A few years ago, someone said that if the great poet Walt Whitman were writing today instead of 150 years ago, he would have written that he heard "America whining."
But that was before "Dr. Laura" hit the airwaves and started setting us straight: The good doctor tolerates neither whining nor failing to take responsibility for one's actions.
Thousands attempt to call the tough-love queen each day to be lectured and pilloried, to the delight of millions of listeners. Laura Schlessinger is the biggest thing in talk radio. Her blend of advice and "family values" preaching has made her the No. 1 mouth on American radio, and Paramount Studios even has a Dr. Laura TV show in the works.
Schlessinger is also an observant "traditional" Jew. Unapologetically Jewish, she wears a Star of David, speaks of her faith on-air and credits Judaism as the inspiration for much of her advice. But although Dr. Laura has authored best-selling books and has a Web site, she's recently had reason to be on the defensive.
Along with her regular advice, Laura is known let drop her opposition to homosexuality. She says she opposes discrimination and violence against gay men and lesbians, but many people are familiar with her quote that homosexuality is a "biological error," and her views against gay marriage.
Because of this, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation decided to take on the doc. After months of pressure, on May 16, Proctor & Gamble pulled ads from the projected TV show, joined by United Airlines, which dropped its radio ads the next day.
Even still, gay groups seem to want to drive Laura off the radio if she does not recant her views, saying her public apology hardly undoes her invite to anti-gay violence.
This does raise some troubling questions. Though Dr. Laura may have mainstream support, her brand of tolerance without acceptance is no longer enough. A libertarian majority is emerging that believes one's sex life is one's own business, and that homosexuals have a right to the same acceptance in society and equality before the law that heterosexuals enjoy.
From the point of view of this libertarian writer, this trend — in the realm of civil rights, if not religious practice — is generally a good thing. But does that mean that all who oppose this process must be driven away? Doesn't an ideologically based boycott of those who espouse unpopular opinions remind us of the Joseph McCarthy era?
I will confess to having mixed feelings about the show. I think her basic message is a much-needed dose of castor oil for the "me generation" and its spawn. It is delightful to hear people being told to stop complaining as the notion of personal responsibility is exalted above self-realization. However, I have always been repelled by the way she deals with people, even those dumb ones who deserve a scolding.
There is a lack of respect, what in Judaism we call derech eretz, in her hectoring of those foolish souls who call to get a tongue-lashing from the advice diva. Laura's arrogance and bark are tough to take, but I'm also suspicious of advice shows whose listeners take their guru's sayings all too literally.
Laura claims she has never attacked gays on her show, but if she is telling millions that gays are "defective" in some way, that is not a minor thing. A belief in free speech does not mean we have to subsidize speech that offends us.
Calling advertisers and holding them accountable for what they sponsor is grandly American. But 50 years ago, ideological activists who started their campaign the same way as did the foes of Dr. Laura found many victims who fell prey to media moguls who cared nothing for ideas, but who feared controversy like the plague.
The problem is, what starts out as a focused boycott can quickly snowball into a blacklist of unpopular ideas. Even if I don't agree with Laura's attitude toward gays, she ought not be denied a radio or TV show. The greater evil would be the chilling effect on free speech in the media that purging Dr. Laura would have.
Even more important for Jews and other persons of faith, if Dr. Laura is made an example because of her beliefs, does the fact that she draws these opinions from her understanding of traditional Judaism mean that she is being purged for what amounts to an expression of her — and our — faith?
Quite possibly, and that should give her critics pause. Surely, we are not prepared to say that Orthodox Jewish views about homosexuality, such as those supposedly espoused by Dr. Laura, can no longer be spoken in public. However, before Dr. Laura assumes the pose of a "traditional" Jewish martyr, it would be fair for us to ask her to think carefully about the way she invokes Judaism to her listeners.
Judaism can be judgmental about those who do foolish and harmful things, but it is also a faith built on gemilut chasadim — acts of lovingkindness. We should all remember this whenever we leap to negatively characterize anyone, especially our fellow citizens and fellow Jews who may be "different."