Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Much Appreciated

Relevant to continuing discussion about whether Borat was a good movie is this recent Charles Krauthammer column. This is a point that I left out of my list of reasons why the whole Borat thing is a bit annoying, but it's a good one too, so I thought I'd send Krauthammer a hat-tip (you know, via my massive armies of loyal readers).

The idea is this: if Cohen is really concerned about anti-Semitism, then he's picking on the wrong country. "U S and A" has probably been friendlier to the Jews than just about any country in history, when you stop to think about it. That isn't to say that anti-semitism doesn't exist here. I personally know some Jew-haters, actually. But on the whole, I should think the US is the best place in the world outside of Israel to be Jewish. Jews are, for example, much more successful here than the average citizen, there are plenty of Jewish communities, Jewish celebrities, etc. I think it's probably true that there is some discrimination against Jewish politicians, and that's certainly unfortunate and should be fixed. But there are certainly successful Jewish political leaders here too, not to mention very effective Jewish interest-group political organizations. Attacks on Jewish businesses and places of worship are vanishingly rare - they don't happen any more often than is statistically expected for any religious or ethnic group given the higher-than-average number of whackos in this nation. The US donates huge sums of money to keeping Israel afloat, and I don't think anyone doubts its willingness to defend it, even against its own national interests in many cases, should REAL shooting start in the Middle East.

Krauthammer's bone to pick with Cohen comes from an interview Cohen gave Rolling Stone - out of character, in a rare move for the camerashy comedian. In it he speculates that the kind of indifference to anti-Semitism he encountered in a bar in Arizona is what led to the Holocaust.

Unlike Krauthammer, I'll have to grant Cohen that point. Indifference to racism certainly enables racism, and so in some sense I guess telling harmless (and not-so-harmless) "Jew jokes" now and then actually does have the potential to lead to real damage. But as someone who tells an occasional Jew joke myself, I really resent the implication that I would stand by and let the Holocaust happen all over again here in "U S and A." Even among the people who get a kick out of racial humor, there's a difference between those who are actually indifferent to racism and those who are just letting off some steam. What I'm getting at is that I think this argument works both ways ... and also "neither way," actually. That is, sometimes harmless racist jokes really are harmless - nothing's meant by them at all. Other times they're more serious, but these times they're just as likely to function like pornography is sometimes said to function. That is, there's some evidence that liberal pornography and prostitution laws keep sex crimes down. I'm not aware that anyone has done a similar study for so-called "hate speech" (racist jokes, in this case) and hate crimes, so I don't know whether this argument holds any water or not, but it seems plausible that it could. Occasional cracks at other ethnic groups in small doses might help ease tension now and then. Now granted, most anti-semitism is irrational and probably based on envy (the Jews do better on average than most Americans and are stereotypically smarter) - but then no one I know subscribes to the theory that hate crimes are rational. Envy is a typical motive for hate crimes, in fact. So if singing "Throw the Jew Down the Well" in a redneck bar helps some people not burn down Synagogues - well, I won't say "I'm all for it" because I'm not, but I appreciate the degrees of wrong here, and singing an offensive song is definitely better than property damage.

The point that Krauthammer makes well, and Cohen apparently misses, is that in Europe and even Britain (nominally, though probably not actually in terms of culture, part of Europe) - people ARE starting to burn Synagogues again. If you're looking for REAL anti-semitism, then America's not your man. And neither is Germany, by the way. (The Rest of) Europe and the Middle East are the places to go, but Cohen doesn't bother.

Why not? Well, I have two theories, neither of them very flattering. One is that Cohen lacks the balls. That seems like an odd thing to say about a man who stood up at a rodeo in Virginia and spoofed the Star Spangled Banner - but read the Rolling Stone link first and THEN tell me there might not be something to it. Second, and probably closer to home, is just that Americans make good targets. We're used to being spoofed, and in fact we do it to ourselves all the time. One thing I could never make my mind up about over the 6 years I lived abroad was whether it was good or bad that Americans tend to roll over and play lapdog when foreigners start dissing on their country in front of them. Being something of a hothead, I mostly think it's bad. But I can see the advantage to it too. Popular stereotypes to the contrary, Americans are actually not at all sensitive about their nation. It's rather the people who accuse them of it that tend to have the problems, in my experience. By this I mean in particular Canadians, Brits and New Zealanders. The few French people I've met were not at all anti-American, were very friendly in fact. The Germans are in general VERY anti-American, but they're also cool with you dissing on Germany, so you tend not to mind so much. No, what's annoying are Brits and Canadians - who insist when they meet you that they want to be candid about nationality and don't mind healthy criticism of their own countries, but of course don't mean a word of it and get quickly offended if you give as good as you get. It's hard, in other words, to see anything deeper behind a British comedian coming to "U S and A" and allegedly sniffing out anti-Semitism than just that he's working out whatever weird issues he and his countrymen in general seem to have with us. And it helps that he knows (whatever he may say in interviews) that Americans are mostly good-natured about people spoofing them and will go to see and laugh at his movie anyway.

What I think Krauthammer's column gets exactly right is the idea that there is a difference between what academics now like to call "qualitative" and "quantitative" research, and there's really only so much you can conclude from "qualitative" research. I have a(n ex-)friend in Ottawa who used to drive me up the wall with her "qualitative" research on feminist issues. She is making a career out of doing things like collecting narrative accounts of how women view their bodies, blah blah blah. I suppose it's interesting to have these collected in a book somewhere - but what I always found annoying was how much she wanted to read into this stuff. This is, in fact, the logical fallacy of "testimonial" taken to an absurd degree. The biographies of individual people make for interesting reading and can give perspective on otherwise dead events - but they do not form the basis for any solid conclusions about said events. That Borat can find anti-Semitism in "U S and A" is as uninformative as it is unsurprising. And I guess I have the same problem with this that I have with lots of Michael Moore's movies. That is, it's easy (enough) to catch people on camera doing goofy things and saying shit they probably shouldn't. It's easier still to take such material and frame it so that it comes out how you want it. What would be harder would be to ... say ... do followup. Interview the people at the bar and find out why it is, exactly, they don't mind singing songs about doing violence to Jews. You might be surprised at what you'd find.

Where stunts like this come off as cowardly to me is on exactly this point. Cohen and Moore get what they want and just go home. Fun for them, not so much for their dates. What Cohen doesn't want to know is that some of the people in the bar actually don't care one way or the other about Jews as a group, but would be happy to defend them with their lives if it came down to another Hitler incident. (What he further doesn't want to know is that some people in the bar may well have had relatives who died for more or less this cause in WWII.) What he also doesn't want to know is that some of these people may have been wronged by Jews in some way or another. Not that that justifies their racism, mind you - but it's something I'll bet Cohen wouldn't be willing to put on film. And in fact, reading Krauthammer's column reminds me of the most famous deleted scene from the film: this one, where Borat wants a woman to stand in a corner and hold up horns and say "Shalom" and then tells his dog to "attack the Jew." The woman says something about how Jesus loves Jews. Maybe not the kind of rationale most of us would give for rejecting racism (and in fact, it doesn't reject racism at all - just racism against Jews) - but the point is that the scene doesn't jive with what Cohen is trying to show, and so he lets it go. Here we have a card-carrying Christian Right Redneck who doesn't fit the stereotype Cohen is peddling, and so it's out.

I guess the overall point is this: I tend to take Cohen's movie a little personally, I think - and it's because I'm a Southerner of German heritage. As such, I'm very much aware that there's quite a bit more to racist jokes than latent racism. More often than not, when I'm saying "nigger" around my northern friends, it's to get a rise out of them - much the way Borat/Cohen himself does in his movies. It's because there ARE negative stereotypes about Southerners, and since I don't seem to be able to fight them head-on, it's a nice way to release tension about them to watch people cock their heads and try to figure out whether you're serious. But there's a price to be paid for this, of course, and that's that you often come face-to-face with what you're trying to spoof (the way Cohen does in that scene in the movie where he wants a gun to "kill Jews" and just leaves when the attendant doesn't have a problem with it rather than dragging out the comedy - since real Jew-haters must make Cohen, as a Jew himself, very nervous!). And when all is said and done, the problem with getting sensitive about anything to do with ethnicity or heritage in the first place is that you can't control for all the people on your side. Which is to say, there are, of course, plenty of racists in the South, and there's also nothing I can really do about that - and that they exist doesn't really help my cause when I'm trying to get people I've never met to please not assume that I'm one of them automatically. Well, all this is naturally true of Jews too. Negative stereotypes don't come from nowhere, as a general rule. Cohen could do something useful by actually probing the subject - but he doesn't. There's no reason to fault him for that, of course - he's making a comedy, not a documentary. What's irritating is that he turns around and gives interviews like the one for Rolling Stone passing his stuff off as serious work. If it is, he's doing a really shitty job giving the whole picture. And of course if it's not, he really shouldn't say it is.

If it is, though, I think "U S and A" has, as Krauthammer points out, pretty good reason to be annoyed that we're the target, given how much better the US is in comparison to pretty much anywhere else when it comes to treatment and acceptance of Jews. Indeed, neither I nor any other Americans I know think any Jew is less "American" for being Jewish. It's ironic, but it doesn't generally occur to anyone - in the US, anyway - to think of Jews as different people in lots of cases until they bring up the subject themselves. And the best point in general in the column, I think, is this one:

Look. Harry Truman used to tell derisive Jewish jokes. Richard Nixon said nasty things about Jews in government and elsewhere. Who cares? Truman and Nixon were the two greatest friends of the Jews in the entire postwar period: Truman secured them a refuge in the state of Israel and Nixon saved it from extinction during the Yom Kippur War.

Think what you will about either President, Israel policy, or whether supporting Israel has anything whatever to do with helping Jews (I myself do not believe that the Jewish people have any ancestral claim on the land of Israel. Whatever the statue of limitations on these things is, it ran out over a thousand years ago. I would, however, have fully supported open immigration into the US for Jews either displaced by WWII or simply unwilling to return to Europe after everything that happened to them there - and I am in general very supportive of Israel politically for other reasons - not the least of which being that I don't believe for a minute the Palestinian leaders are sincere about coexisting with the Jews there). The underlying point here is two-fold: (a) actions speak louder than words and (b) there is no truth in presenting only half the picture. It would be disingenuous to accuse Nixon (infamously vulgar in conversation as he was) of anti-semitism based on things he said when he was, in general, a friend to Israel as a politician. It could be argued that his friendliness to Israel was an attempt to "send the Jews home," and maybe it was - but the point is that this has to be argued from complete evidence rather than inferred from a handful of off-color statements. It certainly isn't an argument for general American anti-semitism that the president says anti-semitic things if the system as a whole outputs policies that Jewish political groups like! But mostly, it's just that relevant information is relevant information. You can't call "qualitative" studies objective when they're not.

The same advice goes for comedians who purport to have discovered something deep about American culture and neglect to mention everything else that's relevant and on the table for discussion.

Maybe Cohen's point is that if anti-semitism exists in the world's second most Judaism-friendly nation, what does that say about everywhere else? And if that's his game, then I'm on his side; it's a useful thing to say. But his movie isn't being presented that way at all; certainly there's nothing in the (bit of the) Rolling Stone interview (that's available online) that gives that impression.

No, I think what we have here is exactly what Krauthammer thinks we have: another case of America-baiting passed off as social commentary when the real meat of the issue is to be found elsewhere. Unoriginal - but nothing we here in "U S and A" aren't used to.


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