Saturday, August 14, 2010

Laura Schlessinger's Apology Doesn't Count

For those of you that haven't heard, this is Laura Schlessinger:

And she is a racist.

From further research, she is also a raging homophobe. This sort of stuff's not new -- latent and extreme forms of racism, homophobia, sexism, and other forms of discrimination have percolated in American society for generations. The news here is that a) she did all of this stuff explicitly and personally, and b) it got caught on tape. Of course, as all public figures who make complete asses of themselves publicly do, she decided to apologize for her "wrong" use of the N-word. Quoth the good doctor (from her blog):

I talk every day about doing the right thing.  And yesterday, I did the wrong thing. 
I didn’t intend to hurt people, but I did.  And that makes it the wrong thing to have done.
I was attempting to make a philosophical point, and I articulated the “n” word all the way out - more than one time.  And that was wrong.  I’ll say it again - that was wrong.
I ended up, I’m sure, with many of you losing the point I was trying to make, because you were shocked by the fact that I said the word.  I, myself, realized I had made a horrible mistake, and was so upset I could not finish the show.  I pulled myself off the air at the end of the hour.  I had to finish the hour, because 20 minutes of dead air doesn’t work.  I am very sorry.  And it just won’t happen again. 
 And as usual, like most people in her situation, when she says "apology" she just means "string of feel-good words so you can forget I ever did this and move on, thus you don't notice the trend when I do it again". Seriously? We were "losing the point" you were trying to make? No, we got the point -- your "point" is actually just as racist, if not moreso, than you spewing the N-word repeatedly. Oh, no, in her world, racial stereotypes are just funny, and it's not racist to make black people totally absolutely speak for their entire race every time a white person asks. Also, when you criticize someone for their racism, he or she is really just trying to "NAACP" you (yes, she used "NAACP" as a verb). Also, using uncalled-for diminutives to characterize black people totally isn't so pre-Civil Rights Movement or racist or sexist or anything.

Schlessinger's "apology" was everything but. She may have said repeatedly that her using the word was "wrong", but she clearly doesn't get it. She made no attempt to identify why exactly her using the word was wrong, and she didn't spend any time reflecting over why she went ahead and used the word in the first place. Also, she posted a letter from a long-time listener (who coincidentally happens to be African-American), saying that Dr. Laura was correct under her racial clusterfuck and really isn't a racist (because the "I have a black friend!" defense is totally legit here). Really. 

The fact of the matter is that the racial language Schlessinger used is not something that can be separated from the underlying argument she was trying to make. The two were one and the same, and even if she hadn't mentioned the N-word so much as once, the argument she was making was a rhythmic chant of that word, and all that it's represented historically, and all that it represents today, continuously and endlessly.

Yesterday, I found a neat little two-part list of moments of (Stephen) Sondheim genius, compiled by Brian Rosen (Part 1, with 10-5, is here, Part 2, with 5-1, is here). The one that applies here is #3, from Sondheim's fantastic 1991 show, Assassins:

3 -- Booth Drops the  N-bomb (Assassins)
Assassins plays a constant balancing game. Populated by a world of outcasts and murderers, Sondheim and Weidman labor to show them as humans, giving them a chance to voice their discontents, explain and justify their actions. And then, just as you start to like them, you’re reminded of the grand and terrible actions that have led to their notoriety.
Nowhere is this more startling than in the Ballad of John Wilkes Booth.  Wounded and cornered in a barn, Booth labors to explain why he just shot Lincoln. He knows he is doomed, and desperately wants the future to know that he has not acted impulsively, irrationally. He had reasons, sound, solid reasons. As audience members, we are naturally empathic. He implores history (as personified by the Balladeer) to listen to his side of the story.  And we do. And it’s tragic and beautiful, he laments the loss of his country, of the irreparable damage done by civil war. And the music swells with the power of his emotion, and just at the climax, Booth delivers an outburst of rage and hate and racism, a savage gut punch to everyone sitting in the theater. In four syllables you move from empathizing with this beautiful and tragic man to reviling him, a disorienting 180 degree spin that sucks the oxygen out of the theater (or wherever you happen to be listening to the cast album).
[Clip from "The Ballad of Booth"]
Our moral compass is now firmly pointed as far away from Booth’s as possible, and he seems to sense that he’s lost us. Half heartedly hoping that history will eventually understand him, he shoots himself, and we’re relieved when the Balladeer starts singing again, confirming that our own feelings of revulsion are justified, that there is a right and wrong, and that history will get it right.

The 2004 Revivial version of this moment, I think, is stronger than the original cast recording -- in the revival, Michael Cerveris (who, coincidentally, plays Sweeney Todd in that show's 2005 revival) as Booth actually builds up to a scream when he hits those four syllables. Since I first listened to the recording, I've been convinced that if you've ever wanted to hear what the Rebel Yell sounded like, that's probably it.

Rosen's analysis of this moment both gets it right and applies exactly to Schlessinger's outburst. Booth's screaming the N-word (and thus castigating all people of color and those opposed to racism, as the word comes as part of an insult of Lincoln) poisons for the listener everything Booth tries to convince us of during the song -- that the Civil War has irreparably wounded the country, that Lincoln and the Union forces callously bludgeoned the South, that Union leadership was responsible for the murders of over 600,000 people --  just as we're beginning to understand what he's trying to argue. Every last bit of sympathy we have for him, or his plea to history, or his "point" drains out as soon as he utters the N-word, and everyone listening -- the Balladeer, us -- realize that two-syllable expression of hatred, of fear, of a refusal to understand and consider a segment of the population as human is just a logical extension of everything he's said before. The two are inseparable, and there's no way to accept what Booth implores of us without also accepting his use of the word. Thus the Balladeer gets the last word: "Damn you, Booth!" Schlessinger likewise makes us realize that her using the word again and again and again is just the SparkNotes version of her argument. The two are united, and it's not some mysterious act of will or "mistake" that made her utter that word, but rather her beliefs, the culture in which she grew up, and her "point".

If Schlessinger truly were sorry, not only would she have apologized for using the word, but she also would have spent some time trying to figure out why she used the word at all. And then, she would have explicitly recanted the "point" she was trying to make. Yet, she didn't apologize for using the N-word, or for her political views or for the philosophy that made her use the word in the first place. As it stands, she's just apologizing for being too straightforward about it.