On January 31, as practically everyone who scans headlines will recall, Whoopi Goldberg, the actor, comedian, and conversationalist, waded into a racial identity tsunami. The tsunami won, though unlike many casualties of such encounters, she suffered only a drenching, from which she has now dried out. Continue reading
Offense of the Month, January 2022
Our designated offender of the month is Ilya Shapiro, the once-about-to-be-and-perhaps-future-executive director of the Georgetown Center for the Constitution, an arm of the law school at Georgetown University in Washington. He was placed on administrative leave one day before he was to start his job on February 1. In a tweet five days earlier, commenting on President Biden’s statement that he would look to appoint a black woman to the Supreme Court seat being vacated when Justice Stephen G. Breyer retires this coming June, Shapiro hurled this thunderbolt:
Objectively best pick for Biden is Sri Srinivasan, who is solid prog & v smart. Even has identity politics benefit of being first Asian (Indian) American. But alas doesn’t fit into latest intersectionality hierarchy so we’ll get lesser black woman. Thank heaven for small favors?
Srinivasan is now chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, perhaps the most significant judicial post below the Supreme Court.
But don’t bother looking for Shapiro’s tweet. It (and one or two that followed) has been deleted (the London-based Daily Mail usefully reprinted the original here).
Within a day, Shapiro offered the ritual apology. The original offending tweet was, he said, “inartful.” That’s one way of putting it. It was inartful, but anyone could have predicted the uproar that followed. How often have we seen supposedly smart people give offense by being careless at their craft? Is there something in the disposition to tweet that gets offenders in trouble or does Ilya Shapiro manage this effect wherever his words land? Continue reading
It’s that time of year when earnest greetings arrive on every puff of air and cloud extending heartfelt wishes of good cheer and universal joy without reserve. Who could object? Who, indeed, could take offense? You’re no dummy: you’re thinking, almost anyone. Say “Happy Holidays” and parochial rabble-rousers from one corner will accuse you of vile conformity to a community-corroding agenda. Say “Merry Christmas” and straitlaced grim and grave agitators from across the room will excoriate you for divisiveness and narrow exclusivity. What’s a poor soul (inner essence, gender-proportioned self-conscious human entity at one with all humanity through their God-bestowed evolutionarily-derived individualism) to do? Continue reading
Offenses of the Month, 2021
When 2021 began, I thought it was a year destined for quiet and change, one that I could devote to other literary pursuits. All I’d need to do, I supposed, was collect the few stories of the sort of offenders of the month who typically outwit themselves. Now, with 2021 just hours from seeping away, my report. Continue reading
What would you do if you discovered that one of your good friends has been physically abusing his wife for as long as you’d known them? Or that he secretly hangs out with neo-Nazis? Or that someone with those proclivities was a famous actor, whose movies you’ve devoured for decades? Or that a famous writer whose books you adore has been unmasked as a white supremacist? Continue reading
Offense of the Month, Fall 2020
Dr. Thomas Bowdler (1754–1825), for those of you who can’t quite place the name, was the family sanitizer of Shakespearean drama and eponym of that wonderful verb, “bowdlerize,” meaning to censor written texts either by removing or rewording offensive or otherwise objectionable terms and phrases. The first bowdlerized volume was The Family Shakespeare (1807), which omitted “the indelicacy of expression” that made the Bard so bountiful and bawdy. Evidently the author’s name on the original title page was itself an example of bowdlerization: The book, which abridged 20 of Shakespeare’s 37 plays, was in fact written by Thomas’s sister Henrietta, a published author, whom he wished to shield from the public’s knowing that she actually understood what the expurgated words meant.
Henrietta must have worked hard. Imagine reading through Shakespeare line by line and asking whether each word passes the delicacy test: is the stray interjection “God!” a form of blasphemy and can it be replaced with the word “Heavens!” or must it be excised without substitution? A modern Henrietta would surely have an easier time of it. All she’d need is a software filter that could crawl through the text and replace or delete offending words as it encountered them. Nor would that be the limit of her power. She could even bowdlerize in real time, as people typed and sent notes to each other privately from one end of a convention hall to the other.
Like what happened in early October during the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. Continue reading
Offense of the Month, August 2020
It’s been remarked (in these pages, at least) that the wages of giving offense are often worse than actual harmful behavior by the offender. A case in point: Jerry Falwell, Jr., who from 2007 until a little more than a month ago had been president of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. During his tenure Falwell sinned in matters big and small and several stories of rascally behavior have pointed to corrupt practices, but despite growing evidence of his illicit conduct, Liberty’s board of trustees showed no inclination to investigate, admonish, or reform its CEO. Then Falwell posted to Instagram a janky photograph of himself partying on a yacht, and within three weeks he was out—from king to clown, the emperor ejected from Eden. Continue reading
Whether or not the spring and summer of 2020 will be seen in hindsight as a Great Tipping Point, it is already clear that we are witnessing a remarkable popular revulsion against a major strand of offensiveness in American life. All around us are the signs that public patience with the display of phony heroes and false icons has worn out. We are surely not done with the impact of offensive speech and behavior in the public sphere, but we are living through the consequences of rising disgust at our tradition of amiably countenancing monuments to a past age’s sins. Continue reading
Offenses of the Month, July 2020
Yoo hoo, it’s Yoho.
This just in. I’m ripping up the lead on a piece about two sets of knuckleheads for the July Offense of the Month column because up popped Rep. Ted Yoho (R.-Florida). You’ve been reading about him the past week or more, likely watching him squirm after his celebrated and supposedly private tongue lashing of his colleague Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) landed him on the front pages following her tweeted response to his half-hearted non-apology on the House floor on July 22. Yoho, elected in 2012 to represent Florida’s third congressional district, which includes Gainesville, is retiring this year after four terms, so perhaps he felt liberated to insult his younger colleague from New York, but he proved himself neither classy at the insult nor adept in the apology.
It began when Yoho encountered Ocasio-Cortez on the Capitol steps, he departing and she ascending to enter the House chamber. He told her that statements she had made linking poverty and unemployment to a rise in crime in New York during the pandemic were “disgusting,” adding “you are out of your freaking mind.” They continued walking but then Yoho turned back and snapped into the wind: “fucking bitch.” His muttered imprecation was presumably not for public consumption but was overheard by a reporter for The Hill, a newspaper and website reporting on the inner workings of Congress. Continue reading
Offense of the Month, June 2020
I’ve generally used the Offense-of-the-Month space to highlight knuckleheaded instances of offensiveness: not usually premeditated, but ostentatious nevertheless, produced by that sui generis creature, the Great American Dimwit. This month I offer the Tale of the Offensive Name, a story much making the rounds the past ten days.
It began in mid June when Matthew Hubbard, a math professor at Laney College in Oakland, California, encountered a Vietnamese-American student in an online trigonometry class. Her name: Phuc Bui Diem Nguyen. On the second day of class, Hubbard asked Ms. Nguyen to anglicize her name because the Vietnamese original sounds offensive in English. In a widely viewed set of emails posted as screenshots, first to Twitter and then, by Ms. Nguyen’s sister, to Instagram, he wrote: “Could you Anglicize your name. Phuc Bui sounds like an insult in English.” Ms. Nguyen responded 22 minutes later and said that unless he agreed to address her by her given name, she would treat his request as discriminatory and seek redress through the school’s Title IX office. Nine minutes later Professor Hubbard wrote her back, saying that while he understood that she was offended, “you need to understand your name is an offensive sound in my language.”