The R-word, Sarah Palin’s war on “retarded”
Sorry Sarah Palin – in the war on the “r” word, you can’t have it both ways.
The foxy Fox News contributor and former 1.3-term Governor of Alaska kicked off a skirmish earlier this month when she called on the president to sack his Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, for using the word “retarded” during a strategy meeting.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Emanuel, a famously aggressive pit-bull among Obama’s inner circle, called some at the meeting last August “F-ing retarded” for saying they were going to air ads attacking conservative Democrats who weren’t supporting the president’s health care plan.
In a typically folksy post to her Facebook page, which has 1.4 million fans (frightening, but less than Obama’s 7.6 million), Palin responded to a “patriot” from Massachusetts who alerted her to the Journal article.
“Just as we’d be appalled if any public figure of Rahm’s stature ever used the ‘N-word’ or other such inappropriate language, Rahm’s slur on all God’s children with cognitive and developmental disabilities – and the people who love them – is unacceptable, and it’s heartbreaking.”
I’d like to say Palin is just another tea partier brewing politically advantageous storms in her Americana mug, but she has a point. Emanuel’s slur was surely a slip – probably not a fireable offence – but it’s an insensitive slip that is becoming too common in the US, and back at home.
“Retarded” has established itself in the lexicon as an alternative to words like “crap” and phrases like “it sucks”. “That’s so retarded” is a common complaint; “What a retard!” is a familiar put-down. And it can kill as a punch line. In Tropic Thunder, an actor is described a going “full retard” to win an Oscar.
But to describe someone or something as “retarded” is to use a kind of hate speech. It suggests that a person with a certain condition – and “retarded” has been rejected by medical and social organisations as a label for that condition – is somehow less of a person.
(For a great piece on “retarded” as hate speech, see this from America’s National Public Radio.) It is similar in some ways to the pejorative use of “schizo” and “gay” that has become so pervasive. We all use them, but none of us should.
Emanuel has run the gamut of official “apologydom” this month, issuing a public statement, meeting with leaders of disability groups and promising to consider legislation that would take the word “retarded” out of Federal law. It all felt a little Tiger Woods if you ask me, but it was a nonetheless fitting end to an awareness-raising moment in American politics.
It was also a bright moment for Palin. Here she was, a mother bear striking out on behalf of her son, Trig, who has Down’s syndrome. Even I, a Palin-hater from way back, admired her moxy. Then, just a few days later, she showed her cards.
When Conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh fired the next shot in the “retard” wars, using the term as pejoratively as Emanuel, Palin’s response was decidedly more demure. The moose-hunting momma bear was nowhere to be seen.
“Our political correct society is acting like some giant insult’s taken place by calling a bunch of people who are retards, retards,” bellowed Limbaugh on his show days after the Journal piece was published. “I think their big news is he’s out there calling Obama’s number one supporters f’ing retards. So now there’s going to be a meeting. There’s going to be a retard summit at the White House.”
No Facebook essays from Palin on that outburst, just a tepid statement through a spokeswoman, Meg Stapleton. “Governor Palin believes crude and demeaning name calling at the expense of others is disrespectful,” said Stapleton’s note. It did not even mention Limbaugh by name. That would not have gelled with Palin’s Conservative base; even it had gelled with her supposed “principals”.
Pressed on the obvious double standard, Palin told Fox News, “I’m not politically correct. I am not one to be a word police.” She went on to agree with Limbaugh that the Obama supporters were “kooks” and claimed the radio host was using “satire” when he used the “r” word.
Satire is a pretty slippery and amorphous little concept, I will grant you that, Sarah. It’s hard to clearly define something that can be applied to both George Orwell and the Wayans brothers. But were Limbaugh’s comments even remotely satirical? Or was he just a guy, like Rahm Emanuel and many of us, using an offensive word that has come to mean “idiot” – or “kook” – without regard for whom we might offend?
Even if we are to give Palin the benefit of the doubt, her campaign against the “r” word became even more surreally hypocritical this week when she came out against last Sunday night’s Family Guy episode. The episode featured a girl with Down’s syndrome who identified herself as the daughter of the former Governor of Alaska.
Aside from being insensitive, the show was uncomfortably unfunny. Stewie Griffin’s musical number, “Down Syndrome Girl,” fell particularly flat. He sang of a crooked-walking girl with a vice-like grip who’d just learned to tie her shoes Monday. The writers seemed like cruel school bullies picking on the special needs kids.
But it’s a satire right? So wheel out the spokesperson and let’s forget the whole thing. Time to talk tax cuts…
Not so fast. Palin issued a strong statement against the episode on Tuesday – again, through Facebook – that included a note from her daughter, Bristol. The younger Palin wrote that people with special needs’ “lives are difficult enough as it is, so why would anyone want to make their lives more difficult by mocking them?”
She went on: “If the writers of a particularly pathetic cartoon show thought they were being clever in mocking my brother and my family yesterday, they failed. All they proved is that they’re heartless jerks.”
Mom and daughter make a good point, yet again. If only they’d make them a little more consistently.
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