Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Sarah Silverman's Election Videos and the Exchange with Yaakov Rosenblatt

Comedian Sarah Silverman can be quite raunchy and sometimes downright offensive.  But some of her publicity stunts in connection with this year's upcoming Presidential election have generated quite a bit of hype.  In one video, Let My People Vote, she agitates against voter ID laws that were actually put forward in some U.S. states.  The campaign against these laws has apparently achieved partial victories in Pennsylvania and Mississippi.  In another video, an Indecent Proposal she offers Republican donor Sheldon Adelson sexual favours if he would only be willing to contribute his $100 million to Obama instead of Romney. 

The videos have attracted quite a bit of attention.  In an Open Letter in the Jewish Press printed on October 11, 2012, Rabbi Yaakov Rosenblatt attacked Silverman for using "biblical language" in her campaign.  Although the initial focus of Rosenblatt's letter was, ostensibly, Silverman's use of crude language, he shifted to the real purpose of his attack on Silverman - her failure to marry and have children.  If there was any basis for criticizing Silverman's admittedly crude videos, it was so dramatically undermined by Rosenblatt's transparent attack on Silverman as a career minded woman rather than on any other aspect of her productions, that the thrust of the attack was rendered impotent.

Numerous letter writers skewered Rosenblatt.  But most forcefully, Silverman's dad wrote a letter back to Rosenblatt which was printed in the Jewish Press.  He included this statement:

"Hey asshole: Daughter #1 is a rabbi. Not by your standards. She's reform. How dare she, a lowly woman think god wants her to be a rabbi, created from a mere rib. Her hubby, three times nominated for a nobel peace prize was listed by the Jerusalem Post as the 49th most influential jew in the world built the worlds largest solar field in israel. By the way, Sarah was also on the list. I missed your name. Oldest granddaughter is serving in the Israel Defense Forces. I'm sure you also served.Oh I forgot the orthodox don't do that. You don't fuck with my family."

Although Mr. Silverman's choice of language was an illustration of some of what Silverman might have learned at home, the criticism was biting and spot on.  The reference to Silverman's sister was a reference to Rabbi Susan Silverman, a Reform rabbi living in Jerusalem.  Sarah Silverman herself visited Israel for the first time last year and performed at a number of clubs.   More poignantly, Mr. Silverman exposed the bitter misogyny that was the root of Rosenblatt's open letter to Silverman.

In an October 18, 2012 piece in the Tablet, Liel  Leibovitz responded with a partial defence of Rosenblatt.  Attacking the vulgar nature of Silverman's comedy, Leibovitz asserts that Silverman has simply "turned the electoral process into a spotlight with which to illuminate her own oversized and cartoonish personality for fun and profit."  Like Rosenblatt, Liebovitz misses the mark in his assessment of Silverman's bitingly satirical videos which have apparently served their purpose, at least partially.  In Let My People Vote, for example, Silverman draws attention to the fact that some of the new Voter ID laws permit residents to use gun permits but not veteran cards or student IDs, by suggesting that Americans should get guns and gun permits for their grandparents and students - to ensure that they can vote.  It is unfortunate that Liebovitz can only call this "self-centred" on Silverman's part.  Judging from the tone of the majority of responding letters in The Tablet, readers seem to be siding with Silverman rather than Liebovitz and Rosenblatt.

Satirical comedy has a role to play in election campaigns. Saturday Night Live has often left a lasting impression about particular candidates, sometimes more indelible than the persona that the candidates themselves have tried to present.  Just look at the effect of SNL on the public perception of of Sarah Palin.  

While crude, potty-mouthed humour is not for everyone, I can't remember anyone attacking Eddie Murphy or Richard Pryor for failing to focus on their own domestic lives and focus on having children.  While I don't attribute the same misogynist motivation to Liebovitz as I do to Rosenblatt, it seems to me that satirical videos like these, even if they are vulgar, have a role to play, either politically or in the world of comedy, whether the comedian producing them happens to be a woman or a man.  In Silverman's case, both videos provide a sharp message, the essence of which should be carefully considered even if the vehicle is viewed as flawed. 

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