Roseanne Barr's use of the Muslim Brotherhood as a slur to insult a former White House advisor wasn't a random choice.
Whether she knows it or not, Roseanne Barr, queen of the tiny but wealthy and influential kingdom of conservative comedians, stepped onto a digital dias alongside an array of middle eastern autocrats with a single racist tweet on Tuesday.
She wrote, "Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj,” abbreviating the name of former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett to initials. Jarrett is black, and was born in Iran to American parents.
Within a matter of hours, American broadcaster ABC had cancelled the reboot of her sitcom “Roseanne,” a program that originally aired on the channel in the 80s and 90s, tackling the rough-and-tumble realities of life for the Connors, a working class family in Illinois.
Barr later apologised, claimed to leave Twitter, returned to Twitter, and blamed her racist tweet on a dose of the sleeping pill Ambien. Ambien’s twitter account made the best of the awkward situation, from a marketing standpoint, and denied the product’s side effects include racism.
US President Donald Trump used the opportunity to talk about himself. Jarrett remained more coy, but remarked that the uproar amounts to a “teaching moment.”
Well, what can we learn? The fact that Barr’s Ambien-addled brain decided to use “Muslim Brotherhood” as a slur displays how the lines of political conflict among Muslims are now drawn across American politics, too, although as a clumsy and distorted graffiti scrawl.
That’s right, not even American comedy is safe from the byzantine terms that define things like the Gulf diplomatic crisis.
Barr finds herself in league with others who consider the Brotherhood their enemy, including Egyptian general Abdel Fattah el Sisi, who brought down a democratically elected Brotherhood government only to impose his authoritarian will with greater gusto than Hosni Mubarak. Like Barr, Sisi is also an outspoken fan of Donald Trump, even going so far to praise his blanket ban on immigration from Muslim countries into the US.
Sisi owes his political life, such as it is, to the support of Saudi Arabia, which assisted his government with billions in aid. That support has helped Sisi implement a crackdown on dissenters and activists, and keep members of the Brotherhood in jail merely for their politics. But this is the kind of authoritarianism that Barr, and Trump, appear to relish. Many of Barr’s subsequent tweets have concerned the right to free speech, but she threw her hat in with some of its most gleeful violators.
To be fair to her, Barr did express remorse, for a while, until she started tweeting again.
“Can you all help me get more followers here? The more I have the more my words will have weight. I am a fighter 4 FAiRNESS in all aspects of US life. I am tired of being smeared-over a stupid mistake erasing 30 yrs of activism,” Barr wrote.
But what business does she have in weighing in on Middle Eastern politics at all? I guess as much as anyone does, but the consistency of her other tweets, especially about the Israeli occupation of Palestine, show that she’s firmly in line with Riyadh, Cairo and Dubai - capitals whose rulers have all but abandoned any pretense of concern for the plight of the Palestinians.
It’s not clear, however, if she knows this.
By her own admission, Barr is a majoritarian when it comes to Trump. And if anything that should make her sympathetic to the Brotherhood, which after the "Arab Spring" showed itself capable of mobilising majorities at the polls and in the streets. But what Barr and others seem to agree on is that Islam is not safe for democracy and any authoritarian outrage is worth keeping the Brotherhood out of power.
This is a hopelessly bleak outlook. And it fails to appreciate the breadth of the Brotherhood’s appeal or its complex history. Some of the Brotherhood’s members have used violence against governments, but using the term as a slur is like blaming every Catholic socialist for the crimes committed by the Irish Republican Army. The connection is tenuous and ignorant.
Sadly, all of this fits in with the other half of her tweet, the “Planet of the Apes” part. If you haven’t seen the movie, you should do so as soon as possible. But it concerns a human astronaut crash-landing on a planet ruled by a fascist theocracy lead by orangutans, with gorillas a loyal warrior caste and chimpanzees cast as nerds. Humans, meanwhile, have devolved into mute, loincloth-wearing pests, hunted by the apes for sport and scientific experiments. The human astronaut rebels, but (spoiler alert) finds out in the end that a nuclear catastrophe upended evolution. It was Earth all along!
Although Barr tried to paint her connection to the film as a warning of the dangers of fascism, there are plenty of other films that don’t have the racist connotation. Casablanca also paints fascism in a negative light, without dehumanising others. But that’s what authoritarians and their followers are best at; denying our shared humanity.
Trump, later in the day on Tuesday, got a big crowd in Nashville to shout “Animals!” when he reminded them of the existence of MS-13, a Central American gang with operations in the US. It is, however, composed entirely of human beings.
A fear of a planet ruled by subhumans is a consistent motif in far right thinking, and denying Muslims their right as human beings to vote is something Barr and her ilk seem to like. The echoes of paternalism and imperalism are impossible to ignore.
It doesn’t seem like there’s much more to learn from this teaching moment. Perhaps another lesson came on Tuesday as the Barr twitter fiasco pushed other news off the major networks: a new Harvard study found that nearly 5,000 Americans in Puerto Rico lost their lives following Hurricane Maria, dying slow and painful deaths from chronic ailments like diabetes or organ failure as the island lost electricity for weeks. Previous federal estimates had said only a few dozen died in the storm that struck the US territory last autumn. That news couldn’t compete with the temptation by networks to devote the rest of the day to discussing the sound and fury of another celebrity’s Twitter meltdown.
But how can a news broadcaster justify staying focused on the deaths of thousands of Americans and the failure of the government to protect them? How does someone convince them to cover the more substantive issue?
There is a grim calculus to this and it runs through every newsroom in the media industry. Anonymous dead people, a potter’s field, will never be as compelling as Famous Living People Complaining, at least not to television viewers. These viewers are the owners kind of eyeballs that advertisers want to reach, advertisers television executives need to keep happy to fulfill a concrete duty to shareholder profit.
The same logic that took down Roseanne’s show also keeps the controversy on the airwaves, no matter what other news there is to know.
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