Several years ago, it was Trent Lott. Several weeks ago, it was Harry Reid. Now it is Rahm Emanuel. What do these three men have in common? They all three have been subjected to the faux outrage of our hyper-sensitive, politically correct society. They all three said things that were, at best, completely innocent, and at worst, merely a little rough around the edges. As a result, all three have been caught in the “Gotcha!” trap of modern media attention.
Trent Lott’s praise of Strom Thurmond, in my view, was innocent to the point of being dumb (or, as Rahm Emanuel might say, it was just “[expletive] retarded.”) I can imagine that the political explosion that resulted from his comment was something he never envisioned happening in a million years. He was a bit too naive about the ability of the American public (led by politicians and journalists) to receive what he said in a manner fitting the spirit in which he said it. Who, in all honesty, really believes it was Lott’s purpose to stand there in front of the cameras as a subtle, yet bold advocate for a return to segregation? But the faux outrage came out because Lott said something that could be (mis)interpreted as a slander against civil rights. Lott apologized profusely, but it was not enough to save his career.
Harry Reid’s now infamous observation that then candidate Obama did not speak with a “Negro dialect,” and thus was more likely to endear himself to a wide range of voters, can only be faulted for the rank hypocrisy of the one who said it, but nothing more. The comment itself hardly merits media attention, for my guess is that the vast majority of Americans have either thought or said virtually the same thing. I don’t fault the comment. I do, however, fault the man who himself is one of the traffickers in political correctness saying such a thing. Several years ago Reid was among those calling for Lott to resign, only to reveal himself now as one who ignores political correctness when he speaks in private. Hypocrite? Yes. Racist? Highly doubtful. And yet the faux outrage came out against him, this time from conservatives who pretended to be deeply offended by the word “negro” or by the suggestion that there exists a distinct negro dialect. Such a statement can only be deeply offensive to one who has been trained in the art of being offended, as has the American public. (But at least Al Sharpton, the great connoiseur of offendedness, was there to accept Reid’s apology on behalf of all black people everywhere. If anything, the fact that Sharpton is the designated apology receiver for an entire ethnic group appears to be the most offensive thing about the whole story).
And now Rahm Emanuel has used the word “retarded” as an insult, and Sarah Palin has responded. Of the three incidents, I do think this one is probably the worst one because it was spoken specifically as a caustic and insulting remark. Personally, I try to avoid the word “retarded” as an insult for the very reason Palin expressed. But even if someone does not use the word “retarded,” most everyone uses synonyms for the idea of mental retardation as a way of describing those whose views we think are not up to par intellectually. Words and phrases like “slow,” “idiot,” “not all there,” “His porch light’s on, but he ain’t home,” and so forth are all expressions of some lack in intellectual ability. If I ever use terms like these, I don’t do so to denigrate the value of people who have actual mental disabilities. I use them to denigrate the arguments of those who have regular mental capacity and yet seem to have allowed some kind of lapse to seep into their thinking ability. If I tell my four-year-old son, “Don’t act like a baby!” I don’t mean that I hate babies. I mean that four-year-olds shouldn’t act like them. The same is true here. Emanuel did not mean that he hated retarded people. He meant that those who are not mentally retarded should not act like they are. They should, instead, act in accord with their brain capacity. Personally, I think his use of the “f” word is a more serious offense than his use of the word “retarded.”
But the canons of a politically correct society demand that we generate enough faux outrage to make a stink about each one of these incidents. And so we go on playing the “Gotcha!” game, knowing all the while that we have all likely said far worse in our own private moments. And this is simply one more way that political correctness pushes us away from reality.