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Had Don Imus kept quiet for 30 seconds one morning last month, I wouldn't have paid quite so much attention to the title of a comedy revue playing Off Broadway. The production is entitled The JAP Show, and it could not help but bring to mind Imus's disparagement of the Rutgers University women's basketball team as a collection of "nappy-headed hos."
The common denominator, of course, is self-hate.
Imus, as the world knows by now, is white. But in ridiculing the Rutgers team on the very morning after it played in the NCAA finals, he was appropriating the misogynistic shorthand of black hip-hop musicians, whose version of the virgin-whore dichotomy is to divide African-American womanhood into sexually insatiable "hos" and insufferably demanding "bitches."
It takes nothing away from Imus's culpability, or from his history of anti-black epithets, to point out the pungent irony of a white bigot wielding the same vile language as many blacks. The entire debate within American society about who is permitted to use the n-word - whether as the traditional slur "nigger" or the supposedly affirming rap variation of "nigga" - turns on the slippery issue of who owns identity.
Lenny Bruce devoted one of his classic routines to defanging "nigger" by reciting it so often as to render it laughable. And there is a venerable tradition within Jewish humor, including not only Bruce but Jackie Mason, Sarah Silverman and Sacha Baron Cohen, that seeks to similarly neutralize anti-Semitism by invoking it deadpan.
SURELY THE four comediennes of The JAP Show have something similar in mind. To judge by the critics' descriptions of the show, which I must admit to not having seen yet, Cathy Ladman, Jessica Kirson, Jackie Hoffman and Corey Kahaney not only tweak stereotypes about Jewish women to comic effect but introduce contemporary audiences to film clips of such foremothers as Totie Fields and Belle Barth.
But it is a risky business to trot out the lexicon of discrimination for supposedly artistic effect. All those hip-hop musicians like Snoop Dogg who tried to distance their own invocation of "ho" from that of Don Imus sounded distinctly unpersuasive, in part because enough black women have already made known their disgust with the term. And when Jews themselves flourish the term "JAP" as a mere marketing device - honestly, how much more ink, including this ink, did the show get as a result of its deliberately offensive name? - they become the enablers of their enemies.
The phrase "Jewish American Princess," after all, evokes some of the classic canards about our people. That we care only about money. That we seek only status. That we are loud, obnoxious and spoiled. That our women are battle-axes and our men their eunuchs. We would expect pretty much such a portrait from Der St rmer. Yet, almost without exception, Jews themselves, particularly Jewish men, have supplied the fodder for this form of communal debasement.
I have no desire to censor creativity, only to call attention to the power of words and images, and to the difficulty of denying non-Jews the right to ridicule us with the aphorisms and images we ourselves employ. I can still remember one of my Columbia University students, more than a decade ago, writing an essay about a college classmate who had called her a "JAP" and then tried to explain that it was actually a compliment because it meant your family was rich. Just in the past few months, my 12-year-old daughter Sarah had a teacher tell her that because Sarah was Jewish she was certainly going to marry a doctor.
Putative praise can carry such an undercurrent of bias.
So as I take note of The JAP Show, I wonder just how we would feel about the identical title and the identical shtick being carried by four gentile comics. Maybe it is only fitting that, several months before holding forth about "nappy-headed hos," Don Imus went on a riff about the cheap Jews who run CBS, which owns what was then his flagship station and the national radio chain that syndicated his show. Maybe we were all too busy laughing along with him, enjoying the joke at our own expense, to pause long enough to object.
The writer is a professor of journalism at Columbia University.