How Rosie Was Wrong
Rosie O’Donnell, that enthusiastic if muddled moralist, got herself in trouble (not that she minds that) with her comments on TV’s “The View” last week. Attempting to make the point that all right-thinking women should stand up for Martha Stewart because she was a “role model,” Rosie said they should follow the model of African-Americans who, she claimed, stood by presumptive wife-slayer O.J. Simpson and fumble-fingered chauffeur killer Jayson Williams because the former pro sports stars were role models to that community. “Black people have so few role models they said, ‘You know what? I don’t care,” intoned Rosie. “You’re not taking them.”
“View” regular Star Jones took offense on the spot, and now several African-American groups are calling for a Rosie retraction, because her comments implied that the black community embraced and protected less-than-admirable black celebrities. The uproar has prevented O’Donnell from being brought to task for the most offensive and ethically dangerous aspect of her statement, which is that groups should stand behind their prominent members even when they violate laws or important ethical values.
This is a recipe for moral rot. One sometimes wonders if Ms. O’Donnell actually listens to what comes out of her mouth: she actually said that groups should embrace misbehaving role-models. Wouldn’t one think that it would occur even to a talk show host that if you let role models continue to be role models when there is strong evidence that they have been guilty of deplorable conduct, you send the message that their conduct isn’t so bad, and perhaps should be emulated? Yes, Rosie: Martha Stewart, the successful business woman, is a proper role model. Once she becomes Martha Stewart, inside trader and obstructer of justice, she forfeits that status. Former Heavyweight boxing champ Mike Tyson–rapist, ear-chomper, misogynist–has lost any claim to be a role model for African-Americans or any other civilized group. If L.A. Laker star Kobe Bryant (rape) and “King of Pop” Michael Jackson (heaven knows what) are convicted in their trials, they cannot be role models either. Role models who violate important values have misused their status and can do disproportionate harm to the culture. That, Rosy, is why we punish them more severely. And that is why we must reject them, not rally to their sides.
Sadly, Rosie owes no apology to the African-American community. Yes, yes not all African-Americans support Simpson and Williams (“If the black people had a vote, they did not tell me!” protested Star Jones on “The View”); indeed, these two may be bad examples. But African-Americans like Americans and societies generally allow far too many of the successful, talented and famous to remain role-models after showing themselves to be venal, dishonest, perverted, cowardly, uncaring, or simply boorish, ignorant, mean and ethically clueless. Rosie is right: African-Americans do it; we all do it. But she’s dead wrong that we should do it. Role models teach and strengthen a society’s positive values; that is their job. You don’t keep a pet that turns vicious; you don’t cheer a soldier who turns traitor (or abuses helpless prisoners); and when role models start misbehaving, it is time to make them pariahs, not martyrs.
We should be grateful to Rosie in one respect. Her statements on “The View” are far less influential now than they once would have been, back in the days when she was nice. She was a role model then.