Photo: Getty Images. Original post appeared on Forbes.com
Vulgar. Crass. Over the line.
Yes. It was.
Republicans, Democrats and everyone in between find her words and tone upsetting. We should call it out as inappropriate in our politics. And many people are doing that.
Also on Saturday night, at the same time as Michelle Wolf did her routine, the president of the United States spoke to another audience. He looked out at a group of Americans and told them, about other Americans, “They hate your guts.”
Vulgar. Crass. Over the line.
Yes. It was.
Republicans, Democrats and everyone in between should find his words and tone upsetting. We should call it out as inappropriate in our politics. Yet few people are doing that.
Hearing both of them on Saturday night offers an urgently needed reality check to all of us. Both of them represent the collapse of decency in our public discourse. Both of them express the radical abandonment of “appropriateness” in our national conversation. Michelle Wolf blessedly got our attention. It’s a huge gift if we can take the shock so many of us feel to create a reset.
The first step is to take in, deeply and honestly, that Michelle Wolf didn’t create this problem. On the contrary, she shows us in stark terms that lines exist that we still care about, yet we’ve let those lines fade away. The next step is to take in, deeply and honestly, that we’re not expressing outrage when the president tells Americans that their fellow citizens hate them. This crosses a line we care about, too.
The shock of Michelle Wolf wakes us out of our slumber. Yet focusing exclusively on her performance misses the broader realization we need to make. People on the right and on the left are crying out objections to Wolf’s rudeness to Sarah Sanders. Fair enough. But we need equally loud protest when our president mocks national and global leaders, reducing them to schoolyard nicknames. This repeated taunting is offensive to the American ideal of treating each other with respect, even when we disagree. It’s unacceptable from our top elected official. It demands public rejection from all of us.
If we care this much about insults made in the name of entertainment, surely we don’t want our national figurehead to degrade members of our government. Perhaps most fundamentally, we have an opportunity now to reinstate the dividing line between entertainment and government. This is a line we’ve dangerously crossed. We can’t keep letting it slide, as if reasonable civic leadership is a thing of the past.
Finally, we need to take in, deeply and honestly, that this isn’t a partisan issue. All of us, as Americans, want to live by basic standards of dignity. All of us need our public figures, particularly our elected officials, to role model our collectively held value of treating each other with decency. We don’t want leadership by humiliation. We want leaders to lift us up, but not by pitting us against each other.
When we pledge allegiance to the flag, and to the republic for which it stands, we affirm a commitment to our basic social contract. We don’t fulfill our duty to that sacred pledge by reserving condemnation for stand-up comics. As Americans, we have more important places to focus our attention.
We all value people in authority who bring out the best in us. People who defend our ideals. People who diligently pursue the common good. Yet currently, the leader of our nation routinely scorns bedrocks of our republic, such as: keeping checks-and-balances between the branches of government, including an independent judiciary; holding admiration for our soldiers who risk their lives to protect our freedom, including those who get captured; defending the right of dissenters to protest at political rallies, without threat of physical harm; following the rule of law. We should sound the alarm about this, fighting with all of our might to protect ourselves as one nation, with liberty and justice for all. That vigilance goes far beyond political affiliation. It’s the foundational vow we made to each other a long time ago.
Saturday night’s so-called roast of Washington offers us the enormous gift of sitting up, paying attention, and taking action. We have an opportunity right now to re-establish shared norms of what we consider profane. We can agree that name-calling of national and international leaders is off-limits. We can agree that it’s not okay for the government to tell us what’s true and what’s fake. We can decide for ourselves what news informs us or misleads us. We can agree that it’s vulgar for the government in power to use the criminal justice system as a political tool, threatening to put people in jail who see things differently. We can agree that we all cherish the Constitution, including the Bill of Rights. We can agree that we don’t want the leader of the party in power to tell us that we hate each other.
Even in these challenging times, we do have shared limits on what passes for political exchange, and even political theater. We should grab this opportunity to re-commit to each other. We can promise each other to make a lot of noise when someone violates the essential norms we still treasure. We’re doing that well right now about a late-night comedian. In the big picture, the one who just crossed the line gives us a great gift, to step back, and start over. We can pledge allegiance again, to each other, and to the precious democracy we share.