The Public-Apology Dance: Rahm Emanuel EditionS

Rahm Emanuel will meet with Special Olympics CEO Timothy Shriver and several disability advocates today to apologize for calling liberal activists "retarded." (Update: The group has met and Emanuel has indeed apologized.) But do such apologies mean anything anymore?

According to the Wall Street Journal, Emanuel used the slur back in August, preceded by his trademark f-bomb, to criticize some representatives from liberal groups. They wanted to run attack ads against conservative Dems who were blocking health care reform, which he apparently thought would be impolitic. Unlike, say, insulting people with disabilities. Now Emanuel has not only called Shriver to apologize, but has scheduled a meeting with advocates for the intellectually disabled, two of whom are disabled themselves.

Such a move is now almost a tradition. Obama also called Shriver after he was criticized for comparing his bowling efforts to the Special Olympics, and when Isaiah Washington used an anti-gay slur, he recorded a PSA with GLAAD. As PopWatch's Karen Leigh points out, that move felt forced — as, frankly, does Emanuel's. The Chief of Staff is well-known, and even celebrated, for his foul mouth, and it seems unlikely that at this point in his life he's going to start being sensitive — though maybe he'll be more careful about where he lets his most offensive language rip. His meeting with disability advocates feels less like a sincere desire for change and more like damage control. And in fact, the Special Olympics has made clear that while Shriver will continue his conversation with Emanuel, Shriver "can't accept an apology on behalf of all people with disabilities."

Of course, even an empty gesture is still a gesture, and the publicity Emanuel generates might help the Special Olympics in its campaign to stamp out use of the word "retarded." The organization said in a statement that it "will invite Emanuel to take the R-word pledge at www.r-word.org and to join in the March 3, 2010 Spread the Word to End the Word campaign, as well as invite him to be a leader of change surrounding the pervasive and damaging use of the R-word." Still, the question remains whether Emanuel will really be the best "leader of change." Such leadership should never feel like punishment, and disadvantaged groups don't necessarily benefit from spokespeople who are really out to rehabilitate their own images. This is not to say that Emanuel couldn't experience genuine remorse — just that his motives will always be a little suspect, and suspicion doesn't make for great advocacy.

Meanwhile, advocacy isn't enough for some Emanuel critics — Sarah Palin, for one, wants him to get the boot. In a Facebook message liberally sprinkled with Palinisms — "God's children," "a patriot in North Andover, Massachusetts" — she says, "I would ask the president to show decency [...] by eliminating one member of that inner circle, Mr. Rahm Emanuel." She goes on to say that, "just as we'd be appalled if any public figure of Rahm's stature ever used the 'N-word' or other such inappropriate language, Rahm's slur on all God's children with cognitive and developmental disabilities – and the people who love them – is unacceptable, and it's heartbreaking." Andrew Sullivan responds to Palin's message with some digs of his own, repeating Levi Johnston's allegation that Palin called Trig "her retarded baby," and even making the far-fetched suggestion that Trig may actually be named after a medical slang term for Down Syndrome. Sullivan's jabs are below the belt, but he does remind us that Sarah Palin, with her comments about "real America" and death panels, isn't necessarily a poster child for appropriate — or truthful — speech.

Unlike Palin, I wouldn't necessarily equate "retarded" with the n-word, and this is where things get really complicated. It doesn't necessarily make sense to create a hierarchy of offensiveness, but while I would probably join Palin in her calls for Emanuel's resignation if he used the n-word, I don't necessarily feel the same way about "retarded." In BlackBook, Foster Kamer defends the r-word by arguing that more accepted terms for intellectual disability "sugarcoat the truth of the existence of people who probably don't want us (or really: need us) to feel bad for them so much as they require us to provide equal and appropriate conditions for them." He adds,

If we really, sincerely do want to people with disadvantages to feel the rapture of equality, then we have to treat them as equals, and not patronize the ways their lives are different from ours. And so, just like the rest of us, they should be able to take a joke! And that joke is me, or Rahm Emmanuel, or anyone else, calling something "fucking retarded."

I don't necessarily agree — I, for instance, don't like to be called a cunt, even if it's a joke. But my political explanations for why the r-word isn't quite as bad as the n-word all falter, leading me to wonder if maybe my reaction is visceral, or cultural. Growing up, I learned early on that using a racial slur was totally unacceptable — but kids threw "retarded" around all time, with few repercussions. And maybe that's the real problem. I think Whoopi Goldberg had it right on The View this morning:

Goldberg says, "This word is part of the American language, and it should not be used in the way it is used, by anybody." The truth is that the word "retarded" still gets spoken frequently, and by people who would never dream of using a racial or homophobic slur. We've used it on the site before — though, unlike Emanuel, usually not in anger — and been criticized, I think rightly. The issue here isn't that Rahm Emanuel did something uniquely terrible — it really wasn't that unique. It's that the word "retarded" is relatively commonplace, and, especially as an insult, it shouldn't be. The effort to stamp out this usage is a worthwhile one — Rahm Emanuel just may not be the best person to spearhead it.

After Calling Liberal Activists "Retarded," Rahm To Meet With Disabled Rights Activists Wednesday [ABC]
Palin Goes After Emanuel On 'Retarded' Slur [Politico]
Rahm And The R Word [Politico]
Rahm Apologizes For Privately Calling Liberal Activists "Retarded" [ABC]
Chief Of Staff Draws Fire From Left As Obama Falters [Wall Street Journal]
In Defense Of "Retarded" [BlackBook]
Special Olympics: Apology Not Accepted [Politico]