Something's bothering me, but I'm not sure how to articulate it. So forgive me if this post isn't fully polished or even fully coherent. Because I am going to throw out some random and free associations that collided in my world this week and made me think, "what the f*#k?" Which was partly prompted by one of my first-year writing students also asking, "what the f*#k?" [with "what the f*#k?" being understood here as a literalization of a sudden awareness of a certain obscene irony].
What is bothering me is what I will term, rather clumsily, an always-visible but non-provocative anti-Semitism that is always just . . . there and not-there [a kind of "background noise" of anti-Semitism that ultimately becomes a mainly unnoticed backdrop]. Because I had to deal with this in two wildly dissimilar contexts this week, via my first-year writing students' reactions to the most recent episode of South Park ["The Fantastic Easter Special"] and in the contemporary critical reception of Mandeville's Travels [which my M.A. seminar students are currently reading], it was especially jarring and . . . strange.
So, in my first-year writing class, we've been spending the last few weeks watching episodes of South Park and discussing various of the so-called "controversies" the show has provoked over the years [in some ways, by devising this segment of the course I was really just giving myself permission to finally watch a show I had somehow managed to never see for almost ten years. I now fully understand why it is so popular: because, frankly, it's funny as hell while also managing to push every red button that has ever existed, and yes, I've never laughed so hard nor been so amazed at the risks taken]. My students in this class have, for the most part [and somewhat disappointingly] shown themselves to be mainly blase about and accepting of everything: nothing really works them into any kind of a blather and even though my university is situated in a fairly conservative and fundamentalist Christian part of the country [southern Illinois], almost every provocative aspect of South Park I have raised with them has been met by a general consensus that the show is funny and no one should really be bothered by any of it because: a) most of the jokes reveal certain truths no one can really dispute without shame or lying, and b) no one should be bothered by what is ultimately just a joke [note the strange alliance of these two points, though: the show is funny because it is true, but don't be bothered, because it's "just a joke"--i.e., "real" but "not real" simultaneously].
Cut to this past week, when we were continuing our usual discussions [this time: was it okay to make fun of Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter, just after he was killed by a stingray? was it okay to make fun of people with disabilities, such as "Conjoined Fetus Lady"? etc.], and one of my students confessed that, thanks to last week's "Fantastic Easter Special," he had finally been offended. In a nutshell, the show is a parody of Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, in which St. Peter is revealed to have been Peter the Rabbit and the Pope is actually a rabbit whose mitre-cap hides his long ears, and in a related thread Jesus appears and ends up imprisoned in a cell, where he tells Kyle [South Park's token Jew] that his "super-powers" can only work if he is dead and he needs Kyle to "kill" him so he can "resurrect" himself outside the cell. Kyle isn't too happy about this, recognizing that this would mean the Jews--in the eyes of some--will have killed Christ not once but twice, but he reluctantly agrees and stabs Jesus in the neck. My student felt that this time, the creators of South Park had finally gone "too far." I asked him if he thought that it was wrong of the show to make fun of Christianity or of religion in general, and he said, no, it was okay to make fun of religion, but by depicting Jesus being stabbed in the neck, the show had violated something that should never be violated: the image of Christ. Another student agreed and said that, while he also agreed making fun of Christianity in general was okay, Jesus was an "iconic" and "sacred" figure that should not be violated in that particular manner [apparently, Jesus and George Bush shitting on each other and the American flag--"Cartoon Wars, Part II"--is okay; also, an anatomically-correct chocolate Jesus, titled "My Sweet Jesus" on display in a gallery in New York last week is also okay in the eyes of my students]. In point of fact, the image [iconic, sacred, or otherwise] of Jesus is being "violated" all the time on the show, but the Easter special, for whatever reason, had finally struck a chord with my students. After class, one student approached me in private and told me, in effect, that she was not religious [not Christian and not anything else] but she was disturbed at the fact that in every single episode, as far as she could tell, there were always several anti-Jewish jokes and no one ever seemed to care about that, and why was that? I told her that was a smart observation and that I did not have a ready answer for it, but that she should definitely think about it some more and see where that leads.
Of course, I am well aware that South Park is an equal opportunity basher of various icons, cultural and political beliefs, individual lifestyles, celebrity figures, religions, social trends, and human foibles, although at the same time, it has to be recognized that while they are supposedly "making fun" of everything and everyone, certain [I believe] pernicious prejudices are subtly reinscribed and reinforced [and I think this is especially the case with the show's anti-Semitism and homophobia]. Regardless of the fact that one show was a kind of "tear-down" of Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ ["The Passion of the Jew"], and therefore made anti-Semitism the chief object of its humorous cultural critique, for the most part, anti-Semitic jokes and references always percolate below the surface of most episodes' more primary plot threads, serving as, again, a kind of background "noise." [I have, by the way, done some research into Matthew Stone and Trey Parker's "politics," and all I will say there is that, though they are often evasive on the subject, their recent interview in Rolling Stone shows them to be dangerously close to the ideology of the Bush White House and to neoconservatism; Trey Parker has also been quoted as saying, "we hate liberals more than conservatives, and we hate them"]. It is well-known that Matthew Stone is Jewish, and that fact is often pointed to as a reason why the show can't possibly be anti-Semitic, even though I would argue that many of the anti-Jewish riffs on the show are reprentative of a certain Jewish self-hatred. Yes, yes, yes . . . I realize that, since many of the anti-Jewish statements in the show come from the mouth of Cartman, the most desipicable and unlovable of the four "child" heroes of the show [therefore supposedly leading us to exclaim: anti-Semitism must be wrong if Cartman is its chief spokesperson!], but that only represents about 1/3 of the anti-Jewish statements and images that appear throughout the episodes, but . . . .
it isn't really my intention here to interrogate whether or not South Park is anti-Semitic in "the good way" or "the bad way," but rather to think about the ways in which its anti-Semitism goes largely unremarked in the more public debates over the show's "controversial" episodes, such that, for my students, anyway, Kyle stabbing Jesus in the neck is disturbing and offensive, not because it [laughably-ironically or more sadly] reinscribes the historical lie of "the Jews killed Christ," but because it simply "kills"/violates the sacred image of Christ [and by implication, is obscene in the same way rape is obscene]. By way of the "random association" I mentioned at the beginning of my post, I was thinking about all of this at the same time I was reading Mandeville's Travels and some contemporary scholarship on that text with my M.A. students. I am in NO WAY any kind of expert on this text and I have no real grasp on the rich and long history of scholarship on the text, but just in my random reading [mainly: Mary Campbell's The Witness and the Other World, Lisa Verner's The Epistemology of the Monstrous in the Middle Ages, and sundry other items], I was struck by how much critical energy was being expended to laud Mandeville as, among other things, the rail-track-layer for the modern novel and the "name" that signifies a certain imaginative openness to all things Other, including Muslims and monsters. As Lisa Vener puts it, "Mandeville" [which I enclose within quotation marks since he may not have "existed" as he describes himself in his book; "Mandeville" is therefore an author-function] does not "suffer" from the "perceptual limitations" of more Christian-inflected texts such as the pseudo-Letter of Alexander to Aristotle [in the Vitellius A.xv manuscript], and he "sees," instead "a variety of interpretive possibilities in all his surroundings" [p. 124]. Further, unlike earlier travel and "marvels" texts with a more [supposedly--I demur, actually] monological Christian world-view, Mandeville's Travels "considers many and various apsects of Christianity and paganism and how they coexist and even intermingle" [p. 126]. Finally, in Mandeville's Travels "the east does not function as just another physical space waiting to be 'read' (by Christians) or misinterpreted (by Alexander the Great) but rather as a multi-thematic venue full of potential meanings--religious, mercantile, and political" [p. 127].
Never mind for a moment the [I think] misuse of the term "paganism" above [a term often badly misapplied in my view to anything non-Christian]; what I am more distressed by [even more so in Campbell's account, where the Travels are seen as offering a richly textured and more "round" and "whole" world within which boundaries between "east" and "west" and between "same" and "Other" are problematized and "opened" to dialogic inter-formations] is the notion that the Travels offer a more generously imagined account of difference and Otherness than other predecessor travel and "marvels" texts, especially in its depiction of the Muslims and "monsters," while at the same time, the text is downright canonical in its use of standard anti-Jewish cliches. Therefore, as regards Jews [who are not, in point of fact, "encountered" or "faced" in the text in the same way various Muslims and "monsters" are, and therefore remain "spectral"], the Travels are decidedly not "full of potential meaning," but rather, foreclose the possibility of openness to the Jews at the outset. Of course, various scholars have remarked on the virulent anti-Semitism of the text, but then quickly pass over that to point out all the ways in which "Mandeville," again, "opens" the east to fluid and multiple meanings. But the Jews are accorded no such fluidity of meaning, trapped as they are within stock phrases that can be traced back to AElfric and Bede and beyond. Thus, in the Travels, while a Khan or a cannibal can teach a traveling Christian valuable life and moral lessons, a Jew is only good for being scourged [both metaphorically and more literally]. The point is noted by many, but bothersome to few.