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Letterman no joking matter for beleaguered conservatives

Posted: Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A reader wants to know why I didn't mention what David Letterman said.

John, from Monroe, Wash., wrote in response to a recent column on the shooting at the Holocaust Museum in Washington. I argued that high-profile media figures are filling the Zeitgeist with comments hateful of and demeaning to such marginalized minorities as Jews, blacks, Muslims and gays and that this validates people like accused shooter James von Brunn. I quoted a few examples.

John's response: "Why no mention of David Letterman in the name of and license of comedy defaming Sarah Palin's ... daughter with a bad joke about being 'knocked up' by Alex Rodriguez ...?"

In other words, John feels a column on racial and cultural hatred is incomplete because it fails to mention the "hatred" Letterman showed conservatives when he made his controversial joke about Sarah Palin's daughter. I wish John was alone, but the column produced a number of responses like his. And the blogosphere is vibrating with the same argument: Letterman's joke represents bigotry against an oppressed minority: i.e., conservatives.

Here, I suppose I'm obligated to render a verdict on the joke, so let me just say: I'm a fan of Letterman's caustic humor and I believe the rules are different for comedians, that funny covers a multitude of sins, that a good comic can get away with saying things you and I could not.

But the joke was awful. As I've said before, the governor's daughter is a teenager and did not seek the public eye. For those reasons, the issue of her sexuality - she is an unwed mother - should be treated deferentially when it is broached at all. Her mom had the right - the "duty" - to stick up for her and demand the apology Letterman delivered on Monday.

Where I part company with John is on his contention that Letterman's joke belongs in a compendium that includes Jeremiah Wright complaining about "them Jews" and Tim Hardaway saying, "I hate gay people." If conservatives were ever gassed or beaten because of what they are, I must have missed it.

But some conservatives admit to no such distinction. They see themselves not as adherents to a political ideology but as a besieged minority, which speaks volumes about the deterioration of that ideology since the days of Ronald Reagan. I mean, I often disagreed with the 40th president, but at least I understood him, at least he articulated an intellectually coherent vision: small government, fiscal restraint, foreign policy pragmatism.

By contrast modern conservatism is defined by an Alice-through-the-looking-glass incoherence: small government except when it is growing larger than ever, fiscal restraint except when we are spending like Michael Jackson in a Disney gift shop, foreign policy pragmatism except when we are trying to transform the Middle East.

Indeed, sometimes it feels as if it is no longer defined by principles at all, nor by energy and ideas, but rather, by a limitless ability to feel put upon and slighted. To be a conservative these days is, or so they would have you believe, like being black in Birmingham in 1952. It is to be the victim of media, culture and law that hate you just for being.

Your first thought is to reason them out of it, but it is notoriously hard to reason people out of victimology because it:

a) feels good

b) demands deference

c) relieves them of any responsibility for their own fouled-up condition

Victimology is as addictive as crack - and as mentally damaging.

For proof, look no further than a man who thinks David Letterman belongs on a list of homophobes, anti-Semites and bigots "because he made a joke about Sarah Palin's daughter." It is an asinine argument but I guess it makes sense to him. After all, he's a conservative.

And nobody knows the trouble they've seen.

• Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald.



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