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Giving Offense

By Russ Smith | Posted 11/29/2006

It's a sign of civic decay that a forgotten television actor, Michael Richards, was the subject of a firestorm of racial debate in the United States last week. The one-time Seinfeld star, as most people who turn on a television or use the internet know, made a fool of himself with a verbal attack on two black men who attended his show at a Hollywood comedy club. Richards, who objected to some heckling, responded by calling the customers "nigger," among other noxious epithets. As is now the custom for celebrities who display career-threatening behavior, Richards appeared on a chat show (David Letterman's, in this case) and apologized for his rant, an act of contrition, whether sincere or not.

Why an entertainer--a minor one at that--can provoke so much anger and debate is beyond me, but it's the norm in the current popular culture, even if the punishment is selectively meted out. When Rosie O'Donnell, a new gabber on the daytime show The View, said in September "Radical Christianity is just as threatening as radical Islam in a country like America where we have a separation of church and state." The views of "radical" Christians--anti-abortion; opposition to premarital sex, gay marriage, and embryonic stem cell research; and so on--aren't my own, but O'Donnell's equation of these Americans to Islamic suicide bombers who preach the destruction of the United States and Israel is not only incredibly naive but demeaning as well. She has yet to do the "perp walk" to Letterman or Jay Leno's late-night television confessionals.

Likewise, when West Virginia's Sen. Robert Byrd, the octogenarian who was a Ku Klux Klan member in his youth, spoke about "white niggers" on television a few years ago, there was tut-tutting about his use of what's called the "n-word," but his Democratic colleagues let it go. A Republican wouldn't have gotten off so easily.

Here in Baltimore, the media had a ball several weeks ago when a controversy erupted at Johns Hopkins University over a dumb party held by the Sigma Chi fraternity. The frat's social chairman, junior Justin Park, was responsible for a computer-generated invitation to the bash--"Halloween in the Hood"--that referred to the city as an "HIV pit" and "ghetto" and used slang such as "hoochie hoops" and "bling bling ice ice."

Before the Thanksgiving recess, I spoke to a Hopkins student on the Homewood campus about the Sigma Chi eruption. This young man, who, given the tension, requested anonymity, is a left-wing Democrat and he condemned Park as "a jerk." Nevertheless, he also said that the Black Student Union exploited the situation for media exposure and that, in fact, Sigma Chi is one of the more "inclusive" fraternities at Hopkins. Park has presumably been chastened, and one hopes he now understands the power of charged rhetoric, even in a bad attempt at humor, but this kid is a minnow in the larger devolution of tolerant society.

Consider the opinion of George Soros, the billionaire Holocaust survivor who's larded the campaign coffers of Democrats in recent years because of his hatred of the Bush administration. As Brendan Nyhan, a liberal blogger, noted on his eponymous web site, Soros wrote the following in his recently published The Age of Fallibility: Consequences of the War on Terror: "The Bush administration and the Nazi and Communist regimes all engaged in the politics of fear. Indeed, the Bush administration has been able to improve on the technique used by the Nazi and Communist propaganda machines by drawing on the innovations of the advertising and marketing industries."

Soros, of course, isn't alone in this sort of outrageous hyperbole. Excitable writers and celebrities regularly compare Bush to Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot, which does nothing but minimize the atrocities committed by those tyrants. Given that Bush was soundly rebuked in the midterm elections, I find it hard to see how anyone can say with a straight face that since the president's election the U.S. Constitution has been "shredded."

Some conservative commentators and luminaries are guilty as well in transforming the cultural and political landscape into a pointless name-calling contest. The overt homophobia and immigrant bashing spouted almost daily by right-wing loudmouths is just as pernicious as the filth spewed forth by their counterparts on the left.

As for the film Borat, I must've missed the jokes. Toilet humor isn't to my taste, and the sight of Sacha Baron Cohen, in his role as Borat, mouthing off like a stereotypical redneck left me cold (unlike the rest of the crowd at the Charles Theatre). But as columnists Charles Krauthammer and David Brooks have pointed out, the indictment of "Red America" was too easy a gambit. Is there anti-Semitism in the U.S.? Of course, and it exists in all parts of the country, not just the Southern towns Borat visited. Nevertheless, the United States remains Israel's strongest ally--and devout Christians share that view--something that our European detractors ought to think about the next time a synagogue is torched in France or Britain.

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