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The spectacular emptiness of Roseanne Barr’s apology

Roseanne Barr says she’s sorry for her racist tweet–while vigorously trying to prove that her tweet wasn’t racist. She can’t have it both ways.

The spectacular emptiness of Roseanne Barr’s apology
[Photo: Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images]

On Tuesday afternoon, while standing in line to board a flight, I scrolled through the news that Roseanne Barr had tweeted a blatantly racist remark about former Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett. By the time my flight landed a few hours later, ABC had canceled Barr’s exceedingly well-rated Roseanne revival and Viacom decided to pull all reruns of the series off the air.

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While the court of public opinion swiftly ruled against Barr, the embattled comedian took the entire day revising her protracted apology in real time. In fact, she probably isn’t done yet. It’s like when fellow celebrity Trump supporter Kanye West released his 2016 album, The Life of Pablo, and then continued making changes to it for months afterward. In both cases, they needn’t have bothered: the initial impression was already made. With Barr, though, everything she said following each apology served to actively undermine it.

Recently, Barr had gotten used to saying whatever the hell she felt like without incurring any consequences. She was an avowed pizzagate believer during the election, and ABC rewarded her by reviving her TV show the following year. Once the show proved to be a hit, she used her platform to dismiss fellow ABC shows Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat in an offensive way, and watched as the ratings remained rock-solid. Her Twitter presence has tended to be what one would generally expect from a person who posed for a 2009 Heeb Magazine cover dressed as Hitler, newly emboldened by a president who is never held to account. Barr spent the weekend leading up to her Jarrett tweet provoking Chelsea Clinton with conspiracy theories. Clearly, she felt untouchable.

Barr’s tune changed, though, after the Jarrett tweet, which read: “Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj,” a reference to Jarrett’s birth in Iran and African-American parents. She must have realized right away that she’d crossed a red line and done the one thing racists in America are forbidden from doing: She’d forgotten to be vague. She’d neglected to dress up her remark with coded language and dog whistles, or by suggesting (for five years) that the first African-American president was actually a Kenyan-born Muslim. She’d said the quiet part so loud there was absolutely no room for misinterpretation.

Not long after the original Jarrett tweet, the first apology arrived.

Someone from ABC’s no doubt beleaguered PR team must have told her this apology was insufficient and that by mentioning a proposed exit from Twitter in the same breath as the apology, it looked as though she was blaming “being on Twitter” for the racism she’d belched onto the social media network. The Twitter environment Barr selected for herself may have contributed to the false sense of security propelling her blatantly racist tweet, but it absolutely does not excuse it. Within five minutes came apology # 2.

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This mea culpa struck a somewhat more appropriate note. (Barely.) However, it’s difficult to take Barr’s apology seriously when, just 10 minutes earlier, she aggressively defended her “joke.”

Of course, Barr’s defense conveniently ignores the racial (and racist) component of her Jarrett tweet. Insulting an African-American woman by mentioning the Brotherhood of Islam is a dog whistle; insulting an African-American woman by comparing her to a primate is pretty much Cujo biting you in the face.

Even after Barr was made to realize the full-on PR Hindenburg crash she’d incited, and apologized for it, her fans picked up the slack of studiously ignoring why her tweet was racist. One popular mode of doing so was by claiming that Bill Maher’s recent joke that Donald Trump is descended from orangutans is equally as offensive as what Barr tweeted. While Maher’s joke may be in bad taste–orangutans never started a fight with the mayor of a U.S. city that was just hit by a category 5 hurricane; these primates don’t deserve to be insulted this way–it’s not a racist joke. Calling Trump an orangutan has nothing to do with the awful documented history of comparing black people to apes, something H&M had to reckon with earlier this year following its offensive “monkey hoodie” ad.

Following her apology, the smart thing for Barr to have done would have been to take her own advice and leave Twitter. Instead, she continued retweeting supporters–including one who illuminated the Bill Maher defense by posting photos of Trump and an orangutan, above an unfathomably ill-advised side-by-side of Valerie Jarrett and a character from Planet of the Apes.

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Retweeting something like the above at such a moment is what career suicide looks like. However, the ape imagery was just one flake in a flurry of retweets, amplifying the many supporters defending Barr. Sharing all these messages excusing her Jarrett tweet voided the sincerity of her multiple apologies, before the flailing comedian capped them off with a bizarre tweet asking her defenders to stop defending her–as though she were physically incapable of not retweeting them and thus digging her hole deeper. The lady doth protest too much, which, according to a recent NFL ruling, is a finable offense.

Barr’s no-good, horrible, very bad day appeared to end with one final apology, delivered through BuzzFeed‘s Kate Aurthur.

Barr confirmed she’d written those words herself. And then, even though it was getting late on the East Coast, she still found time for one more grotesque, apology-nullifying series of tweets. In what I’ll deem the Ambien suite or her symphonic apology, she blamed her racist remark on Ambien tweeting, which she felt “went too far.” (Barr deleted the tweets as soon as “Ambien” became the #1 trending topic on Twitter late Tuesday evening.) Ambien has several known side effects, but none of them involves going Klan-level racist. That part of Barr was already present, with Ambien possibly lulling such sublime comfort that she believed her recent resurgence would buffer her against all blowback. She didn’t need the Ambien to be wrong.

A person can’t actually be sorry while sweating so hard to prove there’s nothing to be sorry about. This contradiction is why Donald Trump never apologizes. (Well, that and just plain being a shitty person.) When a public figure has offended most of the country, they can either double down to bolster the remaining die-hards, or apologize to concede that everybody does have a reason to be upset. Roseanne Barr kept swinging wildly back and forth between both, confirming her apology’s essential emptiness. That final, desperate one-two punch of sincere-sounding remorse followed by the Ambien excuse is a fitting close to this whirlwind chapter in her life, and a permanent stain on her reputation. And unlike her TV show, there likely won’t be a reboot.

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