Of course ABC and its parent company Disney were right to cancel the sitcom “Roseanne” after its eponymous star, Roseanne Barr, wrote a racist tweet. There are necessary taboos and essential decencies in every morally healthy society. Writing that Obama administration aide Valerie Jarrett was the baby of “Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes” violates these in the foulest of ways.
This is not a First Amendment issue. Constitutional rights are what you’re entitled to in the public sphere, not as an employee of a private corporation. Barr’s speech has not been curtailed; she remains free to opine (and mostly free to tweet) to her heart’s content. She’s just not free to do so while getting $250,000 a show from an employer whose reputation she stained and whose values she traduced.
This is not a “free speech” issue — using “free speech” in the broader, less legalistic sense of the term. The University of Chicago president, Robert Zimmer, has made the case that institutions like his, though not strictly subject to the First Amendment, should nonetheless encourage the free and vigorous exchange of ideas for the sake of fostering intellectual excellence. That’s right. But what Barr tweeted wasn’t an idea. It was a slur.
This is not a “double standards” issue. With his trademark combination of puerile self-pity and fang-toothed nastiness, Donald Trump took to Twitter on Wednesday to denounce Disney’s chairman, Robert Iger, for not apologizing to him for the “HORRIBLE statements made and said about me on ABC.” But he’s the ultimate public figure, whereas Jarrett is a private citizen subjected to unprovoked racial attack by an ABC employee. That the president fails or refuses to appreciate the distinction is the thousandth reminder of his unfitness for office.
This is not a “one bad tweet” issue. In March, I argued that Kevin Williamson, the conservative writer briefly hired by The Atlantic, should be judged by the totality of his work, not by a vile tweet (and, as it later turned out, a discussion on a podcast) in which he seemed to suggest that women who get abortions should be hanged.
Williamson insists his comments were misunderstood, but that’s another story. The relevant question here is: What’s the “totality” of Barr’s work, at least when it comes to political and racial questions? John Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary magazine, summed it up perfectly when he described Barr as “a boor,” a “notorious believer and propagator of conspiracy theories related to 9/11,” and, in all, “not merely a loose cannon but a MIRVed ICBM ready to go off in all directions at any time.”
Barr’s tweet about Jarrett, in other words, wasn’t the odd needle in the haystack. It was the last straw.
What about the argument that liberals — and, in this case, I — use another double standard when we applaud Barr’s dismissal while defending the rights of football players who take a knee to protest police brutality during the singing of the national anthem? The players, after all, also don’t have unrestricted First Amendment protections while wearing the jerseys and playing in the stadiums of the teams that pay their salaries.
It’s true the players don’t have the legal right. But they have the moral one, especially when their gesture is dignified, considered and silent (even if I also think it’s mistaken); and when the N.F.L. has aggressively blurred the lines between its commercial interests and the totems of American patriotism. To love freedom is to exercise it. That’s not a function of standing for a song.
Barr, too, has exercised her freedom to tell us what she thinks — without, however, the virtues of dignity and consideration, never mind silence. And Iger and the ABC Entertainment president, Channing Dungey, exercised their freedom in denouncing her tweet and canceling her show.
To their credit, Dungey and Iger appeared to be acting on moral principle, and not — as has too often been the case lately — merely surrendering to the verdict of a social-media mob. That’s an important distinction. The intelligent defense of free speech should not rest on the notion that we must tolerate every form of speech, no matter how offensive. It’s that we should lean toward greater tolerance for speech we dislike, and reserve our harshest penalties only for the worst offenders. That requires considered adult judgment, not professional defenestration via a bad Twitter ratio.
Also to their credit, Dungey and Iger acted despite “Roseanne” being a ratings hit. Something mattered more than a bottom line. The show was supposed to help explain, and humanize, Trump’s base to a frequently unsympathetic and uncomprehending public. Through her tweet, Barr managed to do so all too well. Perhaps the reason Trump voters are so frequently the subject of caricature is that they so frequently conform to type.
O.K., that’s much too sweeping a statement. I know Trump supporters who don’t conform to type, and many of them are writers or talking heads. Let’s hear from them on this — presumably, something other than the muttered excuses and tendentious whataboutism of a political movement that is capable of saying and doing anything except look itself in the eye.