Monday, June 18, 2007

Salman Rushdie, from Outsider to "Knight Bachelor"

Salman Rushdie got knighted over the weekend: he's now Sir Ahmed Salman Rushdie.

Predictably, government officials in Pakistan and Iran have come out against honouring the "blaspheming" "apostate" Rushdie. It's a brand of foaming at the mouth that we're all too familiar with at this point; in a sense, the hostile fundamentalist reaction validates the strong secularist stance that Rushdie has taken since his reemergence from Fatwa-induced semi-seclusion in 1998. (If these people are burning your effigy, you must be doing something right.)

But actually, there's another issue I wanted to mention that isn't getting talked about much in the coverage of Rushdie's knighthood, which is the fact that Rushdie wasn't always a "safe" figure for British government officials. In the early 1980s in particular, and throughout the Margaret Thatcher era, Rushdie was known mainly as a critic of the British establishment, not a member. The main issue for Rushdie then was British racism, and he did not mince words in condemning it as well as the people who tolerated it.

This morning I was briefly looking over some of Rushdie's essays from the 1980s. Some of the strongest work excoriated the policies of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and indicted the pervasiveness of "institutionalized racism" in British society. Two essays in particular stand out, "The New Empire Within Britain," and "Home Front." Both are published in Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981-1991. (Another great essay from that collection is "Outside the Whale" -- required reading, though on a slightly different topic. And see this NYT review of the collection as a whole from 1991.)

Here is a long quote from "The New Empire Within Britain" (1982):

[L]et me quote from Margaret Thatcher's speech at Cheltneham on the third of July, her famous victory address: 'We have learned something about ourselves, a lesson we desperately need to learn. When we started out, there were the waverers and the fainthears . . . The people who thought we could no longer do the great things which we once did . . . that we could never again be what we were. Ther were those who would not admit it . . . but--in their heart of hearts--they too had their secret fears that it was true: that Britain was no longer the nation that had built an Empire and ruled a quarter of the world. Well, they were wrong.'

There are several interesting aspects to this speech. Remember that it was made by a triumphant Prime Minister at the peak of her popuolarity; a Prime Minister who could claim with complete credibility to be speaking for an overwhelming majority of the elctorate, and who, as even her detractors must admit, has a considerable gift for assessing the national mood. Now if such a leader at such a time felt able to invoke the spirit of imperialism, it was because she knew how central that spirit is to the self-image of white Britons of all classes. I say white Britons because it's clear that Mrs Thatcher wasn't addressing the two million or so blacks, who don't feel quite like that about the Empire. So even her use of the word 'we' was an act of racial exclusion, like her other well-known speech about the fear of being 'swamped' by immigrants. With such leaders, it's not surprising that the British are slow to learn the real lessons of their past.

Let me repeat what I said at the beginning: Britain isn't Nazi Germany. The British Empire isn't the Third Reich. But in Germany, after the fall of Hitler, heroic attempts were made by many people to purify German though and the German language of the pollution of Nazism. Such acts of cleansing are occasionally necessary in every society. But British thought, British society, has never been cleansed of the filth of imperialism. It's still there, breeding lice and vermin, waiting for unscrupulous people to exploit it for their own ends. (Read the whole thing)

That was Rushdie in 1982: "British society has never been cleansed of the filth of imperialism." And it's by no means the only strong statement he makes about racism and imperialism in "The New Empire Within Britain"; he also goes after the legal system, the police, and the clearly racist quotas the British had enacted in the immigration policy to reduce the number of black and brown immigrants coming to Britain from former colonies.

If we compare Rushdie in 1982 to Rushdie today, it's clear that the man has changed quite a bit -- but it also has to be acknowledged that British society has itself been transformed, perhaps even more radically. Organizations like the National Front are nowhere near as influential as they were in the early 1980s, and a decade of the Labour Party and Tony Blair have changed the political picture for good. But more than anything, what seems different is the way racialized difference (Blacks and Asians vs. the white majority) has been displaced by the religious difference as the most contentious issue of the day. One you move the debate from race to religion, the parameters for who gets seen as an "outsider" and who becomes an "insider" look quite different.

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Sunday, April 15, 2007

Russell Peters' Deaf Jokes

Here are some thoughts about Russell Peters, who I presume needs no introduction; Sepia Mutiny has had many posts on him, and you'll find a fair amount of his stuff up at YouTube. (Also, see Manish's recent post on Peters' show in Bombay from earlier this spring. I saw him last night in Philadelphia.)

At his best, Russell Peters airs out some intra-community dirty laundry. He plays with the mixture of embarrassment and pride that tends to circulate amongst members of various ethnic groups, especially immigrant ethnic groups. While many people might feel isolated within a particular ethnic niche, Russell Peters manages to draw people out, and create a certain amount of cross-ethnic solidarity.

Because he has a fair amount of "insider" knowledge about South Asians, the Chinese and Chinese Americans, Jamaicans, Arabs, and Persians, Peters can usually pull off humor that works with ethnic stereotypes. It also helps that he has a good ear for accents, and usually sets up his jokes with shout-outs to members of the audience: "You in the first row, are you Chinese? [Yes] What's your name? [Tim] Tim, what's your real name? Anyway, thanks for coming out tonight... You know, the thing about Chinese people is..."

Of course, all of that doesn't quite work the same way when Peters makes deaf jokes, as he did for quite some time at his show last night in Philadelphia. There are, presumably, going to be very few (if any) deaf people in the audience at a show like this -- so the sense of talking to people rather than just about them isn't there. Also, in my view humor relating to a disability by someone who doesn't have it doesn't work the way ethnic humor works coming from a brown comic. Some of Peters' deaf jokes were a bit corny and stupid (i.e., wouldn't it be nice to be deaf, because then you wouldn't have to listen to your girlfriend/wife nagging you), while others were flat-out mean.

What was interesting about the end of Peters deaf-joke routine was the way he brought it back to ethnicity. He pointed out that in American Sign Language (ASL), the signs for people of different ethnic groups were, historically, based on pretty offensive caricatures. According to Peters (I haven't been able to confirm this), the official sign for a Chinese person involved a pulled/flattened eye, and one sign for a Jewish person involved a big nose. Even today, the official ASL sign for a Jewish person involves making the shape of a long beard -- though apparently the sign for "Chinese" has changed. Also, to sign "Indian" one makes a "dot" on the forehead with the thumb -- like a bindi. It's not really a "stereotype," but it's also not exactly a neutral or arbitrary symbol. (See The ASL browser for video representations of many ASL words.)

The point behind this being, presumably, that even deaf people are capable of ethnic stereotyping -- it was even built into the fundamental structure of ASL as a language. Of course, if that's what Russell Peters was saying with this whole routine, we could easily respond that the history of offensive signs in ASL (most of which have been replaced) doesn't say anything about whether the people who used those signs believed in the caricatures.


With the new wave of self-consciously "offensive" comics (Sarah Silverman, George Lopez), it's often said that can they get away with it because their audience doesn't really believe, in a literal, non-ironic way, in the stereotypes that are being played with. But I sometimes wonder if the extensive reliance on these stereotypes -- this is Russell Peters' whole career, in a nutshell -- really helps people understand each other better. Sometimes it feels more corrosive than cathartic.

At this point I have a bit of a bad feeling in my mouth about Russell Peters, though I do recognize that he's a very talented comic, and I admire much of his earlier material. Who knows? Perhaps he'll have a version of a Dave Chappelle moment, where he takes it as far as he can go, and then stops to rethink what he's doing. Given what just happened to Don Imus after he said something not so different from Russell Peters' comedic bread and butter, I would have to say that's within the realm of possibility.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Community Norms vs. Free Speech: Don Imus

Just a brief comment on the current Don Imus controversy.

This morning as I was driving to work I was listening to one of the Philly hip hop radio stations as they were discussing Don Imus' racist and sexist comment about the Rutgers women's basketball team. Most of the callers were outraged by the remark, and thought Imus should be fired. But the DJs, who I believe were both African American, said they didn't think so. As one of them put it: "We don't really want to go down that road, because if you fire him, it will restrict the kinds of things we can do on our show too." The other DJ then chimed in: "Yeah, you have to respect free speech."

As I heard that statement, I thought, "well, would it be such a bad thing if Don Imus getting fired led morning talk radio to clean up its act?" The current norms -- after 20 years of Howard Stern -- are pretty sad, whether we're talking about the white DJs on the pop/rock stations or the black DJs on the hip hop stations. Sleaze, strippers, and mean-spirited gossip are just about omnipresent. How to change those norms so that racism and sexism become less endemic across the board is really the question, NOT freedom of speech.

The journalist Gwen Ifill, who was the victim of another nasty Imus remark back in 1993, has this to say. Also see Tony Norman's column.

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