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Lesson of the Romney adoption joke story

By Ruben Navarrette, CNN Contributor
January 5, 2014 -- Updated 1836 GMT (0236 HKT)
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.

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

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