Prejudice, Proximity and Humor


Query: Why do Belgian women have square nipples?

Response: To teach their babies to eat French fries.

That probably did not make you laugh out loud, reading it off your computer. But about forty years ago (gasp) when I was in medical school it was not unusual to hear this very joke in cafes in northern France, between Amiens and the Belgian border.  I still think of it when I see, for example, a Franco-Belgian movie production. In fact, I wrote this because I was enchanted by just such a movie on home video – “A Cat In Paris.”

(I recommend it – a very cute thing for both young and old)

You may be shocked by the joke above. It is fairly innocuous compared to most of the Belgian jokes I heard when I was in France, and some of the Franco-Belgian prejudices and nefarious stereotypes.

Of course, our “french fries” are “pommes frites” (fried potatoes) or simply “frites” (fries) in French.

It is wiser not to get me started on “Freedom Fries” — a silly term built on American prejudice against the French during a disturbingly partisan era of recent politics.  I was actually forbidden from singing “La Vie en Rose” in a piano bar in La Jolla, and they served only Italian bottled water – no Perrier!  Crazy Americans!

I especially hate it when Americans — about to swear — say “Pardon my French.”  I often tell them that what they are saying is not French, which I speak quite nicely, but are terms I heard quite often in the U.S. military.  In fact, I think a lot of them have roots in German.

The previously quoted French fry joke is actually kind of cute.  I still remember my husband was a bit surprised when I told it to him.  He has an encyclopedic knowledge of all things funny, and I have always had a bit difficulty coming up with a joke I have heard on the outside that is unknown to him — and this one was.

It is certainly not worse than the jokes about North Dakotans heard in Minnesota, or the jokes about Norwegians heard in North Dakota, where many people are who were descended from Norwegians.

I have only vague memories of jokes about North Dakotans getting lost when visiting the Big City of Minneapolis.  I heard plenty of them when I studied neurosurgery in Fargo and visited Minneapolis.

My favorite North Dakotan joke — at the expense of the highly reserved Norwegians — has always been the one about the Norwegian who took a book out of the public library in Fargo.  He thought it was a dirty book.  It was volume 8 of the Encyclopedia Americana, with a legend on the spine that said “How to Hug.”

Stereotypes and at least a bit of prejudice are necessary to humor.  Humor may be the best — it is certainly, at least in my estimation, the most mature and sophisticated — of the classical “Freudian” defense mechanisms.

A “Defense mechanism” is basically a way of dealing with something painful to help one continue to keep on trucking — a way of dealing with an “inconvenient truth.”

The first necessity for prejudice to develop is quite simply proximity and contact.  For example, Jews joke about Arabs — not Belgians.

Then there has to be a feeling of — well, jealousy.  They do something which I cannot.

I was in medical school when first I met and really got to know a French psychiatrist.  He was a trend-setter, whose use of medication in an age dominated by the ideals of psychoanalysis was controversial still.

He had me over to his house and explained to me, once, how Jews were perpetuating (if they had not created) anti-semitism.  He said, basically, that claims of being God’s “chosen people” projected a belief that we thought we were better than other folks, so they had to bring us down a peg.

I once — only once — mentioned this point of view to my Parents-of-Blessed-Memory.  The main reason I only mentioned it once was that I really felt that there was a danger they would kick me out of the house for so much as validating that point of view by expressing it to them.  I was already a couple of years into medical school and for myriad reasons not keen on dumping the entire relationship with the family.

This thesis was and is not totally without validity, but I think it was largely reactionary, at least in its early stages.  I can still be moved to the brink of tears at the (ancient) joke about the pious Jew talking to God, asking if we are indeed the chosen people, and hearing the Deity respond in the affirmative, answering Him back, “Why couldn’t you choose someone else for a change?”

I also remember reading, a long time ago, an account of anti-Semitism and its roots by Malcolm Muggeridge.  This academic-type of the earlier 20th century became a social critic and even television personality.  I read his relevant work some time after my French period of residence.I was really moved then, when I realized that the social sciences were going to take up at least a slice of my existence, that a scholarly piece of writing coming from someone who was not (as far as I can figure) Jewish could show that the Jews did NOT kill Christ.  It had something to do with Romans and perhaps a small subset of elders who hung with them. He destroyed all remaining alleged reasons for anti-Semitism as vestiges of jealousy. Unfortunately, perhaps because of his era, I cannot find a decent catalogue of his works online and thus cannot find the passage that so moved me then.  At least I found something about who Muggeridge was.

Okay, so my good Askenaz Jewish DNA may have been some help in constructing my intellectual life.  It also landed me with a hereditary hypertriglyceridemia that permitted (if not aided and abetted) mainstream doctors who nearly helped to kill me, surely aiding and abetting it with mainstream medications.  I have already written enough about this for now.

I have sometimes actually been asked about the intellectual success of the Jewish people which is disproportionate to their small numbers.  Although I have occasionally cited genetics and the group cohesion from the “chosen people” belief, they are way the heck down on the list.  The top reason, for me, is that we are the “people of the book” — that reading and study are lauded as the road to success.  I mean, although we all have some successes in other fields, academics and study are touted as the way to fly, or were, at least, during the crest of the humongous Jewish immigration to America — the Ellis Island years.

When I was little, little boys in my Yeshivah (Orthodox Jewish religious school) were being bombarded with stories about how the pro baseball player Sandy Koufax refused to pitch on Yom Kippur, the holiest of Jewish holidays.  I don’t think this made any of them into pro baseball players,

I have met some fellow Jewish American veterans who have been inspired in their military service by stories of Israeli war heroism.

Jews and blacks should have a kinship in the fight against prejudice.

I remember when a white Jewish Bostonian went down to march with Dr. King in Alabama in the sixties.  My Father-of-Blessed-Memory had some trouble with the concept, but I was starting to figure it out even then.

The black culture seems “infectious,” for it is so rich that it dominates all that it touches.  The late comedian George Carlin (humor–the only way to deal with this stuff) used to do a wonderful bit about what happens when you put an Irish kid and a black kid together.  The Irish one picks up the black mannerisms rather than the black child singing “Danny Boy” and using slang like “Faith and begorrah!”

My husband tells the story of a cultural exchange between his church in rural Kansas and a neighboring black one. Each year, the staid and conservative Methodist church in Wade’s town would swap (for one Sunday only) the preacher and choir from the church in a nearby community that was founded by freed slaves after the Civil War.  Although not formally segregated, the towns (and churches) tended to be mostly – if not exclusively – white or black (depending on which town you were in).

My husband recounts how dramatic and thrilling the African-American preacher could be, and how the choir swayed and stamped their feet and clapped their hands while singing traditional southern gospel hymns.

He also recounts how the conservative white congregation sat in shock, aghast that anyone would shout “Amen!” and “Hallelujah!” during a sermon and clap and stomp with the music.

Normally, people would whisper (if they made any sounds at all) during the service, and the hymns were slow and grave.  No applause afterward, of course.

He smiles slyly when he speculates on how restless the African-American congregation would get having to sit through a dull, quiet sermon and hushed hymns from their white guests.

Much later, a fairly successful and very white night club singer told me how, in the south she loved to crash black churches because they were so “spirit filled.”

Yes, they are more “spirit filled” than us whites, and can fly in a special way in music and dance because of it.  We can certainly enjoy them, but certainly cannot be them.

Yet though they are as pious as any other religion, they make no claims of being “chosen,” and nobody could honestly accuse them of perpetuating anti-black prejudice.


I don’t know how to stop this bitter divisiveness.

We Americans are better at being naive, ignoring problems, bathing them in naive platitudes, than we are at fixing them.

Women have been on the receiving end of this inequality, and now Gays and Lesbians have to work to be assured of their rights as citizens.

I think this one is going to take more than the “empowering” values of the 90’s, and certainly more than the most beautiful “Celebrate Diversity” logos on buttons and bumper stickers.

My guess is that the answer lies somehow in the valuing of individuals.  Somehow this needs to run the temporal gamut from ancestry to current character and proclivities.

Person-hood might be useful in the same way as both Intellectual Quotient and physical endowment — It is not how much you have, but what you do with it.

Maybe the first way to champion that kind of value is to turn it into a fairy tale and get the Disney-Pixar establishment to make a movie about it.

Might take about 20 years, but that is a drop in the bucket for the history of prejudice.

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