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David Harsanyi
David Harsanyi
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Really? Are We That Thin-Skinned?


White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel is notoriously profane and uncouth. So it's not surprising that The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Emanuel had referred to some congressional Democrats as "retarded" in a private meeting with strategists. This has sparked a national kerfuffle.

Who can quarrel about the word "retarded" in this context? It is obnoxious and unnecessary. We should do our best to avoid it. After all, our goal as Americans must be to offend the guilty (some congressional Democrats) without dragging the innocent (the mentally disabled) into the fray.

But what was even more disturbing than finding out that political hacks use demeaning references in private assemblies? It was watching those who usually complain about political correctness dig deep for some of their own artificial outrage and begin playacting the victim.

Do conservatives really believe that an impolite utterance in private should be a firing offense? To begin with, the word "retard," unlike many other purposefully disparaging words, has legitimate meanings beyond insult. An example? Rahm Emanuel has a severe case of ideological retardation.

What is this guy supposed to do now, anyway? Emanuel apologized to the mentally disabled. He sincerely apologized to the mentally disabled. He apologized to the head of the Special Olympics for his remark (and was rejected). He probably apologized to God himself — and the president, in return, almost surely forgave him.

Emanuel even joined a group whose sole mission is to eradicate the use of the word "retarded" from the English language.

Does intent matter? When a person uses the N-word, without a doubt, he has a very specific subset of the population in mind. He uses it to smear an entire race.

When a person drops what henceforth will be known as the R-word — as many of us did regularly during childhood — there is no intent to denigrate those with disabilities.

Sarah Palin, whose youngest son has Down syndrome, asked the overwrought question "Are you capable of decency, Rahm Emanuel?" and demanded that the president fire Emanuel, as the word "retarded" is "a slur on all God's children with cognitive and developmental disabilities."

So dragging God's children with cognitive and developmental disabilities into a political tussle isn't that offensive?

Now, inevitably, someone will ask: What would happen to Karl Rove or another Republican if he made a similarly insensitive remark? I suspect it would look very much like the over-the-top reaction we're witnessing today.

Palin went on to write: "Every day they suffer its dehumanizing effects — mockery, stigma, ridicule. This is a word that is incredibly damaging — not only to the seven million people with intellectual disabilities in the United States, but also their friends, family and to all of us."

In truth, in nearly every way, the lives of the mentally disabled have improved vastly, from the care they receive to the quality of their lives to the respect they are given.

Though I've heard the R-word thrown around plenty (often, I'm sure you'll be shocked to learn, directed at me), I can't recall anyone's using it as a pejorative to describe a person who was actually disabled. Far from ridiculing the disabled, our culture has humanized them.

Emanuel certainly deserves to be reprimanded. But if his offense is worthy of losing a job, you have to wonder whether we really are a nation of the perpetually offended.

David Harsanyi is a columnist at The Denver Post and the author of "Nanny State." Visit his Web site at To find out more about David Harsanyi and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at




1 Comments | Post Comment
I agree that people have totally over reacted to this thoughtless comment by Emmanuel. (I hope I haven't offended any thoughtless people!)

The bigger point you make is more important - we fall down anytime anyone says anything mildly offensive. Often times the over reaction seems to be done most loudly by thick-skinned people who just want to score some cheap political points. (I apologize to any thick-skinned political hacks I may have offended.)

One minor disagreement - your suspicion that if a Republican made such a remark that the reaction would be similar seems to be incorrect in at least one instance. In the "kerfluffle" that ensued from Emmanuel's miscue it was pointed out, directly to Ms. Palin, that none other than Rush has used the R word. And not just once and not in a closed door meeting but on his nationally syndicated radio broadcast, one of the most popular in the country. Of course, Ms. Palin didn't come off the porch to attack Rush. Had she done so she probably would have had to apologize to God himself - would Mr. Limbaugh have forgiven her? (We can argue about whether Rush is a Republican in the same way that Emmanuel is a Democrat but you get the point.)

Anyway, great commentary. I'm off to visit the Nanny State site.
Comment: #1
Posted by: HogFarmer
Sat Feb 27, 2010 12:25 PM
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