Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Pardon Billy Bush!

Billy Who?
News came down on Monday, October 17th: Billy Bush, the third-hour host of the Today show, a personality so forgettable that I’d even forgotten he’d been suspended a week prior, was fired. As the Ed McMahon to Donald Trump’s Johnny Carson on that now-notorious Access Hollywood tape, he’d contributed some vulgar and offensive lines to Trump’s praise of sexual assault. So Bush is out, apparently. Meanwhile, Trump is still polling around forty percent.

Upon Bush’s suspension last week, his NBC stablemate Seth Meyers wisecracked that this means Today show hosts, in the lowest-rated hour of broadcast network programming, are held to higher standards than presidential candidates. It’s literally easier to pull somebody from interviewing celebrity poodle groomers, than from contention for America’s highest office. Admittedly, no serious presidential candidate has ever said anything quite so revolting on tape. But still.

Fact is, I’m sympathetic with Billy Bush. Not completely, of course, since you’d expect a TV pseudo-journalist with over a decade’s experience to know not to feed trolls. His sounds of possibly enthusiastic agreement with Donald Trump probably encouraged the classic bully to keep going with his diatribe. But I’ve been in situations where one foul-mouthed goon appeared to dominate a crowd. It’s very hard to resist in that situation.

And when I say “been in situations,” I don’t mean in grade school. In all-male workplace situations, where one dominant personality winds other men up, that dominant asshat probably uses offensive language to control the discussion. Nobody in the crowd wants to be the first to speak against the type-A jackass, because it’s impossible to determine who really agrees, and nobody wants to be the one spoilsport. So things get worse rather than better.

Literally within the last month, in my current job, I’ve been in conversation with a man who used the N-word in conversation. I’ve stood silent, watching two men push each other’s buttons about long-discredited conspiracy theories regarding Hillary Clinton, while three other men hung back, pretending to be apolitical, lest the two leaders’ increasingly heated tone gets turned on us. And I’ve watched two dominant guys use sexual language approaching, but not topping that which Trump got recorded saying.

We’d all like to believe we’d have courage enough to speak against such situations. Ask most white Americans today (most, not all), and they’d probably say that, yes, if they time-traveled to that iconic Woolworth’s counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, of course they’d have courage enough to speak against the bigotry and violence. Surely they’d have sense enough to decry hanging witches in Salem, Massachusetts. Yeah, I’d know to give Mary and Joseph a warm bed.

But until you find yourself in such a situation, I seriously believe you don’t know how you’d respond. All your fine-seeming ethics fizzle and die when you realize you don’t know whether anybody would support you, or whether you’d find yourself the outcast in a situation you can’t leave—trapped on a bus with a rich, spoiled thug like Billy Bush, or trapped in a job you can’t afford to leave, like me.

It’s a situation I wouldn’t wish on anybody. Because for every Rosa Parks, whose singular sacrifice ignited a movement against entrenched bigotry, there are dozens of unnamed martyrs whose sacrifice did nothing. Civil rights historians record that many black Americans before Parks refused to relinquish their seats; most were jailed, and vanished from history. Only a confluence of circumstances, impossible to reconstruct now, made Parks the hero America needed.

Like me, Billy Bush found himself in a closed space, in a crowd of men, while one egomaniac pandered to the crowd’s reptile brains with tales, possibly fake or exaggerated, of sexual conquest. Yeah, Bush said “Whatever you want,” which Melania Trump has construed as “egging [Donald] on.” But nobody believes that. Bush’s short, grammatically incomplete sentences reflect a man scared to resist the tide.

So while I’m not exactly on Billy Bush’s side, I understand his situation. Merely having one woman within earshot would’ve changed the situation altogether. My workplace became, temporarily, a less hostile space when the company hired two young female electricians, and the guys trying to out-dude each other stepped back. And the Trump tape reflects a changed tone when Arianne Zucker appears.

Maybe Billy “Don’t Call Me George” Bush really isn’t that bad. Maybe he is. But he deserves the opportunity to explain himself on air, not just have his press credentials yanked because we’re outraged by Trump. He shouldn’t pay the price because there’s no established mechanism to fire a visibly deranged presidential candidate.

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