THE PUBLIC FORGETS hit records, batting averages and acts of philanthropy. But offensive words live on forever.
From "Let them eat cake" to "We're more popular than Jesus," a good faux pas outlives its progenitor and stands as an eternal symbol of elitism and insensitivity. The Beatles bounced back from John Lennon's gauche, sacrilegious comment, but Marie Antoinette didn't. Neither did Marge Schott, the Cincinnati Reds owner who noted (in 1996, no less) that Hitler "was good at the beginning, but he just went too far."
The year 2005 offered many memorable faux pas, from former First Lady Barbara Bush observing that many of the New Orleans evacuees "were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them," to TV evangelist Pat Robertson calling for the assassination of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
Also, former Education Secretary William Bennett mused about aborting black fetuses, a top advertising creative director said women weren't in the upper echelons of the field because they were "crap," and the sales crew at the Paris Hermes store refused to admit Oprah Winfrey while others were inside shopping, claiming the store was closed for a public relations event. Finally, a little-known freshman congresswoman from Ohio called Rep. John Murtha, a decorated Marine veteran who fought in two wars, a coward over his call for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. And, as the tabloids would say, how was \o7your\f7 year?
On the surface, a faux pas looks polarizing, but it's actually unifying. The people in the offended group are affirmed in their belief that they were wronged and deserve better, and people who until that moment might have shared the offender's sentiments are relieved they weren't the ones who said it.
In a sense, the offender performs a social service. He shows everyone where the third rail of political correctness lies. He dies like a canary in the mine so that everyone else can breathe clean air. He even creates an icebreaker for strangers to meet and agree upon: "Can you believe what that jerk said? Who would say a thing like that?"
A perfect faux pas has to be so simple and unpremeditated that anyone could have said it. It has to just slip out. Yet it is precisely who says it that makes it a faux pas. Plenty of New Orleans evacuees (remember "refugees"? Another faux pas!) said they were better off in their new digs and had nothing in the Crescent City to return to. But when Barbara Bush says it, it's different.
A true faux pas cannot be amended, because apologizing for an offensive remark just reminds everyone of the remark and re-offends (see: "When I said Hitler was ..."), and because the apologizer usually doesn't mean it.
Robertson, for example, first tried to apologize for his proposal to do away with Chavez by noting that "I didn't say 'assassination.' I said our special forces should 'take him out.' " When that didn't seem to help matters, he said that if Chavez "thinks we're trying to assassinate him, I think we really ought to go ahead and do it," again shooting himself, if not Chavez, in the foot.
Hermes also fell flat with its apology for barring Winfrey from its store. Representatives said that the store had been closed for a "public relations event," a remark that Winfrey apparently felt implied that nothing offensive had happened. (Besides, a visit from Oprah isn't a public relations event?)
Bennett tried to excuse his musings about aborting black babies in order to reduce the crime rate by noting that he had said that to do so would be "morally reprehensible." Trouble was, the quote that originally offended everyone had included the words "morally reprehensible." Repeating it didn't make it any less offensive. Oh well.
And then there's "Mean Jean" Schmidt, who said on the House floor: "A few minutes ago I received a call from Col. Danny Bubp.... He also asked me to send Congressman Murtha a message: Cowards cut and run. Marines never do." She said neither she nor Bubp "ever wished to attack Congressman Murtha" or "impugn his character." Translation: You're a $@*, but I don't mean it in a bad way!
Finally, there's Neil French, the worldwide creative director at WWP Group, who told an audience in Toronto that women "don't make it to the top because they don't deserve to," saying their roles as caregivers and child-bearers hold them back. Given a chance to apologize, French stood by his faux pas, saying women "don't work hard enough. It's not a joke job." Unfortunately, in between care-giving and child-bearing, women became angry, and French was forced to resign. Maybe he'll get an appearance on Oprah.
MARTHA ROSENBERG is the cartoonist for the Evanston Roundtable, a newspaper in Evanston, Ill.