Thursday, July 07, 2011


Last month HuffPost ran an article about a newly published book by a French author which argues that the original Smurf cartoons were works of racist, anti-Semitic, and socialist propaganda. A few weeks later, an article in The Forward elaborated on this theory without mentioning either the HuffPost article or the French book. According to this theory, Gargamel looks like an anti-Semitic caricature of a Jew, down to his hooked nose, and this suspicion is heightened by the fact that the goal of his nefarious plans is money. As the Forward article puts it, "All that Gargamel lacks is a yarmulke."

This theory isn't new. Back in 2007, did a half-joking piece on the matter, concluding that "someone out there is really bigoted--the creator of the cartoon or the creator of the theory. Probably a little of both really." I myself never noticed any of this as a kid, apart from wondering why Gargamel's cat, Azrael, had a Hebrew name.

I believe it is within the realm of possibility that the Smurfs' creator Peyo could have been an anti-Semite. But I'm hesitant to endorse this theory, not because it will spoil my childhood, but because it's all speculative. I know nothing about Peyo's life, and he isn't around to defend himself against these charges. (A son of his, however, has dismissed the accusations as "between the grotesque and the not serious.") None of the articles I've seen have provided any new information, just interpretations of what I already know.

Actually, let me qualify that a little. The HuffPost article did mention one fact that I admit was pretty damning with regard to another prejudice. Apparently the very first Smurf cartoon was called "The Black Smurf" and was about a disease that turns smurfs black, where they become dimwitted and say "nyap nyap." US publishers refused to print this cartoon, and later they made the infected smurfs purple. (I remember reading a strip concerning a green smurf that bites other smurfs to turn them green--but my memory could be failing me as to the exact color. I just assumed it was the smurf equivalent of vampires or zombies.) That does sound racist, and quite similar to things on our side of the pond from Disney and Warner Bros. (many of which, such as the black centaurs in Fantasia, have been censored).

As for Gargamel's alleged Jewishness, I have much the same reaction as it makes me uncomfortable, but there's no conclusive evidence to prove this theory correct. Gargamel is never identified as a Jew. He doesn't have a Jewish-sounding name or speak any Yiddish. The evidence, such as it is, apparently escaped the notice of American producers of the Saturday morning cartoons (which I watched as a kid through a VCR, an invention of great use to observant Jews in the '80s). It's also possible that the element of anti-Semitic stereotyping was subconscious, rather than part of an agenda, on Peyo's part.

I'm reminded of when The Phantom Menace came out and some critics suggested that some of the alien creatures were thinly disguised racial and ethnic stereotypes. What provoked the most ire were the inaptly (or ineptly) named Gungans, especially Jar Jar, a flop-eared, blubbering creature whom Newsweek's David Ansen described as "a kind of intergalactic Stepin Fetchit." Getting only slightly less attention were the "Asian" Neimodians and the slaveowner Watto, a winged creature with a hooked beak, a strange accent, and more than a dollop of greed. Slate's Bruce Gottleib reacted indignantly to Richard Corliss's suggestion that Watto's accent was "Turkish":
Turkish? Even without the visual clue of the hooked nose, Watto's accent is clearly Yiddish, not Turkish. Or click "No"; listen again; and you tell me: Is Corliss crazy or am I?
Personally I don't think either writer is crazy, but I didn't pick up what Gottlieb was hearing in Watto's voice, even after downloading that sound clip. I'm no expert on Turkish accents, but Watto's accent did not strike me as Yiddish. And I should know, given that my maternal grandfather had one.

Part of the problem is that Lucas made a choice in the prequels to have some of his aliens speak English in made-up accents, rather than totally made-up languages like in the original trilogy. This wasn't a bad idea in the abstract. In an intergalactic society, I imagine there would be diverse accents and not just diverse languages. But I think that whenever people hear an accent they can't immediately identify, their instinct is to compare it to accents they know. dismisses the theory about Watto before you can say "smurfin' awesome":
If a character is designated as Jewish and is portrayed as loving money, having a big nose, being henpecked by women, whatever, that's a negative Jewish stereotype and the creator should be called to task.

But if a character has a big nose and loves money and the anti-defamation league or whoever says that makes him/her Jewish, well, that's not the creator of the character spreading negative stereotypes. That's the Jews themselves.
But then why did this same site suggest that Gargamel is "probably" the creation of a bigot? He has a big nose and loves money and is no more identified as a Jew than Watto is. Is it because Gargamel is a human on Earth while Watto is an alien in a galaxy far, far away? Or is it because whoever runs this site has a harder time ascribing anti-Semitic motives to George Lucas than to a mid-20th-century Belgian whose life story isn't well-known?

That's part of the way I look at it, I admit. I highly doubt Lucas is consciously racist or anti-Semitic. I think it's possible the echo of ethnic stereotypes could find its way into Star Wars, a potpourri of myths, legends, and old movies. There are elements of it in the original trilogy, though mostly too vague to seem offensive: Yoda seems modeled on an Asian master, the ewoks are rather like a stereotypical African or Amazonian tribe, and the Tusken Raiders bear a clear imprint of desert nomads on earth such as Bedouins. I'm sure Lucas would be the first to admit all this. But he has consistently gotten defensive at any suggestion of racial insensitivity on his part. He did so when the 1977 film came out and some critics complained about the all-white cast (except for James Earl Jones as the voice of Vader). He did so when critics of The Phantom Menace complained about Jar Jar and co.

While I'm not ready to let Lucas totally off the hook about Jar Jar, I never noticed the stuff about Watto until others pointed it out. And I ought to have enough Jewdar to pick it up, if it was there. I don't hope to convince anyone who did see it, however. There's a heavy amount of subjectivity in these interpretations, and yet you can't totally dismiss the idea of veiled racism in a children's fantasy, because it's a fact that there's a long tradition of it. All I can do is try to distinguish those who have ill intent from those who stumble into these images by accident.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

I'm all ers

People who think Osama Bin Laden's death was a hoax are now being dubbed "deathers." A couple of years ago, the word "deather" referred to an entirely different conspiracy theory--the one about "death panels" in the Democratic health-care plan. That theory lives on in wingnuttia, but I guess we'll have to come up with a different name for it now. I suspect the new deatherism will prove more popular and last much longer.

In point of fact, conspiracy theories typically don't have names. For example, there's no official name for the JFK theories or the people who believe in them. They aren't called "JFKers" or "Kennedyers." Similarly, people who believe Obama is a secret Muslim aren't called "Muslimmers." These theories don't have names, yet they're as widespread as the ones that do.

But in recent years it seems there have to be specific terms for each type of crackpot, and the terms are created by adding -er to a noun associated with the particular theory. There are the truthers, then there are the birthers, then the tenthers, and now the deathers.

I think this practice started with the 9/11 doubters. They referred to their own movement as "9/11 Truth," the idea being that they were trying to get at the real truth behind the attacks. Since other people didn't want to credit it as being a "truth" movement, they began calling its adherents "truthers." By the time people began questioning Obama's birth certificate, the truther movement had been around for several years, and it was natural to dub the new conspiracists "birthers."

This way of using the suffix -er actually predates 9/11. Past examples include the terms flat-earther, young-earther, and John Bircher. It doesn't necessarily have to apply to kooks; it could be just a way of saying the person is wrong-headed. If you call someone a pro-lifer or a pro-choicer, chances are you are not one. My guess is that attaching -er to a noun has the effect of trivializing a cause that people within the cause take seriously, and it therefore carries negative connotations. There are exceptions, however. Star Trek fans have always called themselves Trekkers, while being derided by others as Trekkies.

According to dictionaries, the -er suffix is used primarily for comparatives like faster, where the stem is an adjective, and for agent-nouns like reader, where the stem is a verb. There is, however, a class of -er words derived from nouns to denote someone who has to do with something. This includes occupations (hatter), residents of a place or region (villager, Southerner, Icelander), and people associated with a particular characteristic or circumstance (old-timer, six-footer, lifer). I suspect this last usage is what the crackpot -er is based on.

One final observation is that this only seems to work when the noun stem has just one syllable, as in truth, birth, death, earth, Birch, choice, or life. When the subject of the conspiracy theory has more than one syllable, as in JFK or Muslim or Roswell, attaching -er to the word just doesn't sound right. We also don't do it if the noun stem could easily be misinterpreted as a verb. Presumably that's why the folks who doubt the moon landings haven't been called "mooners." And a good thing, too.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Changing to Disqus

I have changed my commenting system to Disqus. The upgrade required me to change the look of my blog. I tried to pick a layout that looked similar to the one I had before.

From personal experience, Disqus can be an aggravating system at times, but it's free, and it's better than the one I was using before, Echo, which is not free. Before I upgraded, I manually saved all the past Echo comments to my computer. I intend to repost them in the Disqus section for old posts, but it will take some time.

I also have a few things that got eliminated from the sidebar when I changed the layout. I intend to put them back soon.

UPDATE (2/24/2011): I have now successfully exported all the old Echo comments to Disqus. Feel free to add your comments to any post, old or new.

UPDATE (3/8/2011): It turns out the comments have not been successfully imported. Only for posts from about a year ago to the present have any of the comments appeared, and even then, it is inconsistent. I'm currently working this out with Disqus through email. But you may still add comments to any post you like, and they won't be affected by the eventual transfer of the old Echo comments.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The headrooming of society

From my childhood to the present, I watched the world grow increasingly science fictiony. But it happened differently than most science fiction stories imagined. Intelligent androids and intergalactic space travel are, at the very least, a long way off, regardless of how many computerized Jeopardy contestants and Mars colonization plans we encounter. Yet the rise of the Internet and cellphones has made our society much more tech-centered than before. I enjoy looking back at old sci-fi that takes place now and seeing what it got right, what it got wrong, and what it didn't even consider.

I kept all this in mind as I viewed the DVD of Max Headroom, the 1987 TV show. Given my vivid memories of the show and its frequent references in popular culture at the time (remember Doonesbury's Reagan parody, Ron Headrest?), I was surprised to learn it ran for barely two seasons of just 14 episodes. The pilot, based on a 1985 British telefilm I still haven't seen, concerns a muckraking TV journalist named Edison Carter who gets into a motorcycle accident after uncovering a scandal at his own network. A young hacker named Bryce, hoping to find out what Edison knows, unloads Edison's mind into a computer, resulting in an artificial version of the reporter. The program's first words, "max headroom," the last words Edison saw before his head collided with a parking garage barrier, become the program's name.

After Edison regains consciousness, Max develops as an independent mind who can travel anywhere on the network at will and can even jump to other networks if given the opportunity. Both he and Edison are played by Matt Frewer, a tall skinny actor with a voice like Kermit the Frog. In his dual role he gives the sort of Jekyll-and-Hyde performance that later made Jim Carrey a star, playing both a withdrawn nerd and a manic, uninhibited personality. Watching the show as an adult, I discovered that I found Max's loud talk-show-host shtick rather grating. As a kid, I think I enjoyed the series mostly for its techno-thriller plots and paid little attention to its not-too-subtle anticorporate satire.

What is the show's vision of the early 21st century? (The time frame is never identified directly, but the pilot gives one big clue, when Bryce, played by an actor of about 16, is said to have been born in 1988--suggesting it takes place around 2004 or so.) It depicts a society literally run by TV networks. In place of an apparently absent government, the networks have their own politicians elected through online voting. Money is measured in "creds" rather than dollars. A subculture of "blanks," people who have escaped registration on the central database, has emerged.

As a single-minded pursuer of truth in a society buried under propaganda, Edison traverses the city carrying around a large wireless camera connected directly to his network, allowing him two-way conversations with operators who can tell him instantly about the dimensions of whatever building he's in and where people in it are located. When conventional technology fails, his electronic alter-ego pops up on computer screens around the city, ready to help out.

I'm always amused at how futuristic speculations turn out to overestimate technological advancement in certain areas and underestimate it in others. In 1989's Back to the Future Part II, for example, we learn that by 2015 we will have flying cars, hoverboards, self-fitting clothes, convincing holograms, etc., etc.--yet the characters still use fax machines. I've come across two early-'90s novels about advanced VR games--Piers Anthony's Killobyte and Vivian Vande Velde's User Unfriendly--in which the gamers still use telephone modems. There's a tendency for futurists to be overconfident about the most exciting developments while failing to predict the obsolescence of everyday objects.

Max Headroom has some of those qualities. The title character is an intelligent, sentient being whose creation depends on advances in A.I. and mind-reading way beyond anything we have today. Yet most of the computer technology on the show looks hopelessly primitive to any real resident of the 21st century. The characters still use floppy disks--no CD-ROMs or flash drives in sight. There are no computer mice and there's no Windows, despite the fact that both existed, if obscurely, in 1987. The hackers communicate with the computers using just a keyboard, hooked to a TV screen displaying block print on a black background. There are lots of vidphones but no cellphones.

Looking at the big picture, though, the series was pretty ahead of its time. Without ever using the word "Internet," it envisioned a society that has gone almost entirely online, with signals transported through air rather than just through wires, with instant communication over long distances even while outdoors, and with a total integration of TV, video, and computers. Topics covered on the show include identity theft, cyberterrorism, video editing, and medically harmful commercials--among other things. Then there is the aforementioned GPS-like navigation tool in buildings, and, perhaps most eerily, bar graphs that get updated in real time.

In its social vision, the show follows the cyberpunk tradition of extreme paranoia about loss of individual rights in a future dominated by big corporations. In one episode, a blank faces execution for a nonlethal computer prank, and he's linked to the crime based on statistical analysis without any direct evidence of his guilt. Another episode has one of the network "politicians" placing blanks in detention camps. Privacy in this universe is almost nonexistent because there are cameras everywhere, even inside people's homes. This all looks a tad less fantastical in today's world of satellite cams, increased surveillance, and "unlawful combatants."

For all its hyperbole, Max Headroom is one of the more realistic projections of the future I've seen. Part of its secret, I believe, is that it starts from a base of real knowledge about computing. I had the sense that the writers understood the subject and weren't faking it with meaningless technobabble. Even when the show dips into outlandish territory (as in one episode in which a network is literally stealing people's dreams), it stays grounded in a way that many other sci-fi productions do not. Its most important insight was that the talking-head approach to TV journalism, with its concern for ratings over truth, would naturally worsen as the technology grew more centralized.

What the series most failed to anticipate was how the Internet would begin to replace traditional media. The fact that I'm writing all this on a blog, making my thoughts available to just about anyone on the planet, even though I'm not a journalist or politician or celebrity, illustrates how regular citizens today have the power to make their voice heard in ways that weren't possible twenty years ago. While the image of corporate takeover in Max Headroom and similar sci-fi works seems prescient in many ways, what they didn't foresee is the tool we'd have for exerting our personal identity against those who aim to suppress it.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Is "blood libel" a generic expression?

linked to at DovBear's blog

Sarah Palin's use of the phrase "blood libel" to describe claims that her actions contributed to the recent shootings sparked considerable controversy yesterday. Even conservatives like Jonah Goldberg and Jennifer Rubin who agreed with the substance of her remarks felt it wasn't the best choice of words. But it earned a defense from an unlikely source: Alan Dershowitz.
The term “blood libel” has taken on a broad metaphorical meaning in public discourse. Although its historical origins were in theologically based false accusations against the Jews and the Jewish People, its current usage is far broader. I myself have used it to describe false accusations against the State of Israel by the Goldstone Report. There is nothing improper and certainly nothing anti-Semitic in Sarah Palin using the term to characterize what she reasonably believes are false accusations that her words or images may have caused a mentally disturbed individual to kill and maim. The fact that two of the victims are Jewish is utterly irrelevant to the propriety of using this widely used term.
I myself am unfamiliar with the use of the term outside a Jewish context, and Dershowitz hardly proves his case by citing his own use of it to describe a report charging the Jewish state with war crimes. But I was curious about whether his larger point holds up to scrutiny. Certainly there are expressions that have acquired a generic quality even though they have the potential to cause offense because of their historical associations. I think of when President Bush dropped his use of the word "crusade" in 2001, fearing it would offend Muslims. It was a good idea, but his usage of the term was at least understandable. To most English speakers, "crusade" is a generic term for fighting for something. Is the phrase "blood libel," similarly, a generic term for being falsely accused of a terrible deed?

I checked Google News, with its mammoth historical archive of news articles. The phrase "blood libel" gets 1,280 hits for articles between 1950 and 2009. But when I search for articles in this range that don't contain the words "Jew," "Jewish," or "Israel," the hits shrink to 76. In other words, as I suspected, it's uncommon for the phrase "blood libel" to be used outside a Jewish (or Israeli) context.

Uncommon--but not unheard of. Jim Geraghty has dug up several examples, such as when Peter Deutsch in 2000 said Republicans made a "blood libel" against Al Gore when they accused him of disenfranchising soldiers. What is striking, though, is that most of the other examples Geraghty cites concern attacks on entire groups, such as blacks or homosexuals. Charging that all gay men are pedophiles may not constitute an exact historical parallel with the claim that Jews baked Christian children in their matzo, but it isn't all that different either.

Palin is not part of a persecuted minority. She hasn't been legally charged with anything. The criticism that she may have somehow provoked the shooting with violent rhetoric and imagery was directed at her as an individual, not as a member of a group. Her usage of the term "blood libel" in this context is unusual--and certainly inappropriate.