Friday, November 10, 2006

Crossing the 'baugh

How much is too much? If you make an excellent living being outrageous and controversial, the question is a frustrating one. Howard Stern found that out when he joked about the singer Selena shortly after her death, causing thousands of outraged fans to protest and sponsors to threaten withdrawal from his show. It was too soon, and the King of All Media was forced to read an apology in English and Spanish.

Clearly, competing with Stern is no lap in the pool. A couple of morning radio artistes who go by Opie and Anthony challenged their audience to get wild and crazy, and one couple phoned to report that they were having sex inside St. Patrick's Cathedral. (Two adults having consensual sex in a Catholic church -- I was appalled, too.) Their punishment was temporary banishment from our precious American airwaves. They're back now.

But they raised the bar. Troi Torain, known to radio fans as DJ Star, actually got himself arrested for threatening to assault the four-year-old daughter of a rival, describing her as a "little half a lo mein eater" and her mother as a "slant-eyed whore." His most shocking trash-talk was reserved for himself: "You're looking at the new Lenny Bruce." Prosecutors eventually decided that none of this was criminal, though I'm not sure about that last statement.

Fact is, mobs can turn on you quicker than hot milk -- look at Robespierre, or the Ceaucescus, one-time president and First Lady of Romania. One day you're on the balcony waving, the next day you're staring at a line of bayonets and wondering when you lost the love of the nation. What do people want? God, what do they want? How do you know when you've moved the line and when you've trampled on it?

A question Rush Limbaugh may well be pondering. Celebrities who engage in politics -- let's be honest, liberal politics -- have been fair game since Helen Gahagan Douglas ran for Congress. Now that the studios and the blacklist can no longer control their lives and careers, the media have taken over. Frankly, stars often deserve a smackdown. Devotees who had spent serious money to be in her presence let Barbra Streisand know what they thought of the Bush impersonator she included in her latest tour (and the Democratic diva responded with some colorful language Dick Cheney would have appreciated). Awards shows have cracked down on actors who think a statuette is a signal to preach to the unwashed about capital punishment. At best, this kind of thing trivializes serious issues; at worst, it convinces people that Mr. Celebrity will take care of them. (Don't worry about the Amazon rainforest, Sting is on the case!) In or out of politics, we all love making fun of the famous for gaining weight, losing weight, driving drunk, getting married, getting divorced, entering rehab, dressing badly, dancing badly, coming out, getting a facelift or dangling a child off a balcony. But Rush, we don't make fun of them for being sick. In no sense could it be considered a career move. Having a disease that prevents you from working, speaking or sitting still is not a choice like driving a Prius. It's an issue that chooses you. Even people who don't know a stem cell from a sleeper cell, but possess a modicum of human decency, a scintilla of empathy, a tiny trace of conservative compassion (the kind that tastes sour and weird) -- even they agree that you are a sorry sack. Go away.


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