Our silly discourse

OUR SILLY DISCOURSE…. At the White House Correspondents Association dinner, Wanda Sykes delivered exactly the style of comedy that’s made her a success, only she applied it to the political world. It’s apparently caused quite a bit of heartburn in some corners.

“Rush Limbaugh said this administration fails,” Sykes said in her most memorable bit of the night. “He just wants the country to fail. To me that’s treason. He’s not saying anything different than what Osama Bin Laden is saying. You might want to look into this, sir, because I think Rush Limbaugh was the 20th hijacker but he was just so strung out on Oxycontin he missed his flight.” After excessive groaning, Sykes asked, “Too much?”

Nearly 48 hours later, the answer for some is, “Yes.” A variety of news outlets have been pondering the propriety of Sykes’ Limbaugh mockery, and today, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs backed away from the joke. “I think there are a lot of topics that are better left for serious reflection rather than comedy,” Gibbs said. “I think there’s no doubt that 9/11 is part of that.”

That’s not too big a surprise. Gibbs almost certainly knew this question was coming, and speaking from the White House podium, was likely to keep Sykes’ joke at arm’s length.

But what I find annoying about the discourse is that Sykes’ joke, while obviously pushing the envelope, is hardly more outrageous than the typical daily edition of her intended target. I had an idea for how to drive this point home, but Adam Serwer beat me to it.

Wanda Sykes’ comedy routine at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner was really offensive. In it, Sykes suggested that conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh is supported by Hamas, and that Islamists are “constantly issuing Limbaugh talking points”. She joked about terrorists supporting conservatives in general, suggesting that recent violent events in Iraq are attempts by terrorists to swing the upcoming midterm elections in favor of Republicans.

Then she got really personal. She joked that Limbaugh was a racist who doesn’t want black people to “escap[e] the underclass”. She accused him of being responsible for killing “a million babies a year”, and aired her friend’s theory that Limbaugh himself was a terrorist attack,” a followup to 9/11. She also, most disgustingly, said that if conservatives kept apologizing to Limbaugh, they’d eventually contract “anal poisoning.” She wondered when Republicans would finally stop “bending over and grabbing their ankles” for Limbaugh, and finally concluded that Limbaugh was just a “bad guy”.

The punch line, of course, is that Sykes didn’t say any of these things. They’re all comments from Limbaugh, directed at the president or his party in the past year. Traditional news outlets rarely find any of this newsworthy, in part because it’s so routine. He’s a hateful radio host who says outrageous things for a living. It’s just “Rush being Rush.”

But it’s partly why it’s not worth getting worked up over Sykes’ jokes. Not only was she going for a laugh, she’s an actor/comedian with no political influence to speak of. Limbaugh says genuinely crazy things on a daily basis, but he’s not kidding, he’s the ostensible head of a major political party, and he has almost unrivaled power in conservative circles.

What’s more, when the Obama White House was pressed on Sykes’ provocative humor, the president’s spokesperson offered no defense. When the Bush White House was pressed on Limbaugh’s ugly attacks, the former administration’s leadership would not only defend the radio host, but would also give him exclusive interviews as a reward.

Something to consider when the media flips out over Sykes.