Friday, June 1, 2018

everything has a reason: the Michael Richards outburst (2006)

Looking at some of John F. Kennedy's speeches, I got that feeling: this was our president.  Today's leaders can only represent half of us, and we seem to have little use for figures evoking bipartisan support: they write books like Chesley Sullenberger, give lectures like Valerie Plame.  Michael Jordan owns the Charlotte Hornets, among other business interests (and he reportedly likes to gamble).  Similarly, Henry Aaron, Cal Ripken and Derek Jeter stick to baseball.  Stephen King was an impressive critic, but seems to have retreated to fiction.  Mark Zuckerberg says, “start a company," Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos run theirs.  Most film stars are actually selective with political comments.

If success is hard, moral leadership might be hardest.  We know the checkered history of famous preachers.  David Letterman stumbled under the mantle of Paar, Allen and Carson.  Mel Gibson kept a lid on his considerable issues until The Passion of the Christ.  EDIT: add Lance Armstrong, Stephen Collins, Bill Cosby, Matt Lauer.

Roseanne Barr made an unlikely bipartisan leader.  A gay-rights pioneer, she became leery of the extremes of the modern Left, and is a Trump supporter.  Certainly, she disappointed her fans, this writer included, with her pathetic tweet.  

EDIT, 12 August 2018: This is why I usually avoid writing about recent events.  Roseanne now says she thought (Obama advisor) Valerie Jarrett was white, as if to excuse (arguably, this makes the tweet worse, an attempt to sneak by a racial insinuation).  As someone who enjoyed Roseanne (1988-97), I'd prefer to assume its star is experiencing mental deterioration, may she find the humility to fall silent. END  

At the same time, it’s hard to wake up every day on-thin-ice.  That truth informs the following piece, written in 2017, mostly about events of 2006.  (I'll return to Roseanne at the end of the post.)
Coded Race and the Richards Outburst

Ty Cobb was a charter member of the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936.  He was also hypersensitive and a brawler, and the center of an anecdote that illuminates American racism.  On May 15, 1912, Cobb climbed into the stands in New York to beat up a disabled fan who’d called him a “half-nigger.”  (This incident seeded the idea of Cobb as virulent racist, a fabrication according to Charles Leerhsen, author of Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty (2015).) 
The 106-year-old anecdote seems very American: we’re still violent, racist and baiting each other.  Nevertheless, it benefits from annotation: in 1912, many considered race more essential than skin color or facial features, and the “one drop of blood” rule classed a person “black” if they had any black ancestry.  This attitude factored into American resistance to Darwinian science (the "Scopes monkey trial," creationism), in that Darwin suggests — in these terms — we’re all black.  The racist (of any color) is self-loathing.

The fan’s insult points to a question for media criticism: can a character’s race be coded?  The following recreates my own train of thought, and therefore may not be complete, while parts may have been covered by other writers (although searches yielded little, as noted below).  I'll focus on a single combination: white actors as coded black characters.
A knowledge of science fiction gives an advantage, e.g. Star Trek’s Spock has (traditional) Asian characteristics, layered with Leonard Nimoy’s Judaism (the Vulcan salute derives from rabbinical practice).  In the 1980s, at least one critic compared E.T.‘s appearance to that of starving African children, a then-current image in Western culture.  E.T. launched a cycle in which white leads befriend innocent aliens (Starman) or A.I. (Short Circuit).  Sometimes, a black actor plays the alien: Joe Morton in The Brother from Another Planet, Louis Gossett, Jr. in Enemy Mine, Damon Wayans in Earth Girls Are Easy

Any discussion of race and science fiction brings up Star Wars.  It's rarely mentioned that James Earl Jones was originally uncredited as the voice of Darth Vader.  Jones was known in 1977, and has a distinctive bass voice — everyone knew it was him, but he and George Lucas playfully left doubt.  Or maybe not playful, given accusations of racism aimed at the franchise, decades before Jar-Jar Binks. 

This may sound comically conspiratorial, but we get caught up in what was/wasn’t intentional.  Both Jones’s non-credit and the Chasing Amy parody distract from the obvious: Darth Vader is a “black villain,” with the voice of an African-American then known for provocative roles.  Jones played the first black president in The Man, and based-on-truth films paired him with white women: he played the Jack Johnson figure in The Great White Hope (Best Actor nod) and the paranormal witness in The UFO Incident

Like the black hat in a Western, Darth Vader at least nods toward an African-American villain, relatively rare in Hollywood’s sound era (if more evident than black heroes).  The end of 1983’s Return of the Jedi reveals a pale wretch, but the tickets and toys had been sold, concurrent to the extended tease that Anakin might be African (note also the CW’s short-lived Star-Crossed, about the Atrians).  Similarly, J.K. Rowling was a billionaire before declaring Hermione Granger black.  

Bo Derek was unknown when cast as an idealized female in 10 (1979), source of comic anxiety for Dudley Moore.  The 10 trailer pushes mystery: as we first see Derek with cornrowed hair, the narration says Moore “doesn’t know … where she comes from.”  Again, the implication is she’s not-quite-white, but in this case it’s tantalizing.  Derek soon filmed Tarzan, perhaps the most racialist English-language classic.

Like James Earl Jones, Boris Karloff was uncredited in the 1931 Frankenstein (the credits have “?” opposite “The Monster”).  Like Derek, Karloff was not well-known.  He was British (born William Henry Pratt) but had adopted a stage name that (ultimately) matched an intimidating creature, in an era when the Slavic enemy was often demonized.  Karloff reportedly had Anglo-Indian heritage — his skin was variously described as swarthy, yellow, etc. — he played the title villains in The Mummy and The Mask of Fu Manchu (both 1932).   

Race is a background theme in any Frankenstein narrative.  As the daughter of prominent intellectuals, Mary Shelley had lifetime exposure to debates about slavery.  Whether they admitted so or not, Europeans had to suspect Africans were their distant relatives.  Whereas Dr. Frankenstein tries to abandon his sudden kin, whites enslaved Africans — both were hounded by judgment.

We’ve had media criticism exploring race (gender, class) for at least 50 years.  It’s hard to know if it’s doing more good than harm.  At times the writer (or reader) oversimplifies, or seems motivated by resentment or overcompensation.  In the remainder I try to locate understanding, if only for one person.

Michael Richards played Kramer on Seinfeld; he’s also known for his racist outburst/rant (in 2006) when confronted by a black heckler at a comedy club.  Richards’ famous role may have been a contributing factor.  Although originally based on a white man (Larry David’s former neighbor, Kenny Kramer), and sometimes characterized as a slacker (nut, "pod," hipster-doofus), TV’s Kramer has much in common with the “coon” stereotype of minstrel-show tradition, as described by sociologist David Pilgrim:
“The coon was portrayed as a lazy, easily frightened, chronically idle, inarticulate, buffoon. … The coon differed from the Sambo in subtle but important ways.  Sambo was depicted as a perpetual child … the coon acted childish, but he was an adult; albeit a good-for-little adult.”
(from the site of The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia)

Like the coon, Kramer has distorted beliefs and comical fears, and penchants for wild schemes and fresh fruit.  Like the “Urban Coon” subtype, he’s a sharp dresser despite lack of conventional employment.  Admittedly, Kramer is smarter than typical.  Richards:

“The real key came about eight or nine shows in.  I had been playing Kramer as if he were slow-witted … Then I learned to play him as if he were blocks ahead of what everyone’s saying, and I had him.”    

There are various ways this argument may be misunderstood; for one, I am not defending abusive speech.  Granted, I will omit various Kramer traits and storylines, but even among other influences, the parallel seems clear.  I'm assuming any use of the stereotype was unconscious on the part of the white boomers producing the series (it would hardly have remained unremarked, otherwise).    

Like various plotlines, the casting of Richards plays into a race-bending subtext, in that he’s a large man with kinky hair.  In “The Fusilli Jerry,” Kramer errantly receives “ASSMAN” vanity plates, but soon adjusts to the persona.  In “The Wig Master,” circumstances leave him an evident pimp.  In “The Burning,” he’s an actor for a medical school, and is typecast as gonorrhea patient.  Kramer is an effortless seducer, a recovering gambling addict, and afraid of clowns (they wear whiteface).  He favors Cuban cigars; also Hennigan’s scotch, because it leaves no smell. 

Several misadventures involve skin and/or color: in “The Wife,” Kramer falls asleep in a tanning bed, after which he appears to be in blackface.  In “The Abstinence,” his home smoking-lounge damages his skin.  In “The Butter Shave,” the mistake is butter as tanning lotion.  In “The Chicken Roaster,” Kramer can’t sleep due to the brilliant (red) sign of a new Kenny Rogers Roasters.  After switching apartments, Jerry starts behaving like Kramer, but it’s Kramer who’s addicted to the chicken. 

According to Donald Bogle’s standard reference Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, the foremost screen-actor of coon roles was Stepin Fetchit, who was known for physical mastery —a Richards specialty — and being unfazed by criticism (when in character), also like Kramer.  Bogle notes two 1934 films: in The World Moves On, the character finds himself in the French Army — compare Kramer’s bumbling into jobs in “The Bizarro Jerry” and “The Summer of George.”  In David Harum, the character does dishes while soaking his feet — Kramer prepares salad in the shower in “The Apology.”  

Seinfeld was slow to address Kramer’s lineage, but what’s there connects.  In “The Nose Job,” he needs a jacket from the apartment of his mother’s imprisoned friend.  Elaine pretends to be the man’s daughter, “Wanda Pepper,” while Kramer poses as her fiancĂ©.  The cover is blown when the building’s manager disparages Babs (Kramer’s mother) as “nasty,” a “drunken stumblebum” who’d typically get loud as she “drank Colt 45 from a can.”  (In the U.S., Colt 45 malt liquor is associated with African-Americans, as in ad campaigns with Billy Dee Williams and Snoop Dogg.) 

In “The Switch,” we meet Babs (Sheree North), a bathroom attendant who tells Kramer she has “two years clean.”  The episode ends with Babs discovered in bed with Newman, the unappealing postman.  Per traditional stereotypes, Babs is the sort who’d have sex with non-whites.  Considering all of the above, the buried implication is that Kramer is (part) black.  And regardless of origin, the surname cooperates, by suggesting “creamer,” thus a lightening in color.  (Coffee is a theme for Kramer, e.g., he’s hooked on cafĂ© lattes.)  Finally, in Curb Your Enthusiasm‘s arc about a Seinfeld reunion (2009), Michael Richards fears he has (fictional) “Groat’s disease”; to raise his spirits, the Kramer-like Leon (African-American actor J.B. Smoove) claims to have Groat’s.  (Of course, the plan goes awry, giving Richards the chance to express anger respectfully.) 

The 1990s was a comeback decade for the coon, inspiring Spike Lee’s despairing Bamboozled (2000).  I’m suggesting neither moral equivalency, nor that Richards was victimized in any way.  Nevertheless, the sampling of a powerful stereotype could cause identity issues for the actor playing Kramer for a decade.  Turning the screw, the character became an icon to a young generation known for hypersensitivity to prejudice.  The actor would have to be the perfect cosmopolitan.  (Kramer’s first name is Cosmo.)  

Novelist Milan Kundera suggested vertigo is the fear of falling meeting the desire to fall.  In 2006, Michael Richards lived a white-American nightmare, but he received compensation: in addition to affirming his own whiteness, he no longer had to fear ruining his career with a racist outburst.  This payoff becomes more tempting if the career is essentially over. 

Given an imperfect memory, I recall one critic citing a coded black character: in Planet of the Apes as American Myth, Eric Greene discusses the title character in Edward Scissorhands.  (I was unable to find references to Kramer in this context.)  Apparently, for our talk of racism, we make the essentialist assumption that a white actor always plays an (entirely) white character.  We diminish the reefs; American race-consciousness is fathomless. 

afterword (2018)
I’ll attempt an updated conclusion, while planning to address these matters at greater length.  Also, please note that for various reasons, comments are disabled on this blog. I apologize to any who might otherwise have left (civil) comments. 

In his classic Wayward Puritans, Kai T. Erikson explained that a society gets the deviant behavior it expects.  Sometimes, we overreact: troubled by Quakers (1650s), the Puritan fathers banished these dissenters “on pain of death.”  The policy was “an invitation to disaster, for nothing could so satisfy the Quakers’ call to persecution as a chance to suffer on the gallows for the sake of conscience.”

This dynamic, definition-of-deviance vs. behavior, evolved because it strengthens the community, assuming a consensus majority.  The Puritan authorities prevailed, of course, until later centuries.  Today, we are precisely divided, as between those who consider Roseanne’s tweet deviant, and those more troubled by (what they consider) the overreaction. 

Like Michael Richards, Roseanne became wealthy and famous playing a working-class individual with poor boundaries.  As with Richards, we can assume some degree of identity whiplash.   Roseanne’s career wasn’t over, of course, she’d made a comeback.  In any case, she’s a 65-year-old, on medication, has profusely apologized, and she deserves a second chance.  (EDIT: No, she probably doesn't, in the absence of real contrition.) 

Our excess condemnation stems from the overarching myth addressed by Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate: “the idea that the human mind has no inherent structure and can be inscribed at will by society or ourselves” (page 2).  And in his preface: our “refusal to acknowledge human nature is like the Victorians’ embarrassment about sex.”  This becomes “the mentality of a cult,” with one inevitable result being “a ‘politically incorrect’ culture of shock jocks … emboldened by the knowledge that the intellectual establishment has forfeited claims to credibility in the eyes of the public.”

The mistake made by scientific writers, including Pinker, is to presume logic can ever hold sway, society-wide.  History suggests societies run on myths, not facts or logic (perhaps for the same reason no driver expects a terrible accident: reality is too much).  Even when we remold the community to be fairer than in the past, we must compensate with new myths ... or a stealthy return to old ones. 

Like good utopians, Americans are constantly declaring the end of old myths and customs, but with a fatal inability to agree on new (or newly strengthened) ones.  Our usual self-evaluations — tolerance, freedom, free markets, voting — don’t work here because essentially negative (don’t infringe on my rights), and too nearly-global to serve as national/cultural identity.  The syndrome helps explain the runaway wealth gap: even as traditional values fade, we value money. 

As Pinker implies, we are neo-Victorians, with speech taking the place of sex, and those with poor (verbal) impulse-control the “perverts."  This exchange leaves American racism as our primary existential threat.  Cracking down on speech is understandable: unlike systemic racism, we can (often) identify the guilty.  But it doesn’t seem to help, indeed, it may not be coincidence that mass incarceration paced political correctness.  As Van Jones comments in 13th (1:22:30), criminal justice reform will trigger substitute abuses.  

There is nothing audacious about false hope.  We’re in bad trouble, and no one is coming to bail us out.