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.

Nigger.

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.)

18 comments:

Bunche said...

"The Nth Degree." DAMN, I wish I'd thought of that!

Excellent and thoughtful article, but in regard to the use of "nigger," I have to say that while the term has reached a certain unfortunate acceptance thanks to its pervasive presnce in popular culture, especially in rap music, it's still not acceptable to a great number of blacks, and other people as well.

White folks have always, repeat, ALWAYS been into whatever us highly-rythmic individuals do and have emulated us relentlessly, and often ridiculously (corn rows and dreads on white people, anyone? Tanning?) I grew up in an evironment that was almost entirely composed of affluent whites who had no problem casually spewing race hate at those whom they perceived as their inferiors, and growing up with "nigger" used exclusively as a pejorative and frequently aimed at me with such venom that a punch square in the nuts would have been preferable, I have very little tolerance for its unchecked proliferation, especially among whites, and Black youth who have no experience with the word as it was originally intended to be used.

But I have to agree with you that it is just a word, and my years in Westport, CT (aka "the Bigot's Banquet") have inured me somewhat to hearing "nigger" spouted all over the goddamned place, and with common parlance against me I'd better get used to it. What really makes me believe that Richards is a racist douchebag is his use of lynching as part of his vitriol. One does not curse out the elder residents of Skokie, Illinois as "mockeys" and then add insult to injury by adding that they would have looked lovely coming out of the ovens with their legs adorned with that paper shit like on a crown roast. No, Richards' words may have sprung from the heat of the moment, but you just don't pull lynching material out of your anti-heckler utility belt. That shit had been there for a while, and now the cat's out of the bag.

And, folks: EAT MORE PUSSY!!!

Julie said...

There go all the good comedians at the Laugh Factory. I have never seen a good comedian who didn't offend someone, if not everyone, at some point.

VOTAR said...

Stop stealing my blog post topics!

Get out of my head.

Get off my lawn you kids with your rock and roll music and loud talking.

John said...

The problem I see is that the word "nigger" is not some arbitrary thing that black people just decided to be offended by (like, for example, Muslims being offended by depictions of the Prophet; they made that rule, I don't feel the need to abide by it). It's a word that white people made up for the sole purpose of degrading and offending black people. It worked, they were degraded and offended, and will continue to be for as long as they like. It's not our place to say "okay, it's no longer a bad word." It's like kicking someone in the nuts; you don't get to tell them how long they can be mad about it.

tony said...

Oh the irony...

Last night, the commercial for that evening's syndicated episode of Seinfeld was for "The Wife" - The episode ends with Kramer meeting his girlfriend's family (who are black) and Kramer being horribly tanned. One of the girlfriend's relatives says "I thought you said you were bringing a white boy! I don't see a white boy! All I see is a damn fool!"

Chez said...

You just know they aired that purposely.

Bunche said...

Read your comments on the Vault, and you are absolutely right about the idiocy of people not being able to say "nigger" even in a context that allows discussion of the term's multiple meanings. If it's a clinical situation, anything goes; I was first awakened to this some years ago when I ended up as the lone male in a room full of women and somehow wound up discussing whether or not "cunt" was a word that could be used without offense. Hoo BOY, was that an interesting evening...

VOTAR said...

John and Bunche make pretty good points; there is a cultural/racial collective memory involved that I can't pretend to relate to when it comes to this, having never been on the receiving end of that kind of relentless bias based on a trait I was born with. It's easy for me to say, which I recently posted in more detail in my blog, that I can shrug off ethnic jokes that one might expect me to take offense with, but that's because I feel very little affinity to my heritage. Before I am (ethnically, at least, not religiously) a jew, before I am a caucasian, before I am an American, before I am a moderate liberal, before I am agnostic...I'm simply a human.

That having been said, I recognise that there are still people out there who would happily kick my ass, just for belonging to any one or more of those categories. I'm certain that portions of my family was decimated decades ago by that little unfortunate thing over in Germany, and before that I imagine a few branches of the tree were trimmed away by medieval christians. But the inquisition was a really long time ago, the concentration camps are all shut down (at least the Nazi ones...), and my folk are all back in charge of the world's banks and newspapers. *evil grin*

Ultimately, though, it's still just about words. The hecklers at Michael Richards' show weren't burned alive locked inside a church, nor did they have police dogs and firehoses turned on them. We've come a long way since those things, and the people involved should just acknowledge that it was an unfortunate verbal exchange that erupted in the heat of the moment. It bears repeating: words are only as powerful as we make them. What I really hope we don't see this time is the usual parade of professional stereotypes rallying to this event the way we did around O.J., promoting their agenda to perpetuate the image of the "black community" as a race of victims seeking entitlement forever.

Chez said...

You're a Jew?

All this time I had no idea. I never even noticed your horns. Damn.

I kid simply because if there's anyone who so thoroughly puts asunder the stereotype of Jews having all the money, I'm unaware of him.

VOTAR said...

Yeah apparently my paperwork got all screwed up down at the main office. My horns are on backorder, and I still have a few more babies to suck the blood out of before Satan will reward me with gold and riches beyond the dreams of avarice.

Jennifer Sulkin said...

i have been saying this for years. perhaps someday someone will listen to me. here goes.

The etymology of nigger is traced to the Latin niger, meaning black. The Latin niger became the noun negro (black person) in English, and simply the color black in Spanish and Portuguese.

now- lets play some linguistic games, shall we?

the spaniards and the portugese were primarily responsible for the inception of the african slave trade, and even after other nations got in on it, continued to be one of the most reliable and profitable providers.

now, if you speak, say, spanish, and you are selling your "wares" in south carolina, and they ask you what you are selling, you will tell them, "negros", meaning, dark skinned people. its simply a comment on color.

for the LAST TIME! (or until the next time i inflict this rant on someone) the bastardization of the COLOR negro into the racial epithet NIGGER has a whole lot less to do with an imbominable injustice to all people of color, and a whole lot more to do with....

IGNORANT AMERICAN REDNECK FUCKS who cannot be bothered to properly pronounce a word in a language they DO NOT UNDERSTAND.

the fact that the word "nigger" even EXISTS reflects MORE poorly on the marginally literate and linguistically inclined plantation owners and slave purchasers of the south, than it does the people who are decended from those people.

i am not prejudiced against people of any color, black white or purple. i am not prejudiced against southerners, i was born in georgia and raised throughout my childhood in south carolina.

but in the same way that my afro-american friend yakisha is annoyed by "niggers" (as a statement of culture and class, not color), and "rednecks" drive me bonkers (as a statement of culture and class, and not geographical location of residence)...

the only true prejudice i hold is MORONS. now, my southern upbringing causes me to more often than not pity people who are genuinely, biologically, not terribly sharp. i do not hold that against them, i'd just rather not be around them.

whats even worse, is SUPPOSEDLY educated people, who continuously insist on spouting party line popular PC BULLSHIT at the expense of actually taking the time to think independently, or research a thing.

in my opinion, if you can't do better, it's not your fault. if you don't know better, you can be taught. but once you've been taught, and you continuously, deliberately, bullishly, INSIST on clinging to your outmoded idea or belief system simply on the grounds that it is comfortable, traditional, or popular, without actually engaging any braincells?

go away. you're wasting my oxygen.

somewhere in there, there was a point, i hope you found it, if you do, return it cause i seem to have mislaid it.

oh, and cunt! love that word. don't know why.

and i will always remember the time that i was running an acting studio, doing an improv scene with an actress. we were given our premise, and we ran with it. at one point during the FICTIONAL, um, ACTING dialogue, at a situationally, dialectically appropriate moment, i called the CHARACTER she was playing, a c.u.n.t. she was so mortified, horrified, and other things that end in ied, that she sputtered, and left the class and refused to come back unless a public apology was made.

she was SO riled by a tiny word, said in a FICTIONAL context, to a person that WAS NOT HER, that she happened to be PERSONIFYING at the time, playing? acting? are these foreign concepts? that she just went nuclear and took her ball and went home.

no amount of explaining or apologizing could mollify her poor wittle damaged baby feewings.

and what's worse, other people nearly left the class because of her tantrum. it was deemed that using that word in a fictional context was out of line, and uncalled for, and in the end, i had to give a classwide public apology and explanation to settle everyone down.

just.... wow.

has anyone ever experienced anything like this?

Jennifer

Anonymous said...

I think the entire "clinical discussion of the word 'nigger'" thing is an entirely different post unto itself, and little more than misdirected, unneccessary ponitificating to distract from the main moral of this sordid, little tale: Kramer's a racist dick.

Chez said...

I always love it when the ever-popular "Anonymous" drops in to grace us with his/her bit of self-important righteous indignation.

"Kramer" may or may not be a racist dick.

You on the other hand are absolutely a fucking idiot.

Tre said...

Let it not be said that, when taken to task, I can't own up for a ridiculous and accusatory statement I made. I am the "Anonymous" who made the "racist dick" comment. I don't know what came over me. It's like the rage just spilled out! I'm not even prejudiced against racist dicks; that's what's so insane about this!

Seriously though, I hate it when people make cut-and-run comments, so I regret doing the same. Chez, you made some really great points and provided a much-needed, no bullshit perspective on the situation. However, can we agree that Michael Richards is some sort of dick? Angry? Confused? Hirsute?
No? That's OK.

Jennifer Sulkin said...

hehehe. actually, anonymous, the ever so eponymous anonymous.... i do think that a "clinical discussion of the word" is in order.

because i think that when one is in full posession of all the facts, one realizes that the fact that the word nigger exists, is more of a poor reflection on the plantation owners and slave purchasers that coined it, and their descendants... as opposed to the descendents of those that were brought here as merchandise.

and anyone that uses the word just simply displays not only their cultural, but linguistic ignorance.

and seeing as the actual intent of the word negro was to be descriptive, and not pejorative, or even cultural, such as saying "that blonde guy said this" or "that girl with the freckles said that" then you can see that not only is it only a word, but it inherently loses its power.

this is my advice: this word is like a squirrel. stop feeding it, and it will eventually go away.

Jennifer

Chez said...

Not a problem Tre. I agree that he's got some issues; obviously when he gets pissed off he's willing to start screaming racial epithets at people -- which shows an unfortunate lack of ability to control himself. I still do think that it was less about outright racism than it was about his desire to just hit his hecklers as far below the belt as possible. If they had been retarded or handicapped, I can only imagine the crap that he would've been calling them.

Thanks to this story and another one that's been making the rounds lately, I have a feeling I'm going to be bringing up the subject of race relations again in the near future. I realize it's territory which has basically been strip-mined until there's nothing left, but I have my opinions and I guess that that's what this damn thing is for.

For the record, it really doesn't matter one bit whether I know your name or not, since you're still a stranger to me -- but thanks very much for making the effort nonetheless. It's appreciated.

Tre said...

You're welcome, Chez. I just feel good to have my blogger sins absolved.

Dave said...

After the news broke regarding Michael Richards' infamous rant at the Laugh Factory, I saw the video for myself on YouTube. I immediately recognized what I was seeing in the same way a person will recognize a particular image without having to think about it. I saw a bad stand-up comedian trying to salvage his act.

I perform stand up comedy, and as such, have spent years in bars and clubs watching (and participating in) open-mic nights with others like myself slowly and clumsily learning the craft through trial and error.

Comedians like Jim Gaffigan, Louis CK, Dave Chappelle, Jon Stewart, and even Richards' friend and co-star Jerry Seinfeld all achieved success as comics before finding fame, but the reason we've even ever heard of them is that they paid their dues, worked hard, and learned the peculiar performance art that is stand-up comedy.

Richards, however, is a successful comedic actor turned comedian. There's a big difference there.

He began his stand up career in fame. He never had to put in those hours learning what to do and what not to do on stage or how to deal with hecklers.

Unfortunately, shock comedy can be easy and there's a pressure in any kind of comedy to be "edgy".

That being said, I have a hard time believing that screaming "nigger" on stage in front of a crowd of people was Michael Richards revealing his secret racism.

I do, however, believe it was a bad comedian making a stupid mistake, one that I've seen countless no-name comedians make at local open-mic nights without anybody batting an eye.