Thursday, April 21, 2011
A Trig Too Far?
In March of 2005, an up-and-coming political writer for the New York Press named Matt Taibbi banged out a column mercilessly ridiculing Pope John Paul II, who was, at the time, just about a month away from dying. The piece was called "The 52 Funniest Things About the Upcoming Death of the Pope"; included among those funny things, according to Taibbi, was, "After death, saggy, furry tits of dead Pope begin inexorable process of melting away into nothingness," and "Throw a marble at the dead Pope's head. Bonk!" Such impertinence, of course, drew the immediate outrage of the Catholic League and its sour-pussed pit bull, William Donohue, as well as senators Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton, and ultimately led to the firing of New York Press Editor Jeff Koyen.
When pressed to justify such an admittedly tasteless piece of provocation, Taibbi argued that the column was meant to be an indictment of the media's equally tasteless obsession with dead or dying celebrities -- the garish, round-the-clock elevation of anyone who happens to be hugely famous and happens to be on his or her way out, not just the pope but anyone, to saintly status. So did Taibbi make his point; could that point even be discerned through all the juvenile vulgarity; was there really a point at all or was Taibbi basically just being a rotten prick? It all depends on your perspective. Was Taibbi's piece funny? A hell of a lot of people didn't think so.
I've been thinking quite a bit about the now-legendary Taibbi Pope Slam over the past couple of days -- in the wake of the instantly infamous "birthday salute" to Trig Palin published by Wonkette on Monday. For those who haven't seen it, the piece is an intentionally exaggerated, and disastrously stupid, attack on Sarah Palin's shameless exploitation of her family as political stage props cast as a tribute to her youngest son, whom author Jack Steuf calls both a "retard" and the "Greatest Living American." To say that the column has drawn outrage would be the grossest of understatements; in a rare show of bipartisanship, it's been denounced by journalists and readers of almost every political stripe, has already cost Wonkette several of its sponsors and has forced Steuf go back and post an official apology at the top of the piece.*
So how brutal is it -- and was it out of bounds?
Well, it's pretty cruel, and it definitely pushes the boundaries of what's generally acceptable when attacking a political figure. It insinuates that Sarah Palin was drunk during her pregnancy with Trig and that regardless of whether she or Bristol is the boy's mother, Todd Palin is the father. And that doesn't even touch on the animated gif of Trig getting a pole dance from a stripper and the collage of images of his face, obviously meant to highlight his Down Syndrome.
Over the years, I've taken my fair share of shots at, well, anyone and everyone. I rarely hold back when it comes to whom I'm willing to poke fun at and I've defended on more than one occasion the right of others to engage in the kind of mockery that some might consider unacceptable. I'm one of those people who thinks that holding a person, group of people or institution above parody isn't a show of respect -- it's a brand of oppression. I can also understand Steuf's implication that Sarah Palin herself has devalued her family, rendering them -- particularly Trig -- little more than one-dimensional characters in the meta-reality show of which she's the star, and shamelessly placing them squarely in the line of fire from her adversaries. In other words -- and this is an argument I both understand and have made in the past -- you can't shove someone into the spotlight for your own personal gain then react with righteous indignation when people begin treating him or her just like any other public figure.
It's wrong to pick on a kid. It's wrong to pick on someone's family. It's wrong to pick on someone who's developmentally disabled.
The problem is that Sarah Palin made all of those qualities incidental when she drafted Trig into the service of her personal and political ambitions. Rather than shield her child from publicity, she thrust it upon him -- and when that publicity occasionally and naturally turned negative, she got the added benefit of being able to turn the tables and use him as a human shield.
None of that, of course, changes the fact that taking shots at Trig Palin is disgraceful and should be considered off-limits. But is it really a surprise that Sarah Palin's children might be used to attack her when she herself has used them to make herself powerful enough to merit being attacked? She turned them into celebrities -- like the pope, the subject of worship by some and derision by others.
No better or worse than anyone else in the public eye.
*Since I published this piece, Wonkette has taken down the Trig Palin column entirely.