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Dr. Laura: Worse Than Her Callers

[Guest post by Isaac Chotiner]

Laura Kipnis' bizarre Slate piece on the latest Dr. Laura controversy is one of the least convincing articles you are likely to read this summer. Here is Kipnis' summary of the episode that landed Dr. Laura in hot water:

Jade [a black woman married to a white man] had called Dr. Laura (of all people) for advice on situations when her husband's friends and relations brought up race in ways she found insulting. "Well, can you give me an example of a racist comment? 'Cause sometimes people are hypersensitive," countered Dr. L. Jade tried to describe an incident the night before when a neighbor used the phrase "you black people." Dr. L quickly cut her off, declaring, "That's not racist." When Jade responded, "What about the n-word—" she was once again cut off by Schlessinger, who pointed out that "black guys use it all the time" on HBO and elsewhere, then recited the word in question—"nigger, nigger, nigger"—like an incantation, as if trying to strip it of its force by repetition. "I don't get it," protested Schlessinger. "If anybody without enough melanin says it, it's a horrible thing; but when black people say it, it's affectionate. It's very confusing." She also told Jade that she had a chip on her shoulder and shouldn't have married out of her race if she lacked a sense of humor.

(I pause here to note that Dr. Laura joins a long and distinguished list of conservatives who, after laying out the rules for who can and cannot use the n-word, go on to call those same rules extremely "confusing.") According to Kipnis, the outcry that followed these remarks demonstrated that Dr. Laura is a "scapegoat." Moreover: "Scapegoats help the rest of us out by taking hits for the group; that's been their symbolic role throughout history....The scapegoat process persists because scapegoats continue to be socially useful; after all, it's not like Dr. Laura's the only one in town with some issues about race."

Kipnis' point may have some truth to it (although clearly many of the people offended by Dr. Laura's comments do not have Dr. Laura's racial "issues"), but Kipnis adds:

For my part, I'd just like to point out that Dr. Laura's harangue to Jade—that she had failed to get it right about race (she was overly sensitive on the subject)—took the same form as the public's response to Dr. Laura—that she had failed to get it right about race (she lacked sufficient sensitivity on the subject). But not getting it right about race is the condition of our time.

Kipnis appears to be saying that because both Dr. Laura and her detractors are making a generally similar point ("you are wrong about race") the two accusations are therefore synonymous, when in fact they are completely different. This reminds me of the College Republicans' speaker who I once heard explain that disliking homophobes was just as bad as homphobia because both were forms of dislike. Kipnis then goes on to lay the blame for Dr. Laura at the feet of her listeners. It would indeed be nice if people stopped following Dr. Laura's advice, just at it would be nice if people stopped mobilizing for authoritarian political leaders, but the continued willingness of people to do so does not diminish the responsibility of the central figure in question.

For a much better take on Dr. Laura's gruesome career, check out Jesse Singal's excellent TNR piece.