Watching the disgusting (and decidedly unfunny) performance of the comedienne Michelle Wolf at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner last night, I thought of two things. One was, “What would her mother think of this shockingly vulgar and carelessly cruel exhibition?” I’d say the same thing about Ms. Wolf’s children, if she had any, which I believe she does not.
The second thing I thought of was Edmund Burke’s mournful observations, in Reflections on the Revolution in France, about the moral coefficients of the destructive antinomian impulses that coruscated through France in 1789-1790. The date is important. Burke, although he saw clearly that “in the groves of their academy, at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows,” was writing before the Terror. The depredations he foresaw and cataloged had so far affected mainly manners and morals—the human heart, not yet heads separated from bodies. That would come later.
Of course, we know what was to come. Burke merely foretold it. Yet the insight of hindsight makes Burke’s observations all the more poignant. “All the pleasing illusions,” Burke wrote,
which made power gentle, and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason [note the irony]. All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the super-added ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.
Burke goes on immediately with the passage that Wolf’s sick performance brought to mind: “On this scheme of things, a king is but a man, a queen is but a woman; a woman is but an animal, and an animal not of the highest order.”
Michelle Wolf is a beneficiary (if that is the correct term) of our own French Revolution: the revolution of the 1960s which did its bit to rend the “decent drapery of life” and shatter the delicate filigree of morally charged manners and convention. The idea that there is certain conduct unbecoming a lady is anathema to her. On the contrary, she wears her vulgarity like a badge of honor, happy to trade an hour of embarrassed titters for a lifetime of dishonor.
Wolf provided a vivid illustration of what Burke had in mind. She was not only repellently potty-mouthed, she was also positively rebarbative, joking about abortion and oral sex in the coarsest terms, and making fun of White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who shared the platform with her, for her appearance. Wikipedia, which already has an entry for Wolf’s appearance at the event, said that she “received criticism for her jokes against primarily conservative women and members of the Republican Party.”
No, it wasn’t for her “jokes” against anyone or anything. It was for her exhibition of a gutter sensibility and oblivious cruelty.
The White House Correspondents’ Dinner has been a tradition since the early 1920s. Doubtless there was always an element of self-congratulation about it. But back in the day, there was also an aspect of wholesomeness and forthright patriotism that characterized the event. Once upon a time, the entertainment was furnished by people like Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, and Irving Berlin. Now it’s Michelle Wolf in full gynecological profusion.
Everyone was well turned-out at that snazzy black-tie event. But the moral raiment was suitable for a feast overseen by Caligula. The irony, of course, is that it all takes place against the backdrop of the assumption that Donald Trump is the vulgarian-in-chief. But what’s worse, Donald Trump joshing privately (or so he thought) with a pal in crude terms about women, or women parading publicly around Washington in hats meant to resemble female genitalia? I don’t blame the president for staying away from the exhibitionist orgies that are the White House Correspondents’ Dinners. I hope he continues to stay away and I hope that he encourages his staff and legislators to do so as well. Why should Sarah Huckabee Sanders, for example, have to sit through such episodes of mean-spirited personal abuse?
I’d say that Michelle Wolf should be ashamed of herself, but I recall the curious fact that in English “shameful” and “shameless” are synonyms. She is certainly the latter, which means that she will never recognize that she is also the former.
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Photo credit: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for Netflix