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Opening: Department Of Humor

Michael Star

Chris Rock has an amazing routine that he performed on one of his comedy specials. Although I am sure anyone who has heard of Mr. Rock has heard this of this routine, I will give the bare bones of it. He announces, with his characteristic silly grin, that there are two different kinds of black people: regular black people, and then, the n-word. I am white, so I will refrain from using this word, but you all know it. He then goes on to explain the difference, which brings into play guns, 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor, and huge jewelry.

And it’s hilarious. It’s hilarious because, in the wise words of Homer, it’s true. Chris Rock has seized upon the dual nature of the African-American community: the real people that you know at school and work with, and the people you see on MTV, BET, and other media outlets that propagate this gangsta culture. You have celebrities such as Condoleeza Rice, Colin Powell, Danny Glover, Russell Simmons, and Sidney Poitier. Their behavior is opposed to the ubiquitous presence of such personalities as Nelly, Snoop Dogg, Birdman, Redman, Old Dirty Bastard. These men project an American Black culture full of hedonism, materialism, and substance abuse. The point is this dichotomy seen in the media with its extreme polarity is quite funny. Chris Rock is funny. And people of all races laughed at his joke.

Last week, in the same vein of this joke, a certain floor of a certain dorm decided to hold a ghetto party. The description of this party had references to robbery, alcoholism, and the general level of dirtiness that does, indeed, reflect the poor state of many of America’s urban centers. Anyone who would claim that we don’t have a pretty large urban poverty problem is just plain lying. I did not even hear of this party until I received the blanket condemnation of said party issued forth from Chuck Vest’s office. And I was flabbergasted.

Aside for all of the free-speech guidelines being discarded, all I could think was: Where is this man’s sense of humor? I tried to imagine what, exactly, was going through President Vest’s head when he first received the offending e-mail. I can picture him sitting in his office, licking his chops in anticipation of the hundreds of responses to this terribly offensive e-mail that he would be receiving from students in the forms of protests, boycotts, and diversity discussions to be organized to deal with this catastrophic event. After all, that is what happened a few weeks ago at Duke University in response to a very similar event. And why shouldn’t MIT be like other politically-correct institutions of higher learning? To his imagined disappointment, all he received were complaints from multiple members of the lists to which the advertisement was sent.

The stress is not the quantity of the response, but the quality; in the 1960s during the Civil Rights movement, there were real issues at hand, and real action was taken, especially on campuses, by the inspired students of that era. The fact is, most people on this campus, unlike at Duke, are smart enough to recognize the satirical humor in such an e-mail. Other than from the UA president and vice president, there has been no formal student response that I have heard of. I feel that the consensus on campus is one of, well, laughter.

The UA president claims this party invitation was not a satire, but more along the lines of an insult or hate speech, and tells a parable about a problem within a family with a way-ward family member, and the unhelpfulness of neighborhood involvement in this private, familial affair. This metaphor is faulty, however, because the problem in our society is one that touches everyone and is a neighborhood issue, indeed. The urban problem in America, although it affects some of us more than others, is a problem of American society and not just one racial community. The letter, according to students I have talked to from the offending floor of the dorm, was a satire.

And satire is healthy. Jewish comedians have always joked about certain qualities within the American Jewish community such as unnecessary guilt, nervousness, and spendthriftness. Obese comedians make fun of Americas huge obesity problem. And, although I missed her at MIT, I have heard that Margaret Cho act is partly a satire of Asian culture in America. Yet these are direct examples of more personal idiosyncrasies within cultural groups in America. Chris Rock’s satire is not so much of black culture, as it is of our society’s perception of black culture. There is historical precedent for this form of humor. Mark Twain, for example, developed his character Jim in the novel Huckleberry Finn to be a satire of the white American perception of black Americans. And not to give the residents of that certain floor in a certain dorm too much credit, but their joke was one in this tradition.

As I write this, the administration is taking action against these students, whose names were handed over by their GRT. In the name of all that is sacred and humorous at this school, we, the MIT community, cannot allow the administration to have such an over-bearing hand in what can and cannot be sent by e-mail, or other forms of communication. The UA president and vice president claim that this is not a censorship issue, but it absolutely is. They are attempting prior restraint on a topic they find offensive. I not only invoke the First Amendment, but also the slippery slope that is being built in this case against our peers. We cannot, obviously, make up for the administrations lacking in the sense-of-humor department, but we can draw a line to where they can define what are acceptable and unacceptable forms of humor, and stand up for our right to be funny.

Michael Star is a member of the class of 2006.