Seinfeld: A Television Show About Something Really Dangerous
by Julian Real, December 18, 2006.
Copyright 2006, 2009 by Julian Real. All Rights Reserved.
NOTE: I wish to thank Yolanda Carrington for her on-going friendship, and specifically here for her thorough research and elegant editorial work without which this piece would be a long, confusing mess. — Julian, 12/26/06
I grew up a Jewish white guy in the United States of America. I remember, after enjoying The Cosby Show, Cheers, and Roseanne, also watching Seinfeld from time to time the first few years it was on. Once it became really popular, I started watching it more regularly. I saw many of the last few seasons’ episodes through to the final show, which was watched by 76 million other U.S. viewers. I enjoyed aspects of it, and was also simultaneously irritated with it. There were some clever and hilarious plot lines, like the classic show about masturbation. And there was also the white self-absorption and anti-humanitarianism of the main characters, some of which manifested in the show’s unrelenting racism. Unlike the other very popular “Must See TV” show of that era, Friends, which almost completely ignored the reality of race, Seinfeld had many minor roles played by people of color. But I always wondered as I saw POC-stereotype after stereotype on Jerry’s show: “What decade is this: The 1950s?”
Given recent media events, it is becoming increasingly clear to me that no, it is not the 1950s all over again. This is the newest media manifestation of something that has been around for well over a dozen decades. I am thinking now of Mel Gibson’s anti-Jewish film, The Passion Of The Christ[Subtitle: Psssst--The Jews Did It], his subsequent anti-Semitic remarks to a Jewish male cop, and his misogynistic remarks to a female cop. I am also thinking of Rosie O’Donnell’s most recent racist remarks on The View, making fun of how people from China allegedly speak by employing an old anti-Asian slur. And, of course, we have the footage of Michael Richards’ white male supremacist tirade against two African-American men:
Was I surprised by Richards’ tirade? By Rosie’s comments? By Mel’s anti-Jewish film and his conduct when arrested? The honest answer is yes and no. I never cease to be stunned, infuriated, despairing, all at the same time, and left saying “Of course this is happening (again).”
White Male Supremacy, or WMS, is firmly in place, his-terical male supremacists’ comments about “feminazis” notwithstanding. It has found different ways of expressing itself over decades, often with little imagination or innovation. Old-fashioned white lynching doesn’t happen quite so much any more, but Michael Richards conjured up that period of horrific U.S. history in an effort to verbally threaten and oppressively silence two African-American men in 2006. His own closing words to the men: “That’s what happens when you interrupt the white man.”
This essay examines one tiny dangerous thread in this tapestry of human oppression: Seinfeld’s show, Richard’s tirade, and how both are products of the same system in which Jerry and Michael have been “politically active” for some time. [I had a link here, originally, noting other racist acts Jerry and Michael have created; that link has since been taken down by the user at YouTube.]
Jerry, like other Ashkenazic Jews in anti-Semitic AmeriKKKa, learned that making white(r) people laugh was a good way to earn a living. He also learned that selling out your Jewishness was a good way to gain status in a competitive white Gentile-dominated market. He let go of his Jewishness when he became a white supremacist, in my view, as have Israeli government officials who maintain a racist-imperialist campaign called “protecting nationhood” in West Asia.
To me, when being Jewish means systematically mocking or mass-murdering people of color, one has cut out of oneself the heart of what it means to be a Jew, which is to say, a humane being. Jews are among the many peoples in the world who have visceral access to a history that includes slavery, pogroms, and genocide. In this we (ought to) stand close by those of African descent, who are also a Diasporic People, and with Indigenous Peoples around the world, who fight genocidal campaigns, including in the United States of America and Canada, to this day. Jews, of whatever race, ought to stand with any oppressed group, opposing white male supremacy in any form.This casting off of regional culture and (non-white) ethnic history (read: obstacles to power and status) is not unique to Jews in the U.S. It is what is required of all people who desire to be white in America, regardless of racial or regional ancestry. Being white currently means having no visceral history while having a corporate-owned culture. Once we have “achieved” in this “American Way”, we are instructed to fill our desperate and lonely lives with the struggle to climb the white male supremacist ladder, acquiring mostly unneeded crap as we ascend towards a higher form of hell. Those who achieve white status, if male, are well rewarded, and the rest of us are left yearning and hurting, dying or dead.
In this context, a simple show reportedly “about nothing” was born and after a shaky start, found an audience. “New York Jewishness” became synonymous, in this series, with being socially-politically-spiritually oblivious and deeply neurotic; this meant that anyone of any abandoned ethnicity could, inside a white supremacist system, potentially “relate.” But it was predominantly white people who related to that particular program, in part because it was so routinely hostile to people of Color. You had to be a white supremacist to like and be part of Jerry’s show, regardless of what your assigned race or actual heritage was.
In my memory, there are two racist caricatures from the show that I remember most clearly. One was Phil Morris, who was featured in seven episodes, cast as the African-American attorney Jackie Chiles, a racist parody of O.J. Simpson’s trial lawyer, Johnnie Cochran. The other caricature is the infamous Soup Nazi, played by character actor Larry Thomas (originally Tomashoff). This sloppy use of the term “Nazi” by people who are part of dominant America speaks to an internalized anti-Semitism on the part of the show’s Jewish writers and producers, and a larger, more dominant histeria among white men about anyone else who might take some power away from us. Let’s be clear: hatred of one’s ethnicity of origin is usually required to become white, unless one’s “ethnicity” was already white.
Larry Thomas was interviewed about his experience after appearing on Seinfeld. This snippet demonstrates the ethical oblivion, the racial confusion or unconsciousness common to those who strive to be white capitalists:
INTERVIEWER: Okay: Soup Nazi: Best thing ever, or bane of your existence?
THOMAS: A little of both. Playing the Soup Nazi brought me things I really love: Being well known, getting stopped for autographs and the biggest thrill was being caricatured in Mad Magazine. Oh, and an Emmy nomination - almost forgot that.
But of course, I’ve been typecast as a character that speaks foreign dialects and some directors in Hollywood won’t use me because that’s politically incorrect. But being associated with probably the greatest show of our generation, Seinfeld, is a really terrific thing for anyone.
Seinfeld was, in fact, considered “the best show in television history” by TV Guide, a magazine once owned and operated by a white Republican Jewish philanthropist named Walter Annenberg, son of the more ruthless publishing baron, Moses Annenberg. The magazine was sold in 1988, however, to Gentile white Aussie publishing tycoon, Rupert Murdoch, under whose reign the Seinfeld show was so mightily ranked.
Danny Hoch, a white Jewish hip-hop performance artist, was interviewed about his decision to not be on Seinfeld, when given the opportunity. This portion of the interview from the Revolutionary Worker fills out a portrait of Jerry as a white male supremacist. Danny expresses far more political insight on the matter of racism in America:
RW: There’s this tightrope that artist walk to keep their principles and get their art out in the mass media to the people that they made it for. In your latest show you talk about being invited to be in a Seinfeld episode.
HOCH: To put the story in a nutshell, I had just gotten back from Cuba…and they asked me to be in this Seinfeld episode and I had to decide in an hour whether I was going to get on a plane the next morning. I read the script and my instinct said, I got a bad feeling about this.
When I got there Jerry Seinfeld wanted me to do this stereotypical funny Spanish-speaking pool caretaker who collects towels and is just like funny and psychotic, and that was the extent of the character…My instinct knew that that was going to happen but I didn’t listen to it because I thought maybe I could just go out and fucking do Seinfeld, and more young people will come to my shows because I will be the guy that was on Seinfeld
So I had this argument with Jerry Seinfeld and the director. You know I wasn’t condescending at all, I was very apologetic but I said, “Look, I can’t do this,” when they asked me to do it in a Spanish accent. They confronted me with something that I really wasn’t expecting. It was very manipulative and it was very sort of pulling their power. And it was this question, “Aren’t you an actor? Isn’t that what you do? Don’t you do accents, don’t you play different characters?” And for a second they had me asking myself that question.
But then I was like, no, wait a second, I know where I come from, I know where I’ve been. And that’s when I started looking down at my shoes. I was like, my shoes have been to Rikers, my shoes have been to Bronx Detention, my shoes have been to India and Cambodia, and my shoes have been all over Brooklyn…. If I participate in this I will be participating in something which is not only against my values, but against my people.
Of course, I didn’t say that to him at the time. But I told him the reason why…. And they flew me back, first-class, and didn’t pay me….
Jerry Seinfeld and his show demonstrated that WMS is normal in the U.S. It is so unremarkable that his show was seen as being “about nothing”. What does it take for white America to register WMS as such? The answer is: a well-publicized outburst of the ugliness that is invisible as both systemic and ubiquitous.
What does white America want from those individuals who expose the ugliness of the system, by revealing it, unabashedly, in themselves? Often, just a simple apology, as if an individual’s apology has much to do with the system as a whole. It is also helpful to have an excuse, such as having had too much to drink, in the Gibson case. But what excuse does Richards offer us?
Jerry happened to soon be on David Letterman’s show and made space not to declare an end to his personal and professional relationship with his White Brother, but rather to allow him that small requisite apology.
Fellow stand-up comedian Sinbad, who was in the audience when Richards went on his racist rampage, was later interviewed by CNN about the “apology.” Sinbad exposes what most of us already know—but he was honest and truthful enough to say it out loud, in clear language: we are a sexist and racist country. In other words, WMS is always here, occasionally erupting in ways that garner unusual attention.
Not so coincidentally, the Season 7 DVD series of Seinfeld was advertised for sale to the viewing audience, the very season that contains some of the most racist material in the series’ nine years on the air. It is clear that the connections between Jerry’s own racism, the racist stereotypes in his shows, and racist vitriol that Richards can’t seem to understand, are not being made in WMS corporate media discourse. For anyone who daily experiences racism, these allegedly separate phenomena are clearly “part of a whole.” But for this whole to be seen as such by anyone white, we would have to come to terms with who we are, and the systems of domination and subordination that, together with our own actions, make us who we are. Sinbad sets an example of the kind of reckoning that is necessary for us to know ourselves at all.
Danny Hoch more thoroughly exposes Jerry and Michael’s WMS off-stage, in this monologue from his 2002 film Jails, Hospitals, and Hip-Hop, where he tells the real history of the “Pool Guy” episode. For me it is refreshing to see two men, Sinbad and Danny, with fame—and ethics—on their minds, speak about the social pressure to be part of the WMS system of dehumanization and destruction. But what about the two men most directly targeted by Richards’ remarks?
On this clip of the Today Show, Frank McBride and Kyle Doss share their own experiences of what happened. Host Matt Lauer engages them and the feminist attorney Gloria Allred, in a discussion of possible remedies for Richards’ public harassment. Note especially Kyle’s apolitical critique of “free speech.” If what has been termed by the courts to be “hate speech” is indeed free speech (and it is free for the powerful and costly to the oppressed), that means that those of us who are white male supremacists are free to say what we want, no matter who is harmed by such speech. White male pornographers use this entitlement to free speech as a weapon, a bludgeoning tool, of dehumanization and destruction against women of all ethnicities and men of color. Hate speech is clearly one weapon, among many, in our corporate racist patriarchy.
Let’s hope more women and men speak out about the willfully inhumane nation called the United States of America, which sells racist and sexist violence to its own citizens while also marketing that violence around the world, through military, religious, economic, and cultural propaganda.