By Kathleen Parker
Sunday, June 14, 2009
One thing we can conclude from David Letterman's bad jokes about Sarah Palin: He hasn't flown commercial in a while.
Letterman's "slutty flight attendant" remark about Palin was in poor taste, we can all agree. But it was a joke, and Letterman is a comedian. The joke probably would have been shrugged off and forgotten -- Palin proved her humorous good sportsmanship on "Saturday Night Live" during the campaign -- if not for Letterman's sexually suggestive "joke" about her daughter.
Everyone knows by now that Letterman made fun of the Palin family's trip to New York last week. He quipped that Palin's daughter got "knocked up" by Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez during the seventh inning. Unable to stop his slide into the gutter, he said that the hardest part of the visit was keeping Eliot Spitzer away from her daughter.
Ba-da-bad. Alas, the only daughter with Palin was 14-year-old Willow.
Sorry, Dave, not funny. It was a joke according to stand-up formula -- take two disparate news items and combine them in an unexpected way. No one does this better than humor columnist Andy Borowitz, who has the blogosphere in a snit with his column suggesting that Newt Gingrich accused Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor of faking her broken ankle to get sympathy. It was a JOKE!
The flight attendant line is a grown-up joke that one may or may not think is funny -- though my guess is that many of the offended big brothers out there were happy to participate in the Palin-as-sexy-librarian fantasy. Fess up.
In any case, the joke was about an adult voluntarily in the public arena and, therefore, clearly of a different order than suggesting sexual relations between a child and a man. We call that rape. Letterman's sort-of apology fell short of fixing things. He didn't mean the 14-year-old daughter, he said. He meant the 18-year-old.
Sir, may I offer you a shovel? Or, perchance, a backhoe? Letterman was way off base and should apologize sincerely. But, please, may we stop there?
Calls for censorship or worse are far more dangerous to the land of the free than any inappropriate one-liner. John McCain -- ever the chivalrous warrior -- sallied forth with his own disapproving statement Thursday, saying: The Palins "deserve some kind of protection from being the butt of late-night hosts."
They do? Are we talking vigilantes -- or just good ol' government censorship?
No, the Palins don't deserve protection from late-night hosts. No one does. But children deserve protection from adults who have lost sight of their responsibility to be wardens of the innocent. And parents are the best guardians of their children. Keeping them out of the limelight seems a good starting point. And, no, I'm not suggesting that anyone "asked for it."
The Palin jokes, for lack of a better term, were merely the latest in a string of recent hostile treatments of women -- conservative women in particular. The Playboy magazine Web site listing conservative women whom men would like to have "hate" sex with was beyond the pale. The harsh treatment of poor Miss California USA (since dethroned) when she expressed her opinion that marriage should be between a man and a woman was simply unfair.
Opinions don't get punished in this country. Period.
But we do have a problem, don't we? Simply put, the zeitgeist has become mean and nasty, and we're at a loss as to how to fix it. Here's one thought: The Internet -- which, ironically, contributes to the problem -- may be the best solution possible.
Both gift and curse, the Internet has been so revolutionary and its gifts so immense that we've been like inmates in sudden possession of the keys. Instant access to a bullhorn and the world as one's stage has unleashed a monstrous id, that undisciplined, infant part of the human psyche that wants what it wants when it wants. Multiply that by billions, and civilization is one harried nanny.
Thus, we have hate-sex Web pages and millions of others that degrade women, sexualize children and leave man -- and womankind -- to their basest instincts. Such is the profoundly messy, sometimes frightening, part of free expression.
On the other hand, we also have the passionate voices of sensible Americans who won't let a comedian get away with trivializing rape. Which suggests that the best defense against rude comics is not "some kind of protection," but the rallying cry of people who demand more from their society and themselves.