The Corner

Film & TV

Roseanne and the High Cost of Embracing Craziness

Rosanne Barr arrives for the taping of the Comedy Central Roast of Roseanne in Los Angeles, August 4, 2012. (Phil McCarten/Reuters)

If Roseanne Barr is a poster child for anything, she’s a poster child for cultural brokenness. Consider, for a moment, the cascade of failures that brought us to today — a day when one of the most popular shows on television is canceled after its toxic star tweeted a racist insult of Valerie Jarrett.

First, ABC shouldn’t have brought her back. She was, quite obviously, one of the more toxic and troubled personalities in American public life. This was a woman who, after all, trafficked in grotesque conspiracy theories, said that anyone who eats at Chick-fil-A “deserves to get the cancer that’s sure to come,” and defiled the National Anthem more thoroughly than a thousand kneeling football players. J. J. McCullough chronicled the crazy in an essay just last month:

Barr has never met a conspiracy theory she didn’t love. She’s a 9-11 truther who believes that “Bush did it,” and she has called the Boston Marathon bombing one of many “false flag terror attacks” perpetrated by the Obama administration to “remove” the Second Amendment. For good measure, she also believes that the old man Bush killed JFK.

You can find YouTube videos of her rambling about “MK ULTRA Mind Control” on RT, and she seems particularly fond of the notion that the American ruling class is running some manner of pedophile sex cult. Her views on Jews and Israel fluctuate wildly — in the past, she has called Israel a “Nazi state” and alleged that Zionism was created by the Third Reich (or something — I challenge you to succinctly summarize the opinions expressed here), though more recently she’s taken to accusing Hillary Clinton of plotting Israel’s destruction and labeling aide Huma Abedin a “Nazi whore.”

But there was money to be made, so Roseanne limped from the locker room like a bizarro-world Willis Reed. And that brings us to the next layer of nonsense.

Second, Trump World shouldn’t have embraced her new show. Remember when President Trump called Roseanne to congratulate her on her ratings? I know that Republicans are starved for Republican-friendly television, but can we ever reach a time when the stakes are low enough to draw lines based on character? I know people voted for the low-character president because of the Flight 93 election and all that. I know folks turned out for Roy Moore because of judges. But where’s the sitcom emergency necessitating the love for Roseanne?

Third, hypocrisy and double standards abound. So, where are the lines for acceptable speech? Even now, Twitter is lighting up with examples of progressive celebrities saying terrible things and keeping their jobs. ESPN is expanding Keith Olbermann’s role at the network despite a Twitter feed full of hysterical, profane insults and unhinged commentary. Fire one celebrity and you can dredge up six more who’ve posted their own deranged rants. At the same time, does the Right really want to turn Roseanne into a poster child of political persecution? We all know that progressives get more grace than conservatives, but where does Roseanne fit?

We’re left with a mess. To argue that companies should err on the side of free speech — as I do all the time — is not to argue that companies can’t have any standards at all. I’m not troubled by Roseanne’s termination. In a previous post, I endorsed a simple view of private employment: Do good work and be a decent person. It’s a viewpoint-neutral standard that applies directly to the situation at hand. Instead, the standards seem almost infinitely malleable, with even the necessity of quality work contingent on proper politics.

Sometimes, a story fits no one’s political narrative cleanly. Sometimes, the story is the confusion and brokenness of our times. That’s the story of Roseanne, the populist, socialist, Green party, Trump-supporting conspiracy theorist who has now wasted what should be her last shot at relevance.

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