A partisan defense of Michelle Wolf
Well, I’m about to step in it. And I’ve done so well for so long, not coming onto social media (and Facebook especially) to stir the pot and write/scream my opinion at everyone within virtual reach. This is no small feat. I have had A LOOOOOOOOT of opinions over the last year or so. Every day I take in the news and my brain explodes and I have all of the feelings and all of the thoughts and all of the many, many frustrations – and I might let just a teeny little part of it out on Twitter, mostly through liking or occasionally re-tweeting something. But I rarely add my own words into the mix. I just engage in my daily internal brain melt, and resign myself to safe but uncomfortable quiet.
(I actually did write something political awhile back for Huffington Post. Then promptly left it on that site, and did NOT share it on Facebook. Now I can’t remember what the impetus for the post was. Maybe it was the travel ban. Or the transgender military decree. Or the DACA kids. In any event, I wrote my little snowflake heart out, in a piece that fully addressed my friends on the other side of the political aisle, and then made sure I did not engage them at all with my tirade.)
Why oh why is this the trigger that sends me flying to the keyboard? Of all of the assaults on reason, why this? I don’t know. Unlike other collateral damage situations from our current political status quo, no one was actually hurt, no punishing laws enacted, no civil rights threatened, and no humanity denied in this most recent pile-on.
If you love Trump, maybe just stop reading now. Because I do not. Love him. I do not love his administration, his rabid rallies, and his unrelenting combative default mode.
But I do love you. Still. Even if we don’t understand each other these days.
And . . . I love the point of Michelle Wolf’s roast at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner. Yep. I’m coming out of commentary retirement to defend a comedienne who was described by her FRIEND Seth Meyers as filthy, and who made jokes about (among other things): abortion, pedophile politicians, and the women in the Trump Administration.
I know lots of folks who are super offended by Trump — by his tactics and his agenda, his lack of decorum, his gleeful ignorance, and his daily attack on the cornerstones of democracy (whoa . . . maybe should’ve let that out bit by bit and not “saved up” quite so much . . . or maybe my president shouldn’t refuse to be educated ever or ignore his skilled advisors or constantly feed off of chaotic discord at the expense of the American people . . . Damn. I’m really pissed.) BUT many of these same folks who really don’t like Trump and what he stands for did not care for Michelle Wolf’s remarks. I respect their take; it did give me pause. I have started and stopped and returned to this blog many times, over many months. I recognize that smart people whom I respect found Wolf brash, rude, and completely offensive.
The thing is, I’ve had a shifting of consciousness around what is truly and utterly offensive. I think the days of a startling word or a crass joke causing revulsion are long gone. How do I reconcile this seemingly hypocritical position with my disgust at Trump’s verbal rampages? That’s the point, actually. I wouldn’t love his aggressive mouth under any circumstances, but if he was all talk . . . then, whatever. But he backs his juvenile insults and ignorant attacks with actual orders that have devastating consequences for real people. If we only have space for some amount of disgust or disdain for unpleasantness (without losing our minds or becoming debilitated by our distress or our anger), then I think we have to hold that offended space for the unrelenting outrageous assaults by the current president – especially those that disregard objective truth.
What does it mean to have outrageous assaults on the truth? It means that our president lies daily. He says things that are demonstrably false. When confronted with his lies he often doubles down on them, or hollers “fake news” and insists he never said the first thing to begin with (even though his comments are typically recorded in some way, via tweet or video or any number of mediums.) He does not correct misstatements. I am not sure he believes he is capable of error. This is a stunning and delusional feat of arrogance, not to mention incredibly dangerous.
It is unprecedented. And please don’t say, “If you like your doctor you can keep your doctor.” The total misstatements made by Obama during his entire presidency don’t come close to equaling (in number and absurdity and consequence) the misstatements by Trump during a typical week.
How can Americans not universally demand this be rectified? Perhaps this moment has been a long time coming, aided by constant partisan spin, the echo chamber of our own biases, and solidified by our preferred channels or websites or talking heads. Maybe Colonel Jessup in A Few Good Men was right: We can’t handle the truth. Many of us don’t ever have to face it. Protected by our privilege we may choose to wallow in a delusional ignorance that requires nothing of us, while our neighbors suffer, watch their rights trampled, watch their causes mischaracterized and demonized. Maybe this works for some, for a while. But as Martin Luther King famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” The wrongs will be righted, eventually. Do you care which side of history you’re on?
Glennon Doyle recently shared an exchange she had with her kids. The question: would they have marched during the Civil Rights era? Before she could respond in the affirmative, her daughter replied, We would not. Startled, Doyle asked why she felt that way. Her daughter replied that they weren’t marching now . . . so it’s obvious what they would have done then. Once her breath returned, Doyle knew she had to step up, speak out, engage – surely a patriotic duty for a citizen who loves her country.
Which is exactly what Michelle Wolf did.
Granted, skewering the DC circus with an eviscerating and shocking stand-up routine is not the same (and in many ways is the other end of the spectrum of resistance) as peaceful protest, the dignified formality of many civil rights activists, the “we go high” mantra of Michelle Obama. But there is a time and a place for each of these things, and Michelle Wolf’s remarks were meant to light a fire under the increasingly despairing and subsequently complacent, or smugly ignorant and otherwise complicit, American people.
I think it’s most important to focus on the part of Michelle Wolf’s commentary that seemed to get the greatest blow-back. She was accused of attacking press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sander’s physical appearance, which garnered immediate and extensive disavowing and condemnation.
Here’s the thing. It’s ok not to get the joke. Or to get it but to think it’s not funny. But don’t lie about what Michelle Wolf did.**
Here’s what she said:
We are graced with Sarah’s presence tonight. I have to say I’m a little star-struck. I love you as Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale. Mike Pence, if you haven’t seen it, you would love it.
Every time Sarah sets up to the podium I get excited, because I’m not really sure what we’re going to get – you know, a press briefing, a bunch of lies of divided into softball teams. “It’s shirts and skins, and this time don’t be such a little bitch, Jim Acosta!”
I actually like Sarah. I think she’s very resourceful. She burns facts, and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye. Like maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s lies. It’s probably lies.
I’ve found three particularly instructive elements – especially given the criticism of it – to this part of her bit.
First, for anyone familiar with the disturbing, currently too-close-to-home story The Handmaid’s Tale (a dystopian novel penned by Margaret Atwood in 1985 and a current TV show addiction), the reference to Aunt Lydia is a brilliant parallel. For those unfamiliar with the story, Aunt Lydia is a woman who tows the oppressive, violent, and punishing party line of the government of Gilead, a philosophy that claims to be biblically based. She is complicit in helping men in power put and keep other women in submission, the “handmaids” who have been forced to bear children for infertile high-ranking government officials. She betrays her sex by aligning with those who seek to strip women of their rights and agency. She says what she is supposed to say and shapes an alternative reality that requires a complete suspension of one’s eyes, ears, and experiences to remain valid. She lies. There is no objective truth. Reality is only what the leaders say it is.
Notice that I did not mention what Aunt Lydia looks like – because that is completely irrelevant to the searing comparison to President Trump’s mouthpiece. Michelle Wolf very deliberately did not attack the appearance of any woman in the Trump administration. The complaint is with her dedicated service to a man whose misogyny is legend and whose dishonesty is routine.
The second instructive point is a good segway from the first, as it occurs when Wolf approaches – but keeps a healthy distance from – the issue of appearance. She references the professional make-up and hair services that Sanders ultimately utilized (noticeably) after a brief time at the podium without it. This change was remarked upon publicly by the White House chief-of-staff at the time, Anthony Scaramucci. Importantly, Michelle Wolf’s observation about this was neutral in tone – or even complimentary. Thus, the “perfect smoky eye,” a reference to a specific and difficult-to-achieve make-up technique, mastered by Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
The last point is the most important one. The overt reference to Trump’s lying, and Sanders’ perpetuating his lies for him, is harsh. But the fact that the president of the United States lies with such frequency and ferocity is even more so; it serves as an unfortunate foundation for his punishing presidency. His strategy of willful and pervasive disinformation perpetuates a horrible partisan divide in our country and weakens the institution of the presidency and even the strength of our democracy. Wolf wraps up this point with a bow: the ugliness of his lies is transformed and made palpable by Sanders’ delivery of them, in a desirable (by way of) professional form.
I have long revisited this part of Wolf’s speech – it felt so spot-on to me, so important, so critical, and so true that I was left reflecting upon its perfection, even (and perhaps particularly) when criticism and controversy swirled around it. The thing is, when lies are repeated over and over by prominent people with powerful platforms, they start to feel like the truth. They clearly have become the truth for some Americans. The way Barack Obama is a Muslim from Africa and the founder of ISIS; the way professional athletes kneeling to protest police brutality are “sons of bitches” who hate veterans; the way Mexicans are “rapists and murderers” and other immigrants are all criminals in MS-13; the way children languishing in detention centers after being separated – possibly permanently – from their parents seeking asylum at the border are just enjoying a vacation at summer camp; how the disavowing of all of our intelligence agencies while cozying up to a brutal thug who ordered an attack on our elections is “a good thing, not a bad thing.”
Maybe it took Michelle Wolf’s smoke-y eye bit to hold a mirror up to the illusion of presidential competence and prestige, disguised as patriotism and becoming ever bolder, that relentlessly bombards Americans’ sense of right and wrong. The thing about the “smoke and mirrors” phenomenon is that when it works, something appears to hover in space unassisted. Wouldn’t it be nice if the American people could turn this trick on its head when applied to the Trump administration (and those who make it possible), and instead of giving the legitimacy of the Oval office to consistently off-base, harmful, and self-serving talking points, to see and to know that – in fact – there is truly nothing there.
**Oh, the irony.