The good news about the roiling pot of oversteamed irrelevance that we call a national discourse is that there is pretty much always, through sheer mathematical imperative, one news story going on that is completely hilarious. For the last week it has been Sarah Palin’s and Rush Limbaugh’s public argument over the words “retard” and “retarded.” As is usually the case when a news story centers on something you’re glad the president didn’t do, this one originated with Rahm Emanuel. Two weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal ran this news analysis piece about liberal resentment of the chief of staff, including the revelation that, back in August, he dismissed a plan to run attack ads against senators opposing health care as “fucking retarded.” First of all, I sincerely want to believe that if you come to Rahm Emanuel with some idea that turns out not to be so great, he will immediately call you retarded and send you back to your desk. Second of all, everyone can stop accusing the WSJ of conservative bias, because the chief of staff saying “retarded” in a private meeting six months ago has turned out to be hot news. In a Facebook post titled “Are You Capable of Decency, Rahm Emanuel?” Sarah Palin called on the president to fire his chief of staff, saying that “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.” By “God’s children,” she was generally interpreted to mean her own personal child, who—I don’t know if you’ve heard this—has Down syndrome.
At that point, the life cycle of the news story seemed to be complete, from egg (the actual retard-saying in August) to pupa (WSJ article) to earwig (Palin denunciation via Facebook) to dead husk (apology.) Emanuel had to meet with Special Olympics head Tim Shriver—who turns out to only want to talk about the Special Olympics, by the way—but he did not get fired, almost as if the qualifications for being White House Chief of Staff included elements beyond being a nice guy. The whole issue seemed to be settled, until Rush Limbaugh saw a potential instance of society being nicer to its least fortunate and felt compelled by duty to intercede.
“Our political correct society is acting like some giant insult’s taken place by calling a bunch of people who are retards, retards,” Limbaugh said on his February 3 radio show. “I mean these people, these liberal activists are kooks. They are loony tunes. And I’m not going to apologize for it, I’m just quoting Emanuel. It’s in the news.” Thank god 1930s Germany is no longer in the news, or Limbaugh would be running around with long knives.*
Also, the people who Emanuel described as “retarded” are not actually retarded, which is the whole point of the affair. But Rush Limbaugh doesn’t give a rat’s ass if retarded people are sad, and he wants his listening audience to know it. Rush used the words “retard” or “retarded” twenty-seven times during the show, suggesting that perhaps he was flaunting his willingness to retard it up. One might almost say that he was baiting Sarah Palin—an activity at which Limbaugh is surely a master. But why? Why would Rush Limbaugh taunt a woman ostensibly on his own side, and at such a personal level?
It turns out that it was so he could make her eat shit. On Fox News Sunday, Palin defended Limbaugh’s remarks, saying that Rush was obviously being satirical. “I didn’t hear Rush Limbaugh calling a group of people whom he did not agree with ‘f-ing retards,'” she said, “and we did know that Rahm Emanuel, as has been reported, did say that. There is a big difference there.” The statement that Limbaugh did not call a group of people he disagreed with “f-ing retards” seems disingenuous at best, since Limbaugh A) called liberals retards and B) disagrees with said liberals. Perhaps Palin objects to the intensifier “fucking,” and wants only for Americans with Down syndrome to be referred to with out it—e.g., “Allow me to introduce my son, Trigg, who is retarded” and not “my son Trigg, who is fucking retarded.” Perhaps she has no idea what the word “satire” might mean, except as yet another way to deny responsibility for the things you’ve said. Or perhaps she’s afraid to publicly criticize Rush Limbaugh.
That last explanation seems the most likely—okay, the second one seems extremely likely, but the last one is pretty good, too—and, as Chris Kelly pointed out at the Huffington Post, Limbaugh has been rubbing it in her face. Discussing Palin’s response on his radio show yesterday, Limbaugh said, “I only hope here that Rahm doesn’t go out and call these people another f-ing unfortunate name out there, folks, because I’ll have to repeat it in another satire.” As Kelly notes, that’s a classic bully move: making screw of another person’s attempt to be nice to you, so as to point out that they’re doing it out of fear. Who knows what weird psychological mechanics have made the defense of insulting retarded people so personally important to Limbaugh, but he’s clearly pissed. Which brings us to the two important questions for the day:
1) Is it okay to call stuff retarded and—possibly concomitantly—to call people retards?
This question is not as easily answered as you might think, since “retarded,” unlike a lot of other pejorative terms, is actually used in strictly denotative contexts, as in “mentally retarded” or “retarded growth.” But when was the last time you heard someone use “retarded” in this way? That’s the only situation where everyone will go out of their way to not say “retarded”: when there is an actual retarded person nearby. That’s probably also why “retarded” seems a little better than “retards.” You can say that Crocs are totally retarded and not be reminded that actual people would be hurt by that word—if they were here to hear you say it instead of at McDonald’s—whereas “retard” remains linked to the trap of subjectivity. Basically, you should only say “retarded” if you occupy some sort of moral high ground. “This bridal shower is retarded!” is not okay, while “My stepsister is retarded, you faggots!” is.
2) Is Sarah Palin’s heart actually broken when you call someone retarded?
The saddest aspect of this story is not the affair’s slightness or Limbaugh’s cruelty: it’s Sarah Palin’s continued willingness to trade on her son’s extra chromosome. Presumably, Palin loves her son very much, and she probably gets sad when she hears someone joking about retardedness as if it weren’t a real thing in the world. Why, then, does she so nakedly play politics, demanding the chief of staff be fired for saying the word once in a private meeting and leaping to a commentator’s defense when he says it two dozen times on his radio show? Either Sarah Palin doesn’t think saying “retarded” is a big deal at all, or she is willing to sacrifice every principle to her reputation for conservative orthodoxy, including the dignity of her own son. In both cases she’s a liar, but in only the second is she willing to sell out a member of her family to curry favor with Rush Limbaugh. On the same show where she called Rush’s two dozen “retards” satire, she also announced her continued intention to run for president in 2012. If the protectiveness she feels for her son is this flexible, how committed must she be to the America she so vociferously loves?