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Wronged by the ‘R-word’

What’s most exasperating about the flap surrounding White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s recently publicized use of the “R-word”?

The fact that he made the remark six months ago but it somehow only surfaced last week, (perhaps in the wake of growing disenchantment with the president)? Or that Sarah Palin, via Facebook, is calling for Emanuel’s resignation and at the same time defending Rush Limbaugh’s repeated use of the word? Or Emanuel’s round of perfunctory apologies, notably to Special Olympics Chief Executive Timothy Shriver, who, with other advocates of the mentally disabled, issued a press release saying Emanuel has promised the Obama administration will “look for ways to partner with us, including examining pending legislation in Congress to remove the R-word from federal law”?

The “R-word” in question is not “recession” or “reform” (as in healthcare) or even “recall” (as in Toyota) but “retarded.” Though still a diagnostic term for people with certain developmental disabilities, it fell out of favor as it gained traction as a schoolyard jibe -- apparently one tenacious enough to carry over into White House meetings. By the early 1990s, the word was sufficiently taboo that the Assn. for Retarded Citizens became, simply, the ARC. In 2006, the American Assn. on Mental Retardation changed its name to the American Assn. on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

In 2008, Shriver, a major voice against mockery of the developmentally disabled, led a campaign to boycott the movie “Tropic Thunder,” which had an “R-word” motif, and in 2009, he accepted Obama’s apology for comparing his bowling score to that of a Special Olympics competitor. His website, r-word.com, allows users to publicly pledge never to say the word pejoratively again (Emanuel made his pledge last Thursday) and offers a word count app that tells you how many times the word appears on any given website.

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It’s not clear when the counter started keeping track, but as of Wednesday, it says The Times had used the “R-word” 16 times. I can promise you, though, that we didn’t use it the way Emanuel did. That’s because his exact words combined “retarded” with an expletive that, while quotidian for the famously foul-mouthed Emanuel, is barred from this family newspaper. I trust you know what I’m talking about.

Tellingly, it’s something like that kind of trust -- the covenant that helps us understand each other despite unclear speech and misused words -- that appears to be missing from this tempest in a teapot. And because this misunderstanding pretty clearly falls into the willful category, I think it’s fair to call it a high violation of that trust. Moreover, the surrounding opportunism is far uglier than anything Emanuel said.

Anyone even slightly capable of understanding meaning versus mere words (and despite her acts to the contrary, that includes Palin) can see that the chief of staff harbors no animosity toward the developmentally disabled. In his frustration with a group of left-leaning PAC leaders who wanted to run TV ads criticizing Democratic lawmakers who didn’t support the healthcare bills, he called their idea, well . . . you know. Sure, he should have known better, but compared to Limbaugh -- who (on the radio) referred to a Shriver meeting at the White House as a “retard summit” -- Emanuel doesn’t need to be first in line for sensitivity training.

Worse than that, though, an ultimately false narrative has arisen from all this political opportunism born of faux umbrage. Emanuel has emerged not only as a seeker of redemption for his sins but also as a spokesperson for a national crusade against them.

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This isn’t all that surprising. Americans love conversion stories almost as much as they love celebrities; combine the two (think Stanley “Tookie” Williams becoming an anti-gang activist or Michael Vick partnering with the Humane Society) and you’ve hit the spokesperson jackpot.

But by all appearances, Emanuel hasn’t joined Shriver’s cause as much as he’s been bullied into performing community service for it. And that, I dare say, is a [insert your word of choice here] waste of time. Not only because there are better people for the job (those with expertise in the rights of the developmentally disabled) but because Emanuel surely has other “R-words” to deal with.

mdaum@latimescolumnists.com


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