Back in 1990, I read that Roseanne Barr was going to be singing the National Anthem before a San Diego Padres baseball game. (Forgotten to history: the producer of her TV show, Tom Werner, was a co-owner of the team.) Now, I wasn't a fan of her TV series -- I'd hardly ever seen it -- but I was intrigued by this. And being in Los Angeles, I was able to pick up Padres game on the radio. The reception was poor, but I could get them, and occasionally would listen, especially when they played the Cubs. So, I tuned in ahead of time. And then came the Anthem. Now, mind you, I couldn't see anything -- I didn't see your spit and crotch-grab until much later. I only only heard the singing. And it was ghastly. Most people know that now, but they're listening after the fact, prepared for what they're about to hear. Me, had it on live, thought who knows, maybe she'll be okay, after all why else would she be doing this?? It seemed unlikely, but...well, let's give it a listen. So, knowing nothing what to expect, and getting screeching through the speaker, it was perhaps all the more ghastly.
So, with that, and all her offenses in the years that followed, it didn't come as a shock to me to read her racist tweet. The only shock was that ABC -- a major corporation, owned by Disney, a Fortune 500 company, actually cancelled a highly-rated TV series because of the latest racist comment made by its star. And did so within hours, not because of public pressure or a group-organized protest, but because the corporation said that this is "abhorrent, repulsive and inconsistent with our values."
That is huge, by the way. TV networks do not cancel top-rated shows because the star said something bad. Actually, TV networks pretty much do not cancel top-rated shows, period. A TV network would put on a series that was just a giraffe grazing for an hour if they thought it would get good ratings. They put on Pink Lady, a variety comedy show starring two Japanese singers who literally couldn't speak English, And Manimal. And My Mother, the Car. It takes A LOT for a network to cancel a top-rated series. (As in...A LOT!!!) So, any discussion on whether ABC was right to do this has to acknowledge that that is the starting point.
Indeed, there has been a lot of commentary about whether it was the right thing, or a network caving, or the only thing to do, or against her freedom of speech, or all manner of opinions in between. For me, there's one simple way to describe why it was absolutely proper. All the other explanations why so -- while spot-on and insightful -- leave open the door for debate and disagreement. The simple answer doesn't. And I'll get to that in a moment.
First though, the most insightful comment I heard was from an analyst who said that anyone who was outraged that the Roseanne show was cancelled because such an action was against her freedom of speech had to then explain why they were okay with criticism of NFL athletes kneeling to express their freedom of speech and Trump saying that the players maybe shouldn't have jobs.
For that matter, if someone was upset with Roseanne being fired for expressing her freedom of speech, no matter how virulently racist, then they have no right to have been upset at Michelle Wolf for telling some mean jokes at the White House Correspondents Dinner.
I also heard some excellent analysis from a social and societal perspective about what was so terrible culturally about Roseanne's racist tweet. And her history of racism and hate, under the umbrella of "they were just jokes." And so they probably were. The problem is that they were racist and hate-filled jokes.
And indeed that's the thing about her "apology." When she wrote, "I should have known better," my first reaction was, yes, she should have. But the problem is that she's done this so often before that it was clear she doesn't know better. It's who she is. And "I'm sorry" doesn't change that. There was nothing said in her "apology" about why she was sorry, and what she planned to do to change what she should have known better. She absolutely should have known better. But she never does. And we have no expectation that she will.
I heard a very good comment about this by a fellow named Chuck Nice (yes, that's his name, and how fitting for this conversation...). He said that you can apologize for stepping on someone foot, because it was a mistake and you can then get out of the way. But you can't apologize for being a racist. That requires repenting.
Somewhat similarly, I heard someone -- I believe Jason Johnson, politics editor of TheRoot.com -- mention that the only thing Roseanne had to do to not get in trouble was not compare a black woman to an ape. Hardly a high standard to attain, you'd think. Which made me try to ponder why in the world she'd do such a thing, knowing how much she had at stake for herself -- losing a minimum of $30 million with next season being cancelled, but potentially a couple hundred million dollars depending on how long the series ran and with syndication -- but also knowing what the cast and crew had at stake. She apparently created difficult working conditions the first time her series was on, but there were no public racist jokes then. So, why now, why these days? My guess is that the racism was always there, but one knew you kept it private and didn't spew it in society. But when you see the president getting away with it, and see president saying that some neo-Nazis were "very fine people," and have the president calling you personally and praising you publicly -- you probably feel entitled. That you can say whatever you want now, and it's all okay, you can get away with it now. Alas, for her sake, though happily for ours, we've seen that that isn't true...
(By the way, as a bit of a side note, I must say that I find it bizarre, to the point of amusing how so much of the media coverage yesterday was how Trump would respond to this -- if he did at all. But my reaction to this curiosity about Trump's reaction, much as I understood the interest, is an odd bewilderment because -- when did we EVER care what in the world the president of the United States thought about a TV show being cancelled???!!)
All of which at last brings me around to the aforementioned, simple explanation why ABC cancelling the Roseanne show was proper and has absolutely nothing to do with "free speech."
Let's be clear: "free speech" is generally misinterpreted. The First Amendment is about how the government cannot make a law that abridges your right of speech. That's it. Period. It deals solely and specifically with the government. Roseanne was not thrown in jail for her words. She wasn't arrested. She said her words, she can say them again, she is free to say them all she wants. She has her freedom of speech.
And that's the point -- one has the Constitutional right to say whatever you want. One does not have the Constitutional right to have a job.
Imagine if this wasn't Roseanne and someone who was the star of a popular TV show. Imagine instead if this was someone who worked at a corporation who went around the office telling a racist joke about black people and apes. How many think that that person would not have been fired on the spot? And that it would have been considered the right thing to do? (And especially if that person who had a history of this, and at the office party had dressed up as Hitler carrying around a toy oven with baked cookies.)
Or imagine if an employee stood out front of their place of business and spent the lunch hour yelling about how terrible the company was and that people should shop at their competitors. Think that person wouldn't have been fired? And that "Free speech" and "the First Amendment" wouldn't have save the job?
Those people would have had the right to say what they did. And they could keep saying it. But they wouldn't have had the right to have their job.
Roseanne is -- sorry, was -- one of the leading public faces of the ABC television network and its entire schedule. Having that person be seen as a virulent racist is not a good look for a network. Or any business. Every actor on any ABC series who went on a talk show or did an interview would likely be asked about Roseanne's racism and what it was like to be on ABC where that was accepted. Roseanne had the right to say whatever she wanted. And she can keep saying it. But she doesn't have a right to have a TV series.
And now she doesn't.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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