I try to avoid blogging about entertainers, but there's no avoiding the fact that what comedian Wanda Sykes said about Rush Limbaugh at the White House Correspondents Association dinner was loathsome (video):
"Rush Limbaugh said he hopes this administration fails," Sykes said. "So you're saying, 'I hope America fails', you're, like, 'I don't care about people losing their homes, their jobs, our soldiers in Iraq'. He just wants the country to fail. To me, that's treason He's not saying anything differently than what Osama bin Laden is saying. You know, you might want to look into this, sir, because I think Rush Limbaugh was the 20th hijacker. But he was just so strung out on OxyContin he missed his flight."
Sykes then said, "Rush Limbaugh, I hope the country fails, I hope his kidneys fail, how about that? He needs a good waterboarding, that's what he needs."
Adopting the language of GOP attacks on dissent since 9/11, Sykes equates Limbaugh's political speech with treason and compares him to a terrorist. Like many conservative talk show hosts, she also uses aggressive language expressing a desire for a political opponent to be physically harmed -- specifically for Limbaugh's kidneys to fail and for him to be waterboarded. This echoes the practice of many conservative hosts who make "jokes" about waterboarding liberals.
What's striking is how liberals -- who were frequently outraged about accusations of treason during the Bush years -- have sought to downplay Sykes's comments. Time's Joe Klein called it "just comedy". TPM's Josh Marshall posted a reader email arguing that Bush's routine about lost WMDs was more offensive. And Media Matters, which documents conservative attacks on dissent in excruciating detail, has posted multiple articles criticizing the conservative response to Sykes while minimizing or ignoring the content of what MM's Eric Boehlert called "a couple jokes at the expense of Rush Limbaugh."
Of course, as Media Matters and Tapped's Adam Serwer pointed out, Limbaugh makes similarly offensive "jokes" on his show attacking dissent and comparing liberals to terrorists. And yes, he is far more powerful and influential than Sykes. But if it's wrong when Limbaugh does it, then it's wrong when Sykes does it too.
The hypocrisy here is staggering (especially in the Media Matters case). Imagine that a conservative comedian had accused Keith Olbermann of treason at the WHCA dinner back in 2004 and said he should be waterboarded. Would liberals have minimized the comments as "jokes" and catalogued all the offensive things Olbermann has said on his show? I don't think so.
Update 5/12 12:49 PM -- Matthew Yglesias comments on my last paragraph above:
But these aren’t symmetrical cases. Jokes advocating that conservative proponents of waterboarding should be subjected to waterboarding make a real political point, namely that this practice the right dismisses as “dunking” is, in fact, horrifying torture. The point of the joke is that this would be clear enough to Limbaugh if it was done to him. A comparable case, I guess, is if a conservative comedian were to say “if Keith Olbermann likes higher taxes on the wealthy so much, then he should have to pay higher income taxes, too!” But I don’t think Olbermann or his fans would find that particularly stinging since I take it he already understands the basic implications of Obama’s tax policies.
First of all, it's not clear that Sykes was making a point about Limbaugh's support for waterboarding -- if that was her intent, she didn't make it especially obvious. The more general point was calling for physical harm to Limbaugh, which was quite clear (Yglesias omits all of the other offensive things Sykes said). And of course my point stands regardless of the particular point about waterboarding. Let's imagine instead that a comedian had "joked" about Olbermann being a terrorist and hoping his vital organs fail. I ask again: would liberals have minimized the comments as "jokes" and catalogued all the offensive things Olbermann has said on his show? Obviously not.
Update 5/12 2:25 PM -- Yglesias adds the following in a gracious update to his post:
In an updated version of the post, Nyhan focuses his ire on the accusing Limbaugh of treason point. Fair enough -- people shouldn't accuse Limbaugh of treason. That's not much of a joke. Likewise for the terrorist business.