Will kidding about sexual predators and innocent teens ever be funny?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
June 17 2009 7:50 PM

Dirty Jokes

What kidding around about sexual predators and innocent teens says about us. And them.

David Letterman.
David Letterman 

Anyone who's been scoring Letterman v. Palin knows that it has been a ratings boon to both sides: Last week, David Letterman told a tasteless joke. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin flipped out. Letterman apologized. Palin went berserk. Letterman apologized again. Palin accepted his apology on behalf of "young women" everywhere. Letterman's ratings skyrocketed. And Palin is back in the headlines. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate

The pertinent facts: During his monologue on June 8, Letterman called Palin a "slutty flight attendant" and joked about Palin's daughter being propositioned by former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer and "knocked up" by Alex Rodriguez during a Yankees game. Letterman later insisted the joke was about 18-year-old teen mom Bristol, but the young Palin in attendance at Yankee Stadium that night was 14-year-old Willow, allowing her mom to rage that the late-night talk-show host was contributing to a culture "that says it's OK to talk about statutory rape" and offer up a counterjoke that "it would be wise to keep Willow away from David Letterman."

So what's more offensive, the joke about impregnating teenage girls or the joke about sexually predatory old comedians? Answer: neither.

That's the problem with jokes. They are funny only if you accept the premise, in this case, that Palin is the slutty mother of sluts or that Letterman is a dirty old man with designs on 'tween girls. If you don't accept that premise, the jokes become cancerous hate speech. There's no middle ground here. That's why the umbrage wars invariably escalate when jokes are involved. Jokes—or more correctly, the enemies' jokes—seem to open a window on the other team's id. One side's throwaway one-liner is the other side's heart of darkness.

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It's easy to view this whole Palin/Letterman dust-up through the lens of political opportunism: As Kevin Drum remarks, Palin "was just looking for some free publicity, and getting her supporters worked up over a supposed insult from a dissolute member of the East Coast liberal elite played directly into her standard class resentment schtick." Columnist Mike Littwin calls it "a faux-culture-war story that falls somewhere between sublime and ridiculous, which is exactly where we need a headline-grabbing, culture-war story to land." But while I agree that Letterman's comments were stupid and Palin's were probably stupider, I don't believe the umbrage on either side was phony. I suspect each side believes it caught out the enemy in a moment of profound moral truth.

That's why the real point of this newest umbrage war is not whether Letterman joked about the 14-year-old or the 18-year-old daughter (NOW finds both outrageous), whether the "slutty flight attendant" line was sexist (Michelle Malkin is beside herself), or whether Palin is a hypocrite for smiling last fall as SNL offered up far more offensive jokes about her children. The point of the umbrage wars is that both sides insist that the other side is getting away with something. Both sides think that there is a double standard at work here that makes its jokes funny while the enemy spews toxic, dangerous hate.

It's not a joke, says Palin, if it contributes to a culture that treats young girls as sex objects. It's not a joke, say her critics, that Palin is accusing Letterman of the imaginary rape of her teenage child.

Palin herself has long argued that her jokes are benign, whereas her enemies' jokes are threats to her family. In her June 12 interview with Matt Lauer, Palin (while, er, calling Letterman a pedophile) complained that the Obama children are cosseted while hers are trashed and violated:

It's the double standard that's been applied here. ... Remember in the campaign, Barack Obama said "Family's off limits. You don't talk about my family," and "the candidate who must be obeyed" [Obama] ... everybody adhered to that, and they did leave his family alone, and they haven't done that on the other side of the ticket, and it has continued to this day. So that's a political double standard.

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