Idol Chatter

While Mel Gibson blamed his anti-Semitic rant a few months ago (most would say unsuccessfully) on a drunken lapse of judgment, Michael “Cosmo Kramer” Richards’ only excuse for his racial epithets directed toward two African-American men is that he was angry because he was being heckled in the middle of a performance. The entertainment website TMZ acquired footage of Richards spewing various racial epithets during a stand-up comedy routine at The Laugh Factory nightclub last Friday–and by Monday night Richards, with the help of friend Jerry Seinfeld, was on David Letterman apologizing for his behavior and swearing he was not a racist.

So yesterday I was fully prepared for the media backlash to bury Richards in a pile of well-deserved criticism, just like it did to a certain other hate-spewing Hollywood figure recently. But other than the occasional soundbyte in which a moderately famous comedian or some Hollywood pundit mildly criticized Richards for his behavior, the backlash failed to materialize. Barbara Walters did not use the “Hot Topics” portion of “The View” to announce she would no longer watch “Seinfeld” re-runs. Denzel Washington did not make a public statement calling for Richards to have a meeting with the NAACP to begin the healing process. As far as we know, uber-agent Ari Emanuel didn’t tell a single one of his clients not to work with Richards in the future. Worst of all, last night Leno only dedicated one joke in his monologue to Richards’ fiasco before quickly moving on to other subjects.

All of which has left me feeling more than a little bit baffled. The man was doing stand-up. In a club. Where comediens often are heckled. Stating that hecking is an excuse for racial slurs is, in my opinion, about as strong of an excuse for his behavior as a student saying “a dog ate my homework.” Pardon me, Hollywood, but your hypocrisy is showing. While I am well aware that Richards is not as successful as Gibson, and I understand Richards hasn’t exactly announced that he will be playing Atticus Finch in an upcoming remake of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” I still can’t fathom why Hollywood isn’t showing more outrage over this hate speech.

Such an underwhelming lack of response by some of the most visible players in Hollywood brings up uncomfortable questions I don’t have the answers to. Questions like: Are some slurs more forgivable than others? Is the level of outrage over such slurs linked somehow to how much future worth their career is to Hollywood? And the biggest question of all in my mind: Would the outrage be greater if more Hollywood players were African-American and had more of a voice??

Kirk Franklin just won the American Music Award in the Contemporary Inspirational category, adding to his crowded shelf of Gospel Music Association Dove Awards and Gospel Grammys. Yay, Kirk! In fact, his fellow nominees in the categories are very deserving in themselves: Casting Crowns and Aly & AJ.

What none of these artists deserve is to be lumped into the same award category. Casting Crowns is middle-of-the road white-boy pop rock, while the exceedingly pure Aly and AJ’s cover of “Walking on Sunshine” anchors the soundtrack of Disney’s remake of its own “Herbie the Love Bug.”

Once upon a time, gospel, Christian rock, and inspirational performers were grouped together because their tiny independent labels were only fit to compete against each other. Not anymore. Kirk’s first thank you went out to his label Zomba, a mainstream subsidiary of recording giant BMG. The distribution available to Christian Nashville groups rivals any other artist. Instead of a sampler pack of Christian acts—one from each genre within the Christian universe—the AMAs and everyone else ought to free Kirk and the rest of the Christian crowd to compete in their natural categories.

With every winner from Rascal Flatts to Mary J. Blige fulsomely praising God for their brand new statuettes, future Christian winners in the R&B, country, rock, and rap fields will fit right in.

In the beginning, there was TLC’s Shalom in the Home, starring well-known rabbi Shmuley Boteach. Now, prepare for television to bring another rabbi into your home–in this case, Rabbi Irwin Kula, whose new national public television special, “The Hidden Wisdom of Our Yearnings with Irwin Kula,” represents an attempt to help people use Jewish wisdom to “cope, find purpose, and discover growth,” as a press release claims.

Rabbi Kula is president of CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a leadership training institute, think tank, and resource center, and is a much sought-after speaker and commentator on public culture and religion in the public square. The show is based on Rabbi Kula’s new book, Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life,” and will be available in almost every major city nationwide.

If Rabbi Kula’s name sounds familiar, it might be your active “Today” show memory kicking in: He was recently featured in an interview by Matt Lauer about the concept of forgiveness in the wake of October’s shootings at an Amish schoolhouse. Unlike Rabbi Boteach, Rabbi Kula does not seem to be courting celebrity endorsement, although his book has received accolades from such leading authors as Harold Kushner, Wayne Dyer, Deepak Chopra, and Mitch Albom, and Rabbi Kula himself was named by both Fast Company magazine and PBS’ Religion and Ethics Newsweekly as one of the new leaders shaping the American spiritual landscape.

We’ve always been made to understand that Sacha Baron Cohen, a.k.a. Borat, is a satirist, not a simple comedian. Otherwise, his anti-Semitic jokes and poo-poo gags would be, well, just that. But this week, Cohen found out the cost of making a serious point.

Residents of the Romanian town of Glod, a stand-in for Borat’s Khazakstani village, and two American college students have filed lawsuits against Cohen and his production company, aimed at having themselves removed from the film. They say the producers misrepresented the nature of the film and induced them on false pretenses to say and do things they wish they hadn’t. (The college students also say the producers made sure they were liquored up for the shoot.) Fox, which distributes the film here, has called the lawsuits “fatuous.”

The natural defense of a joker like Cohen is he was only kidding–“Geez, can’t they take a joke?” But in a Rolling Stone interview that appeared last week, Cohen presses on with his social-conscience defense. His treatment of Khazakstan, which at one time threatened its own lawsuit, reflects badly not the Central Asian nation, says Borat, but those dim enough to believe any country could be so backward. As for his racist and anti-Semitic American dupes (who apparently are that backward), they deserve what they got. The essence of racism, he says, is apathy. “I think it’s an interesting idea that not everyone in Germany had to be a raving anti-Semite,” he says to Rolling Stone. “They just had to be apathetic.”

But is it apathy that’s on view here? What gets Borat’s victims in trouble is that they are nice enough to engage with Borat. By the time he gets ugly, they’ve gone too far with the idiot to put on the brakes without causing more trouble than he’s worth. In a recent Slate column, Christopher Hitchens suggests that it’s not racism that makes Americans go along with Borat’s nonsense, but our tolerance. “It’s that attitude of painfully maintained open-mindedness and multiculturalism that is really being unmasked and satirized by our man from the ‘stan,” writes Hitchens.

Apathy, at any rate, is only half the point. Racism is part of the human condition. We educate our children and ourselves about it precisely because it’s alive in us all, ready to chime along with a voice strong enough to make it vibrate. To stoke these human feelings in a couple of drunk frat boys in a trailer isn’t much of a feat, or much of a surprise, or much of a satire. The Germans didn’t just have to be apathetic, in other words, they needed someone to articulate their racist suspicions. In “Borat,” Cohen plays that role. If his unsuspecting victims have a race problem, Borat’s it.