Lena Dunham received plenty of criticism for her insufferable New Yorker piece titled "Dog or Jewish Boyfriend? A Quiz." In it, the creator of Girls weighs the pros and cons of getting a pet or keeping her Jewish boyfriend: "He doesn't tip," and "he never brings his wallet anywhere," and so on. The jokes may tell us something about her comedic abilities, her audience, and The New Yorker, but despite much hand-wringing, it tells us nothing about anti-Semitism.
The Anti-Defamation League's national director, Abraham Foxman—the unelected voice of American Jewish conscience—argued, "The piece is particularly troubling because it evokes memories of the 'No Jews or Dogs Allowed' signs from our own early history in this country, and also because, in a much more sinister way, many in the Muslim world today hatefully refer to Jews as 'dogs.'"
"Anti-Semitism" is rooting for Hamas. Making fun of your nebbish boyfriend is lame, but it should not make any rational person think of Iran's supreme leader. I've heard plenty of malicious and offensive anti-Semitic jokes in my life, but it would be tough to conjure up the indignation to believe that Dunham was flirting with anything resembling bigotry. Making fun of innocuous stereotypes—and Dunham is part Jewish and lives in a world teeming with Jews—in the pages of a friendly publication evokes memories of subpar Catskill comedians, not long-dead nativists.
In fact, why should Dunham—or anyone else—have to worry about inadvertently evoking memories of ancient wrongdoings that disturb the sensibilities of the professionally aggrieved? She's a 28-year-old actress. Not every ethnic, religious, regional, and racial idiosyncrasy has to be off-limits. If both sides are going to prosecute entertainers for thought crimes and failed jokes, our culture is going to become even more tedious.
Take Trevor Noah, the South African comedian picked to replace Jon Stewart as host of The Daily Show. He seems to have a habit of making wincingly bad jokes about Jews, women, fat people, Asians, and many others on social media. Salon predicted a wave of "right-wing rage" after his announcement. But as is often the case these days, it was the left that turned on him. And the right.
A sample of his Jewish jokes:
"Behind every successful Rap Billionaire is a double as rich Jewish man. #BeatsByDreidel."
Is that really anti-Jewish?
"Almost bumped a Jewish kid crossing the road. He didn't look b4 crossing but I still would hav felt so bad in my german car!"
You get the picture. At worst, those tweets reflect the work of an untalented comedian. At best, they are a trivial sample of what is an otherwise impressive comedic mind. I imagine the market will decide soon enough. Mostly, though, it's worth remembering that Noah is a TV comic, not a nominee for the Supreme Court.
If I treated The Daily Show as a serious news program, I'd probably note the irony of Noah's replacing a didactic scold whose entire shtick is predicated on making fun of people whose statements he has taken out of context. And though Noah asks for understanding, it's unlikely he will be extending the same to conservatives. But just as no one is coercing liberals to listen to Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck (although the left has campaigned to banish both from the airwaves), it's easy to ignore The Daily Show. I do it almost every day.
The problem with this kind of prefabricated reaction is not that it emboldens haters but that it crowds out legitimate grievances. Everything begins to stink of politics, and we start sounding like a bunch of humorless protesters. There is nothing wrong with calling out people for the things they say, but there is something fundamentally illiberal about a mob's hounding people for every stupid tweet or making snap judgments about entire careers based on a few comments. Most often, the purpose is to chill speech. At some point, Americans decided they were going to be offended by everything. And, I guess, that's what really offends me most.
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