The hot joke in political circles lately is about the three girls on Career Day telling the class what their mothers do for a living. One says her mom is a seamstress, one says her mom is a nurse and the last declares hers to be an exotic dancer.
“We didn’t know your mother did that,” the first two tell the third afterwards.
“She doesn’t, but I was too embarrassed to admit that she works on Wall Street.”
Ours are not merely odd times, they are topsy-turvy. When the prophet Isaiah said “woe to those who call evil good and good evil,” he was making a trenchant observation, that distorting moral perspective has far-reaching implications, building corrupt fault lines into the superstructure of society. There are an awful lot of folks out there who love Ellen DeGeneres and hate Sarah Palin, love marijuana and hate churches. As judgments veer into perversity, language follows closely behind.
Which brings us to Rahm Emanuel and his celebrated assessment of radical leftists in his caucus as f***ing retards. I was personally impressed by Rahm’s ability to pronounce asterisks, a rare skill, but others were less sanguine. Sarah Palin ate Rahm’s lunch with a chocolate moose for dessert. She faced him down on Facebook with a demand he apologize to the developmentally challenged individuals he cheapened with his remark.
Now no one loves Sarah Palin more than me, with the possible exception of her husband, and I certainly consider Rahm a major creep, but the idea he was insulting the disabled is absurd. Political correctness run amok. The fact is the word “retarded” is a gentle euphemistic description. The other words to describe that condition are more pejorative in nature and, if anything, are more in use in the sort of context Mister Emanuel was analyzing. Words like imbecile and idiot and moron all began as references to retardation but have since been retired from professional mental-health jargon. Any chance of those words disappearing from office conversation soon? Nor are words like dolt or dunce as genteel as “retarded,” which merely means held back.
It may be Rahm Emanuel is insensitive to retarded children — although in fairness I find it highly unlikely — but you cannot prove it by this remark. He was trying to say his colleagues were proposing a foolish idea, and he did so in a gratuitously insulting manner by declaring them stupid in general. But there is no way we can deconstruct his meaning into: “Retarded children are pathetic and you guys remind me of them.”
To her credit Palin was turning the liberal weaponry back on them, thus hoisting them by their own pet aardvark, as it were. Hilarious to watch the son of an Irgunist, an Israeli macho man, Chicago street fighter, brass-knuckles politician, a man who walks fearlessly among the most powerful people on the planet, suddenly kowtowing to the head of Special Olympics in search of dispensation. Apparently the folks in nonprofits never call each other imbeciles.
To prove this try a little thought experiment. The accountant for Special Olympics comes to tell the boss he invested all their funds with Madoff. Mister Shriver replies: “How unfortunate a man of your superior intellect should be understandably misled by an unscrupulous scoundrel. Perhaps you should take a paid sabbatical and the grief counseling is on us.” You see? No way would Shriver, wearing his mantle of Kennedyhood, call the poor accountant a f***ing retard who has s*** for brains and should not be trusted with anything more complicated than selling f***ing Girl Scout cookies or words to that effect.
Personally I am in favor of running every business and government facility with no vulgarity, profanity or obscenity. People should accord each other due respect in a professional atmosphere. Civility breeds civilization. Decency in speech produces decency in heart. Using less offensive expression will foster a more congenial atmosphere and will have the added effect of leaving the participants to process stimuli more deliberatively, less impulsively. But let’s be honest, until that time comes, Rahm Emanuel’s expletives join a long procession of salty speech in the highest offices of the land.
So we forgive you, Rahm, even if we have to forfeit a political advantage. Like the old Jewish lady in the hospital whose sister comes to seek reconciliation after a forty-year feud: “If I die, you’re forgiven. But if I recover I retain the right to stay angry…”