Recently the gay playwright sent a letter to Jay Leno, asking the comedian to stop telling jokes about gay people. “You think gay people are great material,” Whitty lectured. “I think of a silent holocaust that is perpetuated by people like you, who seek to minimize us and make fun of us and who I suspect really, fundamentally wish we would just go away.”
Wow. Holocaust, eh?
To see if Whitty is overreacting, let’s consider one of Leno’s frequent “Brokeback Mountain” jokes: “Whether you’re a driver in L.A. or cowboy in Montana, keep checking your rearview mirror. You don’t know who’s coming up behind you.” The crowd laughed at that one, but it somehow seems unlikely anyone in the audience was driven to take part in a “holocaust,” whether silent or otherwise.
And that’s exactly the point.
Whitty has stumbled into what author John McWhorter calls “the meme of therapeutic alienation.” Whitty wants to believe there’s a mass media conspiracy against gays designed to generate a “silent holocaust,” so he creates one in his own mind when no such thing exists.
As Whitty told CNN, “for me, the issue of the gay jokes is just this tiny part of the problem. The larger issue is the way gay people are just constantly portrayed as the villain in the media.” Oh, are they? All right, game on: Name five gay villains from Hollywood films. Can’t? Well, then name two.
One movie buff interviewed came up with that many: Bruno from “Strangers on a Train” (1951) and Jame Gumb from “Silence of the Lambs” (1991). Of course, over the decades one could name hundreds of “bad guys” who happened to be straight white males.
The media’s problem isn’t that it features too many gay villains -- it’s that it too often ignores the real villains. We’re only now, almost five years after 9/11, getting the first major motion picture about that day. And “United 93” is the first movie in five years to feature Islamic extremists -- the real-life villains -- as reel-life villains.
Even so, some say it’s too soon. “I don’t think people are ready for this,” theater manager Kevin Adjodha told Newsweek. That idea too is a meme. If we’re not ready now, when will we ever be? The victim’s families support the movie, which will certainly remind Americans why we’re at war. The reality is people are ready to hear more about 9/11.
In his book “Winning the Race, Beyond the Crisis in Black America,” McWhorter explains how memes have colored our views on race relations. “We are told that the alienated worldview of so many blacks is a response to a lack of hope, recognition and sense of empowerment,” he writes. “But this view neglects history.” As McWhorter notes, blacks in America have always faced problems -- problems usually much larger than the ones they face today. “Certainly racism is not worse now,” he writes, “than in, say, 1884.”
The problem, McWhorter writes, is that “therapeutic alienation often does harm.” For decades, sociologists have been so busy coming up with theories to explain why blacks are falling behind that they’ve ignored the real problem: A welfare culture (launched in the 1960s) that encouraged -- even rewarded -- failure and punished success. He writes that we can never completely stamp out racism. The best solution is to create new memes that can thrive in spite of residual racism.
It’s critical to be aware of memes, because these days we’re all falling under the sway of a powerful one -- a meme that insists gasoline prices are too high because oil companies are gauging us. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi nicely encapsulated this. “We have two oilmen in the White House. $3-a-gallon gasoline is no mistake. It’s a logical follow-up,” she told reporters.
But oil prices aren’t set by the White House. They’re governed by the laws of supply and demand. Worldwide demand for oil is surging, especially in developing nations such as India and China. In fact, most of “big oil’s” profits come from overseas; three-quarters of ExxonMobil’s $8.4 billion first-quarter profit was earned abroad.
Lawmakers won’t tell you this, but taxes are a big reason gasoline is so expensive. The Energy Department says that in 2004, 23 percent of the price of a gallon of gas was taxes, while 18 percent was for refining costs and company profits.
And oh, by the way, Exxon’s “excessive” earnings were 7 percent higher in the first quarter -- exactly the same percentage growth as the 7 percent announced by media company E.W. Scripps Co. And former Los Angeles Times Editor John Carroll recently noted that the average newspaper profit margin remains 19.5 percent.
Is it time for an “excess profits tax” on media owners? Even Jeff Whitty might find that funny.