Saturday, April 07, 2007

Words Don't Kill

I have been awfully hard on my own generation here, and I do not want to leave a false impression: we did change some parts of American life for the better. Unfortunately, now that we are old and powerful, we have renounced many of our principles. In the 1960s we insisted, in effect, that words did not kill, and young people--especially young women--took pride in breaking every linguistic taboo. First movies, and then eventually cable television, suddenly featured characters who talked like real people. But fearing for our own children, apparently, many Boomers did a 180 in adulthood. Suddenly the staff of movie theaters began strictly enforcing the rules relating to R-rated movies. Suddenly the FCC began fining tv shows for infractions of the rules. Suddenly even the characters in Sex adn the City began having sex with their underwear on. A week or two ago I heard an interview with Ken Burns about his forthcoming documentary on the Second World War. In the script, the narrator discusses two famous GI acronyms--SNAFU ("Situation Normal, All Fucked Up"), and FUBAR ("Fucked Up Beyond all Recognition.") He plans to keep the full versions in the script, but the FCC will not tell him, or anyone else, in advance, whether it will fine the stations the broadcast the show. Pathetic.

Nowhere, of course, has our sensitivity increased more dramatically than with respect to race--and in the last 24 hours I have seen two spectacular examples. Two nights ago Jon Stewart broadcast (or rebroadcast) a feature by John Oliver and and Larry Wilmore about Leroy Comrie, a middle-aged New York city councilman who wants officially to ban the use of the word "nigger." (I'm sorry if anyone is offended, but I'm going to follow the lead of Randall Kennedy, Bob Herbert, and Oliver and Wilmore and refuse to observe the taboo.) Wilmore (who is black) and Oliver (who is white) did a series of interviews with people of the opposite race to highlight the absurdity of all this, culminating with Oliver asking a bright young black man whether he used the word. "Oh, yes!" he said, smiling. "But you won't use it now?" asked Oliver? "No--we're on TV!" he said. (I predict great things for the young man.) As for Comrie, their interview with him, I can only say, proved that he is one dumb city councilman--especially for having agreed to do the interview in the first place. (Anyone can watch the whole feature online.

Now let me make it clear that I'm a firm believer in "equal opportunity offense"--it's perfectly all right to point out that certain groups have hilarious taboos, as long as you are willing to do the same for everyone--including your own. Coincidentally I read the following column in my local paper this morning, and I can only do it justice by reprinting it in its entirety for non-commercial use only (a shame, really, since it's an excellent cure for depression.) I got a kick out of noticing that the author and I are apparently exactly the same age. I also plan to read his book.

He isn't an anti-Semite. He's right

Micheal Ray Richardson said Jews are 'crafty' and adept at security. Correct on both counts.
By Zev Chafets
ZEV CHAFETS is the author of "A Match Made in Heaven: American Jews, Christian Zionists and One Man's Exploration of the Weird and Wonderful Judeo-Evangelical Alliance."

April 3, 2007

UNTIL LAST week, Micheal Ray Richardson (that's how he spells it) was slightly famous for having once told a sportswriter that his team, the New York Knicks, was "a sinking ship." When the writer asked how far the ship might sink, Richardson replied, "The sky's the limit."

That remark, however, wasn't what got Richardson into trouble; repeated drug use did. He wound up banned from the NBA, a vagabond basketball player in Europe. Lately he has been making a comeback as coach of the Albany Patroons in the Continental Basketball Assn.

But the comeback hit the skids on Wednesday. Once again, sportswriters were involved. Asked about his contract negotiations, Richardson said he didn't expect problems because "I've got big-time lawyers. Big-time Jew lawyers."

Alarmed, the reporters warned Richardson that his words could be considered insulting because they fit the stereotype of Jews as crafty and shrewd.

Richardson didn't even blink. "Are you kidding me?" he demanded. "They've got the best security system in the world. Have you ever been to an airport in Tel Aviv? They're real crafty. Listen, they are hated all over the world, so they've got to be crafty. They got a lot of power in this world, you know what I mean? Which I think is great. I don't think there's nothing wrong with it. If you look in most professional sports, they're run by Jewish people. If you look at a lot of most successful corporations and stuff, more businesses, they're run by Jewish [sic]. It's not a knock, but they are some crafty people."

For these observations, Richardson was suspended by the Patroons, forbidden by team owner Ben Fernandez to even attend practice. Predictably, Abe Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, praised this punishment and demanded an apology: "Micheal Ray needs to understand that when he suggests that all Jews are crafty, that Jews have a lot of money and power, he is conjuring up classic anti-Semitic stereotypes…. We hope that Micheal Ray will realize the pain his words have caused to many people and make clear that he understands why his remarks about Jews were so inappropriate and offensive."

Excuse me, but Richardson didn't say anything offensive (and while we're on the subject of offensive, what's with the "Micheal Ray"? Are he and Foxman first-name buddies?).

In fact, Jews, as a people, are smart, in my experience. And they're proud of it (especially the dumb ones). Wake up a Jew in the middle of the night and he can rattle off the Jewish Nobel Prize winners in alphabetical order. Believe me, I've been a Jew for 59 years, and I know what I'm talking about.

What other hurtful things did Richardson supposedly say? That Israel has the best airport security in the world? This is both true and something Israel itself brags about. That Jews are hated and need to protect themselves? That's the founding premise of the Anti-Defamation League itself.

Sure, Richardson exaggerates when he says that Jews own most sports teams. As far as I can tell, Jews (about 1% of the population) only own about half the teams in the NBA (and a pretty fair proportion in baseball and football too). So what?

As to the observation that Jews run a lot of successful businesses, no kidding. Jews are very likely the most economically successful ethnic group in the U.S. What's the matter with that?

Richardson, who was a popular player in Israel during his NBA exile years, is guilty of nothing more than free speech. Even if his observations were wrong — which they are not — there's nothing at all insulting about them. What is insulting is the notion that you can't speak honestly about Jews without getting into trouble.

At the moment, Jews have real enemies in the world: Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah and the mullahs of Iran, to name a few. You want to fight anti-Semites, fight them. END

Wars and crises have historically done more than anything else to integrate Americans, to make them forget about racial and ethnic differences for a while, and to challenge various kinds of taboos--both linguistic and sexual. All this strikes me as more evidence that, sad to say, we need one.


Roger Albin said...

You may be disappointed in Chafets. He can write colorfully, but he was a Likud party stalwart, which will give you an idea of the quality of his reasoning. This type of heightened sensitivity to ethnicity and apparent lack of humor is unfortunate but its not necessarily a bad thing. One of the very good things to happen in American life in the past 50 years is a huge reduction in certain forms of bigotry, particularly anti-semitism and anti-catholic prejudice. The lack of humor and sometimes heightened sensitivity to ethnicity are at least side products of the forces that produced the marked reduction in these forms of bigotry. Its reasonable to argue that these forms of 'political correctness' are in fact beneficial in some ways. Its not bad that people have to bend over to be civil (or be perceived as civil) to minorities. Few of us would want live in a world, only recently vanished, in which black men were always called "boys."

serial catowner said...

Well, I gotta say, as a kid I read everything about WW II I could find, and never saw the term FUBAR until sometime in the 70s. Everyone in the 50s seemed happy with the explanation of "Situation normal, all fouled up". Of course, we didn't need to look for versimilitude, as it seemed that just about everyone was a veteran, and quite authentic without any trimmings.