Comics who make incredibly insensitive jokes about combat-wounded veterans shouldn’t be fired from outfits like Saturday Night Live. But they should understand the damage they’re doing. Their contempt for ordinary Americans amounts to an internal wall. The Pete Davidsons of the land keep building it higher, and those who are on the wrong side of it feel increasingly cut off from the cultural swells.
Davidson, the comedian who seemingly was best known for dating (until recently) the pop star Ariana Grande, did a strange and terrible thing the other night when, during SNL’s “Weekend Update” segment, he posted a picture of the Republican candidate for Congress in Texas’s second congressional district, Dan Crenshaw, a former Navy SEAL who lost his right eye to an IED while on active duty in Afghanistan. Crenshaw wears a patch over the eye. “This guy’s kinda cool, Dan Crenshaw,” Davidson said. “You may be surprised to hear that he’s a congressional candidate from Texas, and not a hitman in a porno movie.” The audience roared, not quite getting that it isn’t all that funny to lose an eye, even if you happen to be a Republican. Then Davidson made things considerably worse for himself when he added, “I’m sorry, I know he lost his eye in war, or whatever.”
War, or whatever. Davidson is not an elected official. What he has to say isn’t really important. Nevertheless, war or whatever contained so much condescension, so much disrespect, so much callous dismissal, that those three words will last and reverberate. People between the irony-saturated coasts don’t feel that casualties suffered in war should be reduced to a giggle. To them, this kind of talk is absolutely infuriating. Squads of writers and actors on SNL strive mightily to come up with catchy bits that will get airplay on social media and the news, but this seemingly ad-libbed quip may go down as the single most viral moment of the entire season.
Crenshaw had the right response. He didn’t call for Davidson to get canned or for advertiser boycotts. “I want us to get away from this culture where we demand apologies for every time a person misspeaks,” he said. “I think that would be very healthy for our nation, to go in that direction.” In a tweet, he wrote, “Good rule in life: I try hard not to offend; I try harder not to be offended. That being said, I hope @nbcsnl recognizes that vets don’t deserve to see their wounds used as punchlines for bad jokes.” Crenshaw was wounded on his third tour of duty when he was hit by the explosive blast. Initially, he was blinded in both eyes before doctors managed to save his left one. He deployed twice more in non-combat roles and received the Purple Heart, two Bronze Stars (one with valor), and the Navy Commendation Medal with valor. This year he received a master’s in public policy from Harvard.
When it comes to the sacrifices of veterans being made punchlines for bad jokes, the most salient example remains Donald Trump’s vile mockery of John McCain in 2015: “He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.” As my colleague David French pointed out, also on Twitter, don’t condemn Davidson’s joke if you condone Trump’s. Moreover, what presidential candidates (as Trump was when he said the above) say matters a bit more than “Weekend Update” gags.
Nevertheless, Pete Davidson matters. Davidson knows more than most about what a hero’s sacrifice; his own father, a firefighter, died at the World Trade Center on 9/11. Yet partisanship, these days, seems to come above all else, and comedy is as partisan as AFSCME. Saturday Night Live and the rest of the late-night-comedy blob are such open allies of progressivism that virtually every episode of these shows function as an-kind contribution to the Democratic party. Late-night comedy’s mockery of Republicans and its obverse, promotion of Democrats, is one of the most reliable and effective weapons in the party’s propaganda arsenal. Having SNL, Jimmy Kimmel, Stephen Colbert, The Daily Show, and even, increasingly, Jimmy Fallon ridiculing Republicans all the time, often in bits that go viral and hence reach many who don’t even tune in to these shows, is worth more than practically any paid-advertising scheme the Democrats could possibly come up with.
Viewers can be forgiven for not drawing much of a distinction between Democratic officials and the comedy-industrial complex. This matters because a large swathe of the country feels that the Democrats and their friends in the culture combine to launch non-stop attacks on their values. Formerly noncontroversial ideas such as respect for wounded warriors keep getting redefined as outside the mainstream and even worthy of ridicule. Marsha Blackburn, the Republican candidate for Senate in Tennessee, didn’t hesitate to connect the dots for voters: “The unhinged Left has respect for no one, including our nations [sic] war heroes,” she tweeted, mentioning SNL’s take on Crenshaw. The National Republican Congressional Committee, GOP chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, and Texas land commissioner George P. Bush (Jeb’s son) also weighed in via tweet.
War, or whatever. Feeling alienated from Hollywood and the media is a big reason why Americans between the coasts have moved strongly toward the Republican party, and Davidson’s remark is one more brick in the wall between the progressive coasts and the rest of the country. Between the coasts, Americans feel hated, scoffed at, disregarded, forgotten, or worse. They’re angry about it. Prominent showbiz types who tend to be richer and more beautiful than the average American aren’t content with their high perches atop their beloved cultural wall; they have to keep building the wall higher, and to spit on those below.