Thursday, April 13, 2017

Don't Kid Yourself Jokes Are Powerful But Only Against The Weak And Vulnerable And Despised

I have reread Margorie Ingall's article about Ferne Pearlstein's movie The Last Laugh about whether or not it's time to make Holocaust jokes four times now.   One of my conclusions is that I don't intend to see the movie because reading the article and looking up videos some of the younger .... um.... comedians whose work I'm not familiar with, I don't think it's a topic that can be treated honestly in a movie.   The use of comedians, some who I really, really like, such as Carl and Rob Reiner, some who I kind of like, distorts the issues instead of clarifying them.  That the only really funny jokes were NOT about the Holocaust but were about the Nazis or about stereotypes of Jews (the one about two Jewish assassins as told by Rob Reiner and Gilbert Gottfried) is a good indication of the problem with the movie.  

The problem with the movie and making jokes about things that should never be the topic of a joke, genocide, child abuse, rape, is skirted over in the beginning of the article, almost without notice, in parentheses .

 It’s up to the viewer to decide what to think, not only about whether the Holocaust is suitable fodder for humor but also about whether any tragedy—rape, racism, child molestation—can be turned into a joke … and if so, how. (In other words, one should see this movie only with smart friends, and then one must go out to eat and argue. It’s the way of our people.)

Given that the article is in The Tablet and given the content in the rest of the article, it's clear that Ingall sees this as an issue in which the thinking of Jews is exclusively and decisively important.  And, apparently, not only Jews but Jews of the mid to high-brow variety who are "smart friends" who, like in a Woody Allen movie go see a movie with other smart people, go out to eat and argue about what they've seen.

I am going to break in and say that the idea that other people don't care about Jews enough to not think this should be allowable in comedy is as unrealistic as it is offensive.  The idea that the thinking of other people isn't important is that and it's also foolish.   It also ignores the reality of the society we all live in.  I certainly wouldn't think that what straight people would think about anti-LGBT jokes or jokes about our oppression is a minor or lesser issue.

The problem is, the movie and the jokes and the social milieu in which it will be decided that "it's time to turn the Holocaust into joke fodder" "it's no longer 'too soon'" doesn't just contain such civil, civilized and politically and socially impotent mid-brow to high-brow consumers of culture.   It contains racists, bigots, anti-semites, ignorant, ahistorical illiterates, sociopaths who couldn't care less if Hitler killed 60 million people as long as it doesn't impinge on them and those who would think 60 million were too few.  And it contain the kind of people who put Donald Trump into the White House, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell in charge of the Congress and who just put Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court.  It contains the fans of FOX and CNN and Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones and Breitbart.

The dilution of the even-handed, non-judgmental, journalistically flaccid approach of seeing all sides of this issue, in the vastly larger population renders it politically nugatory.   The fact is, most of the people in the United States and the world are not that population.  I can say that about the article even if it takes some stands I can totally endorse,  I remember Lenny Bruce when he was alive and he was never funny for a single second of his career.  I didn't know who Gilbert Gottfried was and, listening to him online (joking with Howard Stern about making jokes about the Holocaust to the child of a survivor), he's putrid, even if Ingall gives him a central status in the movie:

Jokes about Nazis and about the czar are an attempt to diminish their power. Making fun of the powerless isn’t funny. Gottfried, who turns out to be the movie’s MVP commentator (who knew?) expresses it succinctly: Nazi jokes are OK; Holocaust jokes aren’t.

Which I can agree with, entirely, even as I found Gottfried's act quite unfunny for the reasons I gave above.  The problem with insider jokes that play on stereotypes and even affectionately seen familial types is that they are quite capable of being seen by outsiders with malicious intent and inclinations and who could be influenced by them in ways that aren't intended by those telling the joke.  That is certainly how those black performers who traded in those in the past were seen by the vast majority of their audience*.  I dare say that the movie will be seen by more people who won't get that messaging from it but who will understand that the murders of millions of people by the Nazis can now be used for shock value, the real meaning of that mountain of horror, evil and shame being worn into nothing by a gradual process of ignorance.  It will become what I have feared it would as soon as I realized that, eventually, there will be no more witnesses, no more survivors, no more of their children to bear witness.  We are in the midst of a revival of not only fascism but neo-Nazism in all its guises of white supremacy, nationalism, etc. sponsored by billionaire oligarchs from Russia, the United States and elsewhere.  Holocaust denial is all over the web.  If he hasn't been pushed out yet, there's one of them in the White House as I'm typing this.    And it's into this that it's proposed we consider if maybe it's time to go there.

I can guarantee you that I'm going to get comments from white, straight, American men born after the Nazis were deposed accusing me of not having a sense of humor, of being humorless of being a kill joy, etc. of not sufficiently kow towing and lauding and praising "comic genius".  I can guarantee you that the power of comedy to bring down tyrants (it doesn't have that power) of preventing them gaining power (no it doesn't do that, either - see how well it kept Trump out of office) and all the rest of the tired, trite, cliched, lying assertion of the kind that people like to claim for comedy.   That is an automatic response.

How many tyrants have comedians killed, sent to jail, gotten beaten up, etc?  Entirely, none.  How many people have been injured, had their lives destroyed by, harmed with, perhaps driven to suicide by the amusing words of other people.  Many more than none.  The idea that jokes are powerful weapons against the powerful is a joke, but the fact is they are powerful weapons against the powerless, especially those who are already damaged or too young to have defenses against them.

Hitler was brought down by not one but two of the most seriously unfunny military campaigns with huge numbers of military and civilians dead, wounded and damaged ever fought.  He was not brought down by jokes.  Stalin died of natural causes,  Mao probably did, too.  Name one world-class dictator who died or lost power as a result of jokes.  Look in the paper for the next story of some kid driven to suicide by the jokes made about him or perhaps more likely her in social media. They come as regular as a city bus.

*  For example, you can look at what it really meant when lynching jokes were acceptable humor in the movies even as people were being lynched.  No Laughing Matter And "First Lynching of 1934"

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