Everyone, from the president to workers at assembly plants, was angered last week, either by the comments of Roseanne Barr (via Twitter) or Samantha Bee (on her TV show) that quickly went viral in social media. The reactions were predictable, but the comments themselves were not comparable, although the sensitivities of most Americans would have been better served if neither had been uttered.
Before I get to my analysis of the respective comments, let’s review how they developed and how they were reacted to. Ms. Barr was up first. The revival of her show, “Roseanne,” had become one of the most watched network programs in the country when her tweet appeared briefly last Tuesday. The show had even been praised by President Trump who told a cheering crowd in late March that her show “was about us.”
Ms. Barr has never shied from controversy. Some will recall her infamous performance of the National Anthem at a baseball game back in 1990, which she concluded by spitting on the ground and grabbing her crotch. (She later explained she was intending to mimic ball players.)
In the revival of her TV show, Ms. Barr’s character is an avid Trump supporter. While appearing on Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight” show in March, she confirmed that she had voted for Trump—as the “lesser of two evils”—and added that as to those who were mad about it, she didn’t “give a f—k.”
The tweet that got her in trouble was Ms. Barr’s effort to attack Valerie Jarrett. Why attack a woman who was one of Barack Obama’s closest advisors during his presidency? Apparently, Ms. Jarrett had been named in social media posts that claimed the Obama administration had spied on the Trump campaign. (The spying charge is bogus, but it has flourished on right-wing social media platforms after being raised and pushed by Trump.) The attacks on Ms. Jarrett had accused her of trying to cover-up the alleged spying. Ms. Barr’s tweet may have been intended to be humorous (along the same lines as spitting and grabbing your crotch after singing the National Anthem), but it was just repulsive and offensive in expressing xenophobic and racist attitudes. (The tweet, for those who missed it, was as follows: “Muslim Brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj.”)
Ms. Barr deleted the tweet shortly after it appeared and later apologized publicly to Ms. Jarrett (who must wonder how she got to be the focal point of this particular right-wing conspiracy mania), but by then ABC, the network that carried “Roseanne,” had already cancelled the show. End of story? Not quite.
At first the White House was silent on the Barr tweet and the cancellation of her show. But the following day, on an entirely unrelated issue, Samantha Bee, a female comedian in the mold of Bill Maher, gave conservatives a chance to return social media fire when she made a vile and offensive reference to Trump’s daughter, Ivanka.
On her “Full Frontal” TV show, Ms. Bee was ranting about a Trump administration immigration policy that separates parents from their children when they are apprehended at the border. (Under the policy, the children are placed in foster homes while the parents are either deported or subjected to illegal immigration investigation.) As part of what was apparently a scripted monologue, Ms. Bee showed a visual of Ivanka Trump holding her infant child. Ms. Bee then got into her rant, saying that Ms. Trump, whom she called a “feckless c—t,” needed to do something about her father’s immigration policies.
President Trump reacted to Ms. Bee’s comment two days later, asking why TBS (the network that carries Ms. Bee’s show) had not fired her or cancelled the show, as ABC had with “Roseanne.” Oddly, he did not seek to defend his daughter or condemn Barr’s racist comment, instead claiming that he—Trump—had been the subject of “HORRIBLE statements” made about him on ABC. Thus were the two statements conflated and made into one issue, when in fact, the two statements were entirely separate and distinct and were only similar in that they were both offensive. Otherwise, improperly comparing the two sought to equate their significance and implicitly lessen the blatant racism expressed by Ms. Barr.
Before I get into how the two are different and why Ms. Barr’s is the more reprehensible, I want to make clear that I in no way seek to defend Ms. Bee’s. It was an ad hominem attack that would have been sexist if it had been spoken by a man. Instead, it was just vulgar and stupid, like a black entertainer using the N-word to describe another black celebrity with whose politics he or she does not agree. The C-word may not be as unacceptable in public discourse as the N-word, but it is insulting and degrading. Furthermore, to the extent Ms. Bee was seeking to make a legitimate political statement regarding a disgusting immigration policy, she stepped on her own message, which, whether you are a politician or a comedian or a combination of the two, is, as I said above, just plain stupid.
On the other hand, Ms. Barr’s comment was racist and bigoted. No one should think otherwise about what it was intended to mean. It’s a remark that, even if intended as a joke, seeks to denigrate Islam and members of the black community. Ms. Barr may not feel that kind of antipathy towards people who identify as Muslims and/or are black, but the comment is intended to slam both groups. That ABC reacted quickly by cancelling Ms. Barr’s show is a reflection of its business judgment, to be sure, but that judgment is also a reflection of its own corporate ethos in 2018. And, as a private entity, it had every right to make that call.
Ms. Bee’s comment was primarily uncivil, as are most ad hominem attacks. It also could have been sexist, and it would be easily so construed if spoken by a man. Women who use it in derogation of other women, especially when preceded by the adjective Ms. Bee used (“feckless” can mean ineffective, which is probably how she intended it), are probably seeking to insult the target of the slur. But as I mentioned previously, in this instance, the slur was misdirected. Ms. Bee’s beef isn’t really with Ivanka Trump, the daughter; it’s with Donald Trump, the father.
So with Ms. Barr, you had a racist, bigoted attack on a person who has been ridiculously and falsely linked to a phony—Trumped-up, if you will—conspiracy charge. And in Ms. Bee’s case you had an ad hominem attack that was foolishly misdirected at a woman who is not responsible for the policy that the speaker really intended to attack. Which of the two is more reprehensible? It isn’t really a close call, is it?
Racism and bigotry must be unacceptable in our country if the supposed progress we have made in civil rights in the last sixty years are to mean anything. Incivility in political discourse should be unacceptable as well, but when the president of the country engages in it on an almost daily basis, it is a little hard to condemn as strongly and vehemently.
Finally, regarding President Trump’s suggestion that Ms. Bee’s show should have been cancelled since ABC had cancelled Ms. Barr’s, three points must be made. First, Mr. Trump might want to at least express outrage in defense of his daughter if he is going to object to Ms. Bee’s comment. Second, he probably should check out the definition of “hypocrite” if he is going to object to scurrilous language by a TV comedian. And finally, and most importantly, he ought to review (or learn) some First Amendment law before, as the nation’s president, he seeks to attack free speech.