Lena Dunham has made a career of pissing enough people off so those who adore, or merely support, her keep her consistently in the news. That this is the case should not take away from her inchoate role as one of the voices of her generation or the reality that she is an extremely talented writer who combines an unapologetic confessionalism with crisp, popping and often-hilarious prose. But it was little surprise to read the vitriol that followed the release of her witty Shouts & Murmurs piece in this week’s New Yorker, comparing her Jewish boyfriend to a dog.
The piece is not only clever but quiet funny in parts and continues a long tradition of self-effacing Jewish humor. That it targeted her boyfriend rather than herself should take nothing away from the piece, which was funnier by a New York mile than most of the rather plaintive fare that page tends to offer from week to week. Among the items (set up as an either/or): 8. I feel that he is judgmental about the food I serve him. When I make something from scratch, he doesn’t want to eat it, but he also rejects most store-bought dinners, 9. This is because he comes from a culture in which mothers focus every ounce of their attention on their offspring and don’t acknowledge their own need for independence as women. They are sucked dry by their children, who ultimately leave them as soon as they find suitable mates, 10. As a result of this dynamic, he expects to be waited on hand and foot by the women in his life, and anything less than that makes him whiny and distant, 13. He doesn’t tip, 14. And he never brings his wallet anywhere, 27. In fact, he has hair all over his body, like most males who share his background.
Alright, some of it combs the edges of offensive, but not in a way that should be mistaken for anti-Semitism, particularly since Dunham is half-Jewish herself. The furor started with the Jordana Horn’s post in Kveller titled
“Lena Dunham Equated Jews to Dogs & That’s Not Alright” (with the leader “Anti-Semitism”) and then exploded on the reader response section of the website, growing to a boiling point of cyber vituperativeness that it ultimately compelled David Remnick to respond (TNR). All comedy will offend someone, and anti-Semitism is still rampant across Europe, the Middle East and parts of America, but this seems like an odd target given the more obvious examples available across the cultural and political landscape.
The tiresome nature of the criticism follows in what has become a left largely devoid of any sense of comedy or the difference between clever irony and cruel humor. The new film Get Hard appears to fall substantially toward the latter, but there is generally a humanity in Dunham that seems more apt to lean toward self-indulgence and self-obsession than cruelty. That the left can no longer tell the difference appears to me to highlight the failure to capture the essential nature of America or to galvanize the masses to support their perspective. Instead there is a tendency toward indignation and reactionary fervor that only serves to reinforce the ire of those who already agree with them.
It is strewn from article to article of the once excellent Salon, across the blogosphere, on Daily Kos and The Huffman Post, and the generally humorless The Nation. Liberals appear to have developed a double standard nearly as close-minded as the conservatives they are always attacking with apoplectic shock. If you believe in free speech, it must be free speech for all, including those you find offensive. If you want to have reasoned debate and dialogue, you have to actually listen to what others say and attack the merit of the argument rather than the person making it. If you want to convince others to be critical of their own perspectives, you must be willing to do the same. And if you want to actually change people’s minds, maybe it is time to stop talking from the vaulted air of moral and intellectual superiority.
At the heart of the problem is the inability to recognize the fact that progressives are consistently losing to conservatives, and have been for the better part of 35 years now. Why is the support not coming and why is the discourse employed unable to garner the support, or even ear, of many outside the inner sanctum of people who already support the cause of social justice and equality? Could it be that offering opinions as deified instantiations of truth makes it nearly impossible to start that dialogue in the first place? For anyone who reads this blog, you know that I fall with the very group I am critiquing here, but I do find it troubling that those fighting for more justice and equality fail to recognize their own faults.
These go beyond the deep indignation and humorlessness I mentioned above to include consistent ad hominem attacks on anyone who disagrees with them (rather than substantive attacks on the positions themselves), an ironic cynicism that cuts off the possibility of change and allows followers to sit back smugly but inert, writing for each other in prolix and overly academic prose that cuts off anyone beyond the aforementioned inner sanctum, censuring voices they disagree with on campuses and in the media and largely existing within a bubbled sense of moral certitude that does little to unite the people behind a cause that they, at the core, believe in. Until the left acknowledges their own faults and close-mindedness, it seems to me we will continue to talk to each other rather than engaging in the public sphere in meaningful ways, working to change the world for the better.
Lena Dunham should not, in my estimation, be considered a progressive champion. She is a feminist voice that damns the hypocrisy of those who claim women should be proud of their bodies unless those bodies don’t meet some preordained specifications, who acknowledges that women might like sex and have their own ambitions and who catalogs the life of a subset of her generation in a compelling manner. Yes it is privileged, as everyone argues, but does that make it any less interesting or relevant to the contemporary world? And do a few funny quips about Jewish traits and their facsimile to a dog really deserve the level of bile they have elicited? I think there are better things to talk about, including the left’s complicity in its own relative irrelevance.