This week, Robert De Niro made a joke about first ladies, and Newt Gingrich said it was "inexcusable and the president should apologize for him." Of course, if something is "inexcusable," an apology doesn't make any difference, but then again, neither does Newt Gingrich.
De Niro was speaking at a fundraiser with the first lady, Michelle Obama. Here's the joke: "Callista Gingrich. Karen Santorum. Ann Romney. Now do you really think our country is ready for a white first lady?"
The first lady's press secretary declared the joke "inappropriate," and De Niro said his remarks were "not meant to offend." So, as these things go, even if the terrible damage can never be undone, at least the healing can begin. And we can move on to the next time we choose sides and pretend to be outraged about nothing.
When did we get it in our heads that we have the right to never hear anything we don't like? In the last year, we've been shocked and appalled by the unbelievable insensitivity of Nike shoes, the Fighting Sioux, Hank Williams Jr., Cee Lo Green, Ashton Kutcher, Tracy Morgan, Don Imus, Kirk Cameron, Gilbert Gottfried, the Super Bowl halftime show and the ESPN guys who used the wrong cliché for Jeremy Lin after everyone else used all the others. Who can keep up?
This week, President Obama's chief political strategist, David Axelrod, described Mitt Romney's constant advertising barrage in Illinois as a "Mittzkrieg," and instantly the Republican Jewish Coalition was outraged and called out Axelrod's "Holocaust and Nazi imagery" as "disturbing." Because the message of "Mittzkrieg" was clear: Kill all the Jews. Then the coalition demanded not only that Axelrod apologize immediately but also that U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz "publicly rebuke" him. For a pun! For punning against humanity!
The right side of America is mad at Obama because he hugged the late Derrick Bell, a law professor who believed we live in a racist country, 22 years ago; the left side of America is mad at Rush Limbaugh for seemingly proving him right.
If it weren't for throwing conniption fits, we wouldn't get any exercise at all.
I have a better idea. Let's have an amnesty -- from the left and the right -- on every made-up, fake, totally insincere, playacted hurt, insult, slight and affront. Let's make this Sunday the National Day of No Outrage. One day a year when you will not find some tiny thing someone did or said and pretend you can barely continue functioning until they apologize.
If that doesn't work, what about this: If you see or hear something you don't like in the media, just go on with your life. Turn the page or flip the dial or pick up your roll of quarters and leave the booth.
The answer to whenever another human being annoys you is not "make them go away forever." We need to learn to coexist, and it's actually pretty easy to do. For example, I find Rush Limbaugh obnoxious, but I've been able to coexist comfortably with him for 20 years by using this simple method: I never listen to his program. The only time I hear him is when I'm at a stoplight next to a pickup truck.
When the lady at Costco gives you a free sample of its new ham pudding and you don't like it, you spit it into a napkin and keep shopping. You don't declare a holy war on ham.
I don't want to live in a country where no one ever says anything that offends anyone. That's why we have Canada. That's not us. If we sand down our rough edges and drain all the color, emotion and spontaneity out of our discourse, we'll end up with political candidates who never say anything but the safest, blandest, emptiest, most unctuous focus-grouped platitudes and cant. In other words, we'll get Mitt Romney.
Bill Maher is host of "Real Time With Bill Maher" on HBO. He wrote this article for the New York Times.