November 06

Funny Antisemitism is Good for the Jews
by Dan Friedman
p. 3 of 3

Similarly, when film star Arnold Schwarzenegger uses the term “girlie-man” in a political campaign he draws on a history of sexist and homophobic attitudes in a way that is barely acceptable, but which passes because his film persona is so unbearably macho that anyone, next to him at least, would appear lightweight. The slur was intended to mean that the subject of his comment was womanish (weak) and effeminate (hence, like a homosexual, weak, and perverse). To state this sentiment directly, however, with reference to the prejudices upon which he was drawing, would have alienated the very electorate who found the comment amusing. As a celebrity candidate, Schwarzenegger had access to forms of discourse no longer available to him as a governor. This is a classic use of humour, irony, and shifting contexts making it unacceptable to get away with an ad hominem attack.

With respect to their Jewish jokes at least, Silverman, Cohen, and David have the advantage of being openly Jewish comedians. It certainly does not fully excuse them from charges of antisemitism, since, as Mamet frequently avers, Jews can and do hate themselves. Even when Jews hate and critique the stereotypes that others have of us, we end up hating ourselves because we have internalized the stereotypes that others have of us. However, being Jewish does make a difference. As the letter the ADL sent Baron Cohen about his sketch including the song “Throw the Jew Down the Well” (which at points last year seemed to be the ring tone of every Jewish 15 year old). In that first letter they offered to help him work on the sensitivity needed to convey the subtlety of parodying antisemites to those people who might not “get it" – those very people for whom the context needs to be explained.

Of course, although Borat is offensive and ostensibly Kazakhi, Borat in America has nothing at all to do with Kazakhstan and everything to do with America. Baron Cohen’s prior incarnations of hapless outsiders were from Moldova and Albania, equally convenient East European screens upon which a gullible audience (in those cases British) could project their own prejudices. Borat’s crude and obnoxious antisemitism is excusable for its satirical intent, and not least because in his new film, his ostensibly Kazakhi dialogue is mostly Hebrew, continually allying the character linguistically and personally with those he professes to despise.

Context, however, works against others, especially if those individuals are entirely earnest and exist in a cultural milieu that carries extreme guilt about its treatment of the chosen subject of an attack. For example, for obvious reasons, contemporary Germany is extremely sensitive about comments made about Jews and the Jewish community. With its history of slavery and racial prejudice, the United States is sensitive to racial prejudice against African Americans. If Mel Gibson had said “All blacks are stupid” rather than his comments about Jews, he would be in far more serious trouble than the tiny media tempest aroused in the summer – especially if he had just made a historical film based on a long-discredited racial prejudice explaining how black men have a tendency to rape white women instead of how the Jews killed Christ. Imagine too if Gibson's father (an avowedly strong influence on Gibson Jr.’s beliefs) instead of denying the Holocaust – or at least being intellectually close to those who deny it – was a white supremacist (or at least intellectually close with those who are). Given such a context Mel Gibson would have not been able simply to retreat to his ranch in “outpatient rehab” for his alcoholism.

So What Can Comedy Do?

So what can comedy do? Can it do anything, or is it, as Jay Leno said, just a different way of validating one's own world view? Among the many things that Stephen Kercher traces in Revel with a Cause: Liberal Satire in Postwar America is the history of politicians co-opting comedians to either write speeches or merely directly champion them. From the beginnings of the televised world comedy has been co-opted, more or less successfully, by mainstream politics. The reason politics has gone to comedy is not because politicians want to subsidize performance art, but because comedy works.

Vitally, comedy as a genre can either ridicule or reinforce conventional behaviour. Those people who behave “absurdly” are ridiculed by comedians for standing out, either as representatives of anachronistic and unfair power or as exceptions to the accepted norms or stereotypes. From the court jester to Lenny Bruce this ambivalence has placed comics in an ideal position to articulate the usually unspeakable fears and discriminatory practices of racism in society. Because of its potential as a subversive genre comedy allows viewers to poke fun at themselves (and also at others) without heavy-handed self-righteousness or weighty melodrama, offering an invaluable vantage point from which to examine the emotionally fraught and politically sensitive issues of antisemitism.

There are four ways in which these jokes about antisemitism help the cause of fighting antisemitism insofar as the projection of an inchoate and irrational rage can be fought at all:

1. Mitigation: A Way To the Table

Because of the ambivalent status of comedy, what is said in jest can be intended or retracted. Paul Lewis discusses Rush Limbaugh’s virtuosic ability to both mean his accusations and also to label his victims as humourless if they complain. This can be a negative trait of ironic humour – to poke fun unaccountably – but by defusing a situation, by allowing a politician, performer, or public figure to take partial responsibility rather than insisting on unconditional blame, it can also allow them a way to the table. Insofar as antisemitism is the product of ignorance, comedy is one of the key tools to begin educating and informing. In education we speak of a “zone of productive discomfort” where students and teachers do new things with which they feel uneasy, but also learn from the experience. As I discussed above, comedy is a vital tool for tentatively trying ways of relating in public space between two nomoi (ethnic, cultural, religious, etc.) groups. Comedy can mitigate the discomfort we feel in relating to an unfamiliar group. For example, Ali G’s famous “Is it cos I is black?” comment to the police at a demonstration provided a comfortable starting point for a number of difficult and otherwise uncomfortable discussions about race in Britain.

2. Broad Discovery: Reveal and Influence the General Culture

In his rôle as a documentarian (and we might see Borat: Cultural Learnings… not in the Will Farrell but in the Errol Morris tradition), Borat elicits a multitude of responses. Yet these responses essentially fall into three camps: the excusably rude, the unbelievably tolerant, and the crassly bigoted. We feel sorry for those who are pushed beyond any semblance of normal provocation and end with rudeness (his dinner hosts, or the feminists for example); we feel affection for those who are pushed beyond any semblance of normal provocation and somehow maintain their courtesy and enthusiasm (the driving instructor most notably). What is frightening, though, is how many of the responses fall into the third category, from the gun-seller who doesn’t hesitate before recommending a good gun to defend against Jews to the utter homophobia at the rodeo and the extreme sexism of the frat boys (couched in the latest chat show psychobabble). Anyone who thinks that Borat “tricked” poor Americans into their homophobic, sexist, and racist comments in the film ought to check out the comments on any polemic internet article. Although nationally unacceptable, once stripped from public accountability and under cover of internet pseudonyms and in local branches, hate speech such as that shown by Borat: Cultural Learnings… is rife.

3. Decirculate: Make Words and Opinions Unacceptable

As many public figures have shown by surviving decades of public lampoon, comedy can only rarely bring down a politician. However, by making them objects of fun, comedy can take out of circulation specific words and habits of speech (for better and for worse). The media attention and ridicule vested upon George Allen’s use of the word “Macaca” is a way in which an offensive term has been taken out of circulation. From Stephen Colbert to John Podhoretz the ridicule heaped on this inappropriate term has brought it to brief attention, and, although it could suggest a new lease of life for a term of abuse, it has served as an educational point. Furthermore, comedy can defuse the hatred, or in Sartre's terms the “passion,” of a particular libel. Standing up to denounce the belief that the “Jews killed Christ” requires bravery and will almost certainly not be effective. Enjoyment engendered by the farce of Larry David having eaten the cookie shaped like Christ – “You ate the baby Jesus…!” “The baby Jesus? I thought it was a monkey.” – makes it a difficult slander for racists to use.

4. Destabilize Power: Bring the Incumbent to Level Ground

Whether the powerful entities in question are words or officials, good satire is always at the expense of the powerful. Kercher starts with a quotation from Orwell: “The truth is that you cannot be memorably funny without at some point raising topics which the rich, the powerful, and the complacent would prefer to see left alone.” Borat replied to the Kazakh government banning his website with this mini video file. The more that he is picked on, the more his outsider status grows and the more the character looks down the ladder to pick on those below him – satirizing, as he does so, the people above him who are looking down the very same ladder with the very same prejudice. This is not always a positive strategy. As politically correct terms were established to replace formerly offensive terms, PC became the new authority to be shocked. Borat’s use of the terms “Vanilla Face” and “Chocolate Face” are offensive, but along with reactionary homophobic comments and the objectification of women are – despite their appearance but made obvious by their context – nevertheless part of a vaguely leftist reaction against political correctness. By destabilizing received power, each cycle (whether the TV sweeps cycle, the four year electoral cycle, or the thirty year generational cycle) gets a better chance to be heard.

History repeats itself, first time as tragedy and second time, we hope, as farce. Making extremely serious subjects farcical is bound to upset some people, but this is the rôle of socially responsible comedians. In a world where many journalists eschew serious balanced or investigative reporting as too demanding or professionally inopportune or, alternatively, work hard in the face of extreme adversity and are killed for it (like Anna Politskaya), there is a clear need for comedians to point out the elephants of bigotry, nepotism, and deceit in the room. Stephen Colbert did this hilariously to the reporters themselves by at the White House Correspondents dinner earlier this year. The new sub-genre of Cringe Comedy carries the transgressively awkward yet self-righteous social correctness of its herald George Costanza (from Seinfeld) into the realms of political and cultural correctness. Again and again cringeworthy moments the likes of The Office, Napoleon Dynamite, The Colbert Report, Sarah Silverman, Larry David, and Borat bring us face-to-face with the disjunctions of expectation and action.

It is notable that all of the abovementioned comedians are dealing with old manifestations of antisemitism – things that our grandparents would have recognized. Larry David does brilliantly satirize the superficiality of the Survivor-generation by juxtaposing a “Survivor” with a survivor of the Shoah. Still, with that exception there is almost no engagement with the Nazi-libel (Europe could never forgive the Jews for Auschwitz), anti-Zionism as antisemitism, or – with the oblique exception of Borat’s “9-11” comments – Islamism as a medium for virulent antisemitism. Also, comedians do not work in a vacuum. Rather, they work in a world where their words circulate, are commented upon, and are changed. Comedy should not be banned, it should be encouraged. But just as one lens cannot make a telescope, a pair of glasses, or even a microscope, a single perspective will not help one see the world let alone help one change it. Such change is something that comedy cannot not achieve because it is not trying to. That is our job in the audience – changing society.



Dr. Dan Friedman is a writer and educator, an associate and founding Editor of Zeek, and a fairweather supporter of Dennis Wise's Elland Road revolution.

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