By Mr. Fish
Lenny Bruce, saintly believer in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and eloquent teaser of all that had previously deemed itself to be unticklish, had a bit in his act where he talked about the greatest entertainment draw of modern civilization not being a Monet exhibit but rather being tits and ass. In his performance he described a pair of nightclub promoters on the Las Vegas Strip discussing what to put on their marquee to advertise tits and ass in such a way as to help their audience not appear so depraved at patronizing a show designed to perpetuate the not-so-fine art of ogling. Tuchuses and nay-nays was suggested as an option, which, to me, became a metaphor for what it meant to replace the literal meaning of something with the figurative meaning; that is, to replace the facts with a value judgment that had less to do with the truth and more to do with a particular interpretation of the truth, which, contrary to the real truth, was much more user-friendly because it was exempt from needing to merely reflect reality and didn’t need to be corroborated by anything or anybody. It became an opinion that could be carried around in the brain, where it could be edited and tweaked and reworked and perverted into something wholly self-serving, oftentimes gaining more detail and more prestige than the real world would ever be likely to lavish upon it. In fact, with the volume turned up on its appeal, an interpretation of reality will oftentimes seem more real than the reality that it’s interpreting, even when the reality is standing in stark contrast and in blatant opposition to the outlandish claims of the interpretation. (Think of the divine celebrity of royal lineages or the groundless claims of the Aryans espousing genetic superiority over non-Aryans, where the proof is never in the putrid pudding.)
Tuchuses and nay-nays, thusly, became for me an explanation as to how only those willing to frame their understanding of the world in terms of how well their opinions interacted with the opinions of others could be counted upon to so consistently rebuke the First Amendment and to perceive the existence of a contrary point of view as being grotesque and inciting and completely unacceptable.
Rewind to mid-August in 1975. “Oh, for crapsake,” seethed my mother, rinsing the vodka from the small green plastic cup that she kept under the kitchen sink with all the other solvents. “Don’t tell me that you’re turning into that pot-smoking hippie freak who just lurched out the front door with her hair in her face?” She was talking about the babysitter who, with her patchwork bell-bottom pants, hand-sewn blouses fashioned from loud curtains and a fondness for the word bullshit, had become the secret love of my life.
“I’m not talking about Anna, no,” I said, sitting at the dining room table painting blood on the hands of a Godzilla model. “I was just asking a question.”
“If you think you’re an incomplete person, somehow, just because I didn’t eat your placenta like a goddamn hyena when you were born, you’re way off, Buster Brown,” she said, lighting a cigarette like a fuse for her mood. “Way off.”
“I just wanted to know if, when I’m at school, I could give somebody my ring finger instead of my middle finger. I couldn’t get in trouble for that, could I? I mean, technically?”
“What the hell kind of job does she think she’s preparing for by joining the Peace Corps, anyway? What goes on the resume after that, I wonder? ‘Has bad breath and wipes ass with hibiscus leaves and will refuse to stand for the “Star Spangled Banner” ’ – wonderful! I’ll tell you one thing, when that girl menstruates, everybody knows about it.”
“She’s a free spirit,” I said, not knowing at age 9 what the word menstruates meant.
“Yeah, free,” said my mother, chuckling and blowing smoke. “The only thing that makes that girl not a whore is the fact that she doesn’t take money from boys who want to see what the top of her head looks like when its banging against the bottom of a steering wheel—I’ll say that she’s free. Birth control for that idiot is a stick of gum.”
“Mom,” I said, impatiently drumming my fingers against the table, “can you just answer the question?”
“You’ll figure it out for yourself when you’re older, trust me,” she said, shaking her head. “When a girl shows up at a quarter ’til nine on a Sunday morning raking at her crotch like a cocker spaniel and asking if she can take a quick shower before she starts work, well, you can put two and two together. All I’ll say is that when she was done, her hair was still dry and the bathtub looked like what’s left over after you hose out the back of the air conditioner.”
“So, you think I can hold up my ring finger at people and that’s OK?”
“Huh?” she said.
“My ring finger,” I said. Nothing. “Instead of my middle finger.”
“Oh, right, yeah, don’t hold up any fingers at anybody. Don’t be stupid.”
“And the only reason is because my ring finger looks like my middle finger?”
“Yeah, don’t do it.”
“So it isn’t about my actual finger, right? It’s what people think about a finger, one that they’re not even seeing—right?”
“So my finger is really OK and people are getting upset because they think they’re seeing something that they’re really not?”
“I thought you had homework to do?”
“So if I do this,” I said, holding up my ring finger, “and I get in trouble, I’m getting in trouble because people are beating themselves up with their own imaginations and that’s my fault?”
“Sure it’s your fault!”
“Listen, don’t be a troublemaker just to make trouble,” she said, essentially telling me not to be a bullshit detector just to detect bullshit.
Fast forward to early September 2007: I learned about the F-word incident like everybody else who I talked to the following day, by seeing it as the top story in the entertainment section of Google news, the headlines reading, Gay rights group to Jerry Lewis: Apologize for f-word slur and In 18th hour of telethon, comedian may have let slip ‘fag’ and Jerry Lewis Calls Someone an Illiterate F-word on Telethon. I followed the links to the clip of the flashpoint of the story and watched an 81-year-old Lewis, in a slack-tied tuxedo rumpled enough to give him the appearance of a half-opened Christmas present that had been abandoned by a sudden lack of interest, stumble around in front of his telethon cameras, loopy with exhaustion. “Oh, your family has come to see you,” he says, improvising his trademark goofiness to the television audience. “You remember Bart, your older son,” he says, gesturing in the direction of an off-screen cameraman, “and,” he continues, moving to introduce another, “Jesse, the illiterate faggot, no. … ” He turns abruptly and skulks away, the stench of the joke tethered to his wake like a flatulence that one could only wish to escape by swimming to the bottom of a pool. That was it.
Then, less than 10 hours following the show’s final timpani, came GLAAD (The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) President Neil Giuliano’s insistence that Jerry Lewis apologize. “[His] on-air use of this kind of anti-gay slur is simply unacceptable,” his statement read. “It feeds a climate of hatred and intolerance that contributes to putting our community in harm’s way.”
Then, less than 10 hours following Giuliano’s request, came Jerry Lewis’ apology. “I obviously made a bad choice of words,” the press release began. “Everyone who knows me understands that I hold no prejudices in this regard. … I am sorry.” The whole episode from start to finish resembled a public spanking, the sort that you only half witness in the parking lot of a grocery store—the sort that might embarrass you into having an opinion about domestic abuse if only it lasted longer.
Dissatisfied with the assumed criminality of the slur and unconvinced that justice had been served by Giuliano demanding an apology—as if slaying a windmill has ever made it any less windy outside—I called GLAAD and said that I was a reporter and wanted to do a story on the whole F-word incident. I spoke with Marc McCarthy, senior director of communications, who requested that I submit my questions in writing before an interview would be granted, which I did, fucking bureaucratic nonsense. My questions, such as they were after a night of too much booze, went like this:
When Jerry Lewis, the oldest working clown in show business, says faggot in a teasing way towards an imaginary member of his production staff, and he does so in a way that bears no ill will towards the gay community—he could’ve been Harvey Fierstein for all the anti-gayness he exuded—whom does it hurt? After all, a word is not automatically a slur simply because it has the potential to be used by prejudicial people to convey hatred or stupidity. Specifically, doesn’t hate speech require hatred behind it to qualify it as defamatory; isn’t the intention to be obscene necessary in order to transform a word or notion into something malicious, just as a bullet is not obscene or malicious if it has no deleterious trajectory? Are you battling prejudice when you demand an apology from Jerry Lewis or are you actually corroborating prejudice by suggesting that it is able to exist independent of subjective interpretation, like it’s a fact reflecting the truth rather than a lie perpetuating a myth?
I waited four days for an e-mail response.
In the meantime, I decided to drive into West Hollywood, to a section of town barely 20 minutes away from where the very first gay organization in the country, the Mattachine Society, was started in 1950 by Harry Hay, to find out if GLAAD, like the Democratic Party or the U.S. Marine Corps, was nothing but a morality launderer for lazy idealists unwilling to aim towards the ultimate victory of complete and total obsolescence. I parked outside the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf on Santa Monica Boulevard at 10 a.m. and, with notebook in hand, asked the first 15, mostly middle-aged, heavily perfumed dog owners I came across the following question: Were you offended by what Jerry Lewis said during his telethon last Monday? Six of the men I asked didn’t know what I was talking about, seven knew what I was talking about and had not been offended, and two said that they had no spare change to give me, although I hadn’t asked.
Not wanting to have my findings skewed by the opinions of a particular demographic, I returned to the same area 12 hours later to ask the same question of a much younger crowd. I leaned over outside tables at Rage and Trunks and loitered outside the Motherlode and A Different Light bookstore and gathered these stats: Four nos, one nope, seven what-the-fuck-are-you-talkin’-abouts, one I thought Jerry Lewis died in the ’80s, one Jerry Lewis Telethon? Don’t ask me—ask my grandmother, and one that’s a pimpin’ jacket you’re wearing, which gave me all the information I needed to know in order to help me make sense of the short reply I received from GLAAD on the one-week anniversary, almost to the hour, of the outing of Jesse the Illiterate Faggot on national television. Here is what they said:
At the end of the [d-word], this is a [s-word] that is too often accompanied by [h-word] and [v-word]. Our [c-word] has a [v-word] [r-word] to play in [c-wording] this kind of [a-word] [b-word]. GLAAD’s responsibility is to ensure that [m-word] representations of our [c-word] are fair, accurate and inclusive. As long as [m-word] are sending a [m-word] that [u-wording] an ugly anti-[g-word] slur is either not a big [d-word] or, worse, something to be [e-worded], we have a [r-word] to [s-word] out, hold [p-word] [a-word], and ensure that these kinds of [i-words] don’t go unchallenged.
And then the world blew up.