People Aren’t Upset With Michelle Wolf Because She Was Wrong. They’re Upset Because She’s Right.

Posted on May 2, 2018 by

There seems to be two main categories of disapproval when it comes to Michelle Wolf’s speech at the White House Correspondent Dinner. The first is the predictable faux-outrage by Trump’s army of sycophants. During a more innocent time, their affectations of outrage might have warranted a response. But in the here and now of the Trump years, their outrage is too ridiculous to be taken seriously. These aren’t just the same people who went on TV to defend the President’s now-famous “grab ‘em by the pussy” comments. Nor are they just the journalists, pundits, and elected officials who continue to provide cover for a man who regularly says far worse about women than anything that escaped Michelle Wolf’s lips Saturday night. These are the people who have spent the last two years insisting that everything that is wrong with America can be traced to political correctness perpetrated at the hands of liberal snowflakes. These are the people who would have us believe that the real moral failure in the many accusations of sexual assault that have been made against Donald Trump is not that he potentially assaulted women, but that those women dared complain about it. The same people tweeting venom into the universe today over the treatment of Sarah Huckabee Sanders are the same people who, during the campaign, not only didn’t see anything wrong with regularly demeaning women based on their appearances or crude references to having their periods, they objected to the very idea that some people did. Their outrage isn’t just ridiculous and dishonest. It’s gaslighting and abusive. Trump Image

Which brings me to the second category of disapproval and the only one I think thinking people should spend real time worrying about: That by adopting Trump’s linguistic penchants for shock and outrage, Michelle Wolf crossed the line in a way that further erodes our discourse and, potentially, our democracy along with it. To evaluate this claim, though, I think we need to get clear about what the role of a comic is. Obviously the first job of a comic is to make the audience laugh. But the very idea that there is such a thing as a line that ought not be crossed suggests that the laughs should not come cheaply. The verbal slings must be earned. This generally shared intuition is, I suspect, what was behind the outrage most people felt when Trump mocked a disabled reporter by pantomiming the way his physical mobility was limited. But as scathing as many of Michelle Wolf’s comments were, none of them came cheaply—nor were they undeserved. Take, for example, the most cited joke about Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Wolf’s target was Sanders near-constant lying. This isn’t a partisan claim. Sanders has lied about everything from there being epidemics of voting fraud and immigrant rapists to the integrity of the women who have accused Donald Trump of sexually harassing them. Her entire job— the very reason she found herself atop that dais—is to provide so much bluster in the form of obvious dishonesty so as to bamboozle the press out of (un)covering the more nefarious and covert ways the Trump administration is dismantling our democracy in front of our eyes. Our discourse is in danger. And we should take this very seriously. But the danger to our discourse isn’t a comedian’s off color humor. The danger to our discourse is that the Trump administration is purposefully severing any meaning from the word truth. It matters—or at least it should—that the transgressions of this administration, and Sanders in particular as its spokesperson, are as egregious and outrageous as they are. For crying out loud, Trump’s pick to lead the CIA is a literal torture enthusiast. The masterminds behind the Iraq War Fiasco are back beating the drums of war at the highest levels of government. Sarah Huckabee Sanders herself has called for the literal firing of a journalist while the justice department removes the importance of freedom of the press from its website. We must be able to call this out in a way that accurately names it for the danger it is. Otherwise, insisting on adhering to arbitrary standards of decorum won’t provide a tool that strengthens or protects our discourse. It will neuter our sense of justice.

The White House Correspondents Dinner is supposed to be held in honor of the First Amendment. It’s meant to serve as a reminder that our words are the most powerful tool we have to hold power accountable. Finally, however briefly, Michelle Wolf pierced through the fog of our collective nightmare by treating our elected officials—and their lackeys—exactly as they deserved. Michelle Wolf did what too many of our journalists have failed to do. She didn’t treat this like was a normal political event taking place amongst a backdrop of normal political problems. She called out this administration and the danger it poses to our discourse and our democracy for what it is. She fought back. And she fought back in exactly the way those who have faced down fascism before have prescribed. As Hannah Arendt said, “The greatest enemy of authority, therefore, is contempt, and the surest way to undermine it is laughter.”

But what do I know? I think it’s okay to punch (up at) Nazis.

Jamie is on twitter @euthyphro