Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Kramer Considered: What a horrific diatribe Michael Richards spewed during his comedy routine because he was heckled. I cannot understand why someone would say something so filled with racist vitriol using the most profane racist language available potentially sacrificing his own occupational survival for a few seconds of anger relief.

I think this topic is worthy of discussion on different levels.

Anger is a powerful emotion. The other day I went to a fast food type restaurant. I asked for a cup of coffee and was directed to the coffee urn at side of the restaurant to get it. There were four urns and one was missing. It was the one I wanted. Initially, I got angry because the place was packed with people, I am disabled and I felt powerless. I thought the problem would not be rectified in quick order. I was very tired and very hungry. I stood there feeling that no one cared. My friend was waiting for me at the other end. I wanted to eat my dinner with someone and not alone.

I went over and spoke with a person behind the counter at the register whom I thought was so inundated with people that my problem would be cast aside. She assured me someone would come out to fill the urn. No one did. I stood there for about twenty minutes, went back numerous times to no avail.

Finally, someone delivered coffee. When I poured it into my cup it contained hundreds of coffee grounds. I had to throw out three cups because there were so many grounds floating it in. Worse, it was the wrong type of coffee. They put the wrong sign on it and, of course, the person who replaced the urn disappeared. I became angrier and angrier. When another urn was put down, I poured that but when I put milk in it, the milk container was empty. I became infuriated and slammed the milk container down on the counter. That was my violent act of protest in addition to the fact that I did not even thank, as is my custom, the person who finally delivered another urn and filled the milk container. What was at the heart of my anger?

The etiology of anger: I felt no one cared. I felt like a grain of sand in our global economy where I was a small microchip in a huge technological giant. I was not even part of that giant. I do not make the kind of money the corporate executives make, often, I think, at my expense. I spend money that is precious to me rather than make it and, ultimately, as I perceive it, give it to executives who do not need it. I feel angry, jealous and sad at my plight. Those can be explosive feelings.

I got back to my table finally, rather exhausted but also remorseful that I had slammed the milk container down and that I had not thanked the service person who probably is making minimum wage or less. I ate my dinner dejected and guilty. I did something usually alien to my nature.

Anger and racism: The feeling of powerlessness, inferiority and alienation or anomie translates into rage. Perhaps Mr. Richards is not violent but his words certainly were. Those were the most violent words short of BEING violent I have heard.

The racists in the south and elsewhere in this country, I submit, felt or feel powerless. They feel events swirling out of their control and their hegemony threatened. Historically, certainly, if they could not feel superior to certain men then who could they feel superior to?

Perhaps, since playing Kramer on Seinfeld, Mr. Richards has lost his notoriety and was relegated to a comedy club he felt beneath his stature. Black men were ridiculing him, Kramer, the object of the envy of yesteryear was now begging for laughs today – and, perhaps, not getting them. Worse he was heckled. Richards must have felt very demeaned, very powerless and VERY angry. The kind of speech he used comes from somewhere deep and goes beyond – way beyond – a few hecklers. It reaches into the depth of a person who feels SO bad about his life and his fate, his weapon of choice is his words used like swords to cut human flesh to ribbons and triumph over his perceived adversity. It often never works. Like my anger at the fast food restaurant, after the vitriol, one is left with an even greater anger towards oneself.

My experience, of course, was not racist in origin. It is though about anger. It did not rise to the level of the consequences Richards will have to face. He will experience not only the rejection of the comedy club but the loss of, potentially, his career and whatever stature he had left. All that he achieved before was dashed for a moment of emotional release. Richards really hurt no one but himself. Anger really hurts the individual feeling it. All of us need to realize our words have power and our actions carry consequences. I am sure today, Richards realizes just that fact.

The Audience Response: Both the black man and the Jew have suffered historically perceived threats to power by those who had all of it. Both were used by the favored to maintain their power and both were considered somehow threatening. Both endured centuries of psychological attempts to demean, humiliate and dehumanize them. Both groups have persevered and survived the attempts by those who had the power to crush or control those who did not.

It is amazing to me that those in the Richards’ audience did not react violently. It is a tribute to them that they did not. After centuries upon centuries of accumulated suffering, I believe, something is woven into the DNA tapestry of those who have been “the other” to rise up in anger and never let it happen again.

Racist words such as those uttered by Michael Richards or anyone are like weapons which carry with them the reminder of an arduous and difficult journey to the safety and security of simply being left alone. Those weapons carry with them an angry reminder that there are miles yet to go and that we are all still traveling that long difficult seemingly never-ending insecure journey home.