Saturday, March 29, 2008

Avenue Q Vs. Cabaret

Sometimes I wonder if the most apt comment on racism comes not from the “Everyone's a Little Bit Racist” song from the Broadway musical Avenue Q (which always seemed kind of banal to me) but from the setup for the “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” number in the play Cabaret.

Specifically the part just before the song in which we discover that the charming businessman who has been helping out the play's protagonists, Cliff and Sally, is actually an ardent Nazi Party member, and that the cute little German streetwalker with which we the audience have been encouraged to sympathize is actually a hardcore anti-Semite.

In the movie version, of course, the filmmakers choose to omit this part, preferring instead to have “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” sung by a random crowd of strangers whom the audience never really gets to know the same way we get to know the streetwalker and the Nazi Party member in the play. The result makes for a powerful moment, that's true, but alas, it's not as powerful as the same moment in the play in which “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” (the ultimate hymn to Nazi superiority) ends up being sung by people who are not strangers. People whom we the audience have come to know throughout the play. People whom we have even been encouraged to like.

True, the notion that Nazis were people too is not a new message, but it's not a popular notion either. After all, Nazis were in a sense the ultimate racists. People who took the notion of racial superiority to the ultimate limit and killed millions of people because of it. To see them as little more than fellow human beings (as opposed to devils incarnate) and worse yet, as likable human beings inevitably implies that we the audience might very well end up acting like them if we're not careful.

And yet the song makes an important point. After all, racism and other murderous prejudices have rarely been held in real life solely by unlikable misanthropes who have absolutely no appeal at all to their fellow human beings. They have been more often than not held by people that even most liberal people would find to be quite likable under most circumstances. Indeed, the notion that racism and other prejudices are only held by “bad” people is itself a dangerous concept because it implies that “good” people -- and it should be noted here that many of the Nazis did consider themselves to be good people -- have no need to examine their prejudices. That bigotry in a sense is only a valid problem for other people, preferably strangers. And that, sadly, is just not true.

I must confess that there have been many times when I've encountered real-life bigots who nevertheless proved to be every bit as likable as the characters who sing Cabaret the play's version of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.” And, of course, such people have inevitably forced me to examine my prejudices as well.

In many ways, I consider this a good thing. For one cannot realistically deal with a problem unless one realistically examines how it exists in the real world. And one can't realistically examine such a problem if one insists on treating silly little ditties like “Everyone's a Little Bit Racist” as if they were genuinely meaningful.

In a sense, the Avenue Q song is correct. Everyone does tend to have their share of prejudices, racial and otherwise, and everyone does tend to favor or dislike certain racial groups for reasons that aren't exactly logical.

But there's more to it than that. Some people are more apt to act upon their prejudices than others, some are less inclined to examine or contradict their prejudices than others, and of course, some people are more inclined to use their prejudices as motives for genuinely antisocial actions. To blithely dismiss all this by singing “Everyone's a Little Bit Racist” ultimately trivializes racism.

And trivializing racism ultimately assures the type of people who would sing a song like “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” the ultimate victory.

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