Friday, January 3, 2014

Weenie Wars - Political Dialogue in the Age of Recreational Outrage

Growing up in Buffalo, Sunday mornings meant two things to me: free soda at Sunday School that I wasn't supposed to tell my parents about, and a cold trek up the driveway to get the Buffalo News, so I could be the first person in the house to read Dave Barry's humor column. God, I loved that column, if for no other reason than I used to break down into a break down into a useless fit of giggling at the prospect of being exposed to the word "weenie" in print (Editor's Note - "Used to," Trav?). So one Christmas, my parents got me a copy of Dave Barry's Book of Bad Songs, a book he wrote in 1997, chronicling a list of all the songs that Mr. Barry thought were "for weenies," because writing hyperbolic essays that liberally use the word "weenie," is apparently a big money job for some people (so there, Mom).

Now, in the book's introduction, Mr. Barry writes that he wrote his first list of bad in 1995, and he still received hate mail about it as late as two years later. He thought this was odd, given that his article covered domestic politics, world affairs, the state of the family, and other articles with a gravity that was belied by the often puerile dialogue. Not a single thing that he wrote though, would match the vitriol that he received from fans of "Achy Breaky Heart," and "MacArthur Park," because diehard fans of Billy Ray Cyrus and Jimmy Webb were apparently real things. Christ, the nineties were a weird time.

Ten years after I received that book, I read an article in Newsweek, written by Jonathan Tuttle, a conservative columnist who was regrettably parsimonious with the word "weenie." Tuttle took a break from his usual political commentary to write an important call to arms against what he called the "national crisis gripping the country" of... Americans wearing Crocs. The response that Tuttle felt during the next few weeks was, according to him "intense," and he received numerous death threats. Apparently, fans of Crocs are just as real as fans of Billy Ray Cyrus, though I have a suspicion that I'm dealing with some serious overlap here.

It is also very possible that the outrage could be the result of several thousand letters written by this guy.
(Sorry, Jim.)
Now, let's fast forward a few years to ten days ago. I emerge from academic hibernation after my first semester law school exams (pray for me, friends), looking forward to exploring this newly discovered universe outside of Prosser, Wade, and Schwarz's Torts. So I fire up Facebook, and find a wall of posts either condemning or defending something called a "Phil Robertson" being suspended from TV for saying something about homosexuals. Now, I originally figured that he was some kind of relative of Pat Robertson, and my immediate reaction was "that guy? Thinks gay people are icky? Nein schisse, Herr Holmes!" Then future painstaking research (read: Wikipedia), revealed that Mr. Robertson was the patriarch of the family of professional Stonewall Jackson cosplayers portrayed on the show Duck Dynasty. My next reaction was... exactly the same.

Pictured: Serious Social Commentators, according to A&E
(Credit: Washington Post)
The A&E network responded to Robertson's remarks by suspending him from Duck Dynasty, which prompted a now banal firestorm from some of the more vocal members of society's illiterati. Those same people who called for the firing of Martin Bashir following his scatological comments directed towards Sarah Palin immediately leapt to their feet, decrying A&E's "First Amendment Violations" committed by the network. Now, I'm not interested in getting into whether or not Robertson deserved to be sanctioned for his comments for two reasons. First, I don't care. Second, if Family Guy has taught me nothing else (and it hasn't), it's that winners don't pick fights with poultry.

More locally, the blue-shirted brownshirts of the University at Buffalo's Division of Student Affairs are committing their own assault on the First Amendment. The pro-life organization, the UB Students for Life, an organization that has never engaged in political hyperbole of any kind is suing the University, which had the unmitigated temerity to charge the club a fee for police security at a contentious abortion debate. The University cited a policy requiring a police presence at any large, or controversial event. The Students for Life contends that the declaration of the event as "controversial," was arbitrary, and that the University is putting a price on free speech - as the University would cancel the event without a police presence. I can't imagine why the event would have been deemed controversial in the slightest - even after a UB Professor was arrested for swearing at SFL members outside the groups tasteful display of mutilated fetuses the day before (I don't even need to quantify the volume of tears shed by the Students for Life over the infringement on her First Amendment rights... but rest assured... it was... low).

Pictured: Mature, Rational Discussion
There's something much more troubling at hand here than logical inconsistency. God knows that we've seen enough of that out of the frothing mouths of both parties. The problem is that getting upset over these utterly inconsequential outrages distracts our national discourse from very real issues that threaten freedom in the United States. Getting upset over Phil Robertson's comments/suspension, or a six hundred dollar security bill at a contentious debate does exactly as much to help the country as taking a passionate defense of Crocs. Maybe if Phil Robertson likened Justice Kennedy to a "drunkard" or a "terrorist," we'd have a real conversation about the castration of the Voting Rights Act earlier this year. Or if we had a reality show called "Flyboys" on A&E (Author's Note - You're welcome A&E, I expect royalty checks before the next academic year), which followed drone pilots and allowed American viewers to watch in real time as a Yemeni wedding was blown off the face of the Earth, we as a society may start paying attention to extrajudicial wars being waged by the Obama administration against what seems to be everybody. 

The fact is, that there are very real, and very scary threats to our liberty both at home and abroad. None of those threats come from reality stars, or security bills. We in the Republican Party run the risk of being painted as a the Party That Cried Wolf if we react to every passing (or even perceived) ideological slight by cranking the manufactured outrage machine to eleven. It makes us look like easily offended, easily distracted... and just kind of pathetic. In a word, it's turning us into Weenies. 

So, if my friends the Far Right are having problems thinking of a New Year's resolution, I've got one ready-made for you. Stop being weenies. 

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