How Far is Too Far? The Kathy Griffin Faux Pas
Coming down on Griffin’s tasteless joke isn’t to protect Trump, it’s about protecting politics of country v. politics of party
I began my Facebook post saying I have never heard of Kathy Griffin. I was about to unload on her about being photographed with the severed head of Donald Trump. I was surprised at how much reaction my comments got.
Then, that evening, Kathy Griffin had a press conference, which I accidentally caught on TV. She had an epic meltdown on camera and accused Donald and Melania Trump of trying to destroy her life because they talked back to her on Twitter.
From watching the Griffin pity party, I would have thought that she was a kid just about to hit the big time when she made this doozy of a mistake from which she despaired of recovering. Even if that were the case, I thought, it would not excuse blaming her victims—a tactic that is vintage Trump.
I decided if I intended to comment in a more public forum, I should find out more about her. It did not take long to demonstrate my laughable ignorance of mainstream popular culture.
Griffin has been nominated for nine Emmys and won two. She’s been nominated for six Grammys and won one. She was nominated for Producers Guild of America awards three years in a row. She won the Gracie Award from the Alliance for Women in Media Foundation, named after the hilarious comic who is probably the only woman who could give Lucille Ball a run for her money as an inspiration to funny women, Gracie Allen. She won the Vanguard Award from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD).
No, she’s not a show business rookie.
Well, maybe she’s worried about being put out of a job. I read somewhere that CNN dropped her from some yearly gig.
Then I found she had been interviewed in Forbes, the magazine by and for rich people, in October of 2016. She had just paid cash for a mansion in Bel Air to the tune of $10.5 million.
I’m not totally out of it. I know that Bel Air is a swank neighborhood in Los Angeles. I am a bit puzzled that such a pricy house would be next door to a used car dealer, but Griffin said her neighbors have a bunch of Kardashians, a term only vaguely familiar. I think they are classic cars from the 30s.
I’m guessing you have to be pretty wealthy to live in Bel Air and tool around in a 1932 Kardashian. In the interview, Griffin talked about giving “the middle finger” to somebody, apparently other rich people:
This house is nothing but a middle finger and I am not only keeping up with Kardashians, I am actually accidentally next door to them.
Griffin admitted to being 55 years old last year and she referred to her mansion next door to the Kardashian dealership as a “trophy house.” I guess she meant she needed a big old house to have a place to put all the awards she’s won.
According to a website that tracks celebrity finances, Kathy Griffin’s net worth is $20 million dollars. For a point of reference, Jerry Seinfeld is worth $870 million and he recently parted with three classic cars out of his collection for a cool $10 million. I am not informed if one was a Kardashian.
Ellen DeGeneres is worth $360 million and her salary is $75 million.
Bill Maher’s net worth is $30 million and his salary is $6 million. Maher is the best comparison for Griffin not because he drives a Kardashian but because he is a comedian who has crossed the bad taste line in ways comparable to a Donald Trump beheading.
Maher managed to get a show titled Politically Incorrect cancelled by making ill-considered remarks about the tragedy of September 11, 2001. I guess life imitated art a bit too much, but it probably was not Maher’s words so much as uttering them while the feelings about 9-11 were still so raw.
His guest was the right wing pseudo-intellectual Dinesh D’Souza, reacting to Bush 43’s characterization of the 9-11 hijackers as “cowards.” D’Souza argued that the 9-11 hijackers were “warriors,” which is the kind of nonsense I would expect from a chicken hawk, but Maher—instead of challenging his guest, spoke these fateful (for his show) words:
We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, [it’s] not cowardly.
It’s easy to look at Maher’s remark now and think it’s not as offensive as it is goofy, but like all speech, it had a context Maher failed to take into account.
In addition to the rawness of the 9-11 injury, there was the fact that we had troops in Afghanistan and we had not gotten our national head around that fight going on forever. When you are engaged in what you think is an ordinary military action that will have an end, you don’t want to hear that your troops are cowards because they don’t ride cruise missiles to their targets like Slim Pickens in Doctor Strangelove.
Speech on U.S. cable TV is as free as speech comes in the real world, so the only people Maher really had to worry about offending were his sponsors. Enough of them bailed and did not come back to send Politically Incorrect belly up, although I have to wonder what the sponsors thought they were paying to put on the air with a title like that.
Since Kathy Griffin’s faux pas with the severed head of the POTUS, Maher got himself in hot water again by using the N word. After slavery, Civil War, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights Movement, it should be no surprise that dehumanizing racial slurs are still touchy.
It’s only fair to note there is another view of racial slurs, exemplified by a white supremacy movement publicly celebrating the Trump election and the proud supporters of the Washington football team.
Both of Bill Maher’s missteps—9-11 and the N word—have in common that they poke at wounds not yet healed. At the risk of presuming to advise these multi-millionaire comics how to do their business, I draw a lesson from Maher that applies to Griffin.
Or I could be overreacting from my personal experience, which is that I’ve seen a lot of beheading videos and I would certainly unsee them if I could. Still, I feel that I had to watch them so my readers didn’t have to.
Beheadings have become so common that ISIS has had to invent new gruesome ways to kill helpless people on video to get attention. The Mexican drug cartels have branched out as well in their murder videos, although the remains of people they “disappear” are still often found without heads.
There’s enough of this going on in the real world that it’s not funny. If it was outrageous, then it might be funny. But it’s real.
Trump and his wife had no duty to remain silent in the face of Griffin’s tasteless fake beheading.
Blaming Trump for the controversy where she wound up with her teat in the wringer is just stupid. He didn’t force her to make a Trump beheading video. She just thought it was OK, I guess, because he’s done so much brainless stuff you might think he has been beheaded. But it’s not OK and it’s not funny.
It is exactly as unfunny as the “jokes” and caricatures about lynching when we had a black POTUS. Some people on Facebook were suggesting that associating Obama and lynching was tolerated and so we should tolerate associating Trump and beheading.
That argument makes me feel very old. I come from the time when the opposing political party was wrong—not criminal and not treasonous, just wrong.
Why should Obama supporters be protective of Trump when Trump associates himself with white supremacists and brings a man into his inner circle who pioneered fact-free reporting?
Lots of reasons, but let’s just stay on the surface. We don’t get civil politics back by joining Trump in the gutter. The purpose of coming down on Kathy Griffin’s tasteless garbage is not to protect Trump. It’s to protect the politics of country over party and respectful arguments to persuade our opponents rather than fact-free arguments to destroy them.
Put simply, to make America great again.
Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a retired Texas trial court judge and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.