Monday, November 28, 2011


The Cases of Michele B. & Michelle O.

Michele Bachmann will be going on an all-out radio run today, perhaps capitalizing on the momentum of a not-too-bad debate performance last week, coupled with the fallout of what might be called "Rootsgate."  Bachmann got a surprising amount of cross-party sympathy when Jimmy Fallon's house band, The Roots, chose a rather rude song with which to introduce Bachmann on her appearance last Monday -- the '80s ska-funk group Fishbone's "Lyin' Ass Bitch."

After the taping, but before the broadcast, bandleader ?uestlove (pronounced "Questlove") tweeted that they had chosen something with "snark" for Bachmann and then showed followers the list of the five songs off of Fishbone's debut EP.  The "la la la" opening bars of the "L.A.B" then told the tale. (Ironically, had ?uestlove said nothing, few people would have likely recognized a relatively obscure 26 year-old song).

Anyway, Twitter exploded.  Conservatives found the song an example of what mainstream media (and major networks) do to those on the right. But even some liberals thought it was a case of the easy sexism with which major institutions can be comfortable.  Regardless, Fallon first made a cute apology by declaring that
?uestlove was "grounded." When it was obvious that wouldn't suffice, he (again, on Twitter) fully apologized to Bachmann, adding that he was "honored" to have her on and "I'm so sorry about the intro mess."

That, however, wasn't enough for Bachmann.  She demanded an apology from NBC -- which she finally got Thanksgiving  night:  Don Vaughn, an NBC senior vice president called the episode "not only unfortunate but also unacceptable." Did that (and a follow-up personal call from Fallon) satisfy Bachmann? Um, not quite. "If that song had been played for Michelle Obama I have no doubt that NBC would've apologized to her and likely they could've fired the drummer or at least suspended him. None of that happened from NBC and this is clearly a form of the bias on the part of the Hollywood entertainment elite," observed Bachmann. 

So, after gaining multiple apologies from the star of a late night show and a network executive, Bachmann raises the question of how the First Lady of the United States would be treated in similar circumstances. Well, fortunately, one doesn't have to go too far to find out:  The same day the Roots were calling Bachmann the B-word, a media individual of far more reach was going after her near-namesake. In an odd defense of NASCAR fans right to boo Michelle Obama and Joe Biden's appearance at the end of season race, Rush Limbaugh -- host of a program with a reported audience of some 20 million -- declared the first lady guilty of "uppity-ism."

Let's be clear here: "Uppity" is a word that, in the 21st century, is archaic for good reason: It was a handy racial insult of a bygone era, though it had happily faded from common use. Indeed, the most public use of the word in a political context before Limbaugh was 20 years ago -- by Clarence Thomas in his infamous pushback against sexual harassment charges in his Supreme Court nomination process. (However, check baseball great Bill White's memoir, Uppity: My Untold Story of The Games People Play for another provocative exploration of the word.)

The irony -- and hypocrisy -- in Limbaugh's attack on Mrs. Obama is that, just one month ago, he was reprising the Thomas line to defend Herman Cain! Limbaugh summarily declared that the sexual harassment story was exemplary of the mainstream media "going for the ugliest racial stereotypes they can." Limbaugh, it should be noted, was the leader (along with Ann Coulter) in this "explanation" for explaining the Cain controversy -- even before the candidate himself decided to use the race card (who then backtracked to point the figure at other GOP candidates and double/triple-backed to blaming the generic "liberal" media, while minimizing the racial element). So, we're supposed to believe that, one minute Rush is Mr. Sympathetic on how the media indulges "the ugliest racial stereotypes" for a black conservative -- but he is unaware of what "uppity" means in reference to blacks in general? It strains credulity.

Sure, some media talking heads have engaged in racial stereotyping with respect to Cain -- thought the sexual harassment charges aren't indicative of that. And yes, liberals have hardly been reticent to declare that calling the president arrogant is a racial "dog-whistle" for "uppity." But that's not the case here.

Rush Limbaugh is smart man. After more than twenty years atop talk-radio and having authored multiple best-sellers, he knows what words to use where. Again, stipulating that Michelle Obama's anti-child obesity might be too intrusive (arguable, at best), there are any number of words he could have used to describe what he thought was "intrusive", "pushy" or "haughty" behavior on the part of this White House by lecturing the country on parental skills. But, he opted for the odd cognate "uppity-ism" to describe how sports fans at a Southern-based event felt about a black First Lady. (Frankly, I'm not sure NASCAR fans should feel that Limbaugh was doing them any favors with his choice of words to describe Mrs. Obama).

This is ugly stuff. And serious.

Unfortunately, unlike the bipartisan anger at the Fallon debacle, criticism seemed fairly one-sided. Limbaugh's regular foes on the Left went after him. Things were relatively quiet on the other side -- except for the support Limbaugh got that, ho-hum, there's nothing to see here; move along. Newsbusters slammed ABC for reporting on the incident (or picking up Media Matters' report of it).  Glenn Beck actually agreed with Limbaugh, in fact adding that "uppity" was the right description for both Obamas.

Great. So much for the effort to counter the liberal meme that "Tea Party=racist." How much easier it is when one of the leading voices in the conservative movement decides to use an intentionally loaded word against the first lady. Where on earth would the mainstream media come up with the wacky idea that there's an element of racial resentment in criticism of the Obama president. On the other hand, Limbaugh's early (i.e. 2009) claim that "Obama's America" gave license to black kids beating up white kids on school buses wasn't exactly helpful in that regard.

Of course, not only wasn't there any apology forthcoming from Limbaugh (as if), he went further in his Michelle O put downs: In the midst of the Bachmann kerfuffle, Limbaugh suggested playing "Baby Got Back" (AKA, "I Like Big Butts") when introducing Mrs. Obama. Ha. Ha. In another context that might actually have been funny. Not this time.

So, to be clear: In one week, we have an example of a mainstream media entertainment show's band insulting a female conservative woman with a song with a title using a universally derogatory word for a woman; the host and an executive of his network apologize. Then we have the case of a conservative media host (with a daily audience roughly ten times larger) dipping into a different Roots playbook (think Alex Haley's miniseries) to direct an insult at a black First Lady. And the disapprobation comes largely from one side?

Very sad.

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