Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 1, 2015

Stephen Colbert, the modern court jester

Filed under: comedy,liberalism — louisproyect @ 5:36 pm

Episode one of season 3 of “House of Cards” finds Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) ensconced in the White House ready to focus on policy rather than killing the foes who had been obstacles to his rise to power.

In the video clip below, we see his chief henchman Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), who is recovering from the brain damage wrought by a brick to the head by one of those foes who escaped with her life, watching his boss on the Colbert Report. While one can never figure out what the real intention of screenwriter Beau Willimon was, it might be besides the point since the net effect is to demonstrate the ineffectuality of Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert satire, a toothless affair that hearkens back to the historical mission of court jesters in medieval times—namely to serve as lapdogs whose bark is worse than their bite. Wikipedia, quoting the Royal Shakespeare Company, states: “Regarded as pets or mascots, they served not simply to amuse but to criticise their master or mistress and their guests. Queen Elizabeth (reigned 1558–1603) is said to have rebuked one of her fools for being insufficiently severe with her.”

In the video, Underwood is there to defend his new program that is called America Works—Amworks for short and hence the butt of Colbert’s joke about Amway. Now the interesting thing is how Colbert does not hone in on the real intent of Amworks, which is to slash “entitlements”, an agenda that Democratic Party presidents have been committed to since Carter was president. Colbert makes the axis of his satire Underwood’s unpopularity rather than the substance of a nominally liberal president. One can hardly imagine Colbert having the guts to drill Obama on cuts to food stamps if he can’t even put Frank Underwood on the spot. Furthermore, if someone as ruthless as Frank Underwood would go on the Colbert Report, how much of a threat could Colbert be? It was “House of Cards” stating, either intentionally or unintentionally, that such shows are just as inside-the-beltway as “Meet the Press”.

When a rightwing politician is on the Colbert show, Colbert’s satire has a bit more sting but only in the same way that Rachel Maddow exhibits. The idea is to lambaste the bad Republicans so that the Democrats can go on about the business of enacting policies that are “good for America”.

It makes perfect sense that Colbert is David Letterman’s eventual replacement. The Letterman show is a place where politicians can be gently kidded. The show will certainly give Colbert a bigger audience than he ever had on cable TV but to what effect? Did the man ever have any serious commitment to social change? That is open to question.

Even when Colbert supposedly went for the jugular, as was supposedly the case in his hosting the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in 2006, there was not much evidence that President Bush would find some reason to do to him what Vladimir Putin might have done to gadfly Boris Nemtsov, who was shot 7 times yesterday near the Kremlin. Here’s how the NY Observer reported on Bush’s reaction to Colbert later on that evening:

Stephen Colbert was asked, just after the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner on April 29, how the President and First Lady received his evening’s routine. He launched into an account of the pre-party they hosted before the dinner, the highlight of which was his opportunity to introduce one of his right-wing brothers to the President. The brother then turned to the Comedy Central star and said, “You’re the family martyr.”

Right, but how did Mr. Bush react, you know, after the performance? “Oh, he was very gracious,” Mr. Colbert said. He clasped a stranger’s elbow in a Bush impersonation and said, in a C.E.O.-style drawl, “Nice job.”

I recommend a look at Steve Almond’s article in the Baffler titled “The Jokes on You”. It is the most skillful analysis of how Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert function:

The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are not just parodies of news shows. They also include interview segments. And it is here that Stewart, at least occasionally, sheds his greasepaint and red rubber nose. With the help of his research department, he is even capable of exposing lightweight frauds such as Jim Cramer.

More often, though, his interviews are cozy affairs, promotional vehicles for whatever commodity his guest happens to be pimping. He’s not interested in visitors who might interrogate the hegemonic dogmas of corporate capitalism. On the contrary, his green room is often stocked with Fox News regulars. Neocon apologist Bill Kristol has appeared on the show a record eleven times since 2003. Mike Huckabee has visited seven times, Newt Gingrich, Chris Wallace, and Ed Gillespie five times, and so on and so forth on down the dismal demagogic food chain: Lou Dobbs, Ron Paul, Michael Steele, Juan Williams, Ralph Reed, Dick Armey. Stewart, who is nothing if not courteous, allows each of these con men to speak his piece. He pokes fun at the more obvious lines of bullshit. The audience chortles. Now for a message from our sponsors.

Colbert’s interviews are even more trivializing. While he occasionally welcomes figures from outside the corporate zoo, his brash persona demands that he interrupt and confound them. If they try to match wits with him, they get schooled. If they play it straight, they get steamrolled. The underlying dynamic of Colbert’s show, after all, is that he never loses an argument. The only acceptable forms of outrage reside in his smug denial of any narrative that questions American supremacy.

In this sense, Colbert the pundit can been seen as a postmodern incarnation of the country’s first comic archetype, the “Yankee” (a designation that was then a national, rather than regional, term). As described by Constance Rourke in her 1931 survey, American Humor: A Study of the National Character, the Yankee is a gangly figure, sly and uneducated, who specializes in tall tales and practical jokes. Unlike Stewart, whose humor clearly arises from the Jewish tradition of outsider social commentary, Colbert plays the consummate insider, a cartoon patriot suitable for export. But Colbert’s mock punditry reinforces a dismissive view of actual corporate demagogues. Bill “Papa Bear” O’Reilly and his ilk come off as laughable curmudgeons, best mocked rather than rebutted, even as they steer our common discourse away from sensible policy and toward toxic forms of grievance.

And Colbert’s own flag-fellating routine often bends toward unintended sincerity. His visit to Iraq in June 2009 amounted to a weeklong infomercial for the U.S. military. It kicked off with a segment in which black ops abduct Colbert from his makeup room and transport him to a TV stage set in Baghdad, which turns out to be one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces. Colbert is a brilliant improvisational comedian, adept at puncturing the vanities of his persona in the same way Bob Hope once did. (Colbert even brandished a golf club for his opening monologue in Baghdad, an homage to Hope, a frequent USO entertainer.) Still, there’s something unsettling about seeing America’s recent legacy of extraordinary rendition mined for laughs.

Colbert’s first guest, General Ray Odierno, commander of the multinational forces in Iraq, was treated to questions such as, “What’s happening here that’s not being reported that you think people back home should know about?” The hulking general then gave the host a buzz cut, as a crowd of several hundred uniformed soldiers roared.

Colbert himself acknowledged his reverence for the troops in interviews leading up to his visit. (“Sometimes my character and I agree.”) So it wasn’t exactly shocking that the shows themselves were full of reflexive sanctification of the military. Soldiers, by Colbert’s reckoning, aren’t moral actors who choose to brandish weapons, but paragons of manly virtue whose sole function is to carry out their orders—in this case “bringing democracy” to a hellish Arab backwater. This is an utterly authoritarian mindset.

November 8, 2014

Stupidity on parade

Filed under: comedy,Education,popular culture — louisproyect @ 3:54 pm

September 15, 2014

My life in politics

Filed under: autobiographical,comedy — louisproyect @ 12:31 am

This is an interview I gave to a graduate student in Texas on September 13, 2014. It is focused on my experience in Houston, Texas in the early to mid 70s but also deals with my prior experiences as well as those after I left Houston. The silent films will hopefully compensate for the uselessness and drudgery of my life in politics.

Some day, either after I croak or Joyce Brabner croaks, my comic book memoir will make its way on the Internet. In the meantime, this should do. I don’t think there’s much more that has to be said that can’t be said in an hour. This should be of interest to those who feel some affection toward me or to those who hate my guts. Those in-between will scratch their heads in wonderment about my wayward walk through the American left.

September 7, 2014

Can we talk? The unruly life and legacy of Joan Rivers

Filed under: comedy — louisproyect @ 8:55 pm

Can we talk? The unruly life and legacy of Joan Rivers.

So yeah, I think Joan Rivers was pretty great. But I also think she was a monster. She was a mass of unresolvable contradictions, someone who does not fit easily into neat little categories. The misogyny that was so essential to her act makes it difficult to claim her for feminism. But, in spite of efforts such as Peggy Noonan’s, it’s not any easier to claim her for conservatism. The way this loud-mouthed broad reveled in obscene language and sexually explicit humor — hell, the way her entire public persona transgressed every notion of proper female decorum — make it impossible to reconcile her with traditional values.

In the end, it’s precisely Joan Rivers’ darkness and her unparalleled gift for making everyone feel squirmingly uncomfortable that I find so fascinating. The woman never lost her edge. Yes, Joan Rivers deserves to be honored and remembered. But let’s be honest about the very mixed legacy she leaves. Rivers herself, who was capable of assessing her career with admirable objectivity (at gigs, she was introduced as “the best act in her price range”), and who tended to viewed ass kissers with contempt, would probably agree.

September 6, 2014

Joan Rivers

Filed under: comedy,obituary — louisproyect @ 3:57 pm

Like most people on the left, I found Joan Rivers’s comments about Gaza reprehensible just like Howard Stern’s. That being said, I admired Joan Rivers for most of her career and remain a fan of Howard Stern. Both are quintessentially Jewish comedians who, like me, thrive on self-deprecating humor—the same kind found in Rodney Dangerfield and Woody Allen (at least when he was still funny.)

I first encountered Joan Rivers in the mid-60s when she was making appearances on the Tonight show and Ed Sullivan. As a standup, her act contained sharp observations about middle-class Jewish life as the Youtube clip above indicates. Her shtick was all about undermining Jewish-American Princess (JAP) values. In making jokes about the pressure on Jewish women to be married, she was actually helping to show the absurdity of middle-class values. It was not just pressure to get married; it was also the pressure that Jewish women came under to procreate. A large part of this had to do with propagating the Jewish tribe, a value that I came to reject after hooking up with the Trotskyist movement.

Rivers was not a topical comedian. That is why it was unfortunate that her remarks on Gaza were given such play. I have seen her perform on television dozens of times and she never had much to say about the heads of state, except for this sort of thing:

On Nancy Reagan’s hairdo: “Bulletproof. If they ever combed it, they’d find Jimmy Hoffa.”

On Queen Elizabeth II: “Gowns by Helen Keller.” “Nice looking. Not at all like her stamp. Wears her watch over the glove, though — tacky.”

The NY Times obit, from which the two quips above were found, also mentioned:

Even the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center were not off limits. “A few days after 9/11,” Jonathan Van Meter recalled in a 2010 New York magazine article, “she called and asked me if I wanted to meet her for lunch at Windows on the Ground.”

Joan Rivers was no dummy. She graduated from Barnard College in 1954 with a degree in English. I don’t know if that was any kind of preparation for a career in comedy but her ability to wisecrack about anything and everything demonstrated fast-firing neurons.

The Times obit mentions that she was a member of the Second City troupe in Chicago in the early 60s. For those in the know, this was a breeding ground for some of America’s most accomplished comedians including Mike Nichols and Elaine May. To make it in Second City, you had to be really hip.

I lost track of Rivers over the years but more recently became a fan of her cable TV show “Fashion Police”. The show consisted of her and a panel making rude remarks about how celebrities were dressed. This is clip from that show and vintage Joan Rivers (“the first man ever to masturbate to a Madonna video just started collecting social security”).

April 25, 2014

Irwin and Fran

Filed under: comedy,Film — louisproyect @ 9:23 pm

Like “American Revolutionary: The Evolution Of Grace Lee Boggs”, another documentary about a long-time leftist, “Irwin and Fran” starts with its protagonist Irwin Corey walking down a city street with the aid of a walker. Each film is a deeply touching tribute to a personality who kept true to their beliefs over a lifetime at some personal risk. While Corey’s main emphasis was on making people laugh, there were some who did not find him funny at all. After performing at a fund-raiser for the Foner brothers, who were facing charges of being “subversives”, Corey ended up on the blacklist himself.

Professor Irwin Corey in his prime:

His wife Fran had more in common with Grace Lee Boggs although her loyalties were to the CPUSA rather than the Trotskyist movement. Made 5 years ago, when she was 92 and he was 95, they reminisce about the 1930s. She was out organizing demonstrations against Franco while he was performing in leftwing musicals like “Pins and Needles”. Seen smoking pot (she prefers cigarettes), Irwin says that the CP rejected his membership application. Taking a hit off his pipe, he says between coughs, “They thought I was an anarchist.”

The CP probably had a point. Like Lord Buckley, another comedian I grew up loving in the late 50s, Corey did not tell jokes. Instead he worked in what came across as stream-of-consciousness riffs on high culture, with the emphasis on high. As “the world’s greatest authority”, Corey could be relied upon to mangle references to Shakespeare or the Bible, mocking the sort of people who define the parameters of high culture. In one scene from this deeply touching documentary directed by Jordan Stone, we see Corey in his standard issue frock coat bumming a cigarette from an audience member and then smoking it as if it were a reefer. He quips, “I hope we don’t get arrested”. Considering that this was from 1958 or so, that took a lot of balls.

Irwin Corey was born to a poverty-stricken Jewish family in 1914. So desperate were they that they were forced to put him in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum of New York, the same place that the Trotskyist Sol Dollinger and his brother ended up and for the same reason.

Lenny Bruce considered Professor Irwin Corey, as he was known in performance, as the greatest comedian of his age. When Thomas Pynchon won an award for “Gravity’s Rainbow”, he sent Corey to receive it on his behalf. According to the NY Times, his speech was “…a series of bad jokes and mangled syntax which left some people roaring with laughter and others perplexed.” Over on the Irwin Corey website, you can read a loving tribute to Corey by Kenneth Tynan, one of those people who the comedian likely had in mind when he was telling those bad jokes in mangled syntax: “a cultural clown, a parody of literacy, a travesty of all that our civilization holds dear and one of the funniest grotesques in America. He is Chaplin’s clown with a college education.”

“Irwin and Fran” opened last night at the Anthology Film Archives in New York. If you care about the left, popular culture, and America’s true values, don’t miss this wonderful documentary.

 

February 18, 2014

One rich guy

Filed under: capitalist pig,comedy — louisproyect @ 11:22 pm

February 13, 2014

Sid Caesar, legendary comedian, dead at 91

Filed under: Catskills,comedy,obituary — louisproyect @ 2:57 pm

Sid Caesar died yesterday at the age of 91. The N.Y. Times obituary (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/13/arts/television/sid-caesar-comic-who-blazed-tv-trail-dies-at-91.html) pays tribute to his remarkable breakthroughs as a comedian that Alfred Hitchcock compared to Charlie Chaplin and who counted Albert Einstein as one of biggest fans. Speaking of Chaplin and Einstein, a couple of lefties, I can’t say I am surprised that the obit did not pay attention to Sid Caesar’s early leftist affinities. While they never were manifested in his hugely popular TV show, his evolution as a comic was definitely just as much a product of the New Deal popular culture as Pete Seeger’s.

I had pretty strong connections to Sid Caesar even though I never spoke a word to him. This is partly a function of my being a young kid when he used to show up in Woodridge, my hometown, from time to time but also a function of his intimidating presence. He used to show up at the pharmacy next to my dad’s store “strapped”—he was heavily into guns. Plus, he was a big guy who gave off “don’t bother me” vibes. As it turned out, Sid was a health food nut even if he was not above developing a spoof on the bean sprout scene.

I know for a fact that he was a health food nut because the owner of the hotel where he got his start used to call my father up to order his best fruits and vegetables for Sid. This is captured in the excerpt from my abortive memoir below, as well as the leftist connections. (Btw, if any of my enemies—you know who you are—needs wising up, I am posting the excerpt under the provisions of the Fair Use provisions of the copyright laws.)

My first reference to Sid’s leftist past that formed the basis for the comic book passage was prompted by a visit to a conference on the Catskills organized by Phil Brown, a Brown University sociologist whose parents ran a small hotel not far from my home town. The entire report is at http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/jewish/borschtbelt.htm

Here’s the relevant part:

Most people know about the resort hotels and the famed Jewish comedians who got their start there, including Jerry Lewis, Danny Kaye, Rodney Dangerfield and Buddy Hackett among others. What is not so well-known is that the area was a hotbed of left-wing politics. I suppose that wherever Jews can be found there is bound to be left-wing politics, except Israel that is.

Sid Caesar got his start at the Avon Lodge about a mile from my father’s fruit store. His comedy show was the biggest thing on television in the fifties. The writing staff included Woody Allen, Neil Simon and Mel Brooks at one point. Caesar had a violent temper and during a writing session once held an errant writer outside the window of the NBC offices by his heels.

He would come to my village to do some shopping whenever he was upstate for a weekend getaway. Sid was a gun-nut and would always come to town with big revolvers in his holster and a cartridge belt fully loaded. He would spend hours at a time on the firing range at the Avon Lodge venting his rage on tin cans and bottles. When I drove my bicycle down the road near the Avon Lodge, I could always hear him shooting. Ka-boom. Ka-boom. Ka-boom.

The Avon Lodge was co-owned by the Arkins and the Neukrugs. Sid Caesar had married an Arkin. The Neukrugs were rumored to be red. I studied piano briefly with Henrietta Neukrug in 1957 and in the middle of practicing “Row-row-your-boat” one afternoon, I turned to her and asked, “Mrs. Neukrug, are you a Communist?” She glared at me and told me that I was rude. Many years later as my exploits as a globe-trotting radical became common knowledge in town, the Neukrugs decided to turn over a box of Henrietta’s mementos after she died. It included many pamphlets by William Z. Foster, WEB DuBois and Sy Gerson, etc., and a hand-painted portrait of Joseph Stalin. Her family’s gesture meant a lot more to me than the contents of the box.

Here’s the graphic version:

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January 25, 2014

Thoughts on Diana Johnstone and Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala

Filed under: anti-Semitism,comedy,France — louisproyect @ 7:54 pm

Over the years I’ve noticed an unfortunate tendency for the left to conduct polemics like an attorney. If someone like Nicholas Kristof is a district attorney building a case against Robert Mugabe, for example, he includes only his misdeeds. Then the leftist will trawl through print and electronic media to prove to the jury—the fence sitting public—that Mugabe is the best thing that ever happened to the people of Zimbabwe. The prosecution will fixate on homophobia and electoral fraud, while the defense will urge the jury to consider the sweeping land reform. Leaving aside Shakespeare’s suggestion as to what should happen to lawyers, it would probably be best for the left—particularly those who see themselves operating under the rubric of Marxism—to adopt a more dialectical approach, one that considers the contradictions and aspires to a higher level understanding.

Those were the thoughts that occurred to me after reading 80-year-old veteran left journalist Diana Johnstone’s defense of the besieged French comedian Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala that can be read here, here, and here in chronological order. The lawyer analogy certainly applies here more than in other cases since Dieudonné has been charged numerous times under France’s draconian Holocaust laws. Johnstone writes in her most recent piece in the Counterpunch Jan. 25-26 Weekend edition:

Dieudonné has been fined 8,000 euros for his song “Shoananas”, and further such condemnations are in the offing.  Such lawsuits, brought primarily by LICRA (Ligue internationale contre le racisme et l’antisémitisme), also aim to wipe him out financially.

One line in the chorus against Dieudonné is that he is “no longer a comedian” but has turned his shows into “anti-Semitic political meetings” which spread “hatred”.  Even the distant New Yorker magazine has accused the humorist of making a career out of peddling “hatred”.  This raises images of terrible things happening that are totally remote from a Dieudonné show or its consequences.

Much of Johnstone’s coverage of the case makes excellent points about the Holocaust industry in France in which the state and NGO’s use Hitler’s exterminationist policies as a cudgel to enforce Zionist ideological hegemony.

Since it would be unwise for an attorney to be too obvious, Johnstone does acknowledge one petty crime in the defendant’s rap sheet:

The worst thing Dieudonné has ever said during his performances, so far as I am aware, was a personal insult against the radio announcer Patrick Cohen.  Cohen has insistently urged that persons he calls “sick brains” such as Dieudonné or Tariq Ramadan be banned from television appearances.  In late December, French television (which otherwise has kept Dieudonné off the airwaves) recorded Dieudonné  saying that “when I hear Patrick Cohen talking, I think to myself, you know, the gas chambers…Too bad…”

She considered the gas chambers remark “offensive” but not “typical of Dieudonné’s shows.”

I certainly understand how jokes can be made about extermination. In “Defamation”, a documentary on Norman Finkelstein and Abe Foxman made by an Israeli filmmaker, we see Norman in the stairwell of his building raising his arm in a Nazi salute as unexpectedly as Dr. Strangelove. That’s his way of showing that he refuses to bow down to the Israel lobby. There’s also Larry David who provokes a Zionist neighbor into a screaming fit after he hires a string quartet to play Wagner on his front lawn on the occasion of his wife’s birthday. I know for a fact that my rich uncle Mike wanted to spite my mostly Jewish and Zionist village in the Borscht Belt by buying my cousin Louis a Mercedes-Benz roadster on his 16th birthday back when German goods were verboten. Who are they to tell me what car to buy, he insisted.

There’s only one problem in trying to apply this type of joking across the board. It is one thing for a Jew to make jokes about six million killed; it is another for someone like Dieudonné. As an analogy, when Black rappers use the word “nigger” in a song, it has a different character than when a Klansman would.

Now, I would leave open the possibility that Dieudonné is only “playing” a character with provocative statements about genocide after the fashion of Sasha Baron Cohen’s Borat but there are some worrying signs that there is more to it than that. Johnstone says that the wisecrack about gas chambers is not typical but how would she characterize the guest appearance of genocide “revisionist” Robert Faurisson during a Dieudonné performance. One can certainly understand Chomsky defending the free speech rights of Faurisson but you judge whether this is what prompted Dieudonné to invite him on stage:

I also wonder what his goal was in the film L’Antisémite that unfortunately was another victim of France’s repressive legal codes. I find Tablet magazine to be an obnoxious purveyor of Zionist propaganda but something tells me that this account rings true:

The opening 2-minute skit of the film consists of a Chaplanesque [sic] newsreel narration set during the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945. The quivering, grabby hand of a pinstriped inmate extends out from behind barbed wire as the emaciated survivor jostles with a fleshy cigar-smoking capo for attention from the camera. Dieudonné arrives dressed as an American sergeant and throws scraps of food at the beggar, commanding him with a hearty laugh and flash cards to “Mange! Bouffe!” (“Eat! Grub!”) The prisoner then reveals the existence of the gas chambers to Dieudonné. As a kitten laps up liquid from a Zyklon B canister, Dieudonné sniffs at the canister suspiciously and then dabs some on his neck like cologne. Together they sift through the ashes of a barbecue pit. “Chicken?” the skeptical Dieudonné asks. “No, those are children’s bones,” the prisoner tells him. Dieudonné proceeds to sit on a leather chair only to be yelled at by the prisoner “for sitting on my grandmother!” He picks up a chandelier and asks if it too was made of Jewish skin. “Bien sûr,” replies the prisoner before Dieudonné plops it over his head and electrifies him as if in a cartoon. The film also features guest appearances by the aged Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson and ghastly National Front ideological guru Alain Soral.

I don’t know. I think I have a pretty good sense of humor but this sounds like the work of what Bebel called the “socialism of fools”.

Well, maybe Dieudonné cast Soral because he is photogenic or because he wanted to make some subtle satirical point. The historical record is a bit disconcerting. In 2009 the two men ran for the European Parliament elections on the Anti-Zionist Party ticket. Their program was unabashedly pro-Muslim and benefited from Soral’s populist message:

The fight against the rise of commercial globalist totalitarianism which is what the European Union is in reality; the defense of French workers and their rights against the plan for the destruction of our industries, public services, and small businesses by globalized capitalism, hence by the European Union; the return of the State to all large economic sectors, or a well-reasoned protectionism.

It should of course be understood that Johnstone has a soft spot in her heart for the National Front Party in France, whose leader Marine Le Pen she considered a “moderate” among the candidates running in the 2012 elections:

This applies notably to Marine Le Pen, whose social program was designed to win working class and youth votes.  Her “far right” label is due primarily to her criticism of Muslim practices in France and demands to reduce immigration quotas, but her position on these issues would be considered moderate in the Netherlands or in much of the United States.

While Marine Le Pen and Alain Soral were both associated with the National Front, he apparently broke with them on how to regard Muslim immigrants. With respect to the National Front’s demand to “reduce immigration quotas”, Marine Le Pen has a flair for demonstrating her party’s program on keeping the undesirables out. In 2011 she visited Lampedusa, an Italian island that is an entry point for North African boat people. She stated during her visit that Europe’s navies “in reality … should go as close as possible to the coasts from where the clandestine boats departed to send them back.” Lampedusa, of course, was in the news last year for being in proximity to a boat from North Africa that capsized and left 300 dead.

One would think that a man with a Cameroonian father would want to hold National Front politicians—past and present—at arm’s length, given their nativist politics or that they would want to keep their distance from him given his pro-Muslim statements. However, the relationship between Dieudonné and Le Pen the father and Le Pen the daughter is complex, to say the least.

The Financial Times reported that Marine Le Pen agrees with the penalties being handed down against the one-time comedian:

Marine Le Pen, who heads France’s far-right National Front party, prides herself on being a lawyer, and a media lawyer at that. So she has no doubt that chilling anti-Semitic statements made recently by the provocative comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala are actionable under a French law that bans hate speech.

“What he said against Patrick Cohen is against the law, and Mr. Dieudonné knows that perfectly well,” she said last week during a two-hour interview with the Anglo-American Press Association of Paris. “So he must assume the consequences, and he should be sanctioned.”

Yet the father is still on his side apparently:

However, she didn’t deny that he is a friend of her father, who, by the way, is godfather to one of Dieudonné’s children. “One can have a friendship for someone without sharing their ideas, or being condemned in their place,” she added.

If only it were so simple. In fact, her father’s views are not so far from those of Dieudonné, particularly about the Holocaust, a regular theme of the comedian’s routine. Mr. Le Pen once famously dismissed the Holocaust as “a mere detail of history.” In 2012, an appeals court upheld a three-month suspended sentence and a €10,000 fine against Mr. Le Pen for his statement that the Nazi occupation of France was not “particularly inhumane.”

I really wonder what went through Dieudonné’s mind when he decided that Jean-Marie Le Pen was just the right person to be his kid’s godfather. After the French banlieue riots, he had this to say: “Many live by dealing in drugs, or stealing. They have created their own ghettos. We have places where there are no schools, because they have set them afire and the police and firemen are attacked when they go there. Civilization is slowly evaporating from this country.”

I could be wrong but Dieudonné strikes me as the French version of Clarence Thomas or Roy Innis, the former civil rights leader who found it to his advantage to hook up with the Republican Party right. It is a bit harder to place Dieudonné politically on the French spectrum since he tends to be coy about what he stands for, but if you think that he is on the left, then you really have no idea what the left is about.

I want to conclude with what is the most important point of all. It should be obvious that charges against Dieudonné as helping to creating the conditions for anti-Semitic pogroms is utter nonsense. Jews enjoy a privileged position in the entire industrialized world and their elites are deeply embedded with the majority Christian ruling class. The people who have the most to worry are the Muslims in places like France, Spain or Italy who get beaten up or killed by skinhead mobs who are facilitated by the “mainstream” political parties such as Marine Le Pen’s National Front that like the KKK in the United States learned long ago to wear business suits rather than white robes.

The problem is Dieudonné’s amalgam between Zionist and Jew that is exactly the equation put forward by the Abe Foxman’s and Eli Wiesel’s of the world. With so many young Jews on the front lines supporting BDS, the tides are turning against Zionism. The goal of the left should be to deepen the divide between young Jews who understand how rotten Zionism is, not to spread the lie that being a Jew and being a Zionist is the same thing.

Dieudonné’s greatest offense is not that he is anti-Semitic; it is that he is anti-political.

July 31, 2013

When Comedy Went to School

Filed under: Catskills,comedy,Film,humor,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 4:15 pm

Although I am sure that just about everybody will be as enchanted by “When Comedy went to School”—a documentary on stand-up comedians of the Borscht Belt that opens today at the IFC in NY—as me, I have a particular connection to the film as someone who lived in the midst of the resort area in its heyday. The film will give you much more of an insight into this yeasty slice of Jewish life than any fictional film like “Dirty Dancing” can.

A WSJ interview with Robert Klein (it is behind a paywall but can be read through Google News on a search for the article’s title “Borscht Belt, Behind the Scenes”), the film’s narrator and veteran stand-up comic who launched his career in the Catskills, mentions him working at the Alamac Hotel as a lifeguard. My mother was very close to the family who owned the hotel in my hometown and connected me to Kenny Gottlieb, a busboy who worked there. Kenny, who was an opera-loving Amherst student, turned me on to Weiser’s bookstore in N.Y. that was owned by his uncle Sam. Weiser’s was devoted to occult religions and as such was a shrine for Beat poets who went there to gather material on Plotinus, Gnosticism, St. John of the Cross et al. It was after my own visits to Weiser’s in my teens that I decided to become a religion major at Bard College as a latecomer to the beat generation. (Through Google’s long tentacles, I learned that Kenny died in 2009 after flying his Cessna into a hillside in Napa, California.)

Despite the Borscht Belt’s rural location, the “townies” were always absorbing New York’s cultural influences from the young men and women who worked in the hotels. It was at the New Roxy, my friend Eli’s hotel where Rodney Dangerfield used to perform as Jack Roy, where I made contact with Don the lifeguard. I have vivid memories of chatting with Don, who looked like James Dean and screwed half the women who stayed there over the summer, about what he was reading at the time. He turned me on to Genet. I was also turned on to Panamanian Red that I bought from Freddy the waiter. It cost $15 an ounce back in 1961 and one shared joint could put four people on their ass.

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You get a flavor of the affinity between the comedians who worked there and the burgeoning bohemian scene from Sandy Hackett, who reminisces about his dad Buddy in the film. It turns out that Buddy and Lenny Bruce, who both got started performing in the Catskills, were roommates in New York. If you knew anything about their respective public personae, it is a little bit like hearing that Charlie Parker and James Brown were roommates. The two comedians lived in a cheap studio apartment in the Village, where they covered the floor with sand in which they planted a beach umbrella. Women were invited up to smoke a joint and enjoy a faux day at the ocean.

For me one of the great pleasures of the film was watching the 87-year-old Jerry Lewis and the 91-year-old Sid Caesar holding forth on their early days in the Catskills in the 30s and 40s. By 1958, the two were king of the motion picture and television respectively. If you went to a premiere of a Martin and Lewis comedy, you’d expect to stand on a line to buy tickets that went around the block. Around the same time Sid Caesar’s “Show of Shows” had a bigger audience share on NBC than Seinfeld. For my money, Caesar’s show was ten times hipper than Seinfeld’s (Seinfeld’s career was also launched in the Catskill’s but at a time when it was on the decline.) It was on the “Show of Shows” where I saw him leading the cast in a parody of what was obviously a Kurosawa movie long before I knew that Kurosawa existed.

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At this point, it is worth including the panels above are from my abortive memoir done with Harvey Pekar even though his widow has warned me that I do not have her permission to do so. The shrill and vindictive woman obviously understands nothing about “fair use” laws.

Mel Brooks was among the writers for “The Show of Shows”. Some years later Woody Allen wrote for Sid Caesar TV specials. Both men got started in the Catskills. In a Wikipedia article on Borscht Belt humor, Brooks is included as an example of puns, one of the four dominant characteristics:

  • Bad luck: “When I was a kid, I was breast-fed by my father.” (Dangerfield)
  • Puns: “Sire, the peasants are revolting!” “You said it. They stink on ice.” (Harvey Korman as Count de Money (Monet) and Mel Brooks as King Louis XVI, in History of the World Part I)
  • Physical complaints and ailments (often relating to bowels and cramping): “My doctor said I was in terrible shape. I told him, ‘I want a second opinion.’ He said, ‘All right, you’re ugly too!'” “I told my doctor, ‘This morning when I got up and saw myself in the mirror, I looked awful! What’s wrong with me?’ He replied, ‘I don’t know, but your eyesight is perfect!'” (Dangerfield)
  • Aggravating relatives and nagging wives: “My wife and I were happy for twenty years. Then we met.” (Dangerfield). “Take my wife—please!” (Henny Youngman); “My wife drowned in the pool because she was wearing so much jewelry.” (Rickles); “My wife ain’t too bright. One day our car got stolen. I said to her, ‘Did you get a look at the guy?’ She said, ‘No, but I got the license number.'” (Dangerfield) “This morning the doorbell rang. I said ‘Who is it?’ He said ‘It’s the Boston strangler.’ I said ‘It’s for you dear!'” (Youngman)

I don’t care much for the sexist junk about wives but all the rest of it rings a bell and was certainly an influence on my own sense of humor. The Wikipedia summary, however, does not mention what for me is the crowing element of Borscht Belt humor: self-deprecation. Although he was only part of the Catskills in the eleventh hour, Woody Allen was a master of self-deprecation. A typical Allen joke from this period: “I was thrown out of college for cheating on the metaphysics exam; I looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to me.”

Some say that brevity is the soul of wit. For me it is self-deprecation. While I am the target of deprecators near and far, I always beat them to the punch. In order to make my posts on the most abstruse topics palatable to the average radical, I try to thrown in a few jokes like the chopped meat surrounding a pill given to a pet dog.

When I was in the early stages of writing the text for the memoir I did with Pekar, I told him that it would be filled with jokes. I said that it would be in the spirit of the stand-up comedians I used to hear when I was a teen in the Catskills. Too bad it will never see the light of day except for these “fair use” samples. That’s her loss financially and mine creatively. But most of all, it is a loss to her late husband’s legacy that matters less to her than her petty feud with me.

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