There are a number of global crises currently active, one, at least, quietly, has to do with the mystery of what’s to blame and resent in a world seeming to offer more fluidity and opportunity than ever, at costs that not everyone, and maybe only a very unique special few, can afford.
Dave Chappelle, arguably one of the greatest and most popularly venerated comedians of our generation, recently released a show for Netflix, his “The Closer” in which he tries to resolve and finish any standing criticisms of his work, his voice, his biases and his conclusions, arguing fundamentally that his criticisms are of Whiteness and its blindnesses to impact and struggle, even when it tries to frame and establish itself as “progressive” or “woke”, although he notably avoids using either of these two words. He is surely one-of-the-most of those things, motivated by humanism, and progressive cultural concern, the sort very popular in the Yellow Springs he acknowledges.
He’s in more “trouble” this week for his ostensibly controversial positions a number of issues, mostly to do with liberal orthodox bastions: feminisms and trans identities. Closing The Closer speaking about his history with, and perhaps tokenizing, a Transexual critic-turned-friend, and starting it off with criticisms of white feminists, and took the brunt of the attack and criticism away from his one Jewish joke, which was two Jewish jokes, as is the format of the Mishna itself– two that are one.
I am not qualified to make a defense or attack against Chappelle for his jokes and ideas about Women or Trans-identities. But I think it’s important that we understand and hear what his Jewish jokes were about, especially since, from what I’ve seen, no Jewish organization or media commenter has been able to acknowledge one of them correctly at all.
The first of the two has been widely reported on in our media B”H, as are all alarms and threats in the public sphere. It’s easier for us to hear, because we are SO used to hearing about Palestine, unwillingness to even USE the word sort of fallen out of discourse, except in neighborhoods or shabbos tables where pointing out that WE are the REAL Palestinians is still the rule. The Atlantic dismisses it passively as “Holocaust inversion, in which the oppressed people are reincarnated as the oppressor.” and “pushing all of our buttons, and inviting us to reflect on which ones provoke a reaction.” So it was easy enough to hear, and get the joke in
“In my movie idea, we find out that these aliens are originally from earth — that they’re from an ancient civilization that achieved interstellar travel and left the earth thousands of years ago,” he says. “Some other planet they go to, and things go terrible for them on the other planet, so they come back to earth, [and] decide that they want to claim the earth for their very own. It’s a pretty good plotline, huh? I call it ‘Space Jews.’”
That’s familiar, right? Even encouraging, in that the authentic relationship of the “Space Jews” is acknowledged, the absurdity and tragedy of our conflict with “the people of Earth” just a detail, in which he is acknowledging his alienation affectionately. Not pretending that we Jews are not the real Jews, that the biblical occupation of Canaan was colonialism, no. His (neo-Islamic? Adventistic?) narrative affirms biblical Judea as a pre-historic home for a great civilization of terrifying aliens. That’s… nicer and ultimately more encouraging that some of his sentiments towards other groups, notably white feminists and Trans-militants.
The awe of black comedians to Jewish success goes back forever, notably Sammy Davis Jr. who famously converted (back when it was easier!) but more recently, and in the context of stand up, Chris Rock, whose SNL routine about antisemetism was about how much he wished people had stereotypes about Black as flattering as their stereotypes about Jews. This is different, respectful but not affectionate, related a bit to the supersessionism of even a very progressive and libertine Islam, fetishizing the ancient bible aliens and in awe and terror of their true and hungry descendants. OKAY. WTVR.
But it’s the second joke that is the meaningful one. That we as Jews should hear, and have not been able to acknowledge or adress, because it means being seen better than we are able or willing to see ourselves, especially in the context of Media in the United States of America.
It’s about a slave
that gets free
and makes money
and becomes rich.
So much so that he does what other rich people do: Buy slaves.
And treat them terribly:
“He did it just because that’s what successful people did at the time,”
“How can a person that went through slavery perpetuate the same evil on a person that looks just like him?” he asked. “It’s mind blowing. And shockingly, they’re making a movie about him. Ironically, it’s called “Space Jews.’”
The above is one of the few articles I could find that could even acknowledge the second joke. No, I don’t think that’s quite what he’s referring to fam.
He’s talking about Hollywood. And everywhere “we” have fields in which “we” employ black talent, to our own benefit more than theirs.
Chapelle makes clear his qualification to speak about any of what he’s speaking about: he’s the one who gave up millions of dollars just to not have to do what his contract insisted he should: produce the Chappelle Show, something he felt more and more troubled with, for reasons that are not entirely clear, but sound related to a sense of increasing responsibility for his portrayal of black men.
In none of Chappelle’s overt explanations for why he gave up 50 million dollars to go find himself in Africa does he “name names”: identify villainous actors, blame lawyers or companies, etc. He DOES, at the end of one of his Netflix specials, openly identify the industry itself as monster, the same monster targeted by #metoo, and use the contract he signed as an example of a pimp’s strategy to control their charges, with the secret behind why he had to leave Chappelle’s Show.
There are so many good reasons not to ever criticize any particular lawyer, owner, corporation or people for their antagonistic relationship to any of “us”, ranging from fear of legal or social consequence to the simple truth that the evil nature of the game, the field, the businesses are bigger than any individual or even nation. Blaming anyone lets every one else of the hook, and is deeply untrue on a level that any person of knowledge and conscience cannot but recognize; this is the nature of systems, no one person is to blame, and everyone who participates is both implicated and somehow blameless, because, as we learned (from The Wire) they say in Baltimore “It’s ALL in the game.”
And yet, black progressives, for years, have been struck by Jewish relationship to the hope of a more just society, and a little mystified, as well as deeply troubled by the places where hypocrisy and dishonesty creeps into our self-perception, and self justification. Historic allegiance gives way to our actual self-interest, as a class, as a people. Chappelle’s father was a professor, deeply invested and involved in Civil Rights organizing, who certainly struggled over this challenge, which led to the purging of the Jews from Black civil rights organizations in the 70’s. The hope of a better equality, amidst recognition of the nature of the human, is the specific hope of Chappelle’s last official release, Redemption Song.
Earlier this week, two American holidays were celebrated on one day, as Colombus Day officially pivoted into also being recognized as Indigenous People’s Day, a deeply ironic way out of officially disowning Colombus Day, something systems, states, and structures built around Colonial Romance can’t quite ever do, until their very nature is successfully overturned. We are all colonialists, moving from place to place, because dispersion and exile hits us all, as soon as we need to go to Egypt for bread, to survive.
The Jews, like the Colonial Founding Fathers of America, should know better, since both of our core ritual mythologies revolve around a liberation from slavery to an imperial power. But, it turns out, it’s easy to become the imperial power, just by doing well for a generation or two. It’s all it takes! Survive, on your own land, for a few generations and thrive and do well and soon enough– WE are Egypt AND Babylon, as soon as everyone, or even anyone, depends on us and we start to be strategic and self interested about how we relate to them.
James Baldwin wrestles with this question, in the form of: why aren’t the Jews we know quite as good as the bible Jews we all learned to love and identify with, as the enemies of evil?
Rudy Rochman, in a debate some months ago with Noam Chomsky, argued for the Indigenous nature of Jews to the Land of Israel. Chomsky answered, in brief: So what? We are still responsible for the human rights of the other people who live here, as much as any indigenous people are and would be! Chomsky is right: We could be as indigenous as the most African or Indian and still, we’d be responsible for the people under our control, no matter how much of a threat they were to us. All the more so: we’d be responsible for their satisfaction, or their ire.
So too in America, in Los Angeles OR Brooklyn, Detroit, Chicago, Atlanta or anywhere else we own property and business that depends on THEIR talent, and their work. The hunger and need in the world, that moves economies and shatters stabilities, as more and more or everything any one has needs to be put on the market for them to have personal freedom, which depends on enough wealth to be able to live, anywhere anyone is, without being too exhausted or humiliated to enjoy the fruits of life, something less and less people in America might have. Dave Chappelle certainly lives with survivors guilt about this, living comfortably in ways he is very aware most black people don’t have the luxury of living, since his relatively privileged childhood in a relatively privileged post-racial progressive milieu, where racism becomes subtle, irrelevant until it’s just the curious wall between owner and hustler.
Not all Jews get off the farm, survive the pogrom, and get to run their own Viacom, even Louis Farrakkan acknowledges that. As a child, in a frum Brooklyn neighborhood, I imagined it was only the secular Jews who became rich and powerful enough to be part of the problem of global exploitation and capitalism. As an adult, I know better: how much it’s the unconscious assumptions of our unresolved religious chauvinism that lets us all, religious and secular, black and white, Jew and Gentile, Male, Female or Gender Non-Conforming, be incredibly destructive in our hypocrisy, and incredibly hypocritical in our consumption, all kosher symbols for sale and ultimately untrustworthy for their mercenary expense. But the Viacom that Chappelle ran from and still resents deeply was owned by a Jew, and is still helmed by his now orthodox daughter.
And they’re doing some of the best and most progressive media ever! That’s great.
Hard to complain too much, and maybe that’s also part of the nature of the atonement structure within liberalism, where acknowledgement of a problem is tantamount to having solved it, while the problem, wealth inequity and talent vulnerability, with a bribery mechanism built in to protect the core structure from criticism, inherent in the design of everything legal since limited liability insurance was invented. This is the main background theme of, say The Morning Show as well as Succession, and the main disturbing truth being veiled by every Marvel/Disney movie, even ones that offer to be subversive, like CRUELLA, wind up being sued for their hypocritic automatic behavior, stealing credit for the clothing designs from the actual designers, a literal adaptation of the central plot of the movie itself. There is no space for companies to recognize ironies, and bow their heads in shame. Only people can do that.
How much should people expect from, or resent about, any other people? How can we even begin to talk about the resentments, concerns, or outrages, when language around identity is so… triggering? And easy to decry? It’s unclear, but the least we can do is hear the jokes designed to help us notice the impact of our successes and stabilities. This is, as per Freud and all subsequent comedy theory, one of the main psychological virtues of jokes after all, isn’t it? To understand and acknowledge the truths too hard to notice were we not laughing: The slave who did well is us, and him, and it’s a challenge to be honest about this without letting hate shift the message, a plea like Nathan’s prophesy to David about stealing lambs, to be understood by the people we most fear, admire, resent, and just want to help be part of something better. כן תהיא לנו