Much Ado About "Retard"

Will.I.Am is responsible for some catchy music.  The Black Eyed Peas were an underground guilty pleasure and then they added Fergie to the lineup and got it started.  They had a number of hits but one indelible track became ubiquitous throughout the culture and remains a go-to song in the effort to ad enthusiasm to a situation.  I am referring to “Let’s Get It Started,” from the album Monkey Business that owned the summer of 2005.  It is hard to imagine what life was like before we had this song to ramp up the energy for sports, political candidates, and any number of sad corporate functions.  What might surprise a lot of hip parents and school administrators is that the uncensored album version of the song is called “Let’s Get Retarded.”  One doesn’t truly see what Fergie adds to the group until she opens the song with a soulful rendering of the song title.  It’s far from offensive and might even be a little sexy. 

There has been a lot of discussion about the term “retarded,” and its use in the current vernacular.  Rahm Emanuel, cut from the same cloth as his superagent brother Ari who is fictionalized in Jeremy Piven’s character in Entourage, is the White House Chief of staff and was caught saying that a group of Democrats were “fucking retards,” and Sarah Palin took to the bully pulpit and demanded his resignation in the name of her son Trig.  I imagine that she is doing this because if Trig were aware of the word Rahm Emanuel used and its history, he would feel offended.  Or perhaps it is that the word’s mere existence means that this poor child may someday be made fun of on the playground?  Fuck that.  If you don’t want your child to be made fun of, don’t name him Trig. 

None of this would be unexpected and, given the current level of backbone the Democrats seem to lack, Rahm might have had to be worried about his job.  Then ‘lo and behold out of the sky comes a great glob of heart attack wrapped up in a man’s skin, Rush Limbaugh.  I am not going to dig up the actual quote, but he sprang to the defense of the Chief of Staff by saying that he called it like it was.  He was agreeing with Emanuel in that these Democrats, along with many others, are, in fact, retarded.  Sarah Palin deflected an uncomfortable question about the Red Mouthpiece by claiming that he was being satirical.  While Rush is known to skullfuck the genre of satire from time to time, this particular statement seemed to be coming from what in any other person would be called “the heart.”

That display of hypocrisy from whatever it is that Sarah Palin is (candidate, future chairperson of the RNC, Greta Van Sustren’s replacement?), undermines her credibility with anyone who takes politicians seriously and can look past their desire to fuck her.  I personally do not see what all the fuss is about.  I am more into Meghan McCain when I think of sexy Republicans, but I digress.  All in all this is a silly distraction that is the by-product of a permanent election/campaign mentality and the encouragement of the 24-hour-a-day media.  There is no time for reasoned thought or measured responses to anything in this age of tweeting your skype all over someone’s facebook.  

There seem to be three multiple-choice responses to these sort of jaw-dropping moments where the life in Washington begins to mirror things that happen at grocery stores or in mall parking lots.  The first response is outrage and denouncing any and all parties involved whether it is your place to do so or not.  The second response is to hedge the reaction so that it appears to be based on misinformation that may be hurtful to the celebridate.  The third is to completely ignore the issue and send out surrogates to fill up the airways with reactions ranging from red-faced raging to reasonable political verbal fencing.

Sarah Palin seems to think she can have it all three ways.  Her response to Emanuel’s comments were of total outrage and demanded that he step down, because there is nothing that can’t be expected from a wicked, vulgar, non-Christian, shyster like him as evidenced by his use of an antiquated medical term to describe a bunch of old whore legislators that were trying to sell their votes for some sweet earmarks for their districts.  However, Rush Limbaugh would sooner tell Sarah Palin to fuck off than apologize for saying retarded because Rush is the most important political voice Rush Limbaugh has ever heard.  Does the word “retarded” even really refer to actual people who have special needs anymore?  My 8-year old is in class with a girl that has Down’s Syndrome, and I was shocked to hear her describe something the other day as “retarded.”  As always when she says a word I don’t want to her get into the habit of saying, I asked her what she thought that word meant.  Her knowledge of the word came solely from context, so I was curious.  To her, the word means someone is acting like a fool. It reminded me of how, at her age, my friends and I called each other "faggots" with no foreknowledge of its association with homosexuality, or even any knowledge of what homosexuality was! 

For example, many contemporary children’s shows use the term, “dork,” and I imagine that over half of the people responsible for the content don’t realize that dork is another word for penis.  Also, it has been accepted into the realm of family comedy that saying “Duh” after someone says something stupid is not only acceptable but pretty much always funny (pending of course on the delivery and timing, but I digress yet again).  I am sorry to say, but that term is also an affront to the special needs community, whose speech patterns are affected by their condition, and that if one were wishing to mock them, saying “duh” would be appropriately cruel. 

Finally, Sarah Palin compared this word to the word “nigger” and how it relates to the African-American community.  Jesus jumped up in a helicopter and shot a wolf, this woman is actually going to go THERE.  But yet, newscasters merely wore that frowny face while still shaking their heads up and down in approval, and let that slip by to drive the narrative about the mean Jew Democrat that hates retards down the maw of the Joe Q. Unemployment.  All in an effort to keep an irrelevant woman in the headlines because the Republicans still have no fucking clue how they can beat Obama in 2012, but know they have a real shot at taking back the Congress and need somebody to put on TV.

John Mayer is swimming in a vat of shit over comments he made in an interview to Playboy.  While I have not read the full text, he is taking flak for saying that “if you really had a hood pass you’d call it a nigger pass,” and that “my dick is like a white supremacist.”  From the little context given, I would be willing to bet that the point I believe he was trying to make was overshadowed by his use of the word and then the second line is perhaps a bad joke or sarcasm gone wrong.  To his point from the first quote though, it seemed as if he was saying that as a white person he will never know what it is like to be black and deal with the racism that is harder to qualify than the use of the vilest racial epithet.  

Or term of endearment?  One of the brilliant things that happened, perhaps completely unintentionally is that what was perhaps the cruelest reminder of the bloody racial history in this country has become a word that means something totally different and that white kids, like John Mayer, wish they were able to say but it will never be acceptable.  The word was the weapon of the white man for a long time, but it had simultaneously been stripped of its hatred by some in the African-American community and used as a playfully derisive term for one of their own (a la Raisin in the Sun) into a term of endearment (a la the Wu-Tang Clan).  And it is a word that white kids across America would love to be able to use in that context, even going so far as to drop the “-er” from the word and replacing it with the much more friendly-sounding “a.”  This change in perception is captured beautifully in the Dave Chappelle Show skit about the blind, black white supremacist who calls a group of white kids in a car listening to rap “niggers” and they are elated by this. 

While I don’t think that “retarded” compares to “nigger” in what it means as a hurtful term in the American lexicon, and it was shameful for Palin as a rich white lady to even try to draw the comparison, I do think that the way to change the perception of the meaning of the word does compare to what I described above.  I think that perhaps a more effective stance for any maligned group is to take ownership of the word and throw it right back in a bigot’s face to show them how little power it has.  I tell my daughter often that words only have the power we give them and if you can’t hijack the word’s negative meaning and make it something semi-positive, then at least refuse to allow the word to carry the weight that you give it.  If Rahm Emanuel needs to resign, it will be for an offense far worse than a vulgar tongue I’d be willing to wager.  Sarah Palin can do far better things for the special needs community than using them as a slingshot to shoot manure at her political opponents.  Rush Limbaugh is really just a tiresome oaf that was just lucky enough to find a field in which he can earn a living from the fits of rage that plague most of the ex-junkies I know.  To quote Chris Griffin, from that Sunday night American Institution Family Guy, when he was breaking up with his girlfriend that had Down’s Syndrome, “I used to hear that people like you were different.  Well, you’re not different at all; you’re just a bunch of assholes like everyone else.”  Perhaps being able to laugh at one's own expense is a sign that a minority group has actually been accepted by mainstream society?