Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Lesson of the Romney adoption joke story

By Ruben Navarrette, CNN Contributor
updated 1:36 PM EST, Sun January 5, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ruben Navarrette: Dust-up over MSNBC segment is latest round of "gotcha" in right-left wars
  • He says the predictable cycle of insults exacts a price in the way we treat other people
  • "Duck Dynasty" star's comments and the Romney adoption "jokes" should be off-limits, he says
  • Navarrette: In 2014, let's transcend mean-spirited efforts to score political points

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter @rubennavarrette. This article was updated Sunday, January 5.

(CNN) -- A recent dust-up at MSNBC is driving the latest round of "gotcha" between the right and the left.

A host has apologized, actually tearing up as she tried to make amends for a segmet that didn't provide information, only insult. And yet, even as the target of the attack says it's time to move on, the right is still incensed. And the left still seems uncomfortable talking about what happened.

And it prompts me to kick off the new year with a confession: I'm bored with both the right and the left. In politics, everyone lies. No one tells the truth. They all push their own agendas. Everything is divided into these camps of blue and red, liberals and conservatives.

The order of the day is situational ethics. Your guy says something wrong, and you defend him because he's your guy. Next week, your opponent says the same exact thing, and you excoriate him because, well, he's your opponent. Where is the consistency?

You won't find much of it in the game of gotcha.

The first rule is that you can constantly reinvent yourself. The second rule is that no other player can remind you of the person you were 10 minutes ago. The third is that, once you catch someone on the opposing team saying something intolerant or insensitive, you get to jump all over them and act high and mighty -- that is, until the next time that someone on your team says something intolerant or insensitive. When that happens, you get to act surprised that anyone took offense and accuse the offended of having thin skin.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

To be sure, there was plenty of offensive material in Phil Robertson's recent comments to GQ magazine appearing to liken homosexuality to bestiality and other deviant behavior. As if that weren't bad enough, the star of the A&E Network's "Duck Dynasty" also appeared to minimize the mistreatment that African-Americans suffered in the South before the civil rights movement. The left couldn't wait to pounce.

Now consider what happened when MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry and her equally self-righteous guests took a break from portraying themselves as morally superior to conservatives and decided it would be hilarious to turn a baby -- specifically, an adopted African-American baby -- into a punchline.

The three used a year-end segment dubbed "Look Back on 2013 and Laugh" to poke fun at the adoption of Kieran Romney, who this year found himself in a family Christmas photo, atop the lap of his new grandfather, Mitt. To some on the left, the fact that Kieran is black, and his grandpa isn't, is a real side splitter.

Opinion: Why Romney adoption jokes hurt

Watch MSNBC host's tearful apology
MSNBC pokes fun at Romney family photo

Upon seeing the photo, guest Pia Glenn was so tickled that the actress burst into song: "One of these things is not like the others! One of these things just isn't the same. And that little baby, front and center, would be the one."

Harris-Perry laughed at that crack and joked that she'd like to see Kieran grow up to marry North West, the daughter of reality star Kim Kardashian and rapper Kanye West. "Can you imagine Mitt Romney and Kanye West as in-laws?" she said.

The other guest was not to be outdone. Comedian Dean Obeidallah chimed in with this: "I think this picture is great. It really sums up the diversity of the Republican Party, the RNC. At the convention, they find the one black person."

Liberals like to think of themselves as more enlightened than anyone else. But if this is what passes for "enlightened" these days, I'd hate to hear what ignorant sounds like.

It's pretty clear that while the focus was on the baby ("one of these things..." and "one black person"), the real target was Mitt Romney. That is, this was about politics. It was about left and right, and that's boring.

What interests me now is how people treat one another, how we interact with each other during the relatively short time we have here on Earth. That is what is going to endure when we're gone, not who we voted for in a given election or our party affiliation.

If you're still looking for a New Year's resolution, how's this one? Let's treat each other better.

Using a baby -- let alone an adopted baby -- to score cheap political points is not how we should treat one another. That's what happened here. Once politics took over, common decency and good manners went out the window.

Harris-Perry, Glenn, and Obeidallah all apologized. But, wouldn't you know it? Even that was a mixed bag.

First the good news. Harris-Perry did a great job. A day after the incident, she apologized on Twitter "without reservation or qualification." Then, she opened her show Saturday with more of the same and veered off into the larger issue of keeping the families of political figures off limits.

"Adults who enter into public life implicitly consent to having less privacy," she said. "But their families, and especially their children, should not be treated callously or thoughtlessly. My intention was not malicious, but I broke the ground rule that families are off-limits, and for that I am sorry."

Now the bad news. Her guests were not nearly so gracious. In fact, their apologies were less about contrition and forgiveness, and more about politics.

Glenn tweeted: "In a spontaneous reaction to a photo, my disdain for Mitt Romney's political platform led me to inadvertently insult adoptive families."

In a piece for the Daily Beast, Obeidallah (who has appeared on CNN shows and written op-eds for CNN.com) explained that he was in hot water because "I told a joke that many on the right -- and even a few in the middle -- didn't like" and because "those on the right who monitor MSNBC were outraged" and because "right-wing media outlets" had piled on. He said that "being attacked by right-wing publications" is not new for him and vowed "to the self-appointed right-wing pundits" that he will "never stop calling out the wrongs and hypocrisy of the right."

All RIGHT, then.

Still, Obeidallah wrote, "I want to sincerely apologize to the Romney family if anyone was offended by my joke."

For his part, Romney told Fox News that he's ready to move on from the controversy. So should we all.

Interestingly, the three jokesters only apologized after word of the segment got out and conservative media outlets kicked up a fuss. You see, apparently when you have a show on MSNBC, no one watches or hears what you have to say until someone else repeats it.

Now, that's funny.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
updated 4:55 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
updated 1:21 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
updated 9:27 AM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT