The Sham of Being Shocked

Remember Michael Kinsley?

I barely do, and, truthfully, I thought he was dead.

But no, the former liberal half of CNN’s Crossfire is still around, although he’s not sitting across from Pat Buchanan yelling at people anymore. And just last week, he wrote a very thoughtful piece about Rush Limbaugh that, I think, ought to be the definitive word on the already-tiresome subject of “Slutgate.” Turns out it won’t be, because Gloria Allred is now trying to get Rush arrested. If I have to choose between Michael Kinsley and Gloria Allred, I’m always going with Kinsley.

Kinsley’s point, which is an outstanding point, is that most of the people claiming to be offended by Rush Limbaugh’s remarks aren’t really offended. Instead, they’re just glomming on to anything they can use to embarrass or silence people they don’t like. The result of the empty taking-offense ritual is not more civilized discourse, but, instead, more timidity, more blandness, and, in the long term, more people taking offense. He says it better than I can:

These umbrage episodes that have become the principal narrative line of our politics are orgies of insincerity. Pols declare that they are distraught, offended, outraged by some stray remark by a political opponent, or judicial nominee, or radio talk-show host. They demand apology, firing, crucifixion.

The target resists for a few days, then steps downs or apologizes. Occasionally they survive, as Limbaugh probably will, but wounded and more careful from now on…

The pursuers all pretend to be horrified and “saddened” by this unexpected turn of events. In fact, they’re delighted.

Of course they’re delighted! The enemy has shot himself in the foot! The least they can do is open fire themselves and see if they can maximize the damage.

It’s here, of course, where I’m obligated to state that I’m not defending Rush’s statement. (Neither is Kinsley, who is no fan of Rush by any means.)  That obligatory denunciation is all part of the ritual, I suppose, and I’m grateful for the fact that other people find this as tedious as I do. The easiest way to illustrate this is to point to the fact that we’re eager and willing to faint at the shocking – SHOCKING! – nature of our political opponents remarks, but we too often have no qualms about overlooking this kind of garbage when it comes from someone we agree with.

Consider – ick – the loathsome Bill Maher, who goes out of his way to give offense in the same misogynistic oeuvre that got Rush into trouble. The things he has called women – words beginning with C or Tw, among others – make “slut” pale by comparison. He’s also one of President Obama’s most generous campaign donors, having just written a check for a million bucks to a pro-Obama SuperPAC, which laughingly refused to return the money when Maher’s vicious slurs were brought to their attention.

Keep in mind, too, that I’m as guilty of this as anyone.

I’ve worked on a number of political campaigns, and some of the most gleeful behind-the-scenes moments come when the other guy does something stupid. We then go out and face the press with long faces and concerned expressions, but when the cameras go off, it’s very hard to keep from giggling. This kind of nonsense is all over the place in the Republican primary. You don’t think the Santorum people weren’t giddy with excitement when Mitt stepped in it with the “I don’t care about poor people/my wife drives two Cadillacs” hooey?

I don’t know what the answer is. All I know is that when I hear anyone get into high dudgeon over some kind of terrible thing their political opponent does, I tend to view it as cheap theater rather than genuine outrage. Or maybe calling it “cheap theater” is to give it more credence than it deserves. As Woody Allen once said, “life doesn’t imitate art; it imitates bad television.”

Of course, it’s shocking – SHOCKING – that I would quote someone as vile as Woody Allen! And thus the ritual begins anew. You can finish it up on your own if you want to – I’m going to go walk my fat dog.

Renouncing Religious Bigotry
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