

Bee’s comments are not all that different from Colbert’s comments from a year ago about Trump and Vladimir Putin. Vile? Out of Bounds? Of course. Colbert was not fired, so I would not expect Bee to be fired either. I am not excusing ANY comments from any person on any of these issues. HOWEVER, if a conservative comedian, say Dennis Miller, referred to Barack Obama in the way Colbert referred to Trump, he would have been ridden out of Hollywood on a rail–as he should have been if the roles were reversed.

How low, as a society, have we sunk? We are debating the degree to which publicly uttered racist or obscene slurs should or should not be the basis of someone losing a job. Not that long ago, this would not have been a discussion. It would have been assumed, without objection, and we would have moved on with few comments. While I don’t think either President Trump or his daughter should be referred to in the many ways they are insulted publicly–not satirized, but simply insulted–Trump’s very presence has probably broadened what is acceptable and what is not. He used his own sets of slurs, insults, nicknames, and vulgarities to advance his political career. Trump helped lower the bar to the point that others may be able to do and say things against the president in a way that would have been unthinkable not very long ago. Again, that does nothing to excuse anything said against Trump, because we are all responsible for our own words. I never appreciate the argument that either the Devil or the Culture “made me do it,” but I think this is where we are.

I am curious what you all think about this.