Joseph Sabino Mistick: Insults & injuries
Every morning, America awakens to the latest round of insults that have been exchanged among politicians and their followers in what has become an endless national game of the dozens.
The dozens is played by young American black men, using words as weapons, usually on street corners and before a crowd. Each player tries to get the other guy to lose control and respond to his insults with anger. The winner is the one who stays cool.
These days, it is mostly good-natured. But historians trace the dozens to slavery in America when maintaining control in response to endless insults was vital for survival.
When comedian Michelle Wolf appeared at the White House Correspondents Association dinner, she followed the tradition of insult comics like Don Rickles, Joan Rivers and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. We expect these comedians to make us laugh at ourselves, even though it stings.
Wolf was nonpartisan, taking aim at both political parties and politicians along the spectrum, including the media. As NBC News analyst Howard Fineman tweeted, her “blunt, crude, pitiless” act “torched EVERYONE.”
Her observations were tasteless and were also calculated to get a laugh. The Great Depression humorist Will Rogers said, “I have always noticed that people will never laugh at anything that is not based on truth.” Wolf followed that formula and went after the truth.
But Donald Trump and his supporters were outraged, or at least they pretended to be outraged. Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the dinner was a “disgrace.”
And Trump tweeted, “This was a total disaster and an embarrassment to our great Country and all that it stands for.”
To anyone who follows the news, Trump's response could be the real cause of guffaws. Wolf is a comedian, expected to test society's limits, but she was no more insulting than the president is on a daily basis.
Let's start with this. While campaigning in 2015, Trump mocked disabled New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski from the podium at a campaign rally. Mimicking the reporter's limited physical movements, Trump set the bar for decency at the very bottom, where things have hovered since.
To be fair, many of Trump's supporters love his insults and crude behavior, seeing it as plain talk that cuts through the baloney of politics. Like Trump, they see civility as weakness and compromise as a dirty word. They felt passed over and wanted someone who would wreck the place, and that is what they got.
And, while this may be hard for traditionalists to accept, civility is dead — for now. But, even Trump's detractors should make the best of it. If there is anything mean or crude that they have been tempted to say or do, this is their chance to get it out, and some of them are already surprising themselves.
Someday we may look back on this time in American politics and think of it as a purgative, a little pill that America took to flush out all the bad stuff — all the resentment and hard feelings, all the grievances and pain — giving us a fresh start.
Joseph Sabino Mistick is a Pittsburgh lawyer (joemistick.com).