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 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 4:48 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 9:40 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 5:53 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 7:05 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT