THE PLANK MAY 13, 2009
One of the reasons I find Kathleen Parker's columns enjoyable is that, in an op-ed sea dominated by seriously elite and/or ultra-intellectual types, she writes like a normal person. Today's offering, for instance, takes a nice and easy poke at hard-core literalists--a hypersensitive, eternally-looking-for-offense breed that I myself find about as much fun as, though far less useful than, a good colonscopy.
Specifically, Parker expresses exasperation at all the hyperventilating over Wanda Sykes' below-the-belt jabs at Rush Limbaugh at the White House Correspondents' Dinner last Saturday. I agree with Parker that the 9-11 and oxycontin jokes weren't that funny nor were they terribly appropriate, especially for a nonpartisan but highly politically charged gathering. But Parker's observation that, "No one's drug addiction is amusing," while perfectly reasonable, gave me pause.
Sure drug addiction is serious business. And even those who don't much care for Limbaugh can feel wicked about laughing at Sykes' joking that she hopes his kidneys fail. That said, I think Sykes was more strategic in her assault than she's getting credit for.
Limbaugh is not just anyone. He's not even just any old demagogue. He is a guy who has amassed fame, fortune and now, God help us, political power, by embracing the practice of punching below the belt, of saying things so outrageously nasty--wrapped in the guise of anti-pc humor--that he doesn't just breech the line of civilized discourse, he pours kerosene on it and sets fire to the surrounding countryside. Limbaugh prides himself on being transgressive. And why not? His stardom rests on his willingness to tap into the toxic swamp of bigotry, resentment, and rage bubbling in the darkest crevices of the human heart and then fashion that ooze into snide, chortling little riffs that most people could never bring themselves to utter.
Among my favorite examples (which I've mentioned before) was his August 12 musing about what prompted John Edwards to screw around on Elizabeth:
We know--we've been told that Elizabeth Edwards is smarter
than John Edwards. That's part of the puff pieces on them that we've seen. Ergo,
if Elizabeth Edwards is smarter than John Edwards, is it likely that she thinks
she knows better than he does what his speeches ought to contain and what kind
of things he ought to be doing strategy-wise in the campaign? If she is smarter
than he is, could it have been her decision to keep going with the campaign? In
other words, could it be that she doesn't shut up? Now, that's as far as I'm
going to go...It just seems to me that Edwards might be
attracted to a woman whose mouth did something other than talk.
Now, if Elizabeth Edwards weren't suffering from stage IV breast cancer, Limbaugh's remarks still would be gross. But she is, making his noxious blathering not only tasteless but heartless. In comedy and political commentary alike, context counts--something Limbaugh knows, and exploits, more succesfully than almost anyone.
All of which is to say Limbaugh should absolutely be considered fairer game than almost any other political target out there--not because of his politics but because of his respect-no-boundaries persona. I mean, Dick Cheney is, from my perspective, a far scarier and more dangerous figure than the clown prince of talk radio. But such jokes about the former VP would seem wildly out of bounds, even for an audience composed entirely of left-wingers. George W. Bush? No way anyone should go there. Bill O'Reilly? Nope. Sarah Palin? Not a chance. Ann Coulter? OK. Sure. Maybe Ann. But she follows a shock-and-awe playbook similar to Limbaugh's. I'm not saying Rush is unique, just that he's very, very special.
So while some of Sykes' material missed the mark, I give her props for selecting a peculiarly apt target.