Tuesday, November 21, 2006
The Nth Degree
Anyone who writes -- certainly anyone who wishes to pursue writing as a career -- will tell you that the first few words are always the most difficult. The opening volley in the battle to get the attention of readers can't be overestimated, and therefore choosing the proper way to begin a novel, volume, essay or column becomes a Herculean task -- and one which can reduce even the most assured and veteran of scribes to tears.
So with that in mind -- and after much internal contention -- allow me to begin by simply coming right to the point.
You obviously wouldn't be able to tell from where you are, but after typing that word I put my laptop aside, got up from the couch and walked to the refrigerator to pour myself a glass of iced-tea before returning to my computer a minute or so later. What's important about this isn't what happened during the short interval -- it's what didn't happen. The world didn't explode. Lives weren't lost. Hordes of people didn't pour out onto 125th street, or the corner of Florence and Normandie, or MLK boulevards all across the land to engage in weeping and gnashing of teeth at the assured knowledge that they would immediately be returned to a life of indentured servitude. The universe, as far as I know, didn't collapse in on itself, sucking reality -- or at the very least, a substantial portion of the population -- into a giant black hole of nothingness.
The reason of course is simple: despite whatever heft, whatever power to destroy or dehumanize, that we've unwisely granted a single word -- any word -- in the end it is still just a word, and nothing more.
Except that in the most advanced and preeminent culture to ever exist upon this Earth, in the early days of the 21st century, it isn't just a word. On the contrary, the word "nigger" holds an unparalleled level of ascendancy in our society. There's no better testament to the truth of this statement than the fact that otherwise educated, intelligent people -- the type who normally would rather step on a live land mine than be taken for an idiot -- will gladly allow themselves to be reduced to spouting the vernacular of a four-year-old to avoid speaking it.
No matter the alternative's power to offend and instigate, is there anything -- anything -- more painfully ridiculous than a grown man or woman saying, "The N-word?" It's an absurd verbal tip-toe that not only proves that there is apparently no safe context in which the actual word can be uttered, but also that there exists an unspoken implication that those whom one would expect to be angered by the use of such a word are so stupid that they can't discern between the desire to dehumanize and subjugate and the need to openly discuss, and therefore should be protected from hearing the word altogether -- for the good of everyone. This latter possibility -- an indictment of an entire culture, whether out of condescension or outright fear -- is infinitely more offensive than the utterance of any one word.
Unless you've returned from a mission to the International Space Station within the past fifteen minutes, you're well aware of the curious case of Michael Richards and his bizarre obscenity and racial-slur-laced tirade against a group of black hecklers. It happened last Friday night at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles, and if you believe a media hype machine that's more than happy to feign the necessary level of ratings-driven contrived outrage -- the Earth has stood still since.
Admittedly, it's tough to get past the image of Richards -- TV's Kramer for God's sake -- yelling at the top of his lungs that his tormenters are "niggers" who would've been lynched fifty years ago. Once you do however, you realize that there are a whole lot of issues which come into play regarding both the incident and its aftermath; one man yelling bad words like a child throwing a temper tantrum may be the least of the problems.
I've mentioned on more than one occasion the tenuous and obviously subjective nature of offense and being offended --as well as the dangers inherent in acquiescing to the demands and restrictions of those who take offense, essentially putting the power to censor in their hands. Needless to say, if we strived to create a world in which no one was offended or insulted and everyone was consistently made "comfortable," it would be a totalitarian society where nothing worthwhile is ever spoken or expressed.
Which brings us to Kramer.
What he said was indeed insulting -- it was certainly stupid -- but did it prove him a racist?
Michael Richards, from what I've read, fits the stand-up comic stereotype in every sense of the word -- despite the fact that he isn't technically a stand-up comic. He's insecure and overly-serious about his craft -- which makes him ironically arrogant. He's occasionally difficult to work with. He has more issues than Time magazine and considers himself to be a mildly tortured artist. In other words, he's the furthest thing from the character he played for eight years, whom we all loved so wildly. Hence, the first problem: the expectation that Michael Richards is somehow not a human being and is a television character. The real Richards allowed a couple of people talking at a show to fluster him so badly, that he lashed out and verbally brutalized them in the strongest way possible. I've said before that I believe that -- although ill-advised -- it's entirely possible to spout racist language without actually being a racist per se. The argument for this belief is simple: there are times when a person can become so enraged that he or she wants to say the most hideously damaging thing possible. The aim is to inflict pain -- as much as you can; calling someone a name that you know will devastate and demean as nothing else will is nothing more than the verbal equivalent of punching someone in the face. In that case, the offender may not need diversity training as much as he or she needs an anger management course.
Another thing to consider is this: Michael Richards is a graduate of the Andy Kaufman school of comedy. According to popular legend, he was one of the handful of people who were in on Kaufman's notorious joke during his appearance on the TV show Fridays in the mid-80s -- the tense and far-from-funny incident in which Kaufman supposedly went "off-book" for the entire show, improvising his lines, throwing the cast into disarray and eventually disrupting the live show by getting into a fist-fight with Richards. Kaufman was less a comedian than he was a terrorist; his brand of performance art was sowing uncomfortable confusion and anarchic dischord. It was this very volatility and unpredictability that made him brilliant beyond words. The point is, it's entirely possible that Richards was hoping to do what a comic mind -- like Kaufman's -- is supposed to do: incite, instigate and in some cases, infuriate. Lenny Bruce did it back in the 60s -- typically, using the word "nigger" more often than an NWA song; Kaufman did it in the 80s; it could very well be that Richards is hoping to do it for a new generation.
I concede however that Richards is no Kaufman or Bruce, as his schtick at the Laugh Factory may very well have proven.
But then there is the most disturbing aspect of this entire controversy -- yes, even more disturbing than a lanky middle-aged man spending three minutes shouting bad words: the chilling affect which is already being trumpeted as a direct and desirable consequence of Richards's actions. It was expected that the NAACP would hold a news conference along with Najee Ali of L.A.'s Project Islamic HOPE -- an opportunistic idiot who never met a camera he didn't like -- to demand that Richards be banished to pop-culture oblivion. What no one expected was for Laugh Factory owner Jamie Masada to not only bow to the unnecessarily sweeping outrage of the angry mob, but to proudly announce that he was banning all offensive material at his club from this point on, and that Michael Richards was not welcome back at the Laugh Factory until the black community approves. I'll repeat that in case the draconian severity of these measures didn't sink in: the owner of a facility which acts as a stage for artists is going to allow one facet of the population to dictate what is and is not acceptable humor. Forgive me for speaking in soundbites, but art should never be subject to democracy. Ever.
It's worth mentioning that Masada is the man who initially introduced a young boy and his family to his personal friend, Michael Jackson; that family eventually wound up accusing Jackson of child molestation. It's obvious Masada's judgment isn't exactly stellar -- a point which will once again be proven when audiences looking for decent, wholesome entertainment (if such people exist in Los Angeles) are still willing to flock to the Laugh Factory, but good comics avoid it like a double-bill with Carrot-Top.
There are other issues which can and should be up for debate in the wake of this indisputably prototypical celebrity controversy, circa 2006 (just ask Mel Gibson): the somewhat disconcerting fact that almost everything we do these days -- all acts noble or unscrupulous -- are documented on video. Everything you do can be seen and videotaped by someone. Also, the thoroughly ludicrous nature of issuing a prepared and almost certainly insincere apology in an effort to appease the masses and subdue their bloodlust -- the masses who are, by the way, not owed a damn thing.
All that's missing from this story is a trip to rehab.
Still, in the end, it all goes back to that one -- as Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy calls it -- "troublesome little word;" the one we do not speak of; the one we're afraid of, and afraid can consume us as a culture.
It's time we started really talking about the "N-word;" we can start by actually being able to say it.
(My good friend and fantastic writer Steve Bunche has his own take on this, which is slightly different and infinitely more visceral and hilarious than mine. Please do yourself a favor and take a minute to give it a look at The Vault of Buncheness: KKKramer Kommits Kareer Suicide.)