Inglorious Oscars

Seth MacFarlane's Oscar performance has been lambasted on a number of fronts, but fear that his jokes could incite violence should not be one of them.

Seth MacFarlane 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Fred Prouser)
Seth MacFarlane 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Fred Prouser)
This year’s Academy Awards host, the self-satisfied animator, producer, voice actor and director Seth MacFarlane has been lambasted on a number of fronts. Women criticized MacFarlane for his ugly sexism and blatant misogyny: In MacFarlane’s “We saw your boobs” number, the serious acting of women in films such as Silkwood, Brokeback Mountain, Monster’s Ball, Monster, The Accused and Iris was reduced to nothing more than the pleasure derived by men from viewing their anatomy; when MacFarlane presented Django Unchained he joked about Chris Brown’s abusive relationship with Rihanna; and his quip about nine-year- old Quvenzhané Wallis, nominated for best actress, was “To give you an idea how young she is, it’ll be 16 years before she’s too old for [George] Clooney.”
MacFarlane’s line about not caring that he couldn’t understand a word that Penelope Cruz or Salma Hayek said because they were good to look at was directed as much at Latinos as at women, since he also mentioned Javier Bardem.
And MacFarlane also targeted the Jews. Just one minute was set aside for the borderline anti-Semitic comment out of a three-and-a-half hour Oscar telecast.
But for many that was enough. In the short segment “Ted,” a racist, foul-mouthed animated teddy bear created by MacFarlane suggests that it is best to be Jewish if you “want to continue to work in Hollywood.”
Actor Mark Wahlberg, who is also on stage, calls Ted an idiot. But Ted advises Wahlberg, who admits that despite his Jewish-sounding name he is Catholic, to keep his religion a secret unless he wants to ruin his chances of working in Hollywood.
MacFarlane’s crudeness – befitting the creator of Family Guy – was equally offensive to women, Hispanics and Jews (he also voiced racial insults against Denzel Washington and Eddie Murphy).
There were, however, those who claimed Jewish exceptionalism.
In a statement released on Monday, the day after the Oscars, the Anti-Defamation League, which usually does not make distinctions among varieties of bigotry whether directed against Jews or others, was arguing that MacFarlane’s jokes about a Jewish cabal running Hollywood out of a synagogue were worthy of special censure because “upwards of two billion people” were watching the ceremony, including many who would come to believe “the age-old canard about Jewish control of the film industry.”
Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, took a similar tack, hinting that Mac- Farlane should have been censored. “Every comedian is entitled to wide latitude, but no one should get a free pass for helping to promote anti-Semitism,” he said.
According to The Forward’s J.J. Goldberg, what made MacFarlane’s Jew jokes alone worthy of censorship was their potential for inciting violence. “Freedom of speech does not include the right to make public utterances that may be reasonably expected to cause immediate danger to others,” wrote Goldberg. “It’s entirely reasonable,” he continued, “to suppose that some Mohammed Merah jihadi wannabe somewhere in Toulouse or Antwerp or Copenhagen will see the clip and find that it’s just the extra push he needed to go and do something about it.”
This position is untenable for a number of reasons. First, if one believes, as Goldberg, Hier and perhaps the ADL’s Abe Foxman apparently do, that we in the West should curtail our own freedom of speech out of fear that “some Mohammed Merah jihadi wannabe” will kill someone, why restrict our fears to extremist Muslims?
Won’t MacFarlane’s objectification of women or crude sexism push a violence-prone male chauvinist over the edge? Or is this a culturally biased statement about Muslims’ unique tendency to mistake bad jokes for a license to kill? We doubt the next Merah is waiting for MacFarlane or anyone else to give him an excuse to murder.
More fundamentally, it is abhorrent to entertain the thought that we in the West will be bullied into imposing restrictions on our freedoms out of fear of violence perpetrated by a reactionary jihadist in the name of Islam.
One may or may not have found MacFarlane offensive, tactless, crude or just plain not funny and, therefore, not someone to be asked to host the Oscars again next year.
Perhaps, in contrast, MacFarlane did a good job by generating controversy that made this Oscars ceremony more memorable than most. But clearly the decision to use or not to use MacFarlane as host should never be made out of fear. Doing so would constitute a victory for the jihadists as well as for the bigots, the sexists and the racists.