Lost amidst the more high-profile departure of Alec Baldwin from their prime-time lineup, MSNBC recently had a much more difficult personnel struggle that resulted in another of their hosts leaving. Martin Bashir, who once interviewed Michael Jackson on television years ago and then somehow popped up hosting an afternoon show on the network, was highlighting stupid remarks made by Sarah Palin — I know, like she makes any other kind — comparing the national debt to slavery. Now, comparisons to slavery aren’t quite as bad as comparisons to Nazis, but they’re pretty darn close, and even if you have a valid point to make, invoking the spectacles of either Nazi Germany or American slavery to try to paint your opponents as bad or evil is just going to make you sound tone-deaf to most people.
Bashir recognized this, and he rather smartly brought up the horrors of American slavery to show just how silly Palin’s comparison was, reading accounts of what slaves were forced to do to one another, including being forced to urinate and defecate on other slaves to punish them. Had Bashir stopped there, he would have had a good argument and an even better segment. However, Bashir then suggested that maybe Palin should be urinated and defecated on herself to help her understand what slavery was really like. Needless to say, this was so beyond the pale that even the most hardcore Palin-haters decried Bashir’s comments. Bashir took a leave of absence from his show, which very quickly turned into a permanent departure from the network, and rightly so. There is absolutely no place for those kinds of comments in our public discourse, and Bashir should have known better than to say them.
After the initial wave of shock at Bashir’s comments faded away, though, many on the left began to express the sentiment that what happened to Bashir was emblematic of the double standard there is in American between left-wing and right-wing commentators. Many speculated that had Rush Limbaugh made similar comments — for example, if Senator Elizabeth Warren had compared trickle-down economics to slavery, and Limbaugh suggested that Senator Warren should be urinated and defecated on to help her understand what slavery was really like — Limbaugh would have either ignored the backlash, or given a half-hearted apology, and then gone about his merry business saying similarly offencive things on his radio show every day. Although I think some people pushed this line too far to deflect the bad press Bashir and MSNBC were rightfully getting, there’s too much truth in this line of argument to ignore.
Although it’s hard to pick just one example of Limbaugh saying something horrible, last year’s Sandra Fluke controversy certainly works as a starting point, if only because it’s one of the few instances where Limbaugh felt compelled to give one of his rare half-hearted non-apology apologies when the backlash became too much for him to deal with. After calling Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” for advocating for contraception coverage in health care reform — tearfully talking about a college roommate who was denied birth control she needed not because of the sex she was having, but to treat her polycystic ovary syndrome — Limbaugh did issue an apology, but said that his remarks were meant to be “humourous” and not taken seriously. Despite losing sponsors over the controversy, Limbaugh was quick to point out that several other companies were eager to take those sponsors’ places, and he probably wound up making money out of the whole deal. If Martin Bashir had said his comments about Sarah Palin were meant to be “humourous,” no one would have taken him at his word, and if he hadn’t left MSNBC, they probably would have fired him. Why is there this double standard with left-wing and right-wing commentators, where left-wingers are held accountable for the stupid things they say, but right-wingers can either ignore controversies or brush them aside like so much “lamestream media” piffle?
Limbaugh is far from the only right-wing talker to use this “I was only making a joke” bullcrap. That is exactly the same line of argument Megyn Kelly used earlier this month when she got called out for her fanatical insistence that Santa Claus is white. While not nearly as offencive as the comments made by Bashir or Limbaugh, they were pretty stupid and comically betrayed some of the covert racism of the right-wing media empire, that their latest rising star would feel compelled to go on national television and angrily proclaim that Santa Claus was absolutely, positively, white. Even Ann Coulter, by some reports, equates the venom she spews in her columns and on television with the things Dorothy Parker was saying a century ago. (Funny, I don’t recall Parker calling for the imprisoning and forced religious conversion of hundreds of millions of people.) This is the kind of thing a high school newspaper columnist couldn’t get away with, so why do we let these media figureheads do it, and more importantly, why are only conservative commentators allowed this laughable “defence” of the things they say?
This brings me to the recent uproar over racist and homophobic comments made by Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty and the all-too-predictable backlash from conservative commentators when A&E suspended him from the show. I’ve never watched Duck Dynasty because I don’t like “reality” television, especially shows that cater to the dumbest parts of our population. (I think TLC put on Here Comes Honey Boo Boo just because Honey Boo Boo might be the one reality show star of theirs less qualified to be president than Sarah Palin. Emphasis on “might.”) That said, I can’t escape Duck Dynasty because their merchandise is freaking everywhere, at least here in Toledo, which is hardly the duck hunting capital of the country. Worse still are all the sixteen- and seventeen-year-old boys I see trying to grow those long beards, seemingly unaware of the fact that they look like total jackasses.
That being said, I already wrote extensively on these issues a couple of years ago when it was Hank Williams Jr. comparing President Obama to Hitler, but to hit the main points in brief: The First Amendment protects Robertson’s rights to state his religious beliefs, but the First Amendment does not protect anyone from the consequences of the actions that their free speech engenders, except from the government. Robertson does not have a right to spew his hatred on A&E any more than I have a right to walk into Fox News’ studios and demand they put me on the air eight hours a day to correct the falsehoods and half-truths their hosts say during the other sixteen hours. Fox News, and A&E, and nearly every other channel on your cable box, is a private company, and the First Amendment does not mandate that private companies must allow people to use their companies as a bullhorn for their free speech. A&E suspending Robertson may be a lot of things, but it is not a violation of his First Amendment rights.
(The reason why none of my .musecast videos aren’t loading right now is because the previous host of those videos kicked me off shortly after I started talking about sexual politics, even just in the context of personal liberties and without getting into any TMI graphic discussions of sexuality. I’m not happy with the company, but as a private company, they have the right to say who does and doesn’t get to put videos on their service. My First Amendment rights, like Robertson’s, were not infringed upon.)
Again, though, we see another common tactic of the right-wing in this country, conflating the vague notion of “free speech” most Americans have with the legal definitions of free speech, the idea that “you can say what you want” means that you’re free from the consequences of whatever you say. This is made all the more infuriating that these conservatives who are now so suddenly concerned about “free speech” are the same ones whose representatives in the House just passed a bill that would require people to pay a $5,000 fee to protest against drilling in publicly owned lands. These are the same people responsible for the pervading chill in the air when it comes to talking about fracking, or the actions of some giant agricultural companies, because of the special protections being afforded these practices in our legislatures and courts. These are the same people who just last year fielded a presidential candidate, Newt Gingrich, who has talked about restricting what he deems “anti-American speech,” however he conceives that. These are the same people who applaud when Tea Party protesters move government property across Washington, DC without any police intervention, then laugh and cheer when Occupy protesters are assaulted by the police. These are the same people who would, if given their druthers, likely pull every Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga song and video from the airwaves and the Internet, not because of the quality of those artists’ work, but because those artists’ presentations offend these conservatives’ “Christian” sensibilities. They only care about “free speech” when it comes to arguments they agree with; they’re all too eager to help squelch opinions that they don’t like for whatever reason.
The idea that Robertson, or the rest of the Duck Dynasty clan, is somehow “suffering” from this controversy is laughable, especially when the well-oiled right-wing media machine is doing everything short of building them all thrones right next to Ronald Reagan’s casket. If the Robertsons are upset over what A&E is doing to them, it wouldn’t be hard at all to part ways with A&E; at least twenty other cable networks would be frothing at the mouth to be the new network to broadcast their show, and probably for even more money than they’re getting now. Like Limbaugh before him, Phil Robertson will probably emerge from this controversy richer and more popular among his fanbase than ever, so spare me the tears about how “unfair” A&E is being to him. Phil Robertson is the victim of nothing more than how his twisted view of Christian doctrine has affected his heart and brain, and of running his mouth when he should have kept it shut beneath that beard of his.