Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A Kramerish Rant on Michael Richards' Rant.


The Detroit Free Press: Questions linger after Richards apologizes for racist rant.

What strange calamity.

Seinfeld was never my favorite show, but it was always a show I've enjoyed. In the last year or so it has even come to mean more to me, seeming one of those indelible mid-nineties things that I can inexplicably associate with theater and driving and Alternative. It's gone from being funny to being a comfort, and for that it has always remained very funny.

Where comparison is a matter of kind, not scale, I wonder if it will be altered from now on, like the visual impression of a city skyline is changed when a major skyscraper goes up or comes down, or a favorite band's music after the band has broken up.

That is one angle.

Here is another angle:

I think I begin to understand, or at least recognize, the nature of cultural "fads" and "epidemics" (which I believe can be used interchangeably in the present situation).

For example, during the nineties the news described (and I did and do believe that there was) an "epidemic" of school shootings. It's not that school violence or shootings were unique to the nineties, and it would be interesting to statistically see how the decades really compare. What happened, however, was that for several years a phenomenon which happened just infrequently enough to seem happenstance and unlikely crossed the line into constant apprehension. We saw school shootings and their potential everywhere. They became a common reference point, and everyone had a position.

Likewise, in this decade, we've seen the beginning of a new, and often, disturbing, racial consciousness. In the most positive examples, this is self-conscious and possibly critical, enlightening, even cathartic. In other recent examples, however, Mel Gibson and Michael Richards, it is unself-conscious and under the very most favorable interpretations, all too evidently from the heart.

But how much is explicit racism really a trend of this decade? Might, for example, the presence of cel phones with video cameras, make a difference. Are we just catching things, on a large scale, in a way we did not before.

I think that's a part of it, but...

There is a desire for sublimation.

For example, my friends and I have often told each other offensive jokes. Many are generic, of the "dead-baby" variety and so forth, and many are self-implicatory. On the other hand, nothing is spared, including race, gender, faith, class, and so on. There is a defense here, and I think it is at least as rigorous as the best "Borat" defense. That being that in establishing a "level playing-field" among ourselves we have to put everything we hear and see and absorb on the table. This only works where there is trust; where there is trust, there can be confession, and where there is confession we are able to, perhaps, make fine distinctions in saying who is more likely to be harassed by the police. Who is more likely to jump or get jumped.

To continue the effort of making fine distinctions:

Any objective statistical look at things will show that the presence of discrimination on all sides does not mean that all discrimination is equal, or that discrimination is equally proportioned and distributed. A demographics glance demonstrates that it is much much harder to be a minority in this country than white, male, white-collor, and so on. There ought to be discomfort in this, for everyone involved (and if you aren't a recluse on a desert island, you're involved.)

This is, incidentally, the big problem with the film Crash. It runs a rolling-pin over the jagged and confusing field of racial descrimination and squashes it into one homogenous doughy smear. "Racism is bad" and "we're all racists" does not open the way for subtle distinctions. Pretty cinematography is not enough. We have to do better.

(Incidentally, it was also ironic that most of the characters fell neatly into the stereotypes associated with their particular race.)

Consider this: How many of us would only be able to defend the thought that we're not racist on the basis that we haven't pronounced a two-syllable sound? That our abhorrance of a sound, not a difficult and emotionally expensive objectivity toward the many people in the world, is what makes us "not racist."

Words are dangerous... if they are mere sounds, then they are sounds with which we have imbued with an almost magical significance. They do not exist outside of the history we have erected around them, any more than we have the power to be "not involved" in the problem of -isms.

But I do not think that denial of a word amounts to a solution. Being "not racist" is more difficult and takes more effort, practice, and perspective than that.

Going back to offensive jokes my friends and I have told:

Is this our effort to expose the hypocrisy around us? Or is it just our desire to transgress the untransgressable? Because that, too, has a visceral appeal.

Not entirely, I think. Somehow, however, a lot of people have absorbed the notion that bigotry is best addressed through acknowledgment of its presence around us and confrontation. The problem is that we are only this self-aware at our very best. The results, then, or impulsively acting through our prejudices are not inherently progressive. They can be constructive or destructive. Unassisted audacity is not an inherent virtue.

I'll always believe that the best acrobat along these lines was Andy Kaufman. If Borat has the benefit of self-consciousness and perhaps circumspection in his work that Richards and Gibson have so completely lacked in their meltdowns, then Kaufman had the added advantage of precision and subtlety. The goal was neither to moralize nor to shock, or even to expose. It was to seduce; to draw the audience quietly into a place they would not have ventured on their own, and from there, to personally confront any contradictions. After the punchline, his reading of the Great Gatsby or punchout with Jerry Lawler or wrestling women, he always smiled and the artifice was momentarily clear. As fooled as the audience might be, as fooling the comic, neither was wedged in a corner.

It was visceral engagement without giving up the high-ground.

I personally think confrontation in is more likely to work without humiliation. This is the shortcoming, maybe, of Borat and the Aristocrats and Kramer himself.

Are we all guilty, then?

We're not not guilty, and that is funny. And a bit sad. But mostly weird and funny.

The Gibson story, though, and the Richards story, they are just sad.

And yet, I have to be a little stingy with my sympathy... fair empathy can be easily given but fair sympathy takes energy. I have to be fair with my energy. Others have been hurt more for having done much less. The fact that Richards called someone a "nigger" is nasty, racist, and objectifying. Even worse, the fact that he cheerfully invoked lynching is wretched, wretched, wretched and horrid. It was not a joke.

Is his apology sincere?

I would hope so, of course.

I do hope so.

But it is a very easy to mistake to presume knowledge of a stranger, whether a stand-up comic or the President of the United States. The special relationships we have with our families and our closest friends are testimony to how difficult it is getting to really know anyone at the level of mind and soul. We can gauge actions, and here they are destructive and inexcusable. But sincerity?

I simply don't know, one way or another.

I can only hope that the result for the rest of us is a greater awareness and sensitivity. To see ourselves and each other, even the tiniest bit, more clearly.



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