13 January 2015

Idiots of the week: Randy Weber or his critics?

Online headlines this morning blared: "Republican congressman compares Obama to Hitler," or words to that effect, and reports of outrage predictably followed. All of it made me anticipate a red-meat crazy speech or commentary about the President's totalitarian tendencies or his inferred anti-semitism. From the way people reacted you'd think that Rep. Randy Weber, a Texan who has described Obama as an "Emperor" in the past, had said something along those lines. Instead, he had simply made a bad joke about Obama's "failure" to attend last weekend's Charlie Hebdo solidarity rally in Paris. Since many Americans now feel that their President had a moral obligation to attend the event, Weber saw a new occasion for mockery. On Twitter, he tweeted: "Even Adolph Hitler thought it more important than Obama to get to Paris." The whole tweet is too clumsily phrased with additional verbiage to get the laughs Weber presumably sought, but the mere mention of Hitler was enough to infuriate some people. For some, no doubt, "comparing Obama to Hitler" was par for the Republican course and simply today's reason to bash the GOP, just as Obama's absence from Paris is this week's reason for the GOP to bash the President. For others, just as predictably, Weber's bad joke -- bad because he can't tell a joke properly on this evidence -- was an even greater sin. The Texan had trivialized the Holocaust and all the atrocities of Nazism with his silly tweet. Like God for some people, Hitler is a name that must never be used in vain. The pain so many are presumed to feel at the mere sound of the syllables gives Hitler a sort of negative sacredness that requires a sort of indirect reverence or "moral seriousness" when he comes up in conversation. While Weber made no moral comparison (or equation) of Obama and Hitler this time, the more sensitive among us seem to feel that the two names should never be spoken in the same sentence. If this really becomes a controversy I think the media, or specifically the headline writers for news websites, will be to blame. Weber made a dumb joke and if a writer thinks there's a story in his stupidity, then go for it. Apart from that, this looks like one time when everyone should lighten up. If you think about it, this is the sort of dumb, politically incorrect or gratuitously provocative joke that might have appeared in the pages of Charlie Hebdo. Do we really want to say that we disapprove, much less take offense, at that sort of thing this month?

Update: Inevitably Rep. Weber felt compelled to apologize for seeming to trivialize atrocities or draw inappropriate comparisons. His statement of contrition acknowledges "pain and emotional trauma" caused by any "use of Hitler." Episodes like this no doubt leave Muslims wondering why no one seems to feel or even acknowledgment the pain caused them by blasphemy of the Charlie Hebdo sort. Meanwhile, news websites remain unforgiving and unrepentant. Here's an example of what I've been talking about today:

Poor Weber can't catch a break. You can see that the report itself notes his apology while the headline makes his offense seem as inflammatory as possible. This is a prime example of what they call "clickbait," and it inspires little confidence in the Internet as the future of responsible journalism.

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