Thursday, April 28, 2011

Win Ben Stein's Sexist Joke

You may have seen this? Ben Stein, most famous for an excellent, nay classic, cameo in the delightful John Hughes paean to post-pubescent fantasies of escape, and who has remained in the public eye ever since largely for being one of those Right Wing celebrities who see themselves as modern-day Quentin Crisps, risking life and limb by outing themselves in a world genocidally hostile to rich, white conservative men, got pre-emptively fired from a corporate gig for a sexist joke. Salon doesn't give us many details of this joke, because, gleaning what I can from another report, nobody has actually written down what those jokes were. However, the other report, from Bloomberg (which, as they admit, used to pay Ben Stein to write for them?) gives us a hint of the jokes, and Stein's response.

Over at Salon, they make the point that perhaps it's a shame this man is losing a gig at a Citigroup shindig for a sexist joke and not for being a corrupt, lying, corporate whore. Yeah, I know; I kind of agree. It's like getting Al Capone for tax evasion, or NPR tripping over its own laces firing Juan Williams for foxholing anti-Muslim bigotry and not decades of numbskull "analysis" and milquetoasty faux liberalism. Oh, and apparently Citigroup is already facing a big sexual harrassment lawsuit? But let's not talk about that. Let's talk about what we know about the jokes, and Stein's response.

Here's what we know:

Villarreal’s e-mail to Orszag told of three jokes at the Dallas conference she said were disparaging to women. One joke was about a wealthy man, his wife and his mistress, she said.

Another involved a female airline passenger who, realizing the flight is about to crash, takes off her clothes and asks if there is a man aboard who will “make me feel like a woman,” according to Villarreal’s e-mail, which was also sent to Bloomberg News. A cowboy in a hat removes his shirt, hands it to the woman, tells her to iron it and fetch him a beer.

Villarreal said the jokes she sent to Citigroup were versions found on the Internet based on her recollection of what Stein said.

Okay. So the first joke involves a wealthy man, his wife, and his mistress. Is it sexist? Based on what fractionally little evidence we have, it certainly smacks of sexism: after all, it is already like one of those eighteenth century tombstones that features identifying characters of the man and then all the women are described only in relation to him. He's a "wealthy man", the other two characters are "his", and are described in terms of their sexual obligations to him. But, frankly, that's not exactly enough to pass much of a judgement on the joke.

The next joke is . . . hold on, I skipped ahead: there's no third joke, and we're told that the offended party sent internet versions of the jokes she thinks she heard? Given that any single word can quite substantially alter how we understand a joke, I'd say that we're not working with very compelling evidence here.

Still, we have Stein's response:

Stein, who has written columns for Bloomberg News and appeared as a guest on Bloomberg Television, said in the interview that the joke targeted the man, not the woman, and that in his Dallas telling the woman didn’t remove clothing.

“It’s usually a joke understood to be making fun of a kind of cloddish, dopey guy,” Stein said. “When I was finished with this speech, dozens of women in the room came up to me and wanted their pictures taken with me, wanted autographs from me. Dozens of them. I got fan mail from women who had been at the group saying how much they liked the speech.”

The jokes are not original, he said.

“Every one of those jokes are thoroughly vetted with my wife,” said Stein.

Jesus Christ. What the hell are we supposed to do with this? The joke's at the expense of the man, not the woman? Really? Maybe? And presumably when he says the jokes aren't original, he means that they didn't originate with him, he didn't create them, write them, think them up. Still, it's a little bit embarrassing to be a professional corporate wag, essentially known as a humourist, and to be telling old jokes? Of course, one of the cool things about jokes is that so many of them are transmitted so quickly that authorship is soon lost. But even so, is this any sort of defence? Original authorship may be lost, but there's still some responsibility for re-telling the joke? And then he testifies with a rather depressing version of "my best friend is black", pulling his wife into the dock beside him in the hopes that proximity to her is exculpatory. (The rest of the article involves other rather vague and creepy assertions of how much good Ben Stein has done for women).

So, I am not officially a lawyer, I didn't go to law school or read case law or any of that stuff, but basically, to the extent that anybody has the right to claim to be a lawyer, I have that right. And I practice in the British system, which means that I prosecute and defend at the same time. I know. A peculiar system. So here is my summation:

"Your Grace, thank you for this opportunity to speak in the case of The Crown versus Ben Stein. As your Lordship knows, what we have here is failure to communicate. Mr Stein, who cannot be a sexist, because he has received fan mail from women (please note the plural: at least two women), and because he is married, is purported by the prosecution witness to have told jokes similar to ones found on the internet (what's that, your Honour? Oh, the internet - a newfangled technological device which allows near-instant communication, sort of like a typewriter-cum-telephone? Yes, it's most wonderful.) As I was saying, the jokes that approximate the ones told by Mr Stein are highly suspicious. To put it to you, your Grace, in a way you might understand: imagine a youth skulking around the sweets section of a newsagent with his hands jammed into his urban clothes, his mouth sticky, and his breath sugary. You might not have caught him stealing any sweets, but you'd be right to give him an ASBO. Now I Wanda - I mean, I wonder if we can fulfill our duty to the Crown as both defence and prosecution without knowing what the jokes were and how they were told? We must therefore find him - before I finish, may I just say how lovely you're looking today? It's such a relief to be in the presence of a Magistrate who takes such care over his appearance. No, you're very welcome, it's my honour. As I was saying, we must therefore find Mr Stein - excuse me, I'm sorry to interrupt myself again, but is that Comme des Garçon? It is? I thought so. Lovely. Now, regarding Mr Stein, I think my case has been made. Good day to you all and, if I may add: three hurrahs for Will and Kate! Hurrah, Hurrah, Hurrah!"


Daniel F said...

I have no idea who this guy is. But the one about what it really means to be made to feel like a woman (ie to be treated like a serf) is capable of a feminist reading, is it not? Particularly if the gratuitous detail about the woman removing her clothes is left out, as he says it was.

Daniel F said...

Can't wait for today's Sunday recommendations.

sw said...

Thanks! It's up! I'm addressing your first point in a forthcoming entry . . .

Steven said...

May I just point out that it's Comme des garçons?

Thank you for explaining the peculiarities of the English legal system to us!

sw said...

Yes, you may point out that there was a mis-spelling of my favourite designer and fragrancier! I'd hired a fact-checker and editor through an online service, and would have fired him, except I can't reach him at his home in Abbottabad.