Comedians combat bigotry and racism
According to Merriam Webster online, the definition of “politically correct” is: “conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated.” People often level this term against liberal universities, arguing that these places silence dissent and dialogue by trying too hard to be inoffensive. But the ’DEIS Impact festival as a whole — and Saturday’s “Stand Up for Peace: if we can laugh together,” we can live together event in particular — complicate this idea.
’DEIS Impact is a series of workshops, discussions and performances centered around the critical examination of social justice. Open to the public, the series looks at a variety of issues — from reproductive health to immigration to the Arab-Israeli/Palestinian-Israeli conflict — from different perspectives. Saturday’s “Stand Up for Peace” was the 12th Impact event — the third that day — and was co-sponsored by the Brandeis Muslim Student Association, Brandeis Interfaith Group and Common Ground. A moderate number of students and community members attended the show in Levin Ballroom.
On the event website, organizers described the event as such: “Performed by liberal Jewish comedian Scott Blakeman and Palestinian Muslim-American comedian Dean Obeidallah, “Stand Up for Peace” “breaks new ground by finding common ground.”
Blakeman and Obeidallah used humor to make resonant and unfiltered comments about the Jewish, Arab and American culture. Given the current political climate — a PEW study from November 2016 noted American voters are more likely now than in 2014 to stick to their party ideologies and have more negative views of opposing parties; President Trump launched a sweeping immigration ban on Saturday; the country feels otherwise locked into a state of tension — many of the night’s jokes felt more pointed.
Who would have thought, for example, that Obeidallah’s question about the number of Muslim students in the audience could segue into a joke about how, in the time of Trump, it might not be safe to answer that question in the future?
Yet this joke — honest if maybe offensive in some contexts — also demonstrates the ways the event defied the liberal college stereotype.
In Blakeman’s set, one train of thought followed what college dorms might be like if the dorms’ reputations matched that of their namesakes. A Bill Clinton residence hall, for example, would be the most fun, and if its students were written up, would never admit to partying (“it depends on what you mean by partying,” responded Blakeman).
A George Bush dorm might have intense rivalries with other dorms for no reason. A Trump residence hall? Whites only. Depending on your sense of humor, this joke either lands or it doesn’t. But beyond that, the joke plays on Trump’s ties to white supremacy in a candid and thus important, way.
Blakeman touched on the intersection of Jewish culture and politics with observations about how Bernie Sanders looks like any Jewish guy over 40, how rabbis speak too slowly to compete in the fast-paced political arena and how Israeli telethons often fundraise for counterintuitive causes. The telethons, often run by Jewish organizations, raise money for medical research and environmental causes, Blakeman explained. But what if Israel used state funds for these items, and telethons for the Ministry of Defense?
As Blakeman put it, these telethons would leave state funding for important domestic issues and would make telethon pitches far more entertaining: “We have a lot of countries to invade, but we can only do it if those phones are ringing!”
Obeidallah talked about the continued discrimination against Muslim and Arab people in America. He noted that his wife, an actress, was cast in “Homeland” as something other than a terrorist.
The crowd cheered. The punch line, both of the joke and of the way minorities are treated by the entertainment industry, was that this unusual and tolerant role was that of a terrorist’s wife.
A darker joke drew on similar subjects, adding intersectionality to the theme of Islamophobia. After discussing and humorously acting out former President Barack Obama’s visit to a mosque, Obeidallah joked about the Republican response to the visit.
The political right, claiming that Obama looked too comfortable in the setting, added the visit to the list of irrefutable evidence that Obama was secretly a Muslim. At this, Obeidallah commented that Obama’s detractors could not publicly degrade him with racial slurs, so they called him a Muslim instead.
The night’s pointed and poignant humor spoke to the event’s intention of starting dialogue, as well as to the ’DEIS Impact festival’s overarching goal to raise awareness of social justice issues. Blakeman and Obeidallah’s sets were clever, inventive and perceptive.
Their jokes help complicate the idea that liberal college students are too fragile to hear or make fun of serious political issues. In fact, shows like this might be exactly what 2017 needs.