Thursday, August 2, 2012

return of the insomniac ramble

A friend emailed me this joke today:

An Arab Muslim enters a taxi cab in Dallas, Texas, and once he's seated he asks the cab driver to “turn off the radio because he must not hear music as decreed by his religion, and in the time of the prophet, there was no music, especially Western music, which is music of the infidel's and certainly no radio.”                So the cab driver politely switches off the radio, pulls over to the side, stops the cab and opens the back door.               The Arab asks him: “What are you doing, man?”               The Texan answers: “In the time of the prophet there were no taxis. So get out, stand on the curb and wait for a camel.”              

I I maybe overly liberal? I found it offensive. I guess I'm a little sensitive about Muslim jokes, especially since American prejudice against them has been huge and quasi-acceptable since 9/11. It's one of those things that makes me uncomfortable about being American at times. I've probably mentioned this before, but Shah Rukh Khan, the very famous Indian movie star, gets detained by Homeland Security almost every time he comes to the US. It is estimated that half of the people on the planet know who he is. Moreover, he's pretty much totally apolitical. (It's kind of like the way African-Americans talk about the police pulling them over for "driving while black," except for Shah Rukh, it's "flying while Muslim.") This has happened twice in the nine months since I've been following Indian film.

I have a few on-line correspondents who are Muslim, and encounter a lot of Muslims in New York City. I try my best to be respectful, as I do with people of all faiths. (Every year on Thanksgiving, Barry and I take a 4-hour round-trip drive with Dad's sister-in-law and her roommate, who are nuns. We refrain from cursing and from topics that might be offensive. Apart from the fact that I love them, I am conscious of not wanting to offend them.) 

There are fanatics and hostile fundamentalists in every religious group, even my own. Plenty of homegrown American fundamentalists who would like to interfere with the rights of everyone because they believe their religion tells them to. There are bad fringe groups everywhere. But just as the religious right is a small contingent of Christians, so the 9/11 hijackers were part of a Muslim fringe. There are hostile and dangerous people all over. But it's not most of us.

I don't think 9/11 should be considered carte blanche for Americans to discriminate against all Muslims, to paint them all as terrorists. Faith is faith; crazy is crazy.

The friend who sent the joke is on Facebook but not Twitter, so I posted a series of tweets about this tonight. During that sequence of half a dozen tweets, the very funny comedian Jim Norton tweeted something which basically said it was OK for comedians to make fun of Muslims. Some coincidence, huh? (He doesn't follow me, so his tweet was totally unrelated to mine.)

So this got me to thinking about the comedy angle. I love comedy, and enjoy Norton, who can be pretty outrageous. But recently, I was re-watching a Comedy Central "roast," where comedians basically make fun of the guest of honor and of each other. I found myself a little bothered that almost all of them were joking about the others being gay. (Example: "Jon Lovitz is the most famous Jew in a closet since Anne Frank.") There were also the usual fat jokes (Jeff Garlin was targeted), age jokes (Cloris Leachman got those), ugly jokes (Jeff Ross and Gilbert Gottfried), etc. But those people were actually fat, old, and ugly. So those jokes were certainly mean, but didn't strike me as prejudiced. But when a heterosexual person is being called "gay" as an insult, it seems very different to me. It certainly implies that being gay is a bad thing to be, and seemed to be a more popular insult that the ones that had some basis in fact. Making a fat joke about a fat person is mean; pretending someone is gay as an insult is prejudiced. So say I. Or at least, those jokes bothered me.

And boy, it's not that I don't have a sense of humor or dislike extreme comedy. The first time I ever saw Jim Norton, Jannah and I happened across him on TV, and laughed our asses off because he is so filthy and so over-the-top. 

Louis CK, who is my absolute favorite current stand-up, did a little impression of a very flamboyant gay man - described him wearing little tight shorts, a scarf around his neck, and yodeling "Yoo hoo!" Then he said, "I don't laugh because that guy's gay. I laugh because he's funny." And I get that. Some gay guys act like that, and sometimes it's very funny.

Sidebar: I once took a speaking commitment at an AA meeting that was nicknamed "The Follies" because so many drag queens went there. After I qualified (= giving my history before, during, and after drinking), a man in drag raised his hand, and said, "I identify with everything you said! Well, except for the part about getting pregnant. I tried, but I guess I always got it...ass-backwards!" Everyone laughed. Not because he was a drag queen, but because he was funny.

Louis CK does a lot of observational humor and tells stories drawn from his life and kicks around ideas, but none of it's, "An Arab guy sat next to me on the subway, and I was nervous, because he could be carrying a bomb and planning to blow us all up..." etc. I don't think I've ever heard him say anything prejudiced, and he's also quite edgy and outrageous.

What I'm saying is, it's very possible to be extremely funny without using religious or ethnic slurs. "Arab" or "Muslim" should not be a code word for "backward but dangerous" or "stupid and weird" or whatever. 

Living in a fairly cosmopolitan and heavily Jewish city, I've rarely encountered prejudice against me as a Jew. (Having said that, a lot of people here dislike Orthodox Jews because they're clannish and keep to themselves, and many of their customs are outside the American norm.) But once, in my bottlecap-collecting days, I was at the convention in Pennsylvania, having lunch with V. and a man from Vermont whom I liked very much. I was talking about a soda cap I'd bought, from the '40s, that said "Kosher for Passover" in "Jewish writing" (which was my way of explaining Yiddish written in Hebrew characters). The Vermont guy said, "Hey, you wanna see some Jewish writing?" Then he took a napkin and drew a big dollar sign on it. I was horrified. I didn't say anything, and neither did V. (who was raised Catholic, mostly practices Buddhism, and is married to a Jewish woman). But I never felt the same affection for the Vermont guy again (although I always did drink the bottle of Moxie he brought every year). It was really horrifying and shocking, whether he knew I was Jewish or not (although my married name is obviously Jewish, my maiden name was odd and not particularly identifiable; I can't remember if this was before or after I was married). Just as bad either way, as far as I'm concerned.

The only other incident that ever came close was in New York; a classmate had invited me to a party that was way out of my league, a lot of very rich blueblooded folk (since maybe this isn't the right time to say "WASPs") in an honest-to-God Park Avenue penthouse. An older woman asked my first name, then my last, and then asked me what kind of name that was. I didn't realize I was being baited - my peculiar last name was certainly not old-school American. Plus, I was a little loose on champagne, so I said, quite cheerily, "It's Latvian. I'm Latvian on my father's side, and Austrian on my mother's - basically, eastern and middle-European Jewish." Her reply, dripping with sarcasm, was, "Isn't that interesting?" And she walked away. It really didn't hit me until a little later just what had happened there. Later, drunker, I was pretty angry, and responded in a fairly typical drunk-days fashion: it was actually her apartment where my friend was throwing the party, and I ended up stealing a couple of things from the bathroom, some expensive perfume and I don't remember what else, maybe a trinket of some sort. It's not the way I would behave today, but it was a pretty classic alcoholic response.

It's hard to confront people who offend me in that way, especially someone like the Vermont guy, who clearly didn't have a clue that he had made an offensive joke. I certainly wasn't going to convince the Park Avenue woman that Jews were like anyone else. And I don't know what the hell to say to the guy who sent that joke, although it's clearly caused me to do a bunch of venting.

So what do I do about the guy who sent the joke? I know that his intention was to be funny, not to be offensive. I've known him for years as a sweet, easygoing guy; he was at my wedding and I was at his. Do I get all stiff and say, "That joke is offensive to me!", maybe with a little lecture about the Brotherhood of Man? Do I snub him forever without explaining? Do I continue to be his friend, knowing that he is (possibly unknowingly) prejudiced? Do I simply put it aside and move on?

I have a very dear friend who is violently pro-Israel and anti-Muslim. She used to email me all kind of shit about how all Muslims want to convert or kill the entire world, etc. I made it clear that I thought that was true of some fringe elements but not Muslims in general; and also, that I didn't think every Jew and every Israeli was always right and always a better person than a non-Jew or non-Israeli. I believe I once said that I'd prefer a Muslim vice-president to Joe Lieberman (a dangerously conservative senator who ran with Al Gore). She was horrified. But we talked about it. What it came to was that she stopped sending me or spouting anti-Muslim screeds, and I stopped lecturing her on why she shouldn't shop at Walmart. (Don't get me started on Walmart. Those stores not only shit on their employees, they shit on every community they move into, and on many, many American manufacturers. Fuck their low prices.) So we reached a friendly detente and move ahead with our friendship.Maybe it was easier because we had an ongoing dialogue about those topics, and finally agreed to disagree. Is it wrong to be friends with someone who's prejudiced, even if I don't share or promote or approve of her prejudice?

Of course, I am the daughter of a hopeless liberal. My mother was so overly liberal that whenever she mentioned a black person, she always made a point of saying how handsome or beautiful they were, even if they weren't. I am fairly certain that her parents always described black people as ugly. I remember once, very vividly (although I couldn't have been older than eight or nine), watching Ed Sullivan at my grandparents' home, and Melba Moore was performing. My grandfather said, "That's the cutest little colored trick I've ever seen." No one said anything, but I'm sure my mother was hugely offended. I knew that "colored" was not a polite way to refer to a black person (this was in era when "Negro" was still used a lot, but was quickly giving way to "black" - which, by the way, I'm never sure whether to capitalize or not). But I had been taught never to criticize or correct my grandfather. When I was older, and realized what he meant by "trick," I was doubly offended.

I'm not blindly liberal like my mother; I knew full well that the black kid who sometimes came over after school was a really nice kid, but he was definitely not handsome. (The only guy I was ever involved with from my high school was also black, and he was handsome, big-time.) I certainly don't walk around saying that all Muslims are wonderful or make a point of trying to befriend every Arabic person or Muslim I meet.

I will admit freely that I dislike the Russians who live in Brighton Beach. We lived there for seven months, and every single person I encountered was rude or unfriendly. We would actually stand at a store counter and the clerk would help every single Russian person before even acknowledging us. They were terribly clannish and not at all interested in participating in any culture other than their own. It wasn't a threatening place to live, but it sure wasn't comfortable or welcoming. And yet - my new primary doctor is a Russian in Brighton. And I adore him.So there goes that. I know there must be a lot of other newish Russian immigrants like him, but I just never met them on Brighton Beach Avenue.

Maybe I'm sleepy now. I'm certainly ranted enough.

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