A week and a half ago, Samantha Bee, the comedian, described Ivanka Trump, the advisor and daughter to the president, with the C-word. Yep, we have to be coy and say it like that.
She also used the F-word: feckless. No one knows what that means.
The other word, however, is on George Carlin’s 1972 list of the “seven dirty words” prohibited on national TV. But the word’s status is not why Bee was forced to retract it.
“National TV” — the government-regulated network airwaves more popular in Carlin’s time than our own — is not where her show “Full Frontal” even appears. She’s on cable channel TBS; all words fly free there.
Still, Bee — like many critics of Trump — is at the mercy of sudden bouts of moral fastidiousness on the part of the president’s defenders. And that sham fastidiousness licenses the usual drumbeat of defamation, threats, trolling and 24-7 harassment.
Bee’s remark was “vile and vicious,” said the vile and vicious White House soon after she made it. V-word and V-word.
Sure, Trump supporters like country singer Ted Nugent can get away with saying what Bee said, as long as he’s describing oh, say Hillary Clinton, but not swan-necked Ivanka. Not Ivanka of the immaculate Instagram. Ivanka of the The Spa by IVANKA TRUMP™. Ivanka who, as Buzzfeed reports, evidently tried to set up a meeting between her father and Russian President Vladimir Putin through a sketchy weightlifter.
Whatever her deeds, when one speaks of Ivanka Trump, words must be organically and tenderly dry-cleaned and lightly scented with Ivanka Trump Eau du Parfum (floral composition with notes of fruits).
Bee’s vulgarity is what Carlin called a baaaad word. It’s one of “the heavy seven, the ones that'll infect your soul, curve your spine, and keep the country from winning the war.”
And when used by female comedians, baaaad words are paydirt for Trump trolls: a credible shock to their delicate sensibilities.
And so the pop-culture engine revved up for the now-monotonous blood sport. First, a woman satirizes Trump & Co. Among them: Kathy Griffin, Julia Ioffe, Michelle Wolf, Bee. Up rise the right-wing trolls excoriating the instantly scarlet-lettered lady for a taste violation they — not generally known for good taste — invent on the spot. And they nurse it! It’s so offensive and sexist and tasteless and nasty and whatever. Baaaad.
OK, trolls will be trolls.
But then as night follows day, the mainstream media decides these nitwits and the vindictive White House have a point. And to show how down they are with objectivity, they too troll the comedian, but with a little more class. They call her barbaric, and clutch whatever men wear instead of pearls. They launder the trolling.
In almost every case, the folly doesn’t end until the witty woman caves, apologizes and begs for mercy. That’s the coliseum spectacle everyone is craving.
If only the pile-on ended with the right-wing troll flare-up. Because when mainstream journalists censure satirists on matters of politesse, it feeds the trolls. It also censors a point of view we need right now, and it distracts the citizenry from real news.
And still, in the past year and a half, we’ve heard from a lot of journalists about how shocked-shocked they are by mouthy women: “appalling,” “disgusting.” (What Bee said has nothing on the bad-faith language of adults who vie to be the most affronted.)
In December 2016, journalist Julia Ioffe tweeted something funny and vulgar about Ivanka and her father. Her then-employer, Politico, accelerated her departure from the place, and issued a statement about the tweet. “It is absolutely infuriating to have incidents like this tarnish POLITICO,” a statement said.
Then Kathy Griffin appeared in a stunty photo carrying a prop of the president’s severed head. Predictable fake troll indignation was famously amplified by CNN’s Anderson Cooper, who said he was “appalled” by the photo that was “clearly disgusting and completely inappropriate.” I hope no one ever takes Cooper to see Caravaggio’s “Judith Beheading Holofernes” in Rome. It’s very disgusting.
Michelle Wolf at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in April told jokes about Sarah Huckabee Sanders being, as has been amply demonstrated, a liar. Far-right media and Twitter performed their usual steam-out-of-ears impression.
But mainstream journalists also tweeted that the jokes went too far. Wolf never apologized, and never even seemed to consider it. The dog barks; the caravan passes. I wish we all acted like a Wolf attacked by trolls.
Bee’s last apology came Wednesday. She made a distinction between claiming the C-word and using it as an insult. “I do apologize for that,” she said, especially to women who don’t like the word.
And then she got back to work: “Many men were also offended by my use of the word; I do not care about that.”
As the president’s brain buckles in the heat of his failures and crimes, his supporters tend to reach for the old amphetamine to buck him up: Ooh look at that culture war!
It’s up to the rest of us to dismiss these make-believe skirmishes. The powerful and corrupt will always hate satirists. They’ll always say Bee or Wolf or Griffin or Carlin used baaaad words from a naughty list.
The right response to this staged fury is a shrug. As Carlin said, “You never know what’s on the list. And it’s always somebody else’s list.” If we ignore the list, it loses its power. It’s feckless. As it should be.