Somewhere Between Truth Telling and Harassment Sits Wm Donald Schaefer, The Last Brutally Honest Man in Politics
Deep down, lots of folks--well, at least lots of men--admire William Donald Schaefer for his latest antics. Well, for some of them, anyway.
Hardly a man alive would deny watching a woman walk away from time to time. Many of us would try to be discreet about it and would refrain from obvious gawking. But virtually all human beings admire the form of a fine-looking person. That said, it's obviously rude, and in this strange world we live in, actionable to be too overt about this natural attraction to the beauty of our fellow members of the species. Admiration is sublime; leering is crude.
So when the comptroller of Maryland, one of the great ornery, cranky, politically incorrect populist politicians of our age, stares at a young female aide at a public meeting in front of 100 people, and then has the gall to tell her to "Walk again," lots of guys are simultaneously shocked, amused, appalled, jealous (that he had the cojones to do it) and stunned by the base stupidity and arrogance of Schaefer's action.
That the 84-year-old pol then compounded the damage by calling the woman a "little girl" and claiming that he--and not she-- is the offended party sadly strips away any sympathy that many folks might have had for the old man.
Schaefer apparently gets a kick out of outraging the easily outraged. Sometimes, he even reaches out to offend those with tougher hides. But at bottom, he's a guy who has a lot of fun having the megaphone. And that has always been a big part of his popular appeal--he's a regular guy's regular guy. So when he tees off against Spanish-speaking McDonald's workers, he appeals to a segment of the population that blames immigrants for their own marginalized place in the workforce. Schaefer, unlike most politicians, not only understands that there is a vast body of emotions, beliefs and perspectives that cannot be publicly expressed in this society; he, like the talkers on raunch radio, also acts to reach out to people who feel silenced and suppressed.
But of course a state official who is elected by the people is different from Howard Stern. When you sit in your car and get satisfaction out of Stern saying stuff that would get you fired at work, that is both a release and an entertainment, as well as a commentary on the real restrictions against free speech that we have constructed in public settings.
But when Schaefer says such stuff in an official capacity, he is speaking for more than himself and like-minded people; he is supposed to be speaking for the state of Maryland, and that requires him to exercise more restraint and caution than the average bear. All of which is both appropriate and too bad, because we all crave politicians who are less rehearsed, less programmed, more...like us.
I love having Schaefer around, both because as a journalist I know he is a ready and dependable source of outrageous behavior, and because as a citizen, I like having people in high places who are capable of breaking out of the box and showing us all a glimpse of what's really going on in some people's minds.
The problem with our decision as a society to embrace the idea that we should all be proud of being offended by obnoxious comments and behaviors is that it forces us to be dishonest with each other. I don't want any taboos on words, thoughts or slurs; I want to see my enemy head on and decide for myself whether to engage or ignore. But instead of retaining that option, we increasingly declare words and ideas to be unacceptable, or hate speech, or actionable comments. And when we create taboos, we are really encouraging ugly ideas to blossom under cover.
In Germany, it is illegal to buy Hitler's Mein Kampf or any of hundreds of other works sympathetic to the Nazi viewpoint. Given Germany's history, that may be an understandable set of restrictions, but the impact of those rules is to foster an underground fascination with that material--a phenomenon that is far more dangerous than the open trade we have in extremist materials in this country.
If I were the woman Schaefer humiliated today, or even if I were her relative or friend, I would loathe what he did and I would want him to suffer public embarrassment and political damage. But I wouldn't be the slightest bit interested in the views of the many lawyers and corporate managers who are now being quoted as saying that Schaefer has violated this or that law. What we say to each other and how we act toward one another should be a matter of basic decency and politeness, governed by our own community and individual standards and expectations. The law ought to play no role whatsoever until and unless violent physical crimes enter the equation.
The more Schaefer's dumb, retrograde behavior is treated as a legal violation, the less we as citizens feel that it's our responsibility to confront the problem ourselves.
My conclusion about Schaefer is that he's an entertaining old guy whose time has long since passed by. He needs to find a retirement home where he can sit around telling crude jokes with his friends.
By Marc Fisher |
February 15, 2006; 10:41 PM ET
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