Sunday, August 10, 2008

In Praise of Political Correctness

"Agonised Clowns" - photo by Flickr user tallkev, used under a Creative Commons license.

I don't usually have much use for political correctness. I'd much rather have a free-wheeling discussion. When I teach women's studies, I make that clear on day one, though it usually takes a couple of weeks until the great majority of my new students trust that I mean it. The result is that even Republican supporters of pregnancy crisis centers feel free to speak their minds - and I've developed nice relationships with people whose views are the polar opposite of my own.

But darn it, I hit my limit last night.

I was out at a beer garden with my family, having dinner before my mother-in-law took the night train home. This is something I love about Germany. A beer garden can be a perfectly nice environment for kids. This one, the Johannesgarten, has a slightly ramshackle, dusty playground.

I'm equally delighted by the fact that the Johannesgarten is run by the Johanniskirche - St. John's (Lutheran) Church - in the verdant space next to its sanctuary. Imagine even the United Church of Christ or the Unitarians doing something like this in the U.S.! The idea is to reach people where they live, and so this congregation also hosts puppet shows for kids and other neighborhood activities.

Last night, the Johannesgarten hosted a free variety show, and as always the intent was good. Right away it was clear that the emcee wasn't very funny. That alone would've been fine. I know lots of funny Germans - I don't last long with humorless people - and there's also a growing number of hilarious, talented people in the German comedy scene. Even so, lots of the mainstream, mass-media humor tends to be pretty hokey.

The show took an ugly turn, though, when his sidekick appeared onstage. The emcee introduced him as Blondie. The sidekick was a black man. And his schtick was the most unreconstructed Steppin Fetchit act I'd ever seen.

I don't know what I found more disturbing: That the show's sponsors at the church thought this was okay. Or that at least half of the audience convulsed in giggles at the name Blondie. Or that some unemployed black actor felt compelled to take on this humiliating role.

I wouldn't argue that German society is more racist than American. It's certainly more overtly racist, simply because "political correctness" hasn't pressured people to examine their stereotypes about race (apart from anti-Semitism, which is discussed at length in the schools). People of my mother-in-law's generation (over 70) have loads of unreconstructed racist notions. But then again, a lot of stand-up comedy in the U.S. plays with stereotypes - including racial ones. It's virtually never funny in the U.S. either. A lot of the laughter stems from embarrassment. I'd like to think that was true for part of the Johannisgarten audience as well.

At any rate, for a few moments I found myself yearning for a bracing dose of political correctness. Not just because I was offended and embarrassed - though that was my main beef - but also because there's just no way to be entertained after you've seen the Jim Crow era come alive onstage. Even the quite good Parisian juggler couldn't tickle me. I was just deeply relieved when it was time to get my mother-in-law to her train.

It turns out that it's not so-called political correctness but racism that's the mortal enemy of humor.

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