Wednesday, November 30, 2011


Emma Sullivan, an eighteen-year-old high school student, wrote a rude tweet about Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas, then was on the verge of being forced to apologize, under pressure from the governor, until a popular groundswell of support for her freedom of speech compelled her school and the governor to back down. At this point, Ruth Marcus of The Washington Post wrote a column essentially arguing that Sullivan's parents had a societal obligation to wash her phone's mouth out with soap:

If you were my daughter, you'd be writing that letter apologizing to Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback for the smart­alecky, potty-mouthed tweet you wrote after meeting with him on a school field trip.

Also, that smartphone? The one you posed with, proudly displaying the tweet in which you announced that Brownback "sucked" and added the lovely hashtag #heblowsalot? Turned off until you learn to use it responsibly....

It is until we parents insist such language is not acceptable, explain that it is possible to disagree civilly -- and insist on an apology when our children fall short.

In response to this, a Balloon Juice commenter expressed disgust at the fact that Marcus could write such a thing under the present circumstances:

After Willie Horton ads, Swiftboating, GOP convention-goers waving purple band-aids to mock a veteran's war wounds, birtherism, Ann Coulter saying the "only choice was whether to impeach or assassinate" President Clinton, Coulter claiming 9/11 widows were "enjoying their husband’s deaths," Rush Limbaugh mocking Michael J. Fox's Parkinson’s disease, ads falsely claiming Barack Obama favored "comprehensive sex education for Kindergartners," Rand Paul supporters trying to stomp the head of a protester, ads claiming Kay Hagen was "godless," Michelle Bachmann calling for an investigation of 'un-American views" among the Congress, "If ballots don't work, maybe bullets will" ...

And on and on. But to give Marcus her due, she actually has denounced some of this:

The campaign video is such a transparent ploy, the temptation is to ignore it. After all, tea party candidate Rick Barber is a long shot in his July runoff race for the Republican nomination for an Alabama congressional seat.

But then you hit replay, and see again the iconic images you think you must have imagined. Arbeit Macht Frei, spelled out in cold metal on the concentration camp gates. And the skeletal survivors, packed naked in bunks four tiers high.

And now these images appear in a campaign video in which Barber inveighs against taxation and has an imaginary conversation with Abe Lincoln.

“Hey Abe, if someone’s forced to work for months to pay taxes so a total stranger can get a free meal, medical procedure or a bailout, what’s that called? What’s it called when one man is forced to work for another?” Extreme close-up of Lincoln impersonator, who solemnly intones: “Slavery.”

Images flash: African slaves. North Korean prisoners. Concentration camps. “We shed a lot of blood to stop that in the past, didn’t we?” asks Barber, a Marine Corps veteran. “Now look at us. We are all becoming slaves to our government.”

Many words come to mind here, but one is: sacrilegious. To hijack the horrors of the Holocaust and slavery in the service of a political campaign demeans the candidate and, worse, dishonors the victims. Decency demands that some comparisons be off-limits.

... the reason it is worth paying attention to Barber, is: emblematic. Emblematic of the dangerous take-back-our-country rhetoric that is spread on the conservative airwaves and fueling the tea partyers. Barber may be on the outer edges of this movement but he is not alone there, and he is a predictable outgrowth of it.

... Sarah Palin accuses the media of overreacting to her "don't retreat -- reload" approach. But it is hardly surprising when Sharron Angle, the Nevada Republican nominee for Senate, then warns that "If this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies." Or when Ohio Republican John Boehner, the House minority leader, warns, "There's a political rebellion brewing, and I don't think we’ve seen anything like it since 1776." ...

I know I'm supposed to despise Marcus, but I appreciate her denunciation of that right-wing rhetoric.

The problem is, she seems to be equally upset at Emma Sullivan's tweet. She denounces right-wing rhetoric in the latter column, but she treats the tweet, and the refusal of Sullivan's mother to punish and censor her, as equivalent threats to the Republic. Society will be in grave danger if all this radical tea party talk translates into action -- but it's also in grave danger if parents don't confiscate their kids' electronics if they're used to sass authority or transmit a bad word.

Emma Sullivan's tweet didn't threaten anyone. It didn't demonize anyone. It didn't declare anyone the moral equivalent of Hitler (and you know what we had the moral right to do to Hitler). And yet Marcus's dudgeon in the two cases is indistinguishable. That's what's appalling here, even if Marcus isn't a right-wing monster.


c u n d gulag said...

She must have just written a column saying something not nice about the right the last time, so she had to find someone on the left to equivocate, so she latched onto this kid's story.

That other column by her, Steve, was the outlier. She is a genuinely terrible columnist, insipid on her best days, and this was much more indicative of the shit see slops up to readers everyday.

But, then, I really don't know since I stopped reading the WaPo Op-ed a long time ago, and leave it to people like you to read them for me.
Life is way too short.

the bewilderness said...

She seems to think that name calling is rude and should be punished, except when she does it. "The parental role is to inculcate values of respect for authority ..."
If she really believes that, without any of the myriad qualifiers most parents add, then perhaps she needs to rethink how that sign got put up in the first place.

Kathy said...

Um, Ruth? Emma Sullivan is 18. And the language she used in that tweet is mild compared to what most 18-year-olds hear from their friends (and sometimes their parents, when they reach the end of their rope). Get a grip.

the bewilderness said...

The other thing that bothers me about this is the way that journalists seem to feel that it is within their purview to give a public drubbing to any private citizen who an authority figure thrusts into the public notice.