The line between reality and fiction, entertainment and politics becomes ever more blurred.
This was, of course, the week in which the Trump-Kim summit occurred. That is, the day the President held a meeting with Kim Kardashian in the Oval Office. Or as the New York Post (the world’s greatest purveyor of tabloid puns) put it: ‘Trump Meets Rump.’ But as well as being the moment when unreality finally seemed to have overwhelmed the Oval office, it was also the week that the most bitter realities of politics were being fought out in the realm of entertainment.
On Monday night, the American comedian Roseanne Barr sent out a Tweet in which she claimed that former Obama aide, Valerie Jarrett, was a cross between the “Muslim Brotherhood and Planet of the Apes”. In the hours that followed, Barr claimed not to know that Jarrett was black, telling friends that she had thought she was Jewish, and that in any case she had been on a combination of pills including the sleep aide Ambien at the time.
The ABC TV network which ran her comedy show did not hang around; it didn’t merely fire Barr, it cancelled the whole show. This was a bold move by the network, which could hardly have been motivated by the bottom-line, given that Roseanne was one of the most viewed shows on any US network.
As with every Tweet and every decision made in US entertainment today (see ‘West, Kanye’), this one couldn’t be made without a whole set of political interpretations being read into it, fences being erected and attacks being made on behalf of – and against – the accused. All topped off by a set of follow-on revenge campaigns.
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Barr herself has been a vocal supporter of Trump, and – it must be said, judging by her timeline – a fairly happy spreader of a number of crazed conspiracy theories. But when a Trump supporter (whose admiration Trump has, in the past, returned) is dumped for a racist Tweet, the faithful cannot stop there. Perhaps they could do if the celebrity were non-aligned. But so long as they have nailed their political colours to any mast, the fall of anyone on either side is – as much as their rise – something to be argued over as though it were real politics and events in the Oval office mere entertainment.
And so, in the days following the furore, many prominent Trump supporters have argued that Barr has only been chased off the network and had her entire show cancelled so peremptorily because she is a Trump supporter. And that claim having been made, her ‘side’ then scours the land looking for the weak-points of its enemies’ shores against which it might send raiding parties.
They found several. The liberal (in several senses of the term) talk show host Bill Maher was one of the first targets. In one of those strangely weighted conjugations that ‘Twitter trends’ now runs: “There’s a push to get Bill Maher fired following Roseanne’s cancellation.”
One of the reasons given was that Maher has been guilty of joking that Trump is part orang-utan.
Wait, Bill Maher makes comparisons to Trump being a gorilla all the time?
They get classified as "jokes" by the media and he is of course allowed to keep his show and not have his life ruined
Bill Maher is a liberal, Roseanne is a free-thinking Trump supporter
— Charlie Kirk (@charliekirk11) May 29, 2018
A test to check whether Maher’s joke and Roseanne’s are on a par would be to see if either causes the slightest of smirks. Maher’s may be on an old theme (Trump; hair colour; strange) but it does have the semblance of humour. It would be hard to find anyone who had a smile raised by Roseanne’s ugly effort.
Still, the landscape continued to be scoured for the person who could balance the scales of justice. The un-funniest person in American entertainment – Samantha Bee – soon provided the materials. In a characteristically witless, sour and vile harangue, only days after Roseanne’s defenestration, Bee berated Ivanka Trump and roused herself into a peroration that concluded: “Let me say, one mother to another, do something about your dad’s immigration practices you feckless cunt!”
Samantha Bee to @IvankaTrump on Full Frontal tonight:
"Let me just say, one mother to another, do something about your dad’s immigration practices you feckless cunt!” pic.twitter.com/S8BhRYNYxD
— Jon Levine (@LevineJonathan) May 31, 2018
Ordinarily, using this sort of language about anyone would be deemed poor manners. Using it against a President’s daughter would be even more so. Certainly it is hard to imagine a Republican comedian using similar language about the Obama daughters. Though it is a quarter of a century since radio-host Rush Limbaugh almost lost his career for a jibe at Chelsea Clinton’s looks, it is striking that in that period of time, looking back at Limbaugh’s comparatively mild 1990s crack is enough to make one nostalgic for a better time.
Compare ABC’s reaction to Roseanne Barr’s tweet w TBS’s non-reaction to Samantha Bee and you’ll see a double-standard in action. There’s no uprising against Bee. Why? Because she is liberal. Because the MSM protects Obama and his aides, but not Trump. The hypocrisy is sickening.
— Ari Fleischer (@AriFleischer) May 31, 2018
Of course Bee’s harangues are comedy only for the few remaining people who think that the White House Correspondent’s dinner still provides comedy. This is an event that this year featured Michelle Wolf, a comedian with a voice like sandpaper who tried to raise laughs about the joys of violent abortions.
Her routine appeared to have been come about purely in order to troll Vice President Mike Pence. As though the obvious way for an anti-anti-abortion activist to respond to their opposite number is to talk about how hilarious it is when you ‘knock’ a premature baby out of the womb: “Help, help, Michelle, you’re killing us.”
But back to this week. Bee unreservedly apologised for her ‘joke’ and saved her career. Maher certainly – and mercifully for fans of genuine free expression – appears to have survived the Twitter-generated assault and lives to fight another panel.
But the striking thing about this whole back and forth (a mere 48 hours or so in the life of the American republic), is that it shows there is no such thing as the non-political realm any more. And that in American public life (even in entertainment) there is now almost nothing that could be deemed to constitute shared values.
There are conservatives aplenty who will try to claim that Roseanne Barr ‘only’ lost her job because she was a Trump supporter. And, in response, there are Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans willing to pretend that laughing about late-stage abortion is just part of ordinary discourse – and that anyway, even if they have let themselves down, it is only because they live in the age of Trump. “He started it.”
So perhaps we need to be reminded that none of this is normal. Any more than the ‘Trump and the Rump’ in the Oval Office is normal. Perhaps the entire culture will at some point attempt to persuade everyone else that it has accidentally taken too much Ambien. But the aim for the republic should be to prevent itself from slipping into further abnormality.
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A first step would be to find honest ways to criticise people on your own side when they have erred. Another would be to possess the ability to admit that some ‘punishments’ of your political opponents are excessive, when they are. And, mainly, to try to engage in modest reflection before the urge for revenge kicks in.
Of course, all this may be excessively optimistic. But it may also be the only way to save ourselves from the ever-heavier politicisation of absolutely everything. Including the business we used to call ‘show’ and entertainment that used to be called ‘light’.