Jeff Goldstein Was Wrong to Defend David Letterman for Joking About the Statutory Rape of Willow Palin
After Jeff Goldstein and I scrapped in March, I thought it would be best to keep the peace by not mentioning him or his site.
But there was one linguistic debate where I was really biting my tongue. And now that we’re speaking to each other again — however roughly — I’d like to put it to him directly: how in the world did he defend David Letterman for joking about the statutory rape of 14-year-old Willow Palin?
Our respective views are on the record, but we have never gone head to head on the issue. I’d like to challenge Jeff to do that now — sticking to the ideas and the linguistic theories.
Here is Jeff’s position, which I will quote at length (with emphasis added by me) so as to give him all the context necessary:
Those of you who think it was okay for [David Letterman] to use a puppet A-Rod to screw a puppet Bristol Palin in Yankee Stadium, I want to hear it justified.
Okay then. I justify it this way:
This is what comedians do — particularly those who are charged with topical humor on a nightly basis.You can argue that the joke wasn’t funny, that it was mean spirited, that it was politically motivated, that it was sloppily constructed, that it attacked an innocent “child,” etc. But those are critiques of the joke, not reasons the joke shouldn’t have been attempted. For good or ill, Bristol Palin’s pregnancy long ago became a public event, and it is part and parcel of the “Sarah Palin” construct Letterman was taking aim at.
. . . .
Here, however, the joke relies on the suggestion that Bristol Palin’s pregnancy maps with her snowbilly trashiness, while simultaneously rubbing against the perceived morality of her mother — and, by extension, any and all Republicans (who, for better or worse, are tied in the public consciousness to the kind of “family values” platform that here is being ironized).
The joke was a political one that simultaneously took shots at the rural bourgeois and Alex Rodriguez, a favorite NY media whipping boy.
And so while it may have been unfunny to those with certain sensibilities, the only “justification” necessary is that someone thought it funny enough to make public, and we (thankfully) still have the right to make those kinds of decisions ourselves.
What Goldstein didn’t seem to understand in that post is that nobody was arguing that comedians should be deprived of the right to make decisions — but that they should exercise those decisions responsibly. Specifically: teenaged children are off-limits when it comes to sexual jokes — even (especially?) teenaged daughters of political figures.
One should not be “justifying” such attacks, but rather savaging them.
As I said in my first post on the issue:
What you need to understand to see the humor: the daughter Palin brought to the game was Willow Palin. Who is 14 years old.
Now do you see the humor?
Goldstein, in his comments to that post, criticized conservatives for their outrage: “I also believe the outrage here — and elsewhere on the right — has been ridiculously outsized.”
My view on this was: Letterman’s joke wasn’t funny. And unlike Goldstein, there was no way I was going to judge my fellow conservatives for their outrage. Especially given the deep wellspring of genuine outrage that was created by the way Palin and her family were treated during the campaign.
Perhaps even more outrageous was Goldstein’s defense of the joke by explaining that “the joke relies on the suggestion that Bristol Palin’s pregnancy maps with her snowbilly trashiness, while simultaneously rubbing against the perceived morality of her mother.”
First, the girl at the game was Willow Palin, aged 14, and not Bristol. All the linguistic arguments in the world can’t paper over that simple fact.
Second, the idea that anyone could consider this joke funny (and while Goldstein said he didn’t find the joke funny, he nonetheless defended Letterman for telling it) ignores the fact that the equation of Bristol Palin’s pregnancy with “snowbilly trashiness” is just another Big Lie of the Left. Had only Bristol Palin done the oh-so-sophisticated thing and “terminated her pregnancy,” nobody would have been the wiser — and there would have been no cheap opportunity to mock her “snowbilly” ways, because her transgressions would have been safely hidden away in the dumpster out back with all the little bloody limbs from fetuses the same age as babies that doctors are toiling away to save at the NICU in the same hospital.
The argument, linguistically speaking, is simple. Sure, the intent of the speaker is what it is. We should strive to determine it. But when your philosophy of language impels you to utterly ignore the way your speech will be received — even when that speech has the effect of dragging a 14-year-old girl into the spotlight as the casual object of derision for a disgusting old joke-teller (who, as it happens, has some little morality issues of his own, as we later learned) — it turns out that the effect on the audience is not something to be ignored after all.
It is to my shame that I allowed my desire to keep the peace to impel me to remain silent on this issue vis-a-vis Goldstein at the time.
But since I am no longer remaining silent on him and his ideas, I wanted to take this opportunity to call him out, on something I should have schooled him on long ago. Namely: if your theories of language lead you to justify a very public verbal assault on a 14-year-old girl, maybe it’s time to tweak those theories a bit. And to consider likely audience reaction as a legitimate consideration for a speaker to take account of — in appropriate cases, like when that reaction will harm a 14-year-old girl.
That’s my argument. I’m happy to take on Goldstein’s — if he chooses to respond to a post that discusses ideas.
If he wants to simply carry on with his little pattern of Internet threats to break the bones of people who mock him, I guess he can do that too. It’s a question of what he considers to be “on point.”
I hope he chooses this discussion of ideas and language theory. It’s time to take this discussion to a higher plane. I’m making this sincere offer to do so.