It’s too early to tell if the anti-tax-and-spend “tea party” movement will fizzle or develop into a serious opposition to President Obama’s domestic policies. But at the very least, it is newsworthy when thousands of Americans gather around the country to demonstrate against a liberal president’s policies. Whereas the left has a well-entrenched protest culture, mass demonstrations, notably excepting those against abortion, are a rarity on the right.
Yet whereas news coverage of antiwar and other left-wing demonstrations is generally respectful, even deferential, coverage of the tea parties has at times been confrontational and mocking. Here’s the lead paragraph of an April 15 Associated Press dispatch:
Whipped up by conservative commentators and bloggers, tens of thousands of protesters staged “tea parties” around the country Wednesday to tap into the collective angst stirred up by a bad economy, government spending and bailouts.
Good luck finding an AP story on a left-wing protest that begins by telling readers who “whipped up” the demonstrators.
The worst offenders were on CNN. NewsBusters. org, a blog of the conservative watchdog group Media Research Center, described the scene when CNN correspondent Susan Roesgen covered a tax-day tea party in Chicago:
Roesgen asked a man holding his toddler, “Why are you here today?” The man started to respond saying, “Because I hear a president say that he believed in what Lincoln stood for. Lincoln’s primary thing was he believed people had the right to liberty and they had the right…”
But Roesgen cut him off, saying, “But sir, what does that have to do with taxes? What does this have to do with your taxes?” She continued asking questions over him as he asked her to “let me finish my point.” One crowd member was heard to yell “shut up” to Roesgen.
When the man finished his statement about people having the “right to the fruits of their own labor” and “government should not take it,” Roesgen began arguing with him again and other protesters began to get upset.
Roesgen backed away, claiming that “you get the general tenor of this” tea party. “Anti-government, anti-CNN since this is highly promoted by the rightwing conservative network Fox, and since I can’t really hear much more and I think this is not really family viewing. Toss it back to you, Kyra [Phillips],” Roesgen concluded.
In her exchange with the man, Roesgen argued forcefully on behalf of Obama’s fiscal policies. “Do you realize,” she asked him in a tone more hectoring than inquisitive, “that you’re eligible for a $400 tax credit?”
Then, in the same tone, “Wait! Did you know that the state of Lincoln”—Illinois—“gets $50 billion out of the stimulus? That’s $50 billion for this state, sir.”
Another NewsBusters item described a scene from CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360:
After CNN’s senior political analyst David Gergen remarked that Republicans were “searching for their voice” after two electoral losses, Cooper quipped, “It’s hard to talk when you’re tea-bagging.”
The reference might have been lost on many viewers, but “tea-bagging” is a slang term for a type of oral-genital contact. It seems to have been introduced into popular culture by the 1998 John Waters film Pecker, in which it was a frequent pastime among patrons at a Baltimore gay bar. Thus Cooper was suggesting via innuendo that critics of Obama’s economic policies are homosexual. (At a lecture in May, Cooper responded to an audience question by acknowledging that his comment was “stupid” and “silly.”)
In addition to being both biased and vulgar, Cooper’s comment violated a liberal rule of civility, one set forth by comedian Wanda Sykes in a TV public service announcement for the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. In the spot, Sykes lectures a group of teen boys in a pizza parlor after overhearing one of them say, “That’s so gay”:
Don’t say that something is gay when you mean that something is dumb or stupid. It’s insulting. It’s like if I thought this pepper shaker is stupid, and I said, “Man, this pepper shaker is so 16-year-old boy with a cheesy mustache.”
Somehow, though, liberal rules of civility are relaxed, if not disregarded entirely, when liberals are attacking conservatives. In May, performing at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Sykes herself benefited from this double standard. President Obama grinned widely as she told the following joke:
Rush Limbaugh said he hopes this administration fails, so you’re saying, “I hope America fails,” you’re like, “I don’t care about people losing their homes, their jobs, our soldiers in Iraq.” He just wants the country to fail. To me, that’s treason.
He’s not saying anything differently than what Osama bin Laden is saying. You know [addressing the president], you might want to look into this, sir, because I think Rush Limbaugh was the 20th hijacker. But he was just so strung out on OxyContin he missed his flight.
Rush Limbaugh, I hope the country fails, I hope his kidneys fail, how about that? He needs a good waterboarding, that’s what he needs.
With this joke, Sykes ran afoul of at least five taboos: She equated dissent with treason. She likened a domestic political opponent to a foreign enemy. She made fun of the disabled (Limbaugh’s past addiction to painkillers would entitle him to protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act). She made light of a form of interrogation that some people consider torture. And she wished somebody dead.
Possibly excepting the last one, these are all specifically liberal taboos. If a conservative violated any one of them, he would be on the inside track to be named “Worst Person in the World” by MSNBC blowhard Keith Olbermann—as CBS Sports golf analyst David Feherty had been a few days earlier for this joke, which he told in a column for Dallas’s D Magazine:
Despite how the conflict has been portrayed by our glorious media, if you gave any U.S. soldier a gun with two bullets in it, and he found himself in an elevator with Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and Osama bin Laden, there’s a good chance that Nancy Pelosi would get shot twice, and Harry Reid and bin Laden would be strangled to death.
CBS Sports issued a statement saying that the joke was “an unacceptable attempt at humor and is not in any way condoned, endorsed or approved” by the network. Feherty himself later made a written apology: “In retrospect, it was inappropriate and unacceptable, and has clearly insulted Speaker Pelosi and Senator Reid, and for that, I apologize.”
Sykes, by contrast, did not apologize. Her joke drew only mild mainstream media criticism, along with cheers from many quarters on the left. Obama’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, did try to distance his boss from the joke—but he criticized Sykes only for making light of 9/11, which he called a subject “better left for serious reflection than comedy.” (This is a taboo that fell long ago. As a presidential candidate in 2007, Joe Biden disparaged the GOP’s then front-runner: “Rudy Giuliani—there’s only three things he mentions in a sentence: a noun and a verb and 9/11.”)
In a 1992 decision striking down a hate-speech ordinance, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that the government may not “license one side of a debate to fight freestyle, while requiring the other to follow [Marquess] of Queensberry rules.” It’s still an apt description of how our politically correct arbiters of taste operate.
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