Roseanne Barr tweeted herself out of a job on Tuesday, when she likened former Obama administration official Valerie Jarrett — who is black — to if the "muslim brotherhood and planet of the apes had a baby." Barr half-heartedly apologized amid a justifiably clamorous outcry. But within hours, ABC announced that Roseanne's eponymous show — the reboot of which was "the highest-rated and most-watched series of the broadcast season" — was canceled.
In a sense, Barr is a martyr to her speech. I don't mean the analytically respectable conception of free speech, of course, but the simple incontinent rambling of a conspiratorial racist who could not stop posting to save her life, and was only canned by her corporate masters when the bigotry became too blatant to look past.
Barr wasn't always a Twitter-obsessed right-wing maniac. In 2012 she was battling Jill Stein for the presidential nomination of the Green Party (and ended up running under the Peace and Freedom Party, where she got over 60,000 votes). Then she turned hard right during the Trump era. In but one example of her 180, she has gone from denouncing Israel as a "NAZI state" in 2009 to becoming a ferocious pro-Israel partisan who speculates about becoming prime minister of Israel.
It's the mark of someone with an intense interest in politics, but a disorganized, unstable mind, prone to wild swings in political commitments and paranoid beliefs. (Indeed, she reportedly has multiple personality disorder.) The internet in general — and particularly those services like Facebook and Twitter that are designed by the world's smartest software engineers to keep people compulsively clicking and scrolling, thus enabling reactionary sources that are constantly spewing inflammatory conspiracy theories or hate — may have been an enabling factor here as well. (I'm sure most people by now know somebody who has been driven into extreme politics by Breitbart or Infowars.) So Barr went out in classic style: replying to a Twitter thread started by a conspiratorial conservative website, which included an egg account with 22 followers and an anti-vaccine crank.
None of this should be a huge surprise. Barr's basic nature has been known for years by now. This is far from the first time she has posted bigotry or conspiracy nonsense. And that was fine by the executives of ABC when she was raking in high ratings due to being one of the few mass culture avenues by which conservatives could express their politics by watching a fictional TV show (as opposed to breaking their coffee machines or whatever).
What changed ABC's mind today?
The truth is that Barr was fired not for being racist, but for not keeping her racism within plausibly deniable boundaries or against more unpopular groups (like Muslims or Arabs, who have been attacked by Barr for years now). Going on Twitter and viciously comparing a black person to a monkey is apparently a bridge too far even for a profit-focused corporation eager to look the other way. Now we know where the line is ...
Free speech as a concept in political ethics doesn't have anything to do with this. Nobody is entitled to an absolute right to say whatever they want — there are always exceptions for libel, defamation, copyright, perjury, and so on — much less to keep a TV show regardless of what vile bigotry they espouse.
It is pretty remarkable that these big studios don't require their actors to turn over the keys to their social media accounts to PR professionals. A bunch of executives and actors just collectively lost tens of millions of dollars, and a couple hundred people who worked on her show will lose their jobs, because one cranky old racist could not log off. This is a fitting capstone to Meltdown May.