Letterman, the Palins, and the Left vs. the Right

[Trigger warning.]

A week ago, David Letterman made a joke during his monologue that, while visiting New York with her mother, Governor Sarah Palin's daughter got "knocked up by [Yankee third baseman] Alex Rodriguez." The joke was supposed to be about A-Rod's reputation as a ladies' man and Bristol Palin being a teenage mom, which is a pretty shitty joke to make to begin with—but the daughter accompanying Palin was not 18-year-old Bristol, but 14-year-old Willow. That made it beyond merely tasteless and slut-shaming; that made it a rape joke.

Conservatives, predictably, went into high-gear lambasting Letterman—which would have been a lot more impressive if they'd ever done the same in situations like, for instance, conservative blowhard Bill O'Reilly suggesting a 15-year-old boy who'd been kidnapped and held captive for four years probably stayed voluntarily because he was having "a lot more fun then when he had under his own parents," then refused to apologize it was confirmed that the child had been repeatedly raped and tortured by his captor.

Fauxgressives, predictably, defended Letterman and mocked the very idea that the joke was inappropriate in any way. I certainly understand the impulse to hold in contempt the caterwauling conservatives whose selective outrage is more strongly suggestive of political opportunism and the chance to hit a public liberal than any genuine concern for the Palin daughters, but just because the people making the charge have no integrity doesn't mean they're wrong—it's not a progressive position to defend a joke that was, at worst, a statutory rape joke, and, at best, a slut-shaming joke, directed in either case at a young woman who never sought the public's attention in the first place.

Last night, Letterman apologized.

All right, here, I've been thinking about this situation with Governor Palin and her family now for about a week—it was a week ago tonight, and maybe you know about it, maybe you don't know about it—but there was a joke that I told, and I thought I was telling it about the older daughter being at Yankee Stadium. And it was kind of a coarse joke. There's no getting around it, but I never thought it was anybody other than the older daughter, and before the show, I checked to make sure in fact that she is of legal age, 18. Yeah. But the joke really, in and of itself, can't be defended.

The next day, people are outraged. They're angry at me because they said, "How could you make a lousy joke like that about the 14-year-old girl who was at the ball game?" And I had, honestly, no idea that the 14-year-old girl, I had no idea that anybody was at the ball game except the Governor and I was told at the time she was there with Rudy Giuliani...And I really should have made the joke about Rudy... [audience applauds] But I didn't, and now people are getting angry and they're saying, "Well, how can you say something like that about a 14-year-old girl, and does that make you feel good to make those horrible jokes about a kid who's completely innocent, minding her own business," and, turns out, she was at the ball game. I had no idea she was there. So she's now at the ball game and people think that I made the joke about her.

And, but still, I'm wondering, "Well, what can I do to help people understand that I would never make a joke like this?" I've never made jokes like this as long as we've been on the air, 30 long years, and you can't really be doing jokes like that. And I understand, of course, why people are upset. I would be upset myself.

And then I was watching the Jim Lehrer "Newshour"—this commentator, the columnist Mark Shields, was talking about how I had made this indefensible joke about the 14-year-old girl, and I thought, "Oh, boy, now I'm beginning to understand what the problem is here. It's the perception rather than the intent." It doesn't make any difference what my intent was, it's the perception.

And, as they say about jokes, if you have to explain the joke, it's not a very good joke. And I'm certainly— [audience applauds] Thank you. Well, my responsibility—I take full blame for that. I told a bad joke. I told a joke that was beyond flawed, and my intent is completely meaningless compared to the perception. And since it was a joke I told, I feel that I need to do the right thing here and apologize for having told that joke. It's not your fault that it was misunderstood, it's my fault. That it was misunderstood. [audience applauds] Thank you.

So I would like to apologize, especially to the two daughters involved, Bristol and Willow, and also to the Governor and her family and everybody else who was outraged by the joke. I'm sorry about it and I'll try to do better in the future. Thank you very much. [audience applauds]
It sounds, at least to me, like an earnest apology, recognizing that intent is irrelevant and acknowledging that there are legitimate objections to the "joke"-gone-awry, and I believe it should be taken as sincere and accepted in good faith—something Governor Palin has already done (in her inimitable way) and many of the conservatives who are calling for Letterman to be fired have not, because, of course, they don't really want an apology, or even for Letterman to do better in future; what they want is to see Letterman ruined, for reasons that have nothing to do at all with a joke about Palin's daughter, which is exactly the kind of joke at which they'd laugh themselves, if only it had been made about the daughter of a liberal.

And now that Letterman has apologized for exploiting the Palin daughters to get laughs, I wonder if the conservatives who have been exploiting them to fight the same old bloody war the past week, and the fauxgressives who have defended their exploitation to fight the same old bloody war the past week, will apologize, too.

I won't hold my breath.


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