Trump and his coven aside (it would be hard, nay, probably impossible, for anyone else to compete), the October 2018 offense-of-the-month designee, hands down, is Megyn Kelly, partly for her actual offensiveness—that is, her racial insensitivity—but mostly for her obtusely loopy dopey stupidity or, as the British might better put it, for being several sandwiches short of a picnic. Not sure I can be any plainer.
Everyone who has looked at a paper, or been online, or watched the news, now knows (but may well forget a month or so from now), that on Tuesday, October 23, Kelly let loose on her NBC show, “Megyn Kelly Today,” about blackface Halloween costumes. She was commenting on a report she may have misread about the “costume police” at the University of Kent in Great Britain. Kelly seemed to think that certain costumes were about to be banned. News accounts are sketchy, and it may be that the student union there was considering a recommendation that students avoid wearing, rather than on outright ban on, “fancy dress” that caricatures cowboys, Nazis, and Harvey Weinstein, among others.
Kelly wondered “what is racist?” Speaking of children today and her own childhood, Kelly, 47, said: “You do get in trouble if you are a white person who puts on blackface for Halloween, or a black person who puts on whiteface for Halloween. Back when I was a kid, that was OK just as long as you were dressing as a character.”
As several commentators immediately opined, Kelly spent her youth from the mid-1970s to the later 1980s in Bethlehem, New York, a city just south of Albany, with a population now of about 35,000. Blackface wasn’t all right then. She was called out by current students at Bethlehem Central High School, which she attended in the mid- to late 1980s. “Blackface is not acceptable anywhere in America, and it is not acceptable in our town. We weren’t alive when Megyn was in high school but, in the recollection of many of our parents who grew up around here, it was not acceptable even in the 1980s town that she knew,” a group of students wrote to NBC News.
The blowback to Kelly’s apparently offhand, and somewhat murky, comments was sudden and fierce. Later that same day, Kelly emailed her NBC colleagues an apology: “I realize now that such behavior is indeed wrong, and I am sorry. The history of blackface in our culture is abhorrent; the wounds too deep. I’ve never been a ‘pc’ kind of person—but I understand that we do need to be more sensitive in this day and age.” But the damage was done. Last Friday, three days later, her show was canceled. Her talent agency dropped her.
Many commentators suggested that her show’s demise followed her provocation as excuse not as cause, the real reason being her weaker than anticipated ratings and a number of other gaffes following her show’s startup thirteen months ago. Frequently quoted these past few days, and rebroadcast, though it predated her time at NBC, was her startlingly goofy declaration in 2013 on Fox News that Santa Clause is white.
If anything is astonishing in all this, it’s that (1) we’re talking about these matters as national issues, and (2) NBC harbored so clueless a person as a serious host of a nationally-rated morning show (and reportedly paid her $17 million a year) while she uttered her uninformed insensitivities.
But it does make you wonder—it makes me wonder, anyway—whether this endless cycle of provocation and firing will evolve into something more meaningful and useful. For once again we ought to be reminded of the outsized role that offensiveness plays in our confused culture: the offense always seems worse than the underlying issue. We get exercised about the offensive remark (and comment on the string of them), rather than looking more deeply into a culture that leads people to believe as real so much of what is pure hokum. We argue about firing Kelly but do not begin to call to task those who stage the spectacles on which the offenders appear. Kelly may be tone deaf, but it’s the broadcast overseers who choose the tune.
P.S. To those who suppose that the various controversies surrounding the Trump Administration’s statements following the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh were far more offensive than anything Megyn Kelly ever said or could say, I can’t really disagree. But it would trivialize the remarks and the event to consider them through this lens. More, therefore, later.