I’m Rubber, You’re Glue

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I was listening to talk radio this week and heard Ann Coulter referring to Pres. Obama as a monkey three times in 3 minutes.  Then I heard Rush Limbaugh calling the Obama policy in Syria Operation Shuck and Jive twice in just one minute.

Normally I don’t pay attention to this kind of stuff or these kinds of people (that’s hate-speakers, not conservatives) because, well, I’ve learned over the years we have a limited time on Earth and really should pick and choose who and what we spend our time on.

But to not pay attention to this sort of thing is also absolving your responsibility as a thinking member of society.   That’s not right and it’s insidious.  And the more you ignore the more it becomes a kind of allowable “norm” people can get away with.

George Carlin famously talked of the seven dirtiest words you can’t say on television, all of which you can now say on cable and some of which you can periodically get away with on the networks. (They are: shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits – all of which you can say in a blog!).  Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and a long list of many others also challenged us with language that could be deemed offensive.

Don Rickles, the last of the old school Rat Pack-related comedians from the bygone Vegas era of entertainers, pioneered a variation of this kind of thing in the most mainstream way in the sixties when he evoked racial epithets for pretty much any ethnic group you can think of.   But part of his success was being an equal opportunity offender – no group, including his own, was safe.   Andrew Dice Clay tried another brand of this humor two decades later in the eighties by personifying the most chauvinistic black-leathered jacketed working class asshole from the boroughs or Jersey or anywhere else you can think of.  But he quickly faded away, mostly because he almost solely went after women in a very ugly way and partly because he committed the cardinal sin – he wasn’t nearly as funny as his predecessors (Note: ADC portrays a defanged version of this character in Woody Allen’s latest, Blue Jasmine, a performance that probably works a lot better for those who don’t remember the Diceman’s original act).

What do you do with all this?   Are words, in themselves, offensive?  Why could Richard Pryor (and now Chris Rock) say the “N” word but when I say it, it takes on another meaning.

It’s all about context.  And intention.

I shudder to even post this image.

I shudder to even post this image.

Moreover, why do Windbag Rush and Annie the Terrible purposely use their offensive terminology in order to provoke favor with like-minded thinkers and non-thinkers alike who are salivating for some new form of socially acceptable hate speak?

It’s all about changing the Norms of Context.  And it’s very, very, very intentional.

Also this week, Soviet president Vladimir Putin chastised the US in a NY Times op-ed piece for daring to talk about American “exceptionalism,” concluding with this thought:  We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.  Well, that sounds good but some months ago Putin began strictly enforcing new laws that allow his government to exorbitantly fine and arrest anyone who engages in homosexual activity, or even publicly approves of any sort of pro-gay activities.  Gays can’t marry, adopt or, if they’re vocal about it, teach (Note to Self: Cancel my trip to Russia).  So there goes his written plea for equality for all of God’s creations– right out the Kremlin window and right behind anyone listening to a Bette Midler album.  This also begs the question of what he plans to do with Atheists – who don’t ask the Lord for any sort of blessings because they don’t believe a God created anyone.  One shudders to even consider the punishment for that.

Forget about context and intention.  You now can add truth and hypocrisy to the list.

There are ways to think about our differences and there are ways to exploit them.  More importantly, there are many ways to express them.  Not all, but many people who are in the public eye are smart enough to know exactly what they are saying.  Certainly there is the occasional gaffe and arguably there is nowadays a whole class of speakers who just wander into the spotlight and are uninformed.  But you and I usually know who they are.  And we certainly know that’s not who we’re speaking about here.

Ya'll talkin' bout me?

Ya’ll talkin’ bout me?

When Putin, Coulter, Limbaugh, Carlin, Clay and all the others speak they know EXACTLY what they’re saying and why.  They choose their words for particular reasons because it is their living to do so.  They get (or got) paid handsomely for it.  And as such, they’ve earned an answer when they go over the line.  This is also the case for people in your life, or those within earshot adjacent to your life.  They’re not getting paid but they’re occupying your space and opening their mouths.  At last check, the US (not Russia) was essentially a freedom-of-speech-loving country where you not only get to say anything but get to be answered back within the confines of the law.  Hate speakers don’t get to have a one-sided conversation as they call you out for being too politically correct while they hide behind the mantle of free speech.  The latter cuts both ways.  If they have the right to speak as they do (and they do), we all have the obligation to call them out when we believe their heinous words and thoughts are polluting the environment in which we must live – both literally and figuratively.

That’s why comedian Richard Belzer was totally justified to call Ann Coulter a fascist party doll in 2006 when he threatened to walk off of Real Time with Bill Maher as Maher began to introduce her.  He was reacting to a myriad of Coulter statements that came before this appearance, stuff like My only regret is that Timothy McVeigh (the Oklahoma City bomber) didn’t go into the NY Times building or that the 9-11 widows are reveling in their status as celebrities…I have never seen people enjoying their husband’s deaths so much.

Of course, all of those were said several years before we had our first Black president so Ms. Coulter, a best-selling author in the tens of millions, has had to up her game.  How do you answer an educated person who knowingly likens the most famous Black Man in America (nee the WORLD) to a phrase that was commonly used and drawn in the antebellum South to describe the Simian nature of their former slaves???

An American artifact from 1900.

An American artifact from 1900. That would be 113 years ago…

The correct answer is not:  she doesn’t deserve an answer.  The correct answer is to tell the Ann Coulter in your life, or the one you overhear, exactly what you think – in a word, or phrase, or something longer (and perhaps, preferably, with something sharper).

Don’t take this for a second to mean that we’re letting Mr. Limbaugh off scot-free.  If these are truly our public airwaves, what do you now say to someone who uses the term “shuck and jive” to describe a Black president’s policies?  As Mr. Limbaugh understands, that’s a phrase that came into being when black slaves sang and shouted gleefully during corn-shucking season and evolved in common usage as way to indicate Black people who were clowning and lying.

Obama’s a sla-ave, Obama’s a sla-ave, O- ba-ma’s the N word, O-ba-ma’s the N word…,

you can hear Limbaugh taunting.

Well, you can now see why current Senator Al Franken had no other choice than to write:

Rush Limbaugh’s a big fat idiot, Rush Limbaugh’s a big fat idiot!

But that book was almost 10 years ago and Rushbo has gone into entirely new territory here.  What do we, or anyone, say back to him now?

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I’m waiting….

No – the correct answer is not to ignore him.  Not for this.  Not in this case.

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Certainly, we all make our own choices in these situations.  In 1993, the only African American female Senator in the history of the US Congress was Carol Moseley Braun.  (Note: Ms. Moseley Braun served as a senator from Illinois, a seat Barack Obama would 10 years later be elected to).  This week, The Rachel Maddow Show reported on a much repeated story of what happened in the Senate elevator at that time when ultra conservative and virulent racial separatist, North Carolina’s five term (that’s 30 years) senator, Jesse Helms, found himself riding up in the elevator with Sen. Moseley Braun.  This very white senator from the South looked this very Black senator from the North straight in the eye and began singing “Dixie” (Oh, I wish I were in the land of cotton…)” in the elevator, turning to Utah Sen. Orin Hatch and saying “I’m gong to make her cry.  I’m going to keep singing Dixie until I make her cry.”

Yes, this is a true story and it took place in the nineties.  And no, it is not about Mr. Helms being a product of another time and place.   It is about a particular type of viciousness that needs to be addressed in the moment – or after – not by turning your cheek but by turning into the punch and retorting in some way that you see fit.  In the case of CMB, she decided to respond by looking straight back at him, saying: ‘Sen. Helms, your singing would make me cry if you sang ‘Rock of Ages.”

You go, Carol.

You go, Carol.

Incidentally, this encounter was supposedly prompted by Sen. Moseley Braun successfully leading a fight on the Senate floor the previous month to defeat an amendment by Helms that would allow the renewal of the patent on the Confederate flag insignia by a group called the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Get the point, yet?

Have times changed in 2013 when a person thought to be a minority (Pres. Obama) chooses to live or govern in a way that a particularly vocally virulent person in the public eye thought to be in the majority (Mr. Limbaugh? Ms. Coulter?) doesn’t want them to live or govern?  Clearly not.  And what about then Senator Moseley Braun’s response?  I, for one don’t think it went nearly far enough.  But the deafening silence to Coulter and Limbaugh’s remarks seems to indicate we’ve backtracked from there to a strategy of no answer necessary.

It would be nice to think this is because we’ve come far since then and incidents like these are fading into the woodwork.  But I don’t think so.  In fact, I think it’s quite the opposite.

For years I had my own response to people like Sen. Helms, who all through his terms (which only ended in 2001) refused to fund AIDS research and was virulently anti-gay  (e.g. homosexuals are “weak, morally sick wretches”).  As I watched him trying to defund gay artists of any kind from the National Endowment of the Arts (and the entire NEA itself) at a time when I was also watching many gay friends and acquaintances die left and right from AIDS, I signed petitions against him, wrote letters and gave money.

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And — in my bathroom for years hung this famous Robbie Conal poster that read ART OFFICIAL with Helm’s hideous image drawn below it.  It served as a reminder to me and everyone who ever stepped in front of, on, or near my toilet that Sen. Helms was totally full of shit.

Hey, we all do what we can.

Note:  I’ve purposely left out of the conversation Sarah Palin, who has used monkey, shuck and jive and many other terms to describe the first Black president.  This is because Cruella (as Aaron Sorkin so aptly labeled her several years ago) has a dwindling audience and now falls into the don’t waste your limited time on Earth category. Well, unless it allows us to bring back Tina…

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Can you spare any CHANGE?

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Can people really change?  This is the question asked by the season finale of Mad Men on Sunday and it is our question about our born in the Old South (and possibly racist bred) 66 year-old Queen of Butter – celebrity chef Paula Deen.

It might seem strange to conflate Ms. Deen’s jokey use and tolerance of the “N” word (as well as her less talked of jokes about Jews, gays and who knows what else) with the machinations of fictional characters playing out the social changes of the 1960s on a cable television series.  But it isn’t.  There is barely a visible line between any of the real and the unreal touchstones in our world at this point in time.

Finding togetherness at rockbottom

Finding togetherness at rockbottom

Since we’ve learned from a low level systems analyst, who has thus far eluded the entire law enforcement apparatus of the US, that the American government now could very well be listening in on YOUR (certainly not mine!) daily phone calls, I find I’ve even begun to wonder how truly false the activities are of the Housewives seen on television in any major US city.  I mean, just because they’re BRAVO cable TV creations cheekily billed as “Real,” and everyone knows Bravo reality TV shows are fake (don’t we?), how do we know for sure in this climate that they actually aren’t all an even more clever trick – a dead honest representation of what a large segment of our lives have become.  A world we don’t want to admit to in the same way Mad Men’s Don Draper and the deposed Food Network diva Paula Deen don’t want to cop to their foibles until they both are absolutely forced to.

Since I’m not a housewife, nor can I technically be considered an authority on married adult family life since I couldn’t be legally married in the US or even considered part of my own adult family until a few days ago  (and the jury is still out on that if I decide to move into any other of the majority of our “united” states), I can’t speak for those shows on BRAVO (Note: though ironically, I am a key demographic in their target audience).  I am, however, a big Mad Men fan and have on more than one occasion gotten a hoot out of the over-the-top unhealthy food choices and personality of Paula Deen on the Food Network (especially when almost 10 years ago my dear friend Michael, in all seriousness, dubbed her “a murderess”). So I can mouth off with some authority to the general bulk of the subject at hand.

Couldn't help myself

Couldn’t help myself

The thing about change is —

You can do it but it takes A LOT of will and focus and diligence to truly alter who you basically are because it means modifying what you were taught (or through experience decided) to believe was fundamentally true.  We build up defenses – systems for being in the world – formulas for success or even right or wrong ways to be.  Through our lives, these ideas are learned and unlearned.  Sometimes what you learned or were taught works the first time out and it is great!!! Many other times they fail you and you wonder why you’ve been left in the dog house when all you’ve done is follow the rules or did as you’ve always done and are now suddenly being told that formula is outdated, not useful or just plain wrong.

This is when reinvention or re-education comes in.  In other words, change.

No one stays the youngest, the smartest and the most handsome forever – as Don Draper, brilliantly played by Jon (“He deserves his Emmy already”) Hamm has finally begun to learn.  Even when you stay handsome, as Don/Jon certainly has, the starchy early sixties thin-lapeled suits and tight slicked back hair give way to the more desirable shoulder length tresses and striped bell bottoms (do we really want to see DD THAT way?).  The same way the actions of a cool, scotch-swilling square jawed Lothario, he of the chic Madison Avenue success story, can quickly become the cold, desperate acts of a lying alcoholic whose behavior no one will tolerate anymore when, really, his actions are to himself, deep down, only just a little bit more or a little bit less than what he’s always been.

Whether one is an avid MM watcher or not, we all can relate to that point in time when we know the jig is up.  This is where Don Draper is at the fiercely ended sixth season.  A guy who has been fired from his personal and professional worlds and can either keep going on a downward spiral or decide, in some small or big way, to make an attempt to deal with the dreaded Big C – in this case, Change.

The big reveal

The big reveal

For Don Draper his admission of his past and how he was raised – poor, unloved in a whorehouse, a young boy who was occasionally given affection and life lessons from the random prostitute who took pity on him, or on herself by using him – is a big step forward and would almost seem cliché unless one were to have witnessed all six seasons of his life up to that point in time.   This is much like it is in real life when a person exposes a particular painful part of their past to you after admitting to a particular heinous act of their own towards you, and asks for forgiveness.  It depends how willing you are to make the leap with them given what you know of them, and how big, smart or able to open up your own heart is (or, more correctly, decides to be).

... and if you can get Oprah to cry, bonus points!

… and if you can get Oprah to cry, bonus points!

As a loyal viewer and participant in the Draper saga, I found it incredibly moving when he turns to his troubled 14-year-old Sally – who has begun to carve a somewhat delinquent road of her own thanks to her father’s lies – and stares her down as they finally stand together in his truth in front of the crumbling brothel in question.  But even more effective is Sally’s gaze back up at him – perhaps the only look of true love in her eyes towards him when she realizes for the first time in her life her father has chosen to show her, unvarnished, who he really is.  Talk about a change – on both counts.

A memorable glance

A memorable glance

Now admittedly this type of change might have particularly moved me since I would be only a year younger than the fictional Sally was at the time of this look and I remember quite well how infrequently this type of stuff happened between parents and children in 1968.  Which is understandable since at the time the country and adult Americans were both coming-of-age, a circumstance that usually needs to happen before real change can come from them towards us and everyone else (and vice-versa).  Which brings us to the much written about, proud daughter of the South – Paula Deen.

Uh oh is right Paula

Uh oh is right Paula

I’ve never made a joke that included the “N” word in my entire life (really, I haven’t!) and I never heard either parent make one.  I did, however, witness plenty of racial epithets from their friends and relatives growing up and gotten into my share of arguments over them.   For example, as a Jewish kid I would often hear the Yiddish word “schvartze” used to simultaneously describe and denigrate Black people – a term you’d be right to think of as our ethnic version of the “N” word.

Now some or even many of the people that use this word occasionally will argue to the death or your own exhaustion – whichever comes first – that this term it is not derogatory because it derives from the Yiddish word schvart, which is the actual word for Black in that language.

To those then and now who defend the word or its usage on this historical basis I say this: YOU KNOW YOU ARE FULL OF SHIT!!!

You KNOW and are FULLY aware of what that word means and what it connotes.  That is why you used it then and that is why you use it now.  And to the deceased Israeli guy I almost got into the only fist fight of my life with for using this insane explanation to justify his constant use of the word while telling a really bad joke at a public dinner in Santa Monica during the eighties – I’m sorry you died but you will always be full of shit vis-à-vis your justification on this matter.

This Steve got it right

This Steve got it right

As for Paula Deen – she not only KNEW and KNOWS what she said was wrong in the 1980s (even though she claims she only said it at gunpoint to a Black man who was holding her up) and she sure as heck/hell (or whatever) KNOWS it was wrong a few years ago in the context of a joke, even if she was simultaneously telling jokes and using questionable terms to describe other ethnic groups, including her own.

It is not a coincidence that the master of the ethnic insult, comedian Don Rickles, 87 years old and still going strong, has never used the N word in his act.  Or any other ethnic slurs.  Sure, he markets in stereotypical behavior and is an equal opportunity offender that way, but there is a reason he always drew that line.  Chris Rock IS Black.  He can use the N word if he so chooses, just as Richard Pryor did before him or Chevy Chase was able to do in a vintage SNL skit WITH Richard Pryor.

But Paula Deen – not a comic, at least by trade – built a vast financial empire when, as a single mother in the sixties, she started making sandwiches for her young sons to sell door to door.  Cut to last year alone when she earned in excess of $12 million.  During that time, she’s traveled all over the world and hung out with all types of people of many different shades, including some very famous (cough, cough, Oprah) ones.  She knows what is right.  And what is not right.  She went against that, for whatever reason.  And, because she’s famous, she got caught.

Yes, because she’s famous she is subject to different standards than you or I.  Boo hoo.  That is the cost of being a play-uh in that game.  We don’t each get to make millions trading on our famous faces for endorsement deals so we don’t have to worry as much about getting publicly caught like famous people do.  That doesn’t mean we should use those words either. But life is not fair.  I’d like to make a few mill for proclaiming the merits of another college professor, or screenwriting program or even blog, publicly.  But I don’t.  So boo hoo for me on that score.

DonCries

Paula Deen has committed the crime of callousness, bad taste and perhaps prejudice towards some employees.  She is not a murderess (well, unless you use my friend Michael’s definition) but she is also not guilt-free of wrongdoing.  And the good news – she can continue to be a national teacher in a different field – change.

As a person born and raised in the segregated South, Ms. Deen now has the opportunity to not hide from one of her problems but to recognize the problem exists and lead by example.  This does not mean picking herself up by her bootstraps and eventually rebuilding her empire.  It also doesn’t mean starting her own Food Network or privately urging others to seek retribution against the companies who fired her for her misdeeds.

All of us who make mistakes – from Don Draper to Paula Deen, and down to you and me – have only two essential choices: to continue on essentially doing what we always have, or to CHANGE the way we think about ourselves and the issue at hand by letting down our defenses and admit that, despite what we’ve always thought, we are, indeed, wrong.  And have wronged.  And attempt in some real ways, to behave differently from now on – meaning forever.  And to do it in a positive open manner, hoping for the best because, in the end, we’re now giving our best.

Don Draper is fictional so he has an army of very good writers to decide his fate, actions and choices.  Paula Deen, being an actual person, has only her own conscience and the choices she decides to make.  Which is no different than what we regular people have.  Fame can elevate but it can also be a great leveler.   As such, this last thought especially goes out to any real or aspiring real housewives:  Be careful what you wish for.   And how you act both before and after you get it.