I probably should note that, as I write this, the music from a spin class is audible in the background: “Kung Fu Fighting,” Jamaican singer Carl Douglas’s 1974 one-hit wonder and — according to the British government — musical hate crime. A man was arrested for singing that song, and not because performing disco is a felony.
From that point of view, Norm Macdonald has got off lucky so far.
Macdonald, a comedian, is being run through the gantlet this week after saying something stupid and ugly. He was disinvited from an appearance on The Tonight Show after making sympathetic comments about celebrities accused of sexual misdeeds (Louis CK) and political thoughtcrime (Roseanne Barr), and then, in the course of apologizing, said that one would have to have Down syndrome to doubt the stories of sexual-harassment or assault victims.
You can imagine what happened next: A lot of the same nice people who have quietly cheered the eugenic elimination of two-thirds of the Americans with Down syndrome pretended to be very, very offended on behalf of the third who weren’t put to death by their mothers. If Macdonald had been in Denmark, where 98 percent of those with Down syndrome are put to death, his remarks probably would not have occasioned much of a ripple. People with Down syndrome don’t deserve the insult, and Macdonald is right to apologize for it, but people with Down syndrome, like almost everybody else walking the Earth, have bigger problems than Norm Macdonald.
Macdonald’s various efforts at making an apology for his apology have not helped much. The general impression he has given me is that of a man who is not very bright, but our Theodore Kupfer, who actually knows something about Macdonald, says I am wrong to conclude that, and I defer to his more informed opinion. (My isolation from some broad parts of popular culture, splendid as I find it, is only partly intentional. Part of it is middle age: I was speaking with a friend last weekend about the remarkable craftsmanship of recent pop songwriting — the immediate subject at hand was Cardi B’s Balenciaga advertisement “I Like It” — and I suggested “. . . Baby One More Time” as a point of comparison, not pausing to realize that that song is now almost 20 years old, older than Britney Spears was when she recorded it, which seems impossible.) Teddy writes that Macdonald is “deliberately obtuse,” which is at least half correct and probably more.
(The soundtrack has changed to Taylor Swift’s “Mean,” and I suspect the sound system here has grown self-aware, and prescient.)
Here is some unsolicited advice for Norm Macdonald: Stop apologizing. Once was enough.
At some point, maybe in a few weeks and maybe in a few years, this current fad of serial mass hysterias — driven in part by social media and amplified by the news media and entertainment media — will pass. Some people will look back on it and be embarrassed, but most people will not, because they do not have the intelligence or the moral depth to be embarrassed by it. It will go the way of hula hoops and screaming at the Beatles with religious fervor. This is mostly a game, not a moral panic, and Macdonald and others should meditate with equanimity on the truth that this is not really about them. They are convenient piñatas in this early 21st century backyard birthday party of the damned. It doesn’t matter what Norm Macdonald says. He isn’t the point of the game; he’s just the ball.
These aren’t moral and political crusaders. These are pests. For one reason or another, my big bald head is irresistible to Texas mosquitos, and I sometimes am swarmed on summer evenings when nobody else notices a thing at all amiss by way of airborne hematophagy. The mosquitos try to bite me, and I try to swat them. But neither party feels any particular way about the other. There isn’t any sense getting angry at mosquitos. They are only following their nature.
To the extent that these episodes do represent a genuine moral panic rather than a simple diversion for the simple, they follow a familiar pattern. Some have compared them to the Salem witch hysteria, and many of my conservative friends, noting the political advantage-seeking in many of these exercises, invoke the Red Scare. But what they most closely resemble is the Christian fundamentalist and social-conservative panic over heavy metal and rap music in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a well-heeled inquisition in which Tipper Gore played Torquemada. No intellectually serious and mentally healthy adult (sorry, Tipper) ever thought that Judas Priest songs were going to lead to Jim Jones-style mass suicide scenes in America’s shopping malls or that Ice-T was the man behind the crack-era crime wave. They just didn’t like having their kids listen to that music, which was considered to be what our British friends would describe as “naff.” The low-minded and superstitious believed, and the cynical political opportunists (sorry, Tipper) pretended to believe, that there was a species of magic afoot, that uttering certain words would bring certain infernal realities into the world, as though Ozzy Osbourne were an actual real-world wizard. It’s pretty funny in retrospect: The ranting Chet version of this Twisted Sister presented in videos of the era was an exaggeration, but only a little one.
Social media, by instantly connecting millions of insignificant people to one another (“insignificant” isn’t a moral judgment; it’s just how things are) has created a Grand Canyon of an echo chamber in which that echoing insignificance has become enveloping and inescapable, and intolerable to those trapped in the middle of it. People with the opportunity to say whatever they want to say to anybody they want to say it to discover (even if they will not admit it to themselves) that they do not have anything of interest to say. They have been given voices, but they have no fruitful purpose to which to put them. They require distraction. They sometimes latch onto public figures such as Norm Macdonald because they mistakenly believe (because people know the names of famous people, and say them) that these are figures of significance, and that by forcing themselves into some sort of relationship with these people they will acquire some significance by association. They are a vast crowd of people performing the characteristic act of this weird little moment in our history: being desperately lonely, together.
Give Norm Macdonald the benefit of the doubt and assume that he is genuinely sorry about the offense he has given. Even so, he takes himself too seriously because he takes the ravening maw of general public outrage too seriously. (Or perhaps it is the other way around.) He insists, with contrition, that his offense was “unforgivable.” Please. The Holodomor was unforgivable. The Rape of Nanking was unforgivable. Child abuse is unforgivable. Norm Macdonald is just a guy, one who said something dumb while trying to be funny — which is, after all, his occupation. On the subject of forgiveness, we may consult the prophet Tom Waits: “There’s no eye for an eye, there’s no tooth for a tooth / I saw Judas Iscariot carrying John Wilkes Booth.”
Norm Macdonald does not seem to me to be the sort of man who has the imagination or the stomach to come up with something unforgivable. But that is how we talk now, because we have given up making distinctions.
Fortunately, he and we have the power to liberate ourselves from this ugly vulgar foolishness. We need only to see it for what it is, to see the thing itself, plain, and to invest it with exactly the moral weight it merits. There will be inconveniences, of course — we live in the world; we are not hermits — but then there are inconveniences that come along with simpering and groveling before 40 angry Caitlyns on Twitter, too.