Political Correctness has pretty much killed humour. There are now whole areas of human behaviour and difference that can no longer be commented upon lest one risk the chance of being blacklisted. No pun intended. I was brought up to believe Senator Joe McCarthy was a bad man. But, ironically, his ghost is alive and well and seemingly stronger than ever.
There was one comedian, or social commentator, Lenny Bruce, who literally paid with his life for daring to push down the walls of conservatism by shining a spotlight on the absurdity and hypocrisy of it all. His legacy survived for a few decades and passed the torch onto such comedians as Bill Hicks, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Joan Rivers, Sam Kenison, Bill Cosby, Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams, and others.
Having recently watched the brilliant Bob Fosse film “Lenny” starring Dustin Hoffman, in another extraordinary performance playing Lenny Bruce, I’m not sure Lenny wouldn’t be crucified all over again if he was around today.
Thank God there is Ricky Gervais and Larry David that are brave enough to walk the tightrope of what is acceptable, although watching their balancing act can sometimes be nerve wracking hoping they don’t over-reach and we lose two more brilliant and insightful social commentators. To paraphrase Lenny Bruce in his plea to the judge who bankrupted him and thus rendered him a death sentence, “Don’t you see? You need madmen like me to tell you when you’re running off the rails!” But it was Lenny who was run off the rails and into a ditch of which he could not conceive ever scrambling out of. In the words of Bob Dylan, lamenting in song the death of Lenny Bruce, (all he did was) “…to show the wise men of his day to be nothing more than fools.”
But, sadly, the fools have multiplied and are back in power. They have invented a term called “Political Correctness” that has effectively silenced free speech. Although I’m not convinced speech was ever free of repercussions. It has made it near impossible to have healthy debate or raise a lateral voice to present a new radical idea. Imagine the trouble John Lennon, always one to ridicule tin gods with the sometimes hurtful truth, would find himself in these days?
All political correctness does is hide the bigots. It doesn’t make them go away, it merely allows them to shield themselves behind the presently acceptable choice of slogans. I, on the other hand, side with free speech. If there are nasty-minded people out there I want them to have the public forum to expose themselves. I certainly don’t want them blacklisted, or jailed, or fined either – isn’t it enough that we know who they are and what their agendas are?
I am surprised at how many people violently oppose censorship and yet support political correctness. Isn’t it one and the same, or am I stupid?
Joan Rivers believed nothing was off limits when it came to comedy. But she didn’t just dish it out, she took it too. Even making a joke of her own late husband’s suicide that had devastated her. Humour can sometimes, in the hand of the great comics, illuminate things, clarify, show up the absurdity of the situation, and diffuse the pain by laughing at it – and thus commence the healing.
I’m not one for categorizing people, placing them in boxes with identifiable tags, etc., we are all much too complex for that. I guess for that reason I have never been a racist. I don’t think in terms of colour when I meet someone, but rather by the fibre of the person’s inner soul and their guiding integrity. Once, when I was living in Los Angeles, one of my African-American friends said to me one night, “You know the reason we like you? We don’t detect any attitude.” I replied, “Well I came from a working class background and lived in a suburb where there were many different nationalities. I leaned very quickly that there are only two races of people on this earth – good people and assholes! And every race has ’em.” We both laughed and my friend said, “You’re a hundred per cent right.” It’s like the old joke, “When I was growing up I was so poor I thought I was black!” Boom boom. Humour, yes. But also true.
Ignorance is the root cause of bigotry and prejudice. The more you mix with different races the more you see that we’re all the same – the family of man – with the same worries, the same concerns, the same insecurities, the same flaws, the same pressures to achieve, the same capacity for love and forgiveness.
And most races have been slaves to another at various times through history. I have Irish ancestry and they of course were slaves to the English for several centuries. Even being denied the right to learn to read and write in case they became too knowledgeable. Yet, isn’t it interesting how adversity can eventually become a gift. Many believe that because the Irish weren’t allowed to read and write that’s why they became such great storytellers. Their only way of communicating was to stand on a street corner and tell their story, or hold court in a pub for anyone who’d listen. Or turn it into a song and sing it. Do I hold resentment to the English for what they did to generations of my ancestors. No. The past is dead and so are you if you live in it. Or may as well be.
I’m glad that Hollywood has at long last started making films like “The Book Thief” that shows that not all Germans were Nazis. And that many, many Germans, not just Schindler, helped save Jewish lives for the simple reason that it was wrong. Many other Germans who opposed Hitler coming to power paid with their lives once he did. That is fact.
Abraham Lincoln was a white man. He saw wrong and he tried to right it. In doing so, he eventually paid with his life. And in the sixteen hours of his agonizing death I hope he at least had the comfort of knowing he’d truly achieved something and his life had made a difference. Did he do it out of political correctness? No. It was a very unpopular stand to take at the time and many, including Lincoln himself, were surprised when he was voted in for a second term as President. Perhaps the public, always smarter than we give them credit for, sensed it was the just thing to do. But it would not have happened had there not been free speech and very vigorous public debate. Were politically incorrect things said during that campaign? Of course, and the perpetrators’ were exposed for what they were.
Just about every race in the world has another race that they like to kick around. I guess it makes them feel bigger. It is staggering how old mankind is and yet, some, still have a problem with the shade of another’s skin. It is truly heartbreaking how little we have evolved if that is still an issue.
There was a cartoon recently that depicted the recent boat people dilemma. It showed a group of aboriginals on the beach watching Captain Cook’s ship approaching. The caption was “Look what happened when we allowed boat people to land!”
Again, humour highlights the absurdity and hypocrisy of a very dramatic and hotly contested situation.
There was a Jewish woman in L.A who told me she objected to being called a “Jew” and that it was racist. I must’ve looked a little confused because she then said, “Don’t you agree it’s horrible?” I suppose having listened to too much Lenny Bruce, I replied, “But it’s just a word. An abbreviation. It’s like me being called an “Aussie” – isn’t it?” I tried to explain that with any of the politically incorrect words that, to me, it’s not the word that’s offensive, but rather the tone. If I’m called an Aussie in a friendly or humorous tone why would I get upset? If, on the other hand, it’s said with a tone of sarcasm or ridicule, then it’s a whole different matter.
I know people who’ve destroyed their careers by using the “N” word. Yet African-Americans can call each other that and get away with it. Why? Because it’s said in a friendly and humorous way. It’s all about the tone. I was saddened when I heard that there was a PC push to have Mark Twain’s masterpiece, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” rewritten to have the “N” word removed. This is political correctness gone mad. We are talking about what is arguably one of the greatest American novels ever written, if not the greatest. The word is used in it because at the time of the novel…well… that’s how people spoke. And not always in an unfriendly manner. Huck himself uses it to talk to his slave friend. The point I’m trying to make is, if we start rewriting history we are all doomed, for “he who does not learn from the past is destined to repeat it.”
You can’t get away with calling any nationality anything derogatory and that’s a good thing. Oh, hold on, you can call poor white people “white trash” and get away with it. No one will sue you, no one will blacklist you, and no one will banish you from respectable society. Doesn’t seem fair in a time when we are all trying to be equal and granted some common respect. At the end of the day isn’t it about humanity?
I was sitting at the bar of a restaurant in Santa Monica once when a very classy looking couple, not sure what their nationality was, asked the Mexican busboy what type of bread the restaurant served. The busboy answered, “White bread.” The dark complexioned gentleman customer replied, “I am offended by your comment.” The very confused busboy came over to me and asked how he should describe the bread in future. I told him the problem was not with him, but rather the customer. Some will find offense with anything. And do.
There is also a PC push to rewrite one of the gospels in the New Testament where a Jewish voice in the crowd yells out at the trial of Jesus, to “Crucify him and let his blood be on our hands and that of our children!” Well I wasn’t there, and ironically neither was the writer, but how that one comment from some bozo in the audience can label all Jewish people as “Christ killers” baffles me. To set the record straight, the majority of Jewish people actually seemed to like Jesus. Some even loved him. Otherwise who were all those thousands who came to hear him speak, or welcomed him into Jerusalem putting palms at the feet of his donkey to make a trail? The death of Jesus was purely political. The High Priest Caiphas was in the pocket of the Romans, one only needs to see the lavish palace the Romans gave him to prove that, and Jesus was hell bent on forcing a public confrontation with Caiphas, whom he called the “Old Fox,” to expose him as a fraud who had sold his people out. Of course, given that scenario there was only going to be one outcome – Caiaphas was going to protect his job at any price. Even if it took the death of a trouble maker from his own tribe. But blaming all Jewish people forevermore for this is absurdity in the highest order. It would be like blaming all Americans for what Senator Joe McCarthy did. It wasn’t personal. It was purely political. Was Jesus the son of God? Or a messenger sent to reveal things to us? That’s a whole different discussion and healthy debate. But make no mistake, his death was political and benefited the few in power, not the many people on the street who seemed to enjoy Jesus’ morality tales about loving each other and being the best of who we could be. What is there not to like? From all reports Jesus was a very devout Jew and a very fine rabbi. And it’s a shame that there’s been a divide between Jesus and his own people, whom he obviously loved enough to stand up over a principle because he felt they were being sold short.
Which brings me to Mel Gibson and what happened one drunken night on a road in Malibu. Mel, driving home after having had too many drinks to celebrate the completion of his latest directorial film “Apocalypso,” was pulled over by a cop doing his duty. Mel, being pie-eyed and not the happiest of drunks, got out of the car and asked the cop, “Are you Jewish?” When the cop replied in the affirmative he was subjected to some horrible and nasty racist remarks that no one with any decency can condone. But, having been the child of an alcoholic father, I know full well how vile and nasty drunks can be when they want to lash out. With my father nothing was off limits and no vulnerability was protected when you were in his sights. I have often said about him that, “He was the nicest man in the world – up to ten drinks. After that, he’d wander the house looking for someone to blame.” Did he mean what he said when he was drunk? Of course not. I know that for a fact because I saw his pathetic sober remorsefulness the next morning when he couldn’t understand why no one was talking to him. But when he was drunk, he would say anything to hurt you. Anything. Anything to make you feel as bad as he obviously did. Hurt people hurt people. I have no doubt that if the cop that stopped Mel had’ve been African-American it would’ve been a tirade against black people. Or if the cop had’ve been Mexican – Mexicans. Or Irish. Or English. Or Australian. Or Muslim. Or whatever. We are talking about an alcoholic who was obviously in need of help. And anger management classes. Mel did wrong. He shamed himself. But did he deserve to be blacklisted for 10 years? You answer that.
Recently a female Jewish reporter wrote an article defending Mel. She stated that at the time, like most people, she had gone from loving to hating him when he made those anti-Semitic remarks. But she said that some years later, during his banishment, she got to know him and found him to be a very caring and kind human being and that she genuinely didn’t believe he was a racist. No, he was a nasty tongued alcoholic. She also revealed that Mel has many Jewish friends and has helped many Jewish causes on the basis that it not be publicized. He has also helped Courtney Love when she was on the road to self-destruction and no one else cared. He also rescued Britney Spears when the poor girl was obviously having a breakdown on live television and the rest of the world seemed content to watch and enjoy her disintegration every night on the 6 o’clock news. And Robert Downey Jnr. who credits Mel with not just saving his career, but his life. Downey has publicly stated, “Isn’t it sad that a man who had secretly helped so many people in their time of trouble, has been deserted in his.” The female reporter in her defense of Mel stated that he has paid dearly for his undeniably bad behavior. 10 years in the wilderness. 10 years out of what had been a distinguished career. Surely he has paid in full? It seems to me that the basis of most religions is forgiveness and the power of redemption. Do people deserve a second chance? I would like to believe so. If not, why do we send people to jail and waste all that money housing them if it is not in the name of rehabilitation? You do the crime, you do the time. Otherwise, if we’re not going to forgive, we may as well kill people when they do something wrong and save all that money. If we don’t grant a second chance in society, then they are dead anyway.
Political correctness? Surely we are grown ups and can self regulate ourselves. If not, we’ll be exposed for who we are. And isn’t that a good thing? Well it is as long as we are open to forgive and applaud someone who makes the effort to admit to a mistake, as well as put the effort into working on becoming a better person.
It always irritates me when I hear someone calling someone a “Nazi” just because they have an opposing idea or a different political leaning to us. Some of these people who call others such things will be the first to tell you they are politically correct. Well, as long as you agree with them that is. To call someone a “Nazi” is to either be grossly over-exaggerating what they have done – or else making light of what the real Nazis did. And that, my friends, would be an unjust and dangerous thing to do.
Although some people at times may say things that irritate us, or offend, or hurt, I believe we still have to defend the bigger concept of free speech. Once you start censoring or restricting it in any way you end up losing more than you gain.
I have been in show business since I was a boy and over that time have probably been called just about everything hurtful you can imagine. I have also been praised, thankfully, on occasion. It comes with the territory and hardens you to abuse from uninformed, ignorant or just plain envious people – “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me.” Let the hurtful (hurt) ones amongst us reveal themselves and we can avoid their company in the future. Life goes on. And so do we. Hopefully wiser and more discriminating as to who we let in our lives.
When people call others nasty names they don’t belittle you. They belittle themselves.
Go in peace and try to find the best in others regardless of their race, nationality, religious or political belief. It will also help you find the best in you.
© Frank Howson 2015