Add Andy Dick to the list of celebrities who feel perfectly free to toss around anti-Semitic slurs as cavalierly as if they were commenting on the weather. He just called Howard Stern a “miserly… money-grubbing Jew” with a “big, fat, hook nose.” I’m not sure how I feel defending Howard Stern in a war of words, but these comments are over the line.
Kanye West’s recent self-comparison to Hitler, to express how much he feels hated, is another recent example of this kind of nonsense.
And so Andy and Kanye join a list of celebrities who feel it is OK to dabble in Nazi and anti-Semitic terminology, a frustratingly growing trend.
For a while, it seemed, thankfully, to be ebbing. It has been years since Louis Farrakhan called Hitler “wickedly great” and Michael Jackson used the word “Jew” as a verb in his song “They Don’t Care About Us.”
In the past few years, though, it’s resurfaced. Mel Gibson, John Galliano, Charlie Sheen and Lars von Trier have recently all recently made negative remarks about Jews. So have non-entertainers Rick Sanchez, Michael Scheuer, and Helen Thomas.
What in the name of Simon Wiesenthal is going on here?
Some of this, the Kanye kind, reflects the super-sizing of American rhetoric. Unless your words are positioned in the extreme, they will not cut through the 24-7 chatter of TV, TMZ, and Twitter. And so we have sort of trained ourselves to speak in “big” terms. We overuse the words “awesome” and “from Hell” to describe things like coffee… and the state of the office coffee maker.
So Kanye is not, he feels, only as hated as much as, say, Pol Pot, Augusto Pinochet or Slobodan Milosevic. No, he is hated as much as Adolf Hitler.
You could argue, much of the rest of this anti-Semitic rhetoric is the backlash against “political correctness.” People feel that they are being edgy or bravely truthful (and not, you know, bigoted) when they tag whole countries, ethnicities or religious communities with certain traits. It’s socially and societally wrong to do it, so they know they will be seen as brazen and iconoclastic if they do it. (Personally, I am hoping my one-year-old, who isn’t doing the “catch me being bad” thing yet, outgrows this phase by the time he can ride a bike.)
It is true that “PC” has been taken to somewhat silly extremes in some quarters. But political correctness—what used to simply be called “sensitivity”—was itself a reaction to the insensitivity and simple inaccuracy of popular terminology. “Fireman” had to give way to “firefighter” because, today, some firefighters are not men.
Now, I did read 1984, and I am a George Carlin fan, and I am aware of the dangers of euphemizing all the meaning out of our language. Bending over backward to be sensitive can lead to intellectual dishonesty, the obfuscation of potentially harmful policies, and even bad medical advice.
But at the same time, I understand that “names” can hurt just as much as “sticks and stones.” Yes, “vertically challenged” is a very stilted way to say “short,” but springing back to the other end of the spectrum is not the answer. The way to combat over-reaching sensitivity is not by being purposefully insensitive. There is a viable, medium stance that is both honest and kind.
Avoiding any negative rhetoric about a particular group of people is not a matter of freedom of speech. Or even, necessarily, one of hate speech. It’s a matter of being a decent human being. It’s a matter of knowing that just because you can say something doesn’t mean you should.
It’s not censorship if you decide, because you have a heart as well as a brain: “You know what? This thing I could say is not going to come off well. I’m just gonna think that thought in my mind and not say it out of my mouth.” That’s just manners.
So, celebrities, when it comes to mouthing off, maybe you should heed the words of my second-favorite Abraham— Mr. Lincoln: “’Tis better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”