The Show Trial of Roseanne Barr
Hypocrisy, selective outrage, double standards, misogyny and the victim caste system.
When I was younger, I was a politically active leftist. It seemed impossible to me to be anything else. The right was evil. Period. We leftists were compassionate. We valued diversity. We let people color outside the lines. We supported artistic, creative societies. And, in our leftist world, everyone was equal.
In April, 1992, during the LA Riots, 18-year-old Crips gang member Damian Williams attacked white truck driver Reginald Denny. As a recording news helicopter hovered overhead, Williams smashed Denny’s head with a cinder block, then triumphantly flashed gang signs. Williams refused to express remorse, saying that “It’s a lot of things that happened to my people by the hands of Mr. Denny’s nationality.” In other words, Denny is white, Williams is black, so Williams had a right to attack Denny.
Shortly after the attack, California Congresswoman Maxine Waters made it a point to visit Williams and to give him a job. Waters insisted that it was wrong to demonize Williams. It is wrong to judge people on the worst thing they had ever done. The rioters needed to be understood not as thugs, but as full human beings, capable of redemption.
In more recent days, Nancy Pelosi insisted that no one should call MS-13 gang members “animals.” MS-13 gangsters are notorious for decapitation, stabbings, and tearing out human hearts. They have murdered innocent teenagers with bats and machetes. “The spark of divinity … dignity and worth” exist in “every person,” Pelosi insisted.
Restorative Justice is rooted in this idea, that each person, no matter how flawed, is capable of redemption. Restorative Justice is “a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behavior. It is best accomplished through cooperative processes that include all stakeholders. This can lead to transformation of people, relationships and communities.”
Diversity was another leftist value, I was convinced, a value intertwined with compassion and equality. The “Salad Bowl” model of society encouraged everyone to be his or her unique self. We didn’t have to assimilate as in the “Melting Pot.”
Leftist compassion and diversity made room for flourishing creativity. I associated right-wing people and views with sterility, with a life void of art. We leftists knew that artists could be a bit off-kilter, and they needed leeway to color outside the lines. Without that leeway, we’d be living in a boring, homogenized world. Sure, William S. Burroughs, Billie Holiday, Lenny Bruce and Kurt Cobain were heroin addicts. Sure, Woody Allen had some weird personal relationships. Sure, John Lennon beat women and kids and announced himself “more popular than Jesus” and superior to “thick and ordinary” Christians. Cut them some slack; otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to sing along to “Imagine.“
And we leftists were so broad-minded that we separated the artist from the art. Roman Polanski drugged and raped a thirteen-year-old girl, but he made great movies. One could appreciate “The Pianist” without approving of the rape.
On May 29, 2018, Roseanne Barr, creator and star of the award-winning TV show Roseanne (1988-1997) and its reboot Roseanne 2017-2018, posted the following on Twitter: “Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby = vj.” The post is ugly gibberish, so much so that it requires interpretation. What the heck was she saying? Roseanne Barr was insulting Valerie Jarrett, former president Barack Obama’s senior advisor. Within hours, ABC publicly announced that it was canceling “Roseanne 2018,” the highest-rated and most-watched new show of the year.
And, within hours, the left, in the wider world and in the microcosm of my Facebook page, betrayed every value I was once naïve enough to think of as associated with the left.
Let’s start with Roseanne Barr herself. She is mentally ill. She has acknowledged as much herself. When she was 16, she was hit by a car and suffered traumatic brain injury. She was institutionalized for eight months at Utah State Hospital, where she had a baby that she put up for adoption. She has also worked as a parking lot prostitute. In 1991, she made the horrendous accusation that she was a victim of parental incest. She accused both her mother and father of “lurid, grotesque, disgusting” things. These accusations deeply disturbed her family members. Roseanne later acknowledged that the accusations were false. “I think it’s the worst thing I’ve ever done … It’s the biggest mistake that I’ve ever made.” When Oprah Winfrey asked why she did it, Roseanne replied, “I was prescribed numerous psychiatric drugs, incredible mixtures of psychiatric drugs to deal with the fact that I had – and still in some ways have and always will have – some mental illness.
Valerie Jarrett is hardly the first person Roseanne has insulted. Roseanne threatened George Zimmerman, the man who shot Trayvon Martin. Roseanne made a mockery of the Star Spangled Banner at a San Diego Padres game. She massacred the song, and concluded by grabbing her crotch and spitting. President Bush condemned her performance as “disgraceful.” Perhaps Roseanne’s most grotesque public insult was to Holocaust victims. In 2009, for a publication called “Heeb,” Roseanne donned a Hitler mustache and swastika armband, and posed next to an oven with a tray full of burnt, human-shaped cookies.
My liberal Facebook friends, and celebrities in the wider society, have been falling all over themselves to send Roseanne to the guillotine. She’s a “racist,” arguably the worst thing, certainly the most career-ending accusation, one can hurl in our society today. Facebook post after Facebook post, news article after news article, is feeding on Roseanne’s mistake with the inexorable fervor of vultures picking over a corpse. There is no getting between the grabbing beaks and the bloodied carcass.
Why? Roseanne’s show has always worked to include appealing, fully rounded black characters. In February, 2018, Roseanne explained in detail to the Hollywood Reporter her desire to have African-American-centered plots both in the old show and the new one.
Rather, what Roseanne is, and what she has been for her entire life, is a person with mental health issues. Anyone with eyes and a heart can see that. Any truly compassionate person would recognize that Roseanne is handicapped. Any compassionate person truly committed to diversity and inclusion would be the adult in the room and address Roseanne’s provocative and irrational behavior as a manifestation of her mental illness. Remember Maxine Waters and Nancy Pelosi insisting on the full humanity of violent criminals? Remember compassion and understanding? Did Roseanne receive any of that? Heck no.
Why are my liberals friends, and arbiters of morality like the New York Times’ Charles M. Blow and CNN’s Van Jones insisting that outrageous Jewish comic Roseanne Barr is the unlikely reincarnation of KKK founder Nathan Bedford Forrest? More on that question, below.
Roseanne said something weird and ugly. Her attackers insist that she suffer. One wonders why the many who repeatedly equated President George W. Bush with a chimp have been able to escape any sanction. One can find a compilation of Bush = chimp images here. Wanda Sykes quit the Roseanne show after the tweet. Yes, that would be the same Wanda Sykes who called Donald Trump an “orangutan.” Bill Maher also called Trump an orangutan. Stephen Colbert called Donald Trump’s mouth Vladimir Putin’s “cock holster.” Running gags refer to an imaginary incestuous relationship between Trump and his daughter Ivanka, and to Trump’s sons as Frankenstein’s monster. Any list of offensive comments that the left has found entirely acceptable would be all but infinite. Jokes about Sarah Palin as a “white trash c—” once flooded media. Colin Kaepernick, recent winner of an Amnesty International Ambassador of Conscience Award, wears socks that depict white police officers as pigs. Barack Obama invited rapper Common to the White House. Common sang a praise song to a cop killer. What we have here is a double standard. And a betrayal of the ideal of equality.
Another betrayal, so obvious if it were snake it would bite you. Roseanne insulted a high school shooting survivor, a Holocaust survivor, and all Holocaust victims. For ABC, those insults were A-OK. It was only when she insulted Valerie Jarret, a mixed race woman who identifies as African American, and in that stupid insult invoked the Muslim Brotherhood, that Roseanne had to pay a price.
The left’s insistence that Roseanne must pay for the Jarrett tweet, but that Roseanne and others have received permission to insult Jews, poor whites, women, shooting victims, and Donald Trump’s children is a betrayal of equality. The left has established a victimology caste system. Juan Williams learned a similar lesson. Juan Williams is an African American journalist. He used to broadcast via National Public Radio. In October, 2010, Williams said, “When I get on the plane … if I see people who are in Muslim garb … I get nervous.” NPR CEO Vivian Schiller fired and denounced Williams, saying he needed a psychiatrist. In the leftist victim caste system, Williams’ African American identity was superseded by Muslim identity.
I do not ask that Colin Kaepernick be fired, in spite of his hateful socks. I’ve never protested against Common, or Vivian Schiller, or Stephen Colbert. I want to live in a world with free speech. I once did not. I lived in the former Soviet Empire. In some ways, Poland in 1988 was the most depressing place I’ve ever lived; it was even more depressing than the time I spent working in an African country ranked as one of the poorest on earth. The Soviets demonized art and beauty and divergent thought and coloring outside the lines. Self-righteous thought police rounded up those who spoke thoughts deemed inappropriate and turned them into non-persons. No doubt that was a tragic human rights violation, but it also created, for me, a severely depressing, homogenized landscape I find it difficult to describe. When I returned to Poland ten years after the fall of communism and saw diversity and color on the labels of food items in a supermarket, I wanted to fall to my knees and thank God. That’s not hyperbole. You have no idea how much you need the presence of creative people until you live in a world scrubbed of that presence.
My Facebook feed is flooded with posts from people who are convinced that they are better than Roseanne and that they are suited to judge, condemn, and un-person her. Not a single one of these Facebook Robespierres could do what Roseanne did – make people laugh and create an historic television show. I would not want to live in a world inhabited only by the righteous and incorruptible.
I know I will face resistance in saying this, but, yes, artists do need leeway to color outside the lines. Yes, I do think “The Pianist” is a great movie even though its creator, Roman Polanski, raped a child. Yes, Polanski should have felt the full weight of the law. But, no, no one is only the worst thing they have ever done. And, yes, creative people are often not the most virtuous people. If you respect Wagner’s operas, if you read Hemingway, if you swing to Sinatra, you are enjoying the work of men who lived lives far south of sainthood. Do you really want to live in a world scrubbed of Wagner, Hemingway, Sinatra, Miles Davis, and so many others? Do you really want to be the judge who decides whom to put on the train?
What should ABC have done? Reprimanded Roseanne, yes. Distanced themselves from her comment, yes. Perhaps order her, for the length of her contract, to stay off of twitter. ABC could have applied Restorative Justice. Bring Roseanne and Valerie Jarrett into a room, and work out a peaceful solution that satisfied all. But no. Liberals refused to extend to Roseanne Barr the compassion they did not spare Damian Williams and MS 13.
Now, why have liberals been so quick to abandon their own values, their own compassion, equality, diversity and appreciation of artistry in their rush to un-person Roseanne Barr? Here’s why. “Roseanne” was a great show because it depicted people who are usually mocked. “Roseanne” treated poor whites with dignity. On “Roseanne,” poor whites had agency. They were not talked about, they talked. The left loves to talk about poor white people. The left becomes uncomfortable when poor white people do the talking themselves. The left wants its own doctrine to emerge from the mouths of poor white fictional characters. We are supposed to be Tom Joads, puppets for our superiors, from fellow-traveler John Steinbeck to millionaire blue-collar-wanna-be Bruce Springsteen. In a famous speech from the novel “Grapes of Wrath,” author John Steinbeck has his working-man character, Tom Joad, say, “I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where — wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there.” Bruce Springsteen echoed this speech in the lyrics of his song, “The Ghost of Tom Joad.“
I’ve lived among working people all my life. We don’t talk like this. What do we say? The kind of things Roseanne and Darlene and Dan say on their show. The show ABC just silenced. The left doesn’t want poor white people to speak for themselves, because when we do so, we burst the left’s mythic bubble.
The eight hundred pound gorilla in the room is, of course, Roseanne’s support of Donald Trump. Me? I didn’t vote for, and I do not support, Donald Trump. But, again, I do like art, and I want to live in a world where artists get to decide for whom they vote. So I don’t much care that Roseanne supports Trump. Her support of Trump and her show are two different things. I am not so rigid, not so totalitarian, that I require the artists whose work I value to vote for the same candidates I vote for. Unfortunately, too many people are fixated on control. They need their artists to share their politics. And there’s more. When poor whites don’t parrot their betters’ politics, the left feels especially betrayed. We poor whites are supposed to be grateful to the left, not rebel against it. Roseanne was uppity. She didn’t toe the party line. Freedom of speech is not a gift all are allowed to enjoy. Kathy Griffin can pose ISIS-style, with a graphic, bloodied mock-up of Trump’s severed head. That’s freedom of speech. Colin Kaepernick can depict white cops as pigs. That’s freedom of speech. But a working-class-identified white woman cannot leave the ideological reservation. She, nutcase on drugs that she is, and that she always has been, posts some incoherent gibberish, no better or worse than what she posted about George Zimmerman. But a mixed race woman, identified as “black,” is involved. Islam is involved. Great! We can railroad Roseanne on a charge of racism! That is a career-ending charge.
In 2015, another uppity woman, Farkhunda, berated a mullah who sold magic charms at a mosque in Kabul, Afghanistan. Farkhunda was a devout Muslim. Her understanding of her faith demanded that charms not be sold. The mullah, seeing a threat to his income stream, falsely accused Farkhunda of burning the Koran. A mob of men formed and rapidly beat Farkhunda to death. The murderers, proud, excited, happy, videotaped their righteous murder. You can view it on the web. Different continents, different ideologies, drastically different punishments. But the same mob fervor, the same false charge, and the same misogyny. In both cases, a woman got out of line. A false accusation was deployed to return to the status quo.
This much is undeniable: critics and awards committees devoted to television as an art form praised the “Roseanne” show as groundbreaking, as historic, as artistically worthy. It set viewership records. It won Emmy Awards, Golden Globe awards, Screen Actors Guild Awards, American Comedy Awards, Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards, TV Guide Top TV Show Awards, a Peabody Award, and a People’s Choice Award. The show has been the subject of numerous scholarly publications. In all the recent show-trial hubbub, we forget how remarkable it is that the center of this cultural milestone was one smart-mouthed, fat, blue-collar woman. The type of woman most despised in our society, most without a cheering section. We are now consigning the flawed woman who wrote this history for us to non-person status. Not because she’s a racist, because she manifestly isn’t. Our real motivation for consigning her to non-person status is that she left the reservation.