Politics & Policy

Inscrutable Racism

My Chinese problem — and ours.

On Wednesday’s column I made several jokes — many of which were essentially inspired by various sitcoms and stand- up comics. I suggested that president Jiang Zemin of China might like to eat my dog and that I would be delighted to apologize to the Chinese government as soon as it stops leaving menus outside my door. I also mentioned that the Chinese government, while authoritarian and awful, wasn’t as big a threat to America as some conservatives think it is. The Chinese abuse their citizens, wreak mischief in the world and, I joked, they put MSG in everything. Badum bum.

This generated the most hate mail I’ve gotten in years.

Admittedly, much of it comes from first-time readers who saw the excerpt in Salon or followed the link in Opinion Journal’s “Best of the Web” feature. The Journal thought I was funny, while Salon — generally lacking in a high-fiber diet — did not. Anthony York described my column as an example of “the ugliest strains of Cold War xenophobia.”

Subsequently, scores of people called me a “racist,” a “hate monger,” etc. They wanted to protest in the “strongest terms possible” my “disgusting” use of “racist” stereotypes. My particular favorites were from Asian readers who immediately began using sweeping phrases like, “you Jews should be careful.”

Even Andrew Sullivan, normally a bit more immune to the puffed-up pieties of the politically correct, writes on his site, “Crikey, Jonah. Can’t you find someone else to make jokes about? Like victims of the Bangladeshi earthquake or something?”

Well, I did make jokes about earthquake victims recently, though they were Indian, not Bangladeshi. And I apologized for it.

But I don’t think I’m going to apologize for this. They may have been dumb jokes. They may have been juvenile. But they weren’t racist and it’s dumb to say they were.

Racism, as I understand it, is a tendency to see people as genetically distinct races and to impute immutable and unique behavioral characteristics to them. My dictionary says it’s “the belief that race accounts for differences in human character or ability and that a particular race is superior to others.”

I didn’t do anything remotely racist. Indeed, I challenge anyone to find a single hint of such thinking on my part reflected in that column or anywhere else. And if I did say that Asians, the Chinese, or the Hans, are born with a penchant for dogs, or if I even whispered that descendents of the Middle Kingdom have an instinctual compulsion to put MSG in everything, I do apologize.

What I did do was make fun of some Chinese stereotypes, as I often do with Jews, gays and, most of all, the French.

Where’s the French Anti-Defamation League

Indeed, since the inception of this column, I have been adhering to Al Bundy’s immortal fatwah, “It is good to hate the French.” I have made The Simpsons-derived epithet “Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys” an accepted term in official diplomatic channels around the globe.

OK, maybe not, but if you ever do hear Kofi Annan refer to the Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys, I will deserve much of the credit. As it has been pointed out before in this space, time and again, the boulevards in Paris are lined with trees so Germans can always march in the shade. I have translated almost every single French phrase from hors d’oeuvres to “C’est la vie” to mean, “I surrender!” Or, “Yes, officer, the refugees are in my basement, I’ll show you the way.”

I have a tradition of smearing the men and women of Gaul every Bastille Day. See, for example, this intro from my 1999 column:

“Tomorrow is Bastille Day, the French July Fourth. This is the day when the French peasants declared that they — not just their aristocratic overlords — had rights. They too had the right to: serve salad after you’ve already eaten a whole meal; serve cheese after you’ve just eaten a salad you didn’t want to eat in the first place; wear a black turtle-neck even though it is quite hot outside and you haven’t bathed for at least a few days.”

No one ever called me a racist for writing any of this. Is it because French people are white (often white with fear at the sound of German tourists getting off tour buses, but white nonetheless)? Are non-white people protected by a racism force field, shielding them from any cultural criticism or gentle ribbing? It’s an interesting idea considering non-white cultures surely say some awful stuff about America.

As surely as the French are less inclined to bathe (proven in study after study) the Chinese do eat dog. And yet, dozens of people wrote me to denounce the perpetuation of this “myth”; “Why didn’t you just write that blacks love watermelon!” lots of folks protested.

Well, I have several articles in front of me about the widespread practice of raising St. Bernard’s for meat in China (now that would make a great storyline for the next Beethoven movie). In some regions, roasted dogs hang from stalls alongside roasted ducks. There are restaurants that offer over 100 different dishes of dog. They eat every part except the lung (because that would be disgusting). The director of a state-run St. Bernard breeding facility explained to the Cox News Service, “dog skin tastes very good.”

Admittedly, the practice is more common in Korea than China, but the fact remains that if I made a joke about the French and frog’s legs, nary a soul would have complained. But mention that Jiang Zemin might want to chow on my bowwow and I got people looking for the Asian Johnnie Cochran. Lighten up.

Xenophobic, Shmeenophobic

The more reasonable — but not much more reasonable — objection is that I was making fun of Chinese-Americans who are just as American as you or I. I failed to distinguish between the Communists and, say, some fifth-generation American with the last name Chen. My “Cold War xenophobia” could spark some sort of witch-hunt or anti-Asian backlash or anti-Chinese pogrom, according to this argument.

There’s some credence here and I’d like to address the point in two parts. First, if any of my readers take my jokes about MSG as some sort of signal that it is okay to discriminate, bash, bother, poke, or annoy any person of Chinese descent, I apologize. Further, I think anybody who subscribes to such an idea should be led around by Maoist Youth in Tiananmen Square in a dunce cap, just like Deng Xiaoping was.

But the fact is that nobody took away that message. Despite the earnest desire of some bored people at Salon and MSNBC, this is not a profoundly tense time in America with racial and ethnic animosities running high in some hot-house Cold War climate. In fact, pretty much the only people who think I was dangerously raising the heat on Chinese-Americans were the thin-skinned Very Serious People who fear that other people, i.e., less intelligent and sophisticated people, people who read National Review for instance, might take away that message.

Somehow I suspect these condescending, humorless, would-be Simon Wiesenthals never get their hackles up when magazines like Salon make fun of conservative Christians (or Cubans during the Elian mess, for that matter). I suspect that people just assume that conservatives can’t make jokes without being racist.

Well, such people are idiots. Or, they must be busy right now writing letters to David Letterman, Jay Leno, and Craig Kilborn — all of whom made similar jokes the same day I did:

Kilborn: “In retaliation for the Chinese refusal to release our people, last night at dinner President Bush sent back his Kung-Pao scallops for being too spicy.” Leno: “The Chinese now say they are taking a hard stance. Now they say they are going to double the amount of MSG they put in our food.”

Letterman: “So now the Chinese have the spy plane and George Bush is playing hardball with them. He said not only does he want the spy plane returned, he also wants it dry-cleaned.”

(Thanks to the Hotline for compiling).

The idea that conservatives are racists solely because they annoy liberals has been much discussed here and not worth going over again. Moreover, the mythology that Mr. York taps into when he refers to “Cold War xenophobia” is so rich in old intellectual stolen bases and leftist canards it’s worthy of numerous columns. But for now let us simply remember that in the Cold War witch-hunts, there were real witches.

As for me, I am not a xenophobe of any kind. Indeed, I am considerably more pro-immigration than many of the editors of National Review or the leadership of the AFL-CIO, and much of the Green movement.

Lastly, let me say a thing or two about the Chinese. China is one of the oldest civilizations in human history, dating back to 2000 B.C. The Chinese were innovators in science, art, literature, philosophy, etc. They were among the world’s first explorers. They invented all sorts of stuff that advanced humankind. The notion that they are too fragile a culture, so lacking in self-confidence that a few old jokes will cause real damage, is stupid.

Which brings us to the Chinese-Americans who took offense at the sweeping nature of my jokes, and my blurring of the lines between them and the ChiComs. I guess I am sorry about that.

But, I’m also a bit disappointed that so many of them who wrote me see nothing wrong with borrowing language and arguments from the black civil-rights cause. African-Americans have a unique history in the United States and what passes for racism or bigotry with them — or with Jews for that matter — is by no means a universal standard. Indeed, I am all for everybody lightening up. America is not Weimar Germany and a few more good-natured jokes about everybody won’t make it so.

But more to the point, making fun of the Chinese and making light of the situation remains in my eyes a good idea. And yet, even Andrew Sullivan seems to imply that I am picking on victims less worthy of jabbing than earthquake victims. This is all nonsense. The Chinese are not victims and neither are Chinese-Americans. They are people whom I considered were better equipped to take a joke, even a silly one. I was wrong.

Try, Try Again

While we’re on the topic of apologies, I owe you a huge one. On Wednesday, I let people know that they could now support NRO financially through some sort of pneumatic tube/begging bowl that leads from your wallet to Amazon.com, and back to National Review Online. Alas, it turns out that the Amazon system works about as well as a Krusty the Clown joke in front of a room full of Salon editors. Sell your Amazon stock now! Maybe if enough of you trade it for Salon stock NRO can take them over — now that would be cool.

Anyway we have dumped Amazon.com in favor of a different thingamajig called Pay Pal. You can still find it by going to the same spot.

We really do appreciate the effort so many of you put in to demonstrate that Amazon stinks at collecting your money. Moreover, we are just plain grateful for your continued support during these trying times when Cold War xenophobic tensions are running so high.

And as a token of my appreciation… Coming Monday by popular request: A picture of the dog I won’t let Jiang Zemin eat — my boy Cosmo.


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