Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Is 'African-American' Offensive?

Is the expression ‘African-American’ offensive? Yes, it is.

That is because the term is ethnocentric. It assumes that the United States is in the center of the world. Here’s why.

The expression comes to replace the word ‘black’. But it denotes not only skin color or ethnic origin, it also assumes citizenship. An African-American is, by definition, American. But not all black people are American. In fact, most of them are not.

What would Americans call French blacks? What would Americans call blacks from Nigeria or South Africa or the U.K.? Even in the U.S. itself, if a black man walks down the street in New Jersey, that hardly means he’s a U.S. citizen, does it? Why call him American?

Why would a new term for ‘black’ include the word ‘American’? Why would a new term for ‘Asian’ include the word ‘American’? People would only suggest the expression (and, later, adopt it) if they automatically assumed that the U.S. is in the center of the world, that most people come from America, are in America, and that not much outside of America exists. That seems to be the only way such an expression could get acceptance. The fact that it got to be so popular means that a large part of the American people believe this deep down.

This isn’t new. The term ‘American’ itself has hinted at this for years. Ask a Canadian if he’s American, and he’ll say “No, I’m Canadian.” But a Canadian citizen is an American in the same way that a citizen of the U.S. is American. And let’s not even mention South America.

The terms ‘American’, ‘African-American’, ‘Asian-American’ and their like tell us something about the people who invented them, about the people who adopted them, and about the people who use them.

Monday, December 17, 2007

When People Think For Themselves

We’ve talked about how a large part of David E. Kelly’s humor forces the viewers to think, whether they want to or not. Now we’re going to talk about how his drama forces the viewers to think, whether they want to or not.

The Courtroom

One of the things that sets Kelley apart as a writer of TV court dramas is his ability to present both sides equally, without prejudice. This is how he usually does it in like L.A. Law, Picket Fences, Boston Legal, The Practice, and even, occasionally, Chicago Hope: When it’s time for the jury to decide, one side stands up, and gives his case. The case is so convincing and clear and simple that we, the viewers, think that that’s it, it’s a done deal, he’s going to win, the jury’s going to go this way, and there is nothing the other side can say that can save the day.

Then the lawyer for the other side stands up and presents his case. And by the time he’s done, the viewer thinks: That’s it, he’s right, it’s a done deal, he’s going to win, the jury’s going to vote his way.

Very few writers can pull that off. And, of course, the viewers remember that they said they same thing a couple of minutes ago about the other side. This forces them to think for themselves, to weigh both sides, to make up their own minds which way the jury will go and which way they would go. When both sides are given the best representation, it’s up to us to do the thinking. Usually, writers chew the conclusion for us and give us conclusions they hope we'll share. Less thinking is involved.

The ability to think for yourself to Kelley, perhaps, is more important than the fact that you reach the conclusion he agrees with.

Kelley doesn’t always do this, but more often than not, he does. Here are two examples from the third episode of this season’s Boston Legal:


The firm’s client, Miguel Obisbo, has been charged with cockfighting, and he admits to it. The time has come to put it to the jury.

The prosecution gets up and says: “It’s not just that it’s against the law. It’s indecent, barbaric, inhumane. Two chickens – roosters, I should say – are thrown in a pit and forced to do battle until one loses consciousness due to blood loss, at which point the other pecks its head off. It’s sick. And this man openly, notoriously, broke the law to commit a sick, sick crime, one he admits committing. Just having a nun translate for you,” he refers to one of the defense lawyers’ tricks, “doesn’t put you on the side of the angels.”

And with that, he sits down.

Now it’s the defense’s turn: “Ever realize chickens are smarter than dogs? Much, much smarter than horses. And we call them ‘fowl’. How sad that the chicken by far is the most abused animal on the planet, raised in crates less than a square foot, the ends of their beaks snapped off after hatching, pumped up with antibiotics to keep them alive in conditions that would otherwise kill them, genetically altered so that they grow twice as fast, sent off to the slaughterhouse after only 6 weeks of living – typically in open crates where millions of them either freeze to death or get baked alive. The ones who do arrive undead are scalded to defeather them. Then they’re hung upside down and electrocuted just enough so that they don’t flap around when they’re getting their throats slit. It’s not good to be a chicken.

“Now, the cockfighters, they get real food. They get real room to move. They’re often loved as pets. They get at least two good years before they’re even asked to do combat. And if he’s a really good fighter, he gets to retire, to stud service, where he can live the life of... Denny Crane,” he points to Denny. Then he returns to the jury, “The simple truth is that if the chickens in this country hope to be afforded a modicum of dignity, he has to fight. Studies show they might actually enjoy it.

“Now, I suppose you could find my client guilty, because technically he broke the law, which screams out with hypocrisy. Or you could say, ‘Wait a second; Miguel Obisbo offers chickens a better life.’ Miguel Obisbo now trusts you to be... humane. Not just for his sake, but for the chickens’.”

So... Who do you think won?

Abstinence Only

Notice, by the way, that in the last example and the next, Kelley never talks down to us. The sentences and the arguments are intelligent and thoughtful and... long. The reason we follow them, the reason they’re not boring, as conventional TV wisdom would have us believe, is that each statement advances our heroes’ success or causes one step closer to their plight. So as long as he sticks to the merits of the case and as long as the points are convincing, he keeps our attention.

Moving on: 15-year-old Abby Holt has had unprotected sex and gotten the HIV virus. She is now suing her school, for having taught ‘abstinence only’ rather than teaching her to use condoms.

The school’s lawyer stands up to give his closing argument:

“Your honor, I think we all agree that fifteen is too young to be having sex. Is there anyone here who takes issue with that? Sometimes, when the right answer is ‘no’, you say ‘no’. You don’t start tinkering with morality to coincide with logistics. Kids need to hear ‘no’, not ‘here’s how, just in case’, but ‘no’.

“Abstinence was the right answer here. If she hadn’t had sex, she wouldn’t be HIV positive. And even if you are so determined to opt for pragmatism, abstinence is still the right answer. Since the implementation of this policy, the teen pregnancy rate has gone down 30%. More and more kids are choosing not to have sex, and that’s good. Whether they get sick or pregnant or not.

“And if parents disagree, by the way, they can choose to teach their kids about condoms and birth-control pills and diaphragms. But once the schools start doing so... Come on, you’re explicitly telling the kids it’s expected of them to be sexually active. And many start doing so because they feel all their friends are. Sure, you can pass out condoms. But it is simply more responsible, more moral, and, yes, more safe to practice abstinence. That’s what we should be telling them. And this school is.”

The school is not responsible for the girl getting HIV, is it?

Alan Shore gets up to give his closing:

“This case isn’t about teenage pregnancy. She didn’t get pregnant, she got HIV. I can see why you’d want to make it about teenage pregnancy, since... Well, actually, I can’t. The United States has the worst teenage pregnancy rate of any industrialized nation. And contrary to what Mr. Jovanka would like us to believe, there’s no evidence whatsoever that suggests using condoms or teaching students about condoms makes them any more inclined to have sex. None. They’re already inclined to have sex, since early puberty. They’re simply going to do it. We all do it. Birds do it, bees do it, educated fleas do it. One day, your honor, even you...” At which point the judge angrily uses his gavel.

Shore recovers, “Yes.” Then he continues: “The fact is, this case has nothing to do with the efficacy of abstinence-only programs. This case is about religion, politics, and federal funding. Our present administration, in blind service to the religious right, has transcended the separation of church and state, and consistently implemented a faith-based political and moral mandate. And now that same policy has been passed on to our educational system. If schools teach ‘abstinence only’, they get federal funding. If they teach any other type of sex education, they don’t. And as a result, the students in these ‘abstinence only’ programs aren’t being taught the truth about that magnificent technological marvel, the condom.

“It’s not a dirty word, your honor: condoms. They first came on the scene some 3,000 years ago in Egypt. For centuries they went merrily along, in modified forms, warding off syphilis, gonorrhea, preventing unplanned pregnancies, until science and medicine eventually caught on, and the pill became a much more effective, less intrusive contraceptive. Penicillin and other antibiotics were miracle cures for gonorrhea and syphilis. The poor, humble condom languished.

“And then came AIDS. This terrifying new disease that panicked the world. For many years it has been fatal, gruesomely so in every case. There was no vaccine, no cure, no treatment. But there were condoms, and they worked. They were safe, time-tested, easy to use, and they protected both partners. The condom is arguably the single, most important invention of the past 2,000 years. In fact, it has been said, without exaggeration, that the health of the world depends on them.

“Now, one would think that the obvious choice would be for schools to tell their students as much. But Abby’s school, indeed all schools that have chosen ‘abstinence only’ have chosen to lie. They teach that condoms are ineffective at preventing pregnancies, which is a lie; they teach that condoms are ineffective at preventing diseases, which is a lie; some of the literature actually compares using a condom to playing Russian roulette, which is frightening, despicable, unforgivable lie.”

“Abby Holt has HIV which, in all likelihood, will develop into AIDS. We’ve sort of forgotten about AIDS in this country. Treatments have improved dramatically. Drugs are keeping people alive for many years after they’ve become infected. But the grim butcher’s bill for this pandemic still keeps growing and growing. Sixty-five million people worldwide have become infected. One time, unprotected sex can kill you. A condom can save you. It is inconceivable that every child in the world isn’t taught that. We should be in criminal court this very moment trying this obscenely duplicitous school for conspiracy to commit murder!

“But frankly, I have no stomach for that. I think of the horror that has been inflicted on this 15-year-old girl, and I’m just so profoundly sad. I can point out the evils of this corrupt system, I can tell you how effective condoms are, the lives they save, on and on and on and on, but words seem to be these hollow, useless things rattling around in this courtroom, because ultimately the lies this school told Abby Holt may... will probably kill her. They have certainly altered her life forever. And in the face of that, all I can think of is... Why?”

And, with that, he sits down.

So... who do you think won?

Planting an Idea

In the last example, Kelley did one more thing. He used the argument to create an idea in our heads that probably wasn’t there before: that 'abstinence only' is akin to murder. It doesn’t really matter who wins, now, because there’s an idea in our head now that wasn’t there before. And it’s an idea we probably won’t easily forget.

And that’s how writers try to change the world.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

This Is America, When Ordering Please Speak English

The Cheesesteak Sticker

It's been making the news rounds recently that Joey Vento who has a cheesesteak joint in Philadelphia put up a sign saying "This is America. When Ordering Please Speak English". Sure, you can look at the political issues of this, but we're here to look at words and what they mean about people.

The phrasing has been getting people's dander up, and the question is not only why but what's behind it.

The sticker has two parts, and the first one isn't really necessary. Mr. Vento could have easily phrased his sticker without it: "When Ordering Please Speak English".

Or he could have put a totally different first part to the sticker, like "Be Kind, When Ordering Please Speak English", or "Be Civil, When Ordering Please Speak English". He probably would have gotten better results, and certainly not have gotten on anyone's bad side.

Which means that the phrasing is not there to get people to speak English when ordering. The phrasing is not there to get people to comply with the idea it seems to suggest. Which means that the sticker was not put there to get people to cooperate. It was put there for a different reason.

"What Is It?"

In Storytellers we try to do what actors and directors and playwrights in the theater usually do. They look at human behavior that seems obvious and ask: "What is it? What is it really?"

A while ago, we talked about "what is it really" when people in an argument say things like: "I believe in the United States of America". We came to the conclusion that people who invoke this kind of argument care more about being right than anything else. You can't say that and be wrong. No one can tell you you're wrong when you say "I believe in the United States of America!" or "I support the troops!". And of course it has the added advantage of automatically putting the person you're speaking to on the wrong side of the argument.

But the sticker says something slightly different. "This is America. When Ordering Please Speak English". What is it? What is it really?

It seems, at least to me, that only a person who needs a lot of positive feedback from anyone, even strangers, a person who needs a lot of pats on the back, a person who needs to constantly be told how right and okay he is, would put up a sticker with that phrasing. If you don't see why, think about it about it backwards. Start off imagining a person who constantly needs positive feedback, who needs to be patted on the back by strangers. Then ask yourself, would that person not put out a sticker that says this? Would the sticker not then invoke exactly that kind of response?

The reason we do things? It's rarely the principle; it's almost always personal.


Speaking of patriotism, check out our old post about the patriotic and pro-military Donald P. Bellisario. We explored the idea that patriotism, as it is usually practiced now, has both limits and borders. Honor and truth have no limits and no borders.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Comedy-Off: Colbert

The Comedy-Off

After posting the last entry about humorous writing and timing, one Nir Yaniv asked me why I didn’t use excerpts from more popular sources, like Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. I said that I wanted to quote from things that the readers are less likely to have read, something that will feel new. But, I added, why don’t you do it on your blog? As the conversation continued, we decided to have a comedy-off. Here’s his first salvo.

So far there are only three rules:

1. Entries must be in English, so that both our readers can enjoy them.

2. There must be at least 4-5 excerpts. Anything less is cheating.

3. The loser’s name starts with ‘N’.

More rules may crop up as the game continues.


What Jerome K. Jerome did in the excerpts Nir brought is build a comic situation, which certainly requires great timing. The point in the last entry in Storytellers, though, was about a different sort of timing.

We’re going to get to it in a roundabout way.

Laughter, like humor, is a sure-fire way to weed the more intelligent from the less intelligent. This is how laughter does it: Laughter almost always starts off with a powerful ‘ha’, in which our diaphragm (read: stomach) hits the bottom of our lungs. Laughter clearly marks the milli-second you got the joke. There is never a doubt about who laughed first, who laughed second, and who laughed last if at all. Laughter shows us how fast someone understood something.

In the Jack Vance and Dorothy Parker excerpts I’ve quoted in the last post, everyone who does laugh (not everyone will laugh) laughs at the same time at the same word. To do that, the author needs to set up one set of expectations in a very clear way and then offset it in a surgically-precise manner to produce the same result in everyone’s brain with one word. Try reading those excerpts again, and see how you’re always surprised at the same spot and want to laugh at the same spot. Check out if you can see how we were set up one way then taken another.

In the Jerome K. Jerome excerpts, meanwhile, it’s the situation that’s comical. The comic situation builds and builds and becomes more and more absurd, and therefore more and more funny. People who listen to or read it will start laughing at different spots and their laughter will keep on rolling as the situation grows more comical.

“We’re at war, sir. How can you ask us to make sacrifices?”

Speaking of having one set of expectations, then being taken another way, there’s a subset of that category, in which the writer already knows what we think, so he doesn’t bother building up the premise, he just knocks it down. That is one neat trick, and one man and his writers do it time and time again on television.

Stephen Colbert

Colbert, in his program, The Colbert Report, makes it a point to again and again appear to say one thing but actually say another. He never tells you he doesn’t believe what he’s saying. He never tells you that what he’s saying is absurd. He is relying on the audience’s set of presumptions to already realize that he couldn’t possibly mean what he’s saying.

Here are a few examples:

“Folks, everywhere you look these days, there are signs our great American traditions are disappearing. Look at this,” he shows a newspaper headline, “ ‘The great American swing set is teetering’. The wear-a-helmet-first Gestapo would have you believing that playgrounds are dangerous. And they are. That’s exactly why we need them. To thin the herd.”

As before, explaining why something funny works really takes the punch of it. See if you can tell how he assumes you’re thinking one thing and preys upon it.

Here he continues his rant:

“Sadly enough, even the weather page is in a state of moral decay.” Colbert pulls out a colorful weather map from USA Today, filled with red zones, orange zones and red zones. “What’s wrong with red, white, and blue, USA Today? This rainbow weather map is just another example of the homo-meteorological agenda. Folks, I don’t care what their forecast is, I will not turn partly gay with a chance of a reach-around.”

Another time, he took on the policy of ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’, by suggesting the Pentagon adopt an even stricter policy: “ ‘Don’t know, don’t think’. Under the new policy, it will be against regulations for a soldier to know what homosexuality is. If a fellow soldier tells you he’s gay, it’s your duty to assume he’s filled with joy. If you see two naked guys oiled up and rolling around, just assume they’re wrestling. And if someone starts soaping you up in the shower, say thank you and salute. Because the only way we can have a cohesive fighting force is if there is never a question about a comrade’s sexual orientation. And we can no longer count on gay soldiers refusing to answer the question we’re too afraid to ask.”

Colbert on competition:

“Competition improves everything. After Home Depot opened down the block, service at my local hardware store got a lot better!” He pauses a second, then feels a need to add, “Until it closed.”

Colbert takes on education:

“Oprah Winfrey recently spent over 40 million dollars to start a school in South Africa. She said Third World kids were more desperate to learn than our kids. Yes, Oprah, that’s exactly why we have to hold the Third World kids back!”

Later on, he adds:

“And, hey, don’t the liberals always say, ‘who are we to judge these people’? Maybe dysentery and guinea worms are part of their culture? I don’t know.”

Here Colbert takes a stand on capital punishment:

“Most disappointingly, my own Catholic Church is against capital punishment. Well, that’s pretty hypocritical considering they wouldn’t even have a religion if it weren’t for capital punishment.”

The danger, of course, in phrasing things like this is that some people will take you at your word. President Bush's people, for example, who invited Colbert to the Press Corps Dinner. Then again, maybe they were fooled by the red, white, and blue colors that pervade the show.

In a recent ‘meet the author’ that can be found somewhere in podcast-land, Colbert says that some of the people he grew up with tell him, Now we agree with what you’re saying.

On the other hand, of course, if you add ‘... Not’ at the end of every sentence, you won’t be as funny.

Over to you, Nir.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Some Dry Humor


Sometimes dissecting things that are funny takes the fun out of them. I wanted to talk about timing and how timing is not just something musicians or dancers or actors have. Timing is something writers have as well.

Here are a few examples of some very dry humor. We’re not going to talk about them, because that will take the fun out of everything. But, if you can, after you read each excerpt, think about the author’s timing.

Jack Vance

Here’s what you need to know about Jack Vance for the purposes of this article: He used to write about the far, far future, in which mankind populated galaxies, and each planet was a social framework with its own characteristics and its own subcultures, each also with its own unique social framework.

The first excerpt is from the novella Freitzke’s Return, which I found reprinted in the book called Galactic Effectuator. ‘Effectuator’ is to the denizens of the galaxy what ‘private investigator’ is to us. Here, our hero is hired to investigate a case in which, a-hem, well, it’s like this: The bad guy is a jealous man who can’t accept the smallest failure. When the client ends up marrying the woman the bad guy was interested in, the bad guy kidnaps the client, knocks him out, and operates on him. The client slowly begins to suspect that his sperm-making ‘apparatus’ has been replaced by the bad guy’s sperm-making ‘apparatus’. Thus, if the wife gets pregnant, she gets pregnant by the bad guy. The client hires our hero to find the bad guy and have his original ‘equipment’ re-placed.

That is neither here nor there, because the quote from the novella is Vance’s explanation, in a footnote, how the Arsh race, which is now slightly different from the human race, came into existence:

The legendary starmenter Yane Cargus contracted with the all-male fugitives. He agreed to deliver one hundred young females for a fee of five hundred red sarcenels, the sarcenel being a jewellike object taken from a Flamboyard’s sensorium. Cargus raided the Convent of the Divine Prisom at Blenny, on Lutus, capturing two hundred and thirty novitiates. Upon delivering his cargo, he required a thousand sarcenels or nothing, emphasizing the volume discount. The fugitives in their turn pointed out that sarcenels were rare, that the Flamboyards ferociously resisted attack, that, for eighty-six men, two hundred and thirty females were redundant by more than a factor of two, and, more importantly, that the females were members of that ill-favored and swarthy race known as Gettucks: not at all what the fugitives had in mind. In the ensuing fight, Yane Cargus took thirty-four wounds from the sneezewood lances, but miraculously survived. The fugitives acquired two hundred and thirty females free of charge, and the Arsh race came into existence.

Notice that part of what makes it funny is the fact that Vance borrows a set of phrases from one world and uses it in the context of another that has nothing to do with the first (“emphasizing the volume discount”, for example, has nothing to do with slavery or rape).

He does it again in the following two examples, from Night Lamp. Here a schoolboy and a schoolgirl are talking.

It was Tatninka, rather than Skirlet, who bore the news to Jaro. “Did you hear what Hanafer called you?”


“He said you were a moop!”

“Oh? What’s that? Nothing good, I suspect.”

Tatninka giggled. “I forgot; you’re really off in the clouds, aren’t you? Well, then!” She recited a definition she had heard Hanafer use only the week before: “If you come upon a very timid nimp who wets the bed and wouldn’t say ‘peep’ to a pussycat—you have found a moop.”

Jaro sighed. “Very well; now I know.”

“Hmf. You’re not even angry,” said Taninka in disgust.

Jaro reflected. “Hanafer can be carried off by a big bird, for all I care. Otherwise, there is no return message.”

Later, his mother sees Jaro moping and gets to the bottom of things.

“That is not acceptable conduct, and I shall have a word with his mother.”

“No!” cried Jaro in panic. “I don’t care what Hanafer thinks! If you complain to his mother, everyone will laugh at me!”

Althea knew that he was right. “Then you’ll just have to take Hanafer aside and explain in a nice way that you mean him no harm and that he has no reason to call you names.”

Jaro nodded. “I may do just that—after punching his head to attract attention.”

Of course, on different matters, the mother and the father, have their own disagreements.

From the first Hilyer had felt deeply suspicious of Maihac. When Althea scoffed, Hilyer claimed darkly that his instincts were never wrong. He felt that Maihac, if not a blackguard had much to hide, to which Althea said: “Oh piffle. Everyone has something to hide.”

Hilyer started to declare, “Not I!” in a decisive voice, then thought of one or two shrouded episodes in his past and merely gave a noncommittal grunt.

Dorothy Parker

In a collection of her book reviews which I found in The Penguin Dorothy Parker, she reviews a book by one Margot Asquith. It’s called Re-enter Margot Asquith – A Masterpiece from the French, dated October 22, 1927.

I think it must be pleasanter to be Margot Asquith than to be any other living human being; and this is no matter of snap judgment on my part, for I have given long and envious thought to the desirability of being Charles A. Levine. But the lady seems to have even more self-assurance than has the argumentative birdman. Her perfect confidence in herself is a thing to which monuments should be erected; hers is a poise that ought to be on display in the British Museum. The affair between Margot Asquith and Margot Asquith will live as one of the prettiest love stories in all literature.

In another review, The Professor Goes In for Sweetness and Light, dated November 5, 1927, she reviews a book by Professor Phelps in which he gives us his wisdom on the key to happiness. She is now in the middle of quoting from the beginning of the book regarding the definition of happiness.

We might just as well get on along to the next statement, which goes like this: “One of the best” (we are still on definitions of happiness) “was given in my Senior year at college by Professor Timothy Dwight: ‘The happiest person is the person who thinks the most interesting thoughts.’” Promptly one starts recalling such Happiness Boys as Nietzsche, Socrates, de Maupassant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, William Blake, and Poe. One wonders, with hungry curiosity, what were some of the other definitions that Professor Phelps chucked aside in order to give preference to this one.

The Point

The point? The point is that writers have timing. That includes authors of prose, whose work is not meant to be read aloud, not meant to be heard, and when read in one’s head is not read to a rhythm. There are still authors with perfect timing.

If you disagree, please read the excerpts again.

I reserve the right to bring more examples, and I hope you may feel like adding a few excerpts yourself in the comment, if you feel like sharing.


For more posts on humor, check out the one analyzing David E. Kelley's humor as well as the one that takes on racism. Then we've got some nice funny excerpts from Rescue Me and from the Gilmore Girls.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

There's No Place Like Home

A small, small thought about the last line in the first part of Tin Man, where the land of Oz is now called 'The O.Z.' (pronounced 'Oh-zee').

The last line is delivered by the evil sorceress to this story's 'Dorothy' (called D.G.), after D.G. and her friends have been defeated: "Welcome back, little sister. There's no place like the O.Z."

Now, couldn't the last line have been: "Welcome to the O.Z., bitch. There's no place like home."

I mean, you get a two-for-one.

I'm just saying.