Kelly Sadler, the Special Assistant to the President’s Office of Communication, has become the latest protagonist in our national ritual of excoriating individuals for inappropriate statements. As of this writing, the Trump administration still refuses to fire Ms. Sadler or apologize for her dismissal of Senator John McCain’s opposition to CIA nominee Gina Haspel because “he’s dying anyway.”
Sadler’s statement reminded me of anthropologist Ernest Becker’s observation that we are psychologically and emotionally built to deny our own mortality. The relatively younger and presumably healthier special assistant dismissed the ageing senator fighting terminal cancer, apparently oblivious to the fact that she too is dying. She found a position of relative power over McCain based on her temporary good health and wielded it against him. Her words provided her, if only for a split second, with an illusion of invulnerability.
Pointing out the psychological and evolutionary motives behind Kelly Sadler’s words is not just existential philosophizing. We all live in the shadow of death. Sadler might have been killed in a car accident the same day she made her remark and died before the Arizona senator. Alternatively, she might have dropped dead immediately after uttering her remark from an undiagnosed aneurysm or any other variety of the fatal disorders that can sneak up on us unannounced. In fact, from the perspective of eternity, Sadler and I and everyone reading these words are as close to death as John McCain. Even if McCain does expire before any of us, from the second he enters oblivion, time stops for him but the rest of us will soon follow him into the eternal void. This horrifying truth is one of the many dark realities of our animal nature that civilization attempts but fails to fully erase.
Kelly Sadler’s callous and cowardly statement deserves, at the very least, the silent condemnation that, according to reports, it elicited from its immediate audience. It certainly deserves media scrutiny when one public official dismisses another, particularly an esteemed politician like Senator John McCain, in such off-hand manner. Sadler certainly owed the Senator and his family an apology, which she delivered by contacting his daughter Meghan McCain.
However, I do not know why Kelly Sadler owes the country as a whole a public apology when the comment was not made in public. As distasteful as it was, the remark was directed at one individual as opposed to any immediately identifiable social group. Her words lacked compassion and respect, but they had a limited target. Her remark can’t reasonably be categorized as racist, sexist, ageist, or homophobic. And so, pitiless as it was, it cannot reasonably be construed as an assault on America’s social fabric. The number of famous long-serving national politicians with terminal brain cancer can be counted on a single finger.
It is true that Kelly Sadler’s remark was made during a meeting in the White House where she and other public employees were working at tax payers’ expense. It is also true that the meeting was held to strategize the successful appointment of a CIA director formerly complicit in torture, a move that will arguably further undermine the country’s international standing. That’s certainly a newsworthy aspect of this story. But if our nation’s media outlets of record are going to demand apologies for any and every inappropriate statement made during a private White House meeting by members of any and every administration, they will have time for precious little else.
Even our current administration, like the perennial broken clock, can be right or at least not completely wrong some of the time. There is something to be said for the defense of Kelly Sadler offered by the White House’s spokespeople, Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Raj Shah. Individuals should be able to speak with a degree of freedom in meetings they consider to be off the public record. In a private environment where individuals feel free to share off-the-cuff ideas, terrible remarks like Sadler’s comment or Trump’s remark about “shithole countries” have a greater likelihood of arising, especially within the dubious company of the current White House staff. But what price are we willing to pay in missed creativity and ingenuity by stifling discussions during public sector or private enterprise staff meetings in our internet-enabled age of reflexive condemnation and outrage?
Sadler’s many critics claim that the lines Kelly Sadler and her boss have crossed are easy to identify and avoid. People, however, are not always good at finding balance and moderation. In social media debates that leak into the real world, the line between the appropriate and the inappropriate can become blurry. Comments that would have been innocuous or even radically progressive ten years ago—like New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon’s argument for legalizing marijuana and using the drug trade to raise “reparations” for minorities affected by the excesses of the drug war—now receive opprobrium. Today, apparently, using the term ‘reparation’ for anything besides a discussion of compensation for the descendants of U.S. slavery is strictly forbidden. Such lines are endlessly redrawn and speakers sometimes don’t get the relevant memo until after they’ve violated them. I worry more about the effect this has on everyday language and expression than I worry about Sadler’s thoughtless remark.
In light of the flexibility our ever-shifting norms and the disproportionate sternness and rigidity with which they are enforced, the mainstream media’s insistent focus on Kelly Sadler’s comment contributes to a stifling of public discourse with the ominous sense that our worst private moments can become fodder for public judgment. At the same time, coverage of consequential policy choices and world events that deserve serious attention and scrutiny are neglected in favor of empty sensation. At the current rate, MSNBC will soon be broadcasting a nightly special like those hosted by Ted Koppel during the Iran hostage crisis, in which large graphics and pseudo-portentous music announce “Day 145 of Kelly Sadler’s Non-Apology.”
Kelly Sadler’s remark certainly deserved and received some measure of opprobrium. But how long should the media focus on demanding an apology that never appears? Whether or not Sadler believes her statement merits a public apology, we know that her boss has decided it does not. Donald Trump sets the tone for this administration and, unfortunately, he is the President of the United States until further notice. Those who think that considerations of tone are what merit saturation coverage are confusing the petty with the truly important. At a time of global instability, we do not need such distractions. It would be worth recovering a sense of perspective.
Carlos Hiraldo is a poet and a Professor of English at the City University of New York.