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June 19th, 2009
06:05 AM ET

Avlon: Racist emails, Playboy's GOP list

Editor’s note: John P. Avlon is the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and writes a weekly column for The Daily Beast. Previously, he served as Chief Speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.

[cnn-photo-caption image= caption="Email sent by TN state legislative aide (L) and article (R)."]

If you debase or dehumanize people who disagree with you politically, you’re deep into wingnut territory. That’s what we see in this installment of "Winguts of the Week," which looks at racist emails sent by southern Republican politicos and an ugly Playboy web-feature on “Conservative women we hate to love.” Get ready for a generous helping of racism and sexism from the right and the left.

I love the South, but southern conservatives have a notoriously complicated history where race and politics intersect. Little learning curve was shown in South Carolina this week when longtime local GOP activist Rusty DePass "joked" that First Lady Michelle Obama was descended from a gorilla, which had gone missing from a local zoo: "I'm sure it's just one of Michelle's ancestors – probably harmless." Watch

The comment, posted on the former state election director and Richmond County GOP chair’s Facebook page, drew widespread outrage. (Note to the over-60 crowd: the world of social networking isn’t conducive to racist asides that might have gone unchallenged in a country club or pool hall.)

DePass’s initial public defense was to claim that Michelle herself had said she was descended from apes. This apparent Scopes-Monkey Trial-era reference to evolution was not consistent with anything found in the first lady’s remarks. Silence about the scandal from the South Carolina Republican leadership was deafening but Mr. DePass eventually wrote a letter of apology to the first lady, presented in front of the local NAACP. Seems like evolution of attitudes might be a good thing all around.

But Rusty DePass wasn’t the only southern Republican politico to wade into the murky waters of racist emails masquerading as humor. This week, Tennessee state legislative aide Sherri Goforth found herself in the national news when she emailed an image labeled “Historical Keepsake” – showing the august portraits of presidents of the United States from George Washington on, ending with a pair of googly-eyes peering out from a black background to symbolize President Obama.

When confronted, the aide to State Senator Diane Black said only that she regretted sending the image to the wrong email list and from her government address. She stated that she had been "reprimanded" by her supervisors but not otherwise punished, let alone sacked, for sending out the email on the taxpayer’s dime. Here’s an idea – send her to work at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis for a few months on furlough.

This week, the echo-chamber was buzzing about David Letterman’s off-base joke about Sarah Palin and her daughters. But that seems comparatively innocent next to’s June feature “So Right, It’s Wrong – Top Ten Conservative Women We Hate to Love.”

The list – featuring former White House Press Secretary Dana Perino, conservative commentator Michelle Malkin and author Peggy Noonan, among others – was capped off by what I can only call here a “hate-fornicate" rating. You can guess at the real term they used, but suffice it to say that it suggested aggression. The segment posed as an homage but unfavorably compared one woman to Eva Braun and said of a pro-life journalist, “you get this one pregnant, she stays pregnant. Karma is a b*tch.”

Playboy has never pretended to be politically-correct, but this was way over the line, even for them. The feature, penned by one Guy Cimbalo, was subsequently dropped from the Playboy Web site but archived by the conservative blog, which rightly pointed out that a corollary liberal list would have provoked far more widespread outrage.

Playboy issued a statement on the controversy that sidestepped outright apology: “The feature on was by no means intended to insinuate or encourage violence against women – something the organization adamantly abhors. It has been removed from the site.” Playboy is usually focused on the good-natured appreciation of beautiful women – but this feature went far beyond its critics’ stereotypes of the magazine as sexist or in bad taste; it was a foray into the politics of hate.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.

Filed under: Wingnuts of the week
soundoff (28 Responses)
  1. Jenny

    I am saddened and angered that racism is more than alive and well in this country. In my book overt racism displays an elitism that is rooted in a misguided sense of entitlement. Imagine feeling so well insulated from consequences that one can choose to practice racism in public! Remember world history: there was an entire agenda and government based on racism. It was Nazi Germany and Adolf Hilter. If this club is shown to have actually done this, it should have all public services like water, sewer, electricity, and garbage collection cut off.

    July 10, 2009 at 7:04 am |
  2. John Cline

    You people want good doses of racism every minute of every day? Try being a truck driver with your cb radio turned on. For too many years I heard racist/sexist things taken to such unbelievably low levels by right-wingnuts, so sick with hate, and then, declare themselves "good Christians." Free speech is alive!

    July 9, 2009 at 9:43 am |
  3. JesusHumper

    I don't know how anyone could possibly relate a black person to a gorilla or a monkey in this day in age. Seriously? That was just stupid and not a joke at all.

    July 2, 2009 at 2:58 pm |
  4. Joe D.

    I imagaine that the same people who label conservative media types
    as racist are the same ones who think Oberman and Maddow are
    fair and balanced. If want want to see hate, tune in to those two. At least O'Reilly has opposing views on his show, something that MSNCB doesn't believe in. If you are only offended when your side is getting raked, you are the problem, not the solution.

    June 25, 2009 at 4:29 pm |
  5. Al

    I judge CNN's integrity from one single event. How they reported the Jan 2009 Israeli massacre of 1500 innocent women and children in Gaza. CNN basically overlooked it in my opinion, when compared with their reporting of Iran's radical protesters.

    June 21, 2009 at 11:29 am |
  6. Kiera

    "A Joke" is white supremacist / racist republican-speak for "I am fully aware of what I'm doing" but I'll offer a token apology AFTER I put it out there and the damage is done."

    It's the equivalent of a trial attorney intentionally planting falsehoods and negativity knowing the judge will say "strike it off the record" after the thought has been planted.

    This type behavior is not a mis-speak and it is certainly not a's intentional and it serves a purpose. These folks still dream of the antebellum South where cotton was king, Blacks were slaves and they're hoping the South will rise again so that WHITE MEN can take their rightful place of rulership over all.

    Rather than an outcry at the blatancy of racism, CNN is quick to break any story that attempts to depreciate the stature of the president or any member of his family, such as the watermelon patch on the white house lawn, the family of "coons" that's probably been on the white house property since Bill Clinton / GW eras, the Michelle/Ape foolishness and all the other insults being hurled at the Obamas.

    The saddest part though is that you expect this type thing from possum-faced, southern, white dumb-asses; but what about the other white commentators including CNN that seem to derive some perverted pleasure in keeping the stupidity alive by replaying and repeating it. Seems like six of one and half-dozen of the other to me.

    June 19, 2009 at 5:13 pm |
  7. Al

    To Jacob: Actually, democrats have used far worse hate speech. Just look at Senator Byrd, from W. Va., who utilized a certain "n" word in an interview in 1994.

    Doesn't take much to find it on the left of the aisle. The seething hatred from the "open minded" liberals is blatantly obvious.

    June 19, 2009 at 4:48 pm |
  8. Terri

    Uhm, since when is Playboy magazine a representative of the left?

    June 19, 2009 at 3:55 pm |
  9. Eric L. Franks

    I do not defend the Playboy article mentioned above, but the Playboy Foundation has done many, many good things on behalf of women and others. To the person who said "Who reads that trash anyway", the answer is MILLIONS (all over the world, I might add). FAR more people read Playboy than magazines like Christian Living and others of Christian or religious themes.
    Letterman's joke was tasteless, but look at what the so-called Christians outside his studio were saying. They called his child a bastard and his child's mother a slut. One guy was even making racist gestures to some black women who were there. Seems to me the Right uses an ugly joke to justify making even uglier rascist/sexists statements.
    Although I'm a white guy, I have seen first-hand the damage racist language and speech cause. I was married to an African-American woman and watched as she was harrassed at work and passed up for promotion based entirely on her skin color. Her employer didn't even deny it (which really helped us in court). To say that people who are hurt and insulted by racist hate-speech or "jokes" that undermine them based on their race should "lighten up" is awful and contributes to the problem. As decent human beings, we should ALL stand against racist and sexist speech. The Constituion defends your right to free speech from the GOVERNMENT, not your fellow Americans. Hateful, hurtful language could go the way of the dinosaurs if we all just let others know we don't find the hateful things they're saying funny or entertaining. When you rally outside of a studio and make worse comments than the person you're protesting, you do far more damage to your own cause.
    If you have a problem with something someone says, approach the matter in a civil way.

    June 19, 2009 at 3:53 pm |
  10. Rob Nevada

    Republicans are starting to show the nation and the world that they are nothing but fully repugnant liars, closeted racist, sexist, homophobic and yes adulterers, hiding behind the religious right. Note to Republicans the world has evolved and getting smaller in the form of technology, more of your pathetic stunts will surface.
    This is a disgrace, we are in 2009 and you got people that exhibit this stupidity, and not to mention on the taxpayers dime

    June 19, 2009 at 3:23 pm |
  11. JL

    AKM, I'm pretty sure that a low yield atomic bomb set by a terrorist in a heavily urban area is worse a worse weapon of mass destruction than someone making racist remarks (either slight, overt or covert remarks). In today's world, a racist hurts your feelings. A terrorist kills as many people as he or she can in one shot. I think being dead, seeing your loved ones dead, seeing strangers dead of every color and religion for doing nothing but being in the wrong place at the wrong time and because the terrorist doesn't like your government is worse than being offended by what someone says or a perceived slight. Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me. Remember that?

    June 19, 2009 at 3:04 pm |
  12. Don

    Racism in America can only be dealt with if the people who exhibit the behavior actually "experience" it. It's as if the racists are afraid of the people who they offend. As a 44 yr old African American man from New Jersey, I experienced more blatant racism in Tennessee for a year than in my entire life. Since I was high level management, the company that I worked for had people follow me home, watched my associations, sabotaged my work and constantly made remarks about why I had a nice car, dressed well, and where I lived. These people were actually angry that I held this position and were ever more infuriated that I was intelligent, charismatic, and knew my job well (sound familiar?).

    It seems that racist people are fine when those to whom they belittle are non-threatening. If Michelle and Barak Obama were a low to middle class working couple who just made news in a conventional way no one would care to berate them

    June 19, 2009 at 2:47 pm |
  13. Oromia

    What a trash..

    June 19, 2009 at 2:29 pm |
  14. AKM

    "We as a society need to stop taking everything so seriously". yes for a white american male.

    For those who suffer everyday because of their colors or gender, the worst criminal and evil person on earth is a racist, and the most important matter is racism, especially when it is coming from American politicians.
    Racism is the worst weapon of mass destruction in the United States. Racists are worst than terrorist, because they slowly kill and destroy generation after generation.

    June 19, 2009 at 2:26 pm |
  15. Uche

    It is beyond weird how the right wingers in America fan hatred everyday and get away with it until one of them actually goes specific with the 'decendant of a monkey' line. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and co are all blatant racists. Everybody knows that but then, what happens? Their employers end up paying them even more money and their ratings are sky rocketing with each new day! What do you call that? racism is so deep rooted that it is almost hopeless to begin to think of a world without it.

    June 19, 2009 at 1:18 pm |
  16. lolo

    It is really sad what American people have turn into since Obama has been elected into the Presidency. Just like Nathan said once a racist always a racist. These people did not just get this way overnight. Every word that comes out of there mouths they mean it. I have repeated to myself that rascism is really rearing its ugly head more now since the election. These people who say they are Christians are really devils in disguise. They have been teaching their children this for years. It is just amazing that these type of attitudes are still so widespread this day and age. If they could go back to slavery and lynching people they would love it. We must prevail over all of this nonsense that is going on or we will burn in hell.

    June 19, 2009 at 1:06 pm |
  17. Andrew

    I find it absolutly amazing that stuff like this is even that big of a deal. I mean come on I would think that we as a society have much more to worry about then Dave Letterman telling a bad joke, or another politician sending an inappropriate email. Its like Peta throwing a fit over President Obama killing a fly. People need to lighten up. We as a society need to stop taking everything so seriously. I mean we have all told jokes before that someone could and probably would find innapropriate. Its humor, not exactly good humor but they are people and people make mistakes. Its not the end of the world and I would think that people would have allot better things to worry about then bad jokes. I think all these news articles about people saying stupid stuff is a waste of time and energy. We are a free people, we have the freedome to think whatever we want to whenever we want to. If they want to be racist and tell bad jokes then whatever. Just my opinion.

    June 19, 2009 at 12:59 pm |
  18. S Callahan

    If more people would 'think' before they speak (or write)..and lived with the motto of 'Do no harm' this world would be much better.....
    Try it for a day (do no harm) our society it is very difficult to do....
    one speaks too quickly from the tounge..without thought...and little words do great harm.....

    June 19, 2009 at 12:56 pm |
  19. donttreadonme

    southern conservatives have a notoriously complicated history where race and politics intersect.------------------–

    If you want to talk history who was on the side of the civil rights movement in the begining? It wasn't the Southern Dems!

    You can take two examples from millions of people and suggest that the Repubs are rascist. That is so wrong!

    Sotomayers comments were rascist these two where just dumb!

    June 19, 2009 at 12:49 pm |
  20. donttreadonme

    It is becoming common place for libs to freely rip on conservative women in ways that is not appropriate. This is real sexism!

    What this article fails to disscuss is the strong role conservative women are taking in the Republican party. Power to the laddies!

    Time for a boycott of Playboy and NBC…..but who reads that trash anyway?


    June 19, 2009 at 12:43 pm |
  21. erttha

    This is exactly what I mean the racism and discrimnation has been handed down from the older generations. This is ignorance at its best. Thats what makes me mad when some white say get over it and when men in general continue to discrimate against women. Like some Jews say we will never forget. And I say as a black women "I can forgive, but I will never forget.

    June 19, 2009 at 12:35 pm |
  22. Jacob

    I'd just like to point out that in order to find someone on the "left" who was being as offensive or backwards thinking as Republican activists and politicians, this guy had to reference an article from Playboy. EARTH TO MISTER AVLON, PLAYBOY IS A PORNOGRAPHY MAGAZINE. To compare something done by a politician on one side of an argument with something done by a nudie magazine on the other side of an argument and then say "see both sides have bad people" is so ridiculous as to make this entire article meaningless. Will Mr. Avlon next compare the actions of the House Minority Leader with a pedophile who happened to vote democrat next election?

    June 19, 2009 at 12:27 pm |
  23. Stephanie

    I totally disagree with Willam K.B. That's the problem, racism and hate continue to be acceptable in this coutry because someone uses the "its a joke" line to try to make it acceptable, When someone is telling a joke that doesn't have anything to do with racism and hate, they never preclude it with, This is a joke. As long as we continue to accept this behavior, the longer it will take to eliminate hate from our society. The Congress of the US just adopted a resolution apoligizing for our reprehensible behavior regarding slavery, so what about the gorilla comment or the picture of President Obama was supposed to be funny? Most people just don't get it.

    June 19, 2009 at 12:20 pm |
  24. Nathan

    William K.B. you are a joke if you don't believe these Republican racist don't believe what they say. Get a life and get real. and if you doin't know the difference, it explains why you too are probably a racists.

    June 19, 2009 at 12:07 pm |
  25. AKM

    How this beautiful land ended up so many sick minds?

    June 19, 2009 at 12:06 pm |
  26. D. Tree

    Its interesting that the common thread is the fact all offenses were committed in the name of a joke – on left and right.

    At some level its all offensive, which means we as a society need to find a middle ground between "acceptable" offensiveness and "unacceptable" offensiveness.

    What is considered acceptable changes through time, and that is the hardest thing for some people to deal with.

    June 19, 2009 at 11:45 am |
  27. William K. B.

    I find the first comment a joke, so I laughed, its a joke a people...It dosen't mean they believe them and the fact you guys are digging this deep into a politician's personal life as to question whether telling a joke to friends is ethically correct then we should all just say goodbye to political humor!

    June 19, 2009 at 7:18 am |
  28. Bernice

    This just means that Perez Hilton is a wingnut! Now I have yet one more word that can be used when we HAVE to talk about this .... I am sorry! I am falling short of actually calling him a man! I will not! WINGNUT it is! Thank you CNN!

    June 19, 2009 at 6:41 am |