As I have said on many occasions, “[Todo] depende del cristal con que se mire” (“everything depends on the color of the crystal that one looks through”). Our life experiences, social class, education, and culture shape our rational epistemology.
During the debate over “The Interview” – a film starring James Franco and Seth Rogen mocking North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un — I found myself irritated by the wagging of the dog.
The film came under intense media attention when an unidentified group hacked the emails of Sony Films and released racist emails of top Sony executives. This stirred the pot for over a week, climaxing with the FBI saying it had evidence that North Korea was behind the attack (although many experts were not so sure).
Jingoism shifted the debate from the revelations in the emails to an international crisis that resembles Edward J. Snowden’s release of N.S.A. documents. Initially the media focused on the leaked documents, but quickly changed its theme from U.S. spying on allies to whether Snowden was a traitor and on the Russian payroll. In both cases, the uncovered intelligence was confused by the wagging of the dog in which “a dog is smarter than its tail” because if the tail were smarter, then the tail would “wag the dog.”
I have no love for North Korea or Kim Jong — indeed, I am not fond of any theocracy including that controlled by evangelicals, Pat Robertson or billionaires. I don’t like cyber-attacks, which hurt progressives more than conservatives. The only thing that I hate more than attempted extortion or attacks on freedom is hypocrisy.
Thus I was disappointed and surprised by George Clooney’s attempt to rally the troops and his call to get Hollywood biggies to close ranks, accusing them of “cowardice” for not standing up to the threats of the hackers in not screening “The Interview.” Apparently Clooney conferred with Amy Pascal, Chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment Motion Picture Group, whose racist emails along with those of producer Scott Rudin’s triggered the outrage. Now all was forgotten and Rogen was complimenting Pascal for having “the balls to make the movie.”
In the end Sony opened “The Interview” on December 25th. Sony had gotten hundreds of millions of dollars of free publicity. Upon its release the film got blaring headlines; “Let Freedom Ring,” Americans wouldn’t be intimidated by the commie. Damn, they had shown Kim Jong not mess with Americans –- no one could tell Americans what to do. More important, the wagging of the dog diverted attention from the racist emails.
What are the ramifications of this keystone cops farce? Rogen and Franco’s “Freaks and Geeks” type humor has won respectability in the mainstream market. They are no longer on the fringes, a lucrative but vulgar genre. They were now the defenders of American democracy. Thus, the freaks facilitated the wagging of the dog.
As I said, “depende del cristal con que se mire.” My rational choices are guided by a different epistemological base than the freaks. My cristal goes beyond the protection of Hollywood’s intellectual freedom or the U.S.’ definition of what is good and what is spying. If it is wrong for the Russians, the Koreans and U.S. hackers to spy then it is wrong for N.S.A., the C.I.A. and the F.B.I.
Stereotyping of any sort is offensive. Pascal’s and Rudin’s emails go a long way in explaining why there are so few browns and blacks in Hollywood. For sixty years I have picketed racial stereotypes in movies, something that has existed from the movies earliest days.
In 1915, D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” portrayed the Ku Klux Klansmen as the saviors of the nation, that they would bring back a stable government. It was and is heralded as an American classic.
The use of actors in blackface was widespread until recent times. Racist imagery of Mexicans also exists to this day. Typical stereotypes include “the greaser, lazy Mexicans, Latin Lovers, maids, slum dwellers, drug addicts, gang bangers, feisty Latinas, Mexican Spitfires, and the Exotica.” The result is the image of Mexicans and by extension all Latinos as “dumb,” “mongrels,” “dirty,” and “aliens.”
Stereotypes distort reality and allow Americans to forget their brutal and imperialistic history. Sociologist Joe Feagin writes that it “makes it easier to rationalize attacks on Mexican immigrants” and it allows white Americans to think of Mexicans and Latinos as “backward” peoples. In other words, it justifies white entitlement.
Blatantly racist comments are considered impolite by most people in public settings. However, this has given way to more subtle forms of stereotyping. More common is linguistic and cultural mocking that generate and perpetuate the degrading stereotypes and images of Latinos.
Most liberals are shocked and appalled by overt racial imaging. “Black Sambo” and “Frito Bandido” type commercials are less common and more subtle forms persist today, something that I attempted to explore in “Anything But Mexican” (Verso 1996).
Recently, African American comedian Chris Rock stunned Hollywood liberals by saying “forget whether Hollywood is black enough. A better question is: Is Hollywood Mexican enough? You’re in L.A, you’ve got to try not to hire Mexicans … There’s this acceptance that Mexicans are going to take care of white people in L.A. that doesn’t exist anywhere else. I remember I was renting a house in Beverly Park while doing some movie, and you just see all of the Mexican people at 8 o’clock in the morning in a line driving into Beverly Park like it’s General Motors. It’s this weird town.”
The truth be told, what Rock is talking about is the natural result of more than two hundred years of stereotyping. (See Cecil Robinson, “With The Ears of Strangers: The Mexican in American Literature” (Arizona 1963).
Racial imagery is also the result of racial, sexual, gender jokes and innuendo that are becoming a big part of the “freak and the geek” movies, popular American culture and U.S. foreign policy.
I always tell my students that jokes have a purpose. A boozed-up male tells a young woman a dirty joke, not just because he wants to make her laugh.
I remember in the 60s a big Texan cornered me and told me (did not ask me) if I wanted to hear a joke. I said no because by instinct I knew what was coming. The Texan proceeded anyway: “Himmler was demonstrating an eradicating machine to Hitler. He brought out Jews ten at a time and the machine eradicated them. Periodically he would bring out a Mexican and eradicate the Mexican. Hitler asked ‘why the Mexicans?’ Himmler answered, ‘Well, we have to grease the machine.’”
I did not find it humorous but the Guy was too big, so over his objections I told my joke. “What do you get when you pour boiling water over a white male Texan?” I then answered my own question, “Instant caca.”
I reminded him it was only a joke, not to take offense.
Rodolfo Acuña, Ph.D, is an American historian, professor emeritus at Cal State University Northridge and one of various scholars of Chicano studies. He is the author 20 titles, 32 academic articles and chapters in books, 155 book reviews and nearly 200 opinion pieces.