Michelle Wolf and the Snowflake Paradox
In the depths of a 1945 volume called The Open Society and Its Enemies, author and Austrian philosopher Karl Popper buried a very important axiom, known as the Paradox of Tolerance. It outlines the role of a group of people who in today's vernacular can simply be described as "snowflakes".
Seventy-three years after the release of that tome, Michelle Wolf laid down a master class in jokes to a room so densely populated with snowflakes that it looked almost completely white (well, at least 80% white). It was at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, a night where scholarships are awarded to young journalists, the president of the United States is (usually) in attendance, and an entertainer delivers a twenty-ish minute set, usually with some jabs at the president, the media figures, and the celebrities present.
The delivery at the WHCD is unlike that of any other comedic setting. It's not just that many of the attendees are unable to take a joke (see the celebrity reactions at any Golden Globes ceremony that Ricky Gervais hosted), but many of them don't want to be caught on-camera laughing at a joke that may fray an already-tense political relationship. It's also not a weaving narrative that recaps recent current events, but rather a series of rapid-fire jokes that are disjoint and very targeted. The set is usually rated by the number of times the performer can coax a full-throated "oooooooh" out of the otherwise tense crowd, where the over-under is usually 4.5. Considered one of the most difficult gigs in comedy, the job is reserved primarily for political satirists, the occasional late night host, and for some reason Ray Charles.
Wolf started with all the obligatory low-hanging fruit – from Stormy Daniels to Roy Moore to CSPAN – capped by a self-aware joke about her voice, which some would likely call 'shrill'. She had some well-placed jokes about her vagina having more yarn than the famous pussy hats, wanting to see Jake Tapper orgasm, pulling out of the Paris Accords, Southwest's broken engines, and even a Hillary Clinton dig. And then, fatefully as it turned out, she went after Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
The next few minutes evoked memories of Stephen Colbert's 2006 joke about Hurricane Katrina serving as the "most powerfully staged photo ops in the world." It brought a bit of nostalgia for Joel McHale's painfully underrated quip "when [Chelsea Clinton's] baby is born, do you give Bill Clinton a cigar?" – an homage to the act of new dads passing out cigars, and the infamous story that Monica Lewinsky pleasured herself with a cigar that Bill Clinton subsequently lit up. (McHale also had a barrage of Chris Christie jokes – "buckle up Governor Christie, excuse me, extender buckle up", "you sir are a glutton… for punishment," "do you want bridge jokes or size jokes… I know you like a combo platter," that could have been interpreted as mean-spirited, but weren't because Chris Christie was laughing right along.)
It was, apparently, the moment that Wolf went off the rails. But why? Was it the fact that she went after a woman, and tangentially mentioned something about her appearance? Was it that the aggrieved party – Sanders – happened to be in attendance? Would we even be having this conversation if we didn't have the visual of Sanders' thinly veiled anger juxtaposed with Wolf's unending Fastballs? Why does Sanders deserve an apology, and why does Wolf owe her one? It's worth wondering whether this would be quite as big of a deal if she let down the RBF for just a couple seconds, since for most of the night, Sanders functioned as a living embodiment of the I-came-out-to-have-a-fun-time-and-I-honestly-am-feeling-so-attacked-right-now meme. After all, Sarah Sanders was the only major White House official in attendance – there were more fired people present (Sean Spicer, Omarosa, Reince Preibus) than current staffers (Kellyanne Conway was the only other one in sight), so it's only natural that she would be a target.
The White House Correspondents' Association did exactly what you would expect a group of journalists to do, and defended Wolf's performance as an example of free speech, an array of insults and jokes that should have been expected by someone who is a comedian at an event with a rich history of roasting. I'm just kidding – they released a statement saying that Wolf's "monologue was not in the spirit" of offering a "unifying message about [a] common commitment to a vigorous and free press, while honoring civility." Such a nasty woman, right?
It's still unclear why these jokes in particular were deemed controversial, especially since that segment included what was possibly Wolf's best joke – "what do you call an Uncle Tom but for white women... an Aunt Coulter." Many criticized Wolf for going after Sanders' appearance (#thoughtsandprayers), which is somewhat disingenuous since she did say Wolf managed to pull off a "perfect smoky eye." Some of the criticism felt justified, after all, Wolf did refer to Sanders as "ugly", a "dog", a "bimbo", and more – wait, that wasn't her. Beyond the obvious hypocrisy and sexism (Wolf is only the fifth female comedian to host in the dinner's sixty-four year history) in attacking a comedian who was hired with full intention of conducting a roast (as happens every single year), there's a troubling media story that underlines this whole event.
Quick Note: It's instructive to contrast Wolf's set with Hasan Minhaj's set from last year (in a performance which actually got Wolf Blitzer to laugh), considering how they are the only two samples from Trump-administration WHCDs. Minhaj managed to garner critical acclaim, which is interesting because he definitely didn't hold back, and he was brown, making him more of a natural target for criticism.
The response from the FOX News types to a comedian telling jokes were as expected – from the claims of sexism to elitism (by the way, Michelle Wolf's net worth is estimated at $1.5 million, whereas the 2015 median net worth of the Senate was $3.2 million) to general distastefulness (more hilarious when juxtaposed with the 'fuck your feelings' sentiment that thrives on doing anything to piss off the 'libs' #liberaltears). Surprising, however, was the amount of snowflake-ism from the left, criticism usually reserved for more severe offenders (see: Kathy Griffin, Bill Maher, and Al Franken). NBC's Andrea Mitchell, the New York Times' Maggie Haberman, MSNBC's Mika Brzezinski, (three prominent women!), CNN's Jeff Zeleny, and Axios' Mike Allen all chimed in on their shock and horror at the proceedings. While the majority likewise cited the Sanders remarks, the irritation may actually have stemmed from Wolf's criticism of the media, laying the responsibility for Trump's ascension directly at their feet. (To quote Hucka-Sanders herself, she "made a joke. Maybe you should get a sense of humor".)
It's alarming to see that three years out from the beginning of the presidential campaign, the 'liberal' media still actively tries to maintain the facade of even-handedness. As FOX (and in a different way, Breitbart) has entertainment shows posturing as news shows, and actual entertainment shows hosting presidential call-ins -- even finally ridding themselves of their longtime motto "fair and balanced" -- other news networks have tried to manufacture their public perception as bastions of journalistic integrity, with no political bias whatsoever. It's an effort epitomized by CNN's "this is an apple" campaign, which highlights their emphasis on 'the truth.' Unfortunately, when covering an administration with a documented propensity for lying, 'the truth' appears to have a distinct liberal bias. It's hard to convince a conservative viewer that you're not anti-Trump when you note a factual inaccuracy in a tweet or a speech, something that probably didn't matter to you if you voted for him. To such a person, coverage of an 'ordinary' Trump lie would feel like a cheap shot, one that isn't within the scope of what the news is supposed to cover. Yet, these networks still careen dangerously to the center, altering their coverage in a futile attempt to gain the trust of non-liberal viewers. Wolf Is the latest victim of this mission. Several journalists on these networks have joined in for the bipartisan-bashing, hoping to curry favor with the forgotten man by identifying supposedly unfair attacks on the president.
In a vacuum, there's no danger to attempting to appear impartial. But it's exactly this sentiment that fostered the false equivalency that dominated 2016. The networks felt an obligation to cover the Clinton e-mail scandal with the fervor they did any of Trump's, even going as far as to ask about it repeatedly in debates. It was that attitude that fueled James Comey's decision (whether you agreed with it or not) to disclose the re-opening of the investigation just days before the election, for fear that it would have been seen as a partisan move to *not* do so. It's the same mentality that guided blue dog Democratic congressmen to vote to confirm Secretary of State candidate Mike Pompeo, out of fear that their constituents would see a no-vote as a blatant (and unnecessary) act of obstructionism.
And now we see that equivalency rise again. Instead of apportioning blame to Sarah Sanders for committing the lying, they reprimand Wolf for a lesser offense. Members of the media transfer the responsibility they have assumed – to be even-keeled – to a comedian who has no compunction about or prerogative to go after both sides. Regardless, we all know how this will end, in a massive over-correction resulting in a safe, uncontroversial pick for next year's entertainer (a cuddly Fallon or Corden-type), followed by a reverse over-correction the year after (which could be delayed until a new president is in office).
Karl Popper's paradox of tolerance states that the intolerant will eventually destroy a tolerant society, for if the society is tolerant then they will tolerate those who do not. As such, for a tolerant society to continue its existence, that tolerant society must be intolerant to a degree – intolerant of the intolerant. What Popper left unsaid is perhaps the most relevant: we must find a way to identify the intolerant, so we may tolerate them no more. But if we misidentify the intolerant, we become intolerant snowflakes ourselves.