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  • Max Stearns

Two Michelles

“When they go low, we go high.” Michelle Obama

“I actually really like Sarah. I think she's very resourceful. Like, she burns facts, and then she uses the ash to create a perfect smoky eye. Like, maybe she's born with it; maybe it's lies.

“It's probably lies.

“And I'm never really sure what to call Sarah Huckabee Sanders. You know, is it Sarah Sanders? Is Sarah Huckabee Sanders? Is it Cousin Huckabee? Is it Auntie Huckabee Sanders? Like, what's Uncle Tom but for white women who disappoint other white women? Oh, I know: Aunt Coulter.” Michelle Wolf

Following the Correspondents’ Dinner, I posted this very brief comment on my blog:

The problem is not merely that Michelle Wolf's act was unfunny, gross, and demeaning, or that her voice is singularly annoying. The problem is that it will now be treated as rightful fodder for those who will claim that Trump's decision not to attend was entirely justified. Even if his supporters were on the fence on that question before, this surely will persuade them that Trump made the right choice. Selecting Wolf was a profoundly bad decision, and one that does nothing to advance the goals of the first amendment.

I also provided a link, along with a warning, not to watch with children around.

Since then, I’ve seen many impassioned arguments about this comic routine on both sides. Among the claims: Those criticizing Wolf (1) must be Trumpers or at least GOP conservatives, (2) are being hypocritical given what Trump has said about women and minorities, and (3) lack a sense of humor. Humor is obviously subjective. My concern is with the first two claims, neither of which, in my view, seems supportable. As for myself, anyone reading this blog knows that I’m no Trump supporter or apologist. And, in fact, among those who have routinely criticized Trump, even in the sharpest of terms, I know I’m not alone. I have seen as many anti-Trumpers express dismay as express support for Wolf and her routine. Of course, my evidence is anecdotal, but that’s in the nature of things. The larger issue is the claim of hypocrisy. I think this too is misguided, and for reasons that have to do with the famous admonition from another Michelle, the former First Lady, who said “When they go low, we go high.”

To be fair, Michelle Wolf was engaged in a comedy routine; Michelle Obama was responding to political barbs, as the wife of President Barack Obama and while advocating on behalf of Hillary Clinton, at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.

While often laced with humor, such speeches are not routinely funny, and so, the better comparison might be Donald Trump’s speech at the Al Smith dinner, which, like Michelle Wolf’s routine, had several cringe worthy moments:

We’ve learned so much from WikiLeaks. For example, Hillary believes that it’s vital to deceive the people by having one public policy —


— and a totally different policy in private. That’s okay. I don’t know who they’re angry at Hillary, you or I. For example, here she is tonight, in public, pretending not to hate Catholics.

Now some of you haven’t noticed, Hillary isn’t laughing as much as the rest of us. That’s because she knows the jokes. And all of the jokes were given to her in advance of the dinner by Donna Brazile. Which is – everyone knows, of course, Hillary’s belief that it takes a village, which only makes sense after all in places like Haiti, where she’s taken a number of them.


Thank you. I don’t know – and I don’t want this evening without saying something nice about my opponent. Hillary has been in Washington a long time. She knows a lot about how government works. And according to her sworn testimony Hillary has forgotten more things than most of us will ever, ever, ever know. That I can tell you.


We’re having some fun here tonight and that’s good.

Still, comparing the Michelle Wolf and Donald Trump speeches seems to me to miss a larger point. I don’t believe that the former First Lady was simply tsk-tsking a political tit for tat game. Rather, I think she was expressing the hopeful recognition that such a game debases us all. The question isn’t whether Donald Trump’s discourse is crude, misogynistic, demeaning, or anything else. In calibrating our speech, and our personal conduct, Michelle Obama admonishes that the basest among us cannot be allowed to set the standard. And that’s true even if it includes an opposing candidate or, today, the President of the United States.

Before she became First Lady, Michelle Obama made the following comment in a 2008 campaign speech in Milwaukee, Wisconsin: People in this country are ready for change and hungry for a different kind of politics and … for the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback.”

Commentators on the right quickly pounced, lambasting Michelle Obama as unpatriotic. John Podhoretz, writing for Commentary Magazine, responded: “There used to be a term for what ails Michelle Obama: She has a chip on her shoulder. For her sake and for the country’s, she really ought to brush it off.” In effect, those on the right regarded Michelle Obama as un-patriotic, un-American. Although to his credit, Podhoretz was not among them, other commentators on the right then let pass pass Donald Trump’s more obviously unpatriotic and un-American comparison of the United States to Russia under Putin: “There are a lot of killers. We have a lot of killers,” Trump said. “Well, you think our country is so innocent?” Again, I'm not trying to offer a point-by-point comparison as to who holds the moral high ground; as between Trump and the former First Lady, asking that question is silly. My larger point is that none of that affects the standards by which we should conduct ourselves. Michelle Obama did not maintain that we should go high to show we are superior; rather she admonished that we should go high because doing so for its own sake makes us better. She’s right.

I’m no comedy critic. Personally, I found Michelle Wolf unfunny and offensive. I’m also not a shrinking violet. Her repeated references to genitalia and orgasms were not, to me at least, the basis for offense. I’m also fairly sure that the things I find funny would fall flat for her. I actually blame Wolf less than Margaret Talev, the senior White House correspondent for Bloomberg News and the president of the correspondents' organization, for having selected her. As Wolf herself stated: “Thanks to Trump, pink yarn sales are through the roof. After Trump got elected, women started knitting those p---y hats. When I first saw them, I was like, 'That's a p---y?' I guess mine just has a lot more yarn on it. Yeah, shoulda done more research before you got me to do this.”

As I tell my students, a tort arises with the coincidence of two events: (1) someone having messed up, and (2) someone else then being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In this instance, by my lights, Talev messed up, placing Wolf in the wrong place at the wrong time. Had Wolf given her routine in a comedy club, no one would care. Instead, this was a prime-time nationally televised—and now high profile social media—event. It’s too late to squeeze the toothpaste back into the tube, but, following the lead from the other Michelle, here’s my bottom line: Those of us who are appalled by Trump’s past and ongoing behaviors do ourselves no favor by allowing him to set the standard for our own.

I welcome your comments.

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