Commentary Magazine


Topic: The Oscars

Anti-Semitism Is Still Not a Joking Matter

Viewers of this year’s Oscars ceremony who were unfamiliar with the work of Seth MacFarlane were probably shocked or even offended by some of the host’s irreverent and off-color attempts at humor. In particular, many Jews were outraged by the scripted comedy routine in which the animated teddy bear “Ted” (whose voice is spoken by MacFarlane) told actor Mark Wahlberg that “if you want to work in this town” you had to be Jewish. The bear went on to say that his claim of Jewish identity and contributions to Israel might earn him a private plane after the next “secret synagogue” meeting. These lines earned MacFarlane a stiff rebuke from the Anti-Defamation League, which inveighed against the use of age-old anti-Jewish stereotypes even if the intent was purely humorous.

But the problem with any such complaint, even one as measured as that of the ADL, is that in contemporary American popular culture ethnic and religious slurs, such as those that are spewed on MacFarlane’s long-running animated show “Family Guy,” are par for the course. Anyone who watches that show knows that its author will make fun of any individual or group in pursuit of a cheap or even clever jibe. The whole point of “Family Guy” is to push beyond every conceivable boundary in an effort to lay all our foibles, prejudices and even sacred beliefs bare in order to laugh at them. Any outrage directed at him, no matter how egregious his jokes might be, merely serves his purpose. Remonstrating with MacFarlane about his insensitivity and bad taste just makes the complainer sound like a whiny fool whose feathers ought to be ruffled.

Thus, the ADL will probably garner more brickbats than applause for criticizing the routine. But the ADL nevertheless had a point about the audience for the show that goes to the heart of the problem.

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Viewers of this year’s Oscars ceremony who were unfamiliar with the work of Seth MacFarlane were probably shocked or even offended by some of the host’s irreverent and off-color attempts at humor. In particular, many Jews were outraged by the scripted comedy routine in which the animated teddy bear “Ted” (whose voice is spoken by MacFarlane) told actor Mark Wahlberg that “if you want to work in this town” you had to be Jewish. The bear went on to say that his claim of Jewish identity and contributions to Israel might earn him a private plane after the next “secret synagogue” meeting. These lines earned MacFarlane a stiff rebuke from the Anti-Defamation League, which inveighed against the use of age-old anti-Jewish stereotypes even if the intent was purely humorous.

But the problem with any such complaint, even one as measured as that of the ADL, is that in contemporary American popular culture ethnic and religious slurs, such as those that are spewed on MacFarlane’s long-running animated show “Family Guy,” are par for the course. Anyone who watches that show knows that its author will make fun of any individual or group in pursuit of a cheap or even clever jibe. The whole point of “Family Guy” is to push beyond every conceivable boundary in an effort to lay all our foibles, prejudices and even sacred beliefs bare in order to laugh at them. Any outrage directed at him, no matter how egregious his jokes might be, merely serves his purpose. Remonstrating with MacFarlane about his insensitivity and bad taste just makes the complainer sound like a whiny fool whose feathers ought to be ruffled.

Thus, the ADL will probably garner more brickbats than applause for criticizing the routine. But the ADL nevertheless had a point about the audience for the show that goes to the heart of the problem.

The group acknowledged that “insiders at the Oscars” knew the joke “should not be taken seriously.” Many viewers would point out that the definition of “insiders” should be expanded to mean anyone in the television audience who was familiar with the popular comedian’s work. That means most Americans got the joke and realized it was not to be taken any more seriously than his song about which actresses had exposed their breasts in their movies.

It may be hard for us to accept the idea that nasty stereotypes such as those uttered by “Ted” are just jokes. In fact, they aren’t–and can help spread the lethal virus of anti-Semitism. However, in the context of an America in which the barriers to Jewish achievement that were once both widespread and impenetrable are gone, it might be possible to treat the old “Jews control Hollywood” meme as merely humor when performed in such a manner as to lampoon hate.

But the problem here is that the Oscars show is viewed by more than a billion people around the world. While the abuse hurled at Jews and other groups in a “Family Guy” episode isn’t worth complaining about, the same thing must be understood differently when placed in the context of international opinion.

As the U.S. State Department noted last year in its annual report, anti-Semitism is on the rise around the globe. Crude and hateful traditional stereotypes about Jews mixed with anti-Israel propaganda are gaining more of an audience throughout the globe. Jew-hatred has become a principle export of the Arab and Muslim world, and Europe is seeing a revival of anti-Semitism that has not been seen on such a scale since the Nazi era. Just as they were once singled out for dissenting from the views of the majority about religion, now the Jewish people are once again marked for hatred and violence because of the belief that Israel has no right to exist or to defend itself.

To date, these offensive views are confined to the fever swamps of the far right and the far left in America, though they are gaining a foothold on college campuses with the BDS movement that seeks the destruction of Israel.

But for those inclined to tell the ADL to get a life, it’s important to remember that one of the most-watched television mini-series broadcast in the Muslim world in recent years was based on the premise that The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was real and not an anti-Semitic forgery, and that anticipation is keen for another such show in production that will celebrate a seventh-century genocide of Jews.

That is why MacFarlane’s equal opportunity offender defense of his use of anti-Semitic stereotypes falls flat. Perhaps in a more perfect world, in which such hatreds were just heard on the margins of society, there might really be nothing wrong with poking at these old wounds with the comedian’s sharp stick. But in one where Jew-hatred is the engine driving an international movement whose goal is the elimination of the one Jewish state in the world and the slaughter of its people, the joke doesn’t seem quite so funny.

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The Oscars, the Obamas and Camelot

No one who decided to go to bed or just switched the channel sometime before the end of a spectacularly boring Oscars show last night should be blamed. But if you did, you missed more than the identity of the winners of the major awards. In a night full of not particularly funny jokes or entertaining production numbers, and winners that most of the movie pundits predicted, the biggest surprise came when First Lady Michelle Obama appeared live from the White House to help Jack Nicholson present the Best Picture Award that capped the evening. Mrs. Obama is as graceful, attractive and well dressed as most of the film stars present at the ceremony. But the decision to include her at its conclusion illustrated a salient fact about the advantages her husband has been given and why the laws of political gravity do not seem to apply to him.

In the last year I have often written about how conservatives have underestimated President Obama’s political appeal as well as the kid glove treatment he gets from the media. The full explanation of his ability to escape the sort of critical scrutiny his recent predecessors have received is multifaceted, but I believe the most important aspect of this phenomenon is what I call the “Camelot” factor. The Obamas are the beneficiaries of a media whose liberal bias is beyond doubt. They also have a skillful staff that is ruthlessly manipulative and takes full advantage of social media and creative tactics. But mere bias and smart tactics don’t fully explain it. No president or presidential family has been treated by the mainstream media with the sort of deference if not reverential awe the Obamas get since John F. Kennedy and his beautiful wife were in the White House.

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No one who decided to go to bed or just switched the channel sometime before the end of a spectacularly boring Oscars show last night should be blamed. But if you did, you missed more than the identity of the winners of the major awards. In a night full of not particularly funny jokes or entertaining production numbers, and winners that most of the movie pundits predicted, the biggest surprise came when First Lady Michelle Obama appeared live from the White House to help Jack Nicholson present the Best Picture Award that capped the evening. Mrs. Obama is as graceful, attractive and well dressed as most of the film stars present at the ceremony. But the decision to include her at its conclusion illustrated a salient fact about the advantages her husband has been given and why the laws of political gravity do not seem to apply to him.

In the last year I have often written about how conservatives have underestimated President Obama’s political appeal as well as the kid glove treatment he gets from the media. The full explanation of his ability to escape the sort of critical scrutiny his recent predecessors have received is multifaceted, but I believe the most important aspect of this phenomenon is what I call the “Camelot” factor. The Obamas are the beneficiaries of a media whose liberal bias is beyond doubt. They also have a skillful staff that is ruthlessly manipulative and takes full advantage of social media and creative tactics. But mere bias and smart tactics don’t fully explain it. No president or presidential family has been treated by the mainstream media with the sort of deference if not reverential awe the Obamas get since John F. Kennedy and his beautiful wife were in the White House.

It almost goes without saying that it is impossible to imagine any other recent First Lady being invited to present the Best Picture Oscar. Mrs. Obama’s many fans will argue that she is the most stylish and perhaps attractive of recent presidential wives, and perhaps they have a case to make in that regard. But you don’t have to be a conservative or a Republican to realize that with the Obamas the already obvious political preferences of the arts world–and the film industry in particular–have crossed a new boundary.

While all presidents, including some of the most revered like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, have always been subjected to abuse in the political arena, popular culture had always tended to treat presidents with deference. But ever since Kennedy, that salute-the-flag way of looking at our political leaders has gone out the window. Since then all denizens of the White House have been subjected to the same cynical and sarcastic treatment accorded everybody else in contemporary American culture. Though liberals were certainly treated better than conservatives, they were not exempt. Not, that is, until Barack and Michelle Obama.

President Obama’s historic status as our first African-American president grants him the sort of edge that no other contemporary politician or any of his successors can ever hope to acquire. But the strength of his position is not just a function of a lapdog liberal media that is so easily led around by the nose by White House flacks. The Obamas are not just the leading figures in our politics; they are treated by popular culture as the uncrowned king and queen of America.

In parliamentary political systems the duties of head of state and head of government are separated. In the United States they are combined, but in the last half-century presidents have not been able to step out of their politician role in the way that their predecessors might once have done. Not so the Obamas, who are subjected to less mockery and more courtesy than even the queen of Great Britain is given in her own realm.

Part of this is seen in the way the first lady and the Obama children are held exempt from the sort of nasty criticism that has been the normal fare of every presidential family since Jacqueline Kennedy, Caroline and John-John were the darlings of the press. The children of even liberal presidents such as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were the butts of jokes–but not the Obama kids.

But the ability of the Obamas to preside over American culture like apolitical monarchs while simultaneously taking part in some of the most bitter, partisan and demagogic political warfare against their opponents gives the president an enormous advantage in everything he does, whether it is conducting a re-election campaign or bullying Congress to raise taxes.

Prior to the Oscars, it was understood that politics had torpedoed the chances of the superior “Zero Dark Thirty” from winning the top award. But Mrs. Obama’s presence in the ceremony told us more about the intersection of culture and politics than even that travesty.

Republicans have spent much of the last few months since their defeat at the hands of President Obama engaged in an orgy of introspection and recrimination. A good deal of that is justified. But as much as they need to rethink their approach to some issues, as well as their messaging, they would be foolish to think that their losses in 2008 and 2012 are unconnected to their bad fortune in being matched up against a Camelot presidency.

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