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Jewish World Review June 2, 2000 / 28 Iyar, 5760

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Consumer Reports

Is It Kosher to
Boycott Dr. Laura?

Stance on homosexuals has become the focus of a free-speech debate -- 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.

In contrast to the general trend of coddling us for our weaknesses, the good doctor tolerates neither whining nor failing to take responsibility for one’s actions. The tough-love queen is especially hard on people who put their own love lives, convenience or careers ahead of their children’s welfare. Tens of thousands attempt to call her every day to be lectured and pilloried, to the delight of millions of listeners who take to heart every word she says.

Laura Schlessinger is the biggest thing in talk radio these days. In fact, according to industry trackers, her blend of advice and family-values preaching has actually nudged aside Rush Limbaugh and the bottom-feeding Howard Stern in the national ratings, apparently making her the No. 1 mouth on American radio. Paramount Studios has a Dr. Laura television show in the works.

Interestingly, Laura is also an observant “traditional” Jew. The daughter of a Jewish father, she formally converted to Judaism as an adult, as did her husband. She is unapologetically Jewish, always wearing a Star of David in public and talking about her faith on the air and crediting Judaism as the inspiration for much of her advice.

But lately, although Laura has become a virtual cottage industry, with best-selling books and loads of stuff you can buy from her Web site, the focus on her has changed. For the first time since her meteoric rise to success in the early 1990s, Laura is on the defensive.

What happened? Along with her regular advice urging women not to let men take advantage of them, Laura has occasionally let drop her opposition to homosexuality. Though she has been at pains to make it clear that she opposes discrimination and violence against homosexuals, she also has been quoted as saying that homosexuality is a “biological error.” She is also a firm opponent of gay marriage.

Seeing this as an invitation to anti-gay violence, groups such as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation decided to take on the doc. Though she has attempted to apologize, the agitation has continued. After months of pressure, on May 16, Proctor & Gamble pulled ads for their assorted wares from the projected TV show. The next day, United Airlines dropped out of the ad roster for her radio show.

Not satisfied with this, the gay groups appear to want to drive Laura off the radio if she does not recant her views.

That raises some troubling questions.

Though Dr. Laura seems to be taking a mainstream position on homosexuality — and one that might have been labeled “liberal” 30 years ago — the stand 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?

Isn’t an ideologically based boycott of those who espouse unpopular opinions exactly why many left-wingers are still raging against the injustices of the blacklisting of Communists and others during the Joseph McCarthy era?

CASTOR OIL AND INSENSITIVITY As someone who has not listened regularly to Dr. Laura but has still heard her often enough to form an opinion, 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 who are dumb and 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. Like another Jewish media star, television's "Judge Judy" Sheindlin, Laura’s arrogance and bark are tough to take. 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 — and I’ve never heard her do so — 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 in the grand American democratic condition.

But we would do well to remember that those who were driven out of films and television because of their beliefs 50 years ago were also the victims of ideological activists who started their campaign the same way as did the foes of Dr. Laura — with pressure on sensitive advertisers and media moguls who cared nothing for ideas, but who feared controversy like the plague.

How far down the slippery slope of political correctness do we want the media to go? 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 sacrificed on the altar of political correctness, it is also 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, and that aspect of Dr. Laura’s shtick is refreshing. But it is also a faith built on gimilus 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."

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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© 2000, Jonathan Tobin