Is There a Problem with Apu?

The Simpsons are an indispensable part of my life. My sense of humor, so intricately entwined with Springfield lore, that when talking to me, people are often heard muttering through their frustration of being on the outside of the joke, “Is that a Simpsons quote?” Sometimes it is; sometimes it isn’t. I’m not quoting out of nowhere; I’m referencing a relevant moment in the show while engaged in a discussion. The real joy, is a perfectly placed quote, with like-minded individuals, when you don’t need to explain the meaning. I cannot count on my hands the number of people I know who will implicitly recognize Simpsons knowledge and enjoy a good quote placement. The Simpsons are a part of our life, a joyful, playful yet cromulent place, that embiggens our lives despite every character being flawed, dangerous or wildly incompetent.

Hari Kondabolu came onto my radar earlier last week in the New York Times headline, “You Love ‘The Simpsons’, Then Let’s Talk About Apu.” He made a documentary, “The Problem with Apu”, for TruTV, about a fictional Indian character living in a fictional American town voiced by an actual white man. Kondabolu is a stand up, writer and apparently deeply hurt by Apu. He’s not the only one. He got almost all of today’s prominent South Asian actors to participate in the film to express their frustrations and, in some cases, hatred of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon.

Here are some things I learned while researching Apu as a troubling stereotype of Indian immigrants in America or from Kondabolu’s film:

  • Apu’s name is taken from a famous film trilogy set in India from the 50’s about a young boy named Apu and his journey from adolescence to adulthood.
  • Indians don’t like the accent.
  • Some people didn’t know Apu was voiced by a white actor (Hank Azaria).
  • Some see Apu, as voiced by a white actor, equivalent to blackface minstrelsy.
  • Whoopi Goldberg has an extensive collection of “negrobilia” that is, blackface dolls, statues and assorted memorabilia of a bygone era of black representation by white performers.
  • The Indian guy in Short Circuit 2 was not actually Indian.
  • A non-Indian person imitating an Indian accent is called “pantanking.”
  • At least in the Spanish language dubbed Simpsons, Apu’s voice completely lacks any “pantanking.”
  • Hank Azaria, the voice actor, was quoted as saying, when creating the sound, that he was told, “How racist can you make [the voice]?”

I’m glad to have learned these things. I’m sad that Kondabolu likes The Simpsons, but hates the only character from his ethnicity. Apu’s voice truly is, “a white guy doing an impression of a white guy imitating [Kondabolu’s] dad.” For me, Apu’s voice was not what was funny. Apu was funny because of the situations he got into. He allowed Jasper to stay frozen in the ice cream cooler and charged admittance fees to see “Frostillicus.” He pretended to be married to Marge to avoid an arranged marriage, with sexy results. He sells expired meat to Homer. He lied to Homer through song. His penny candy is “surprisingly expensive.”

Apu’s voice is undeniably, albeit a broad stamp, but totally, Indian. I’ve had a few encounters with Indian people in my life. There was Sumanth—a guy at my high school, no accent, pretty funny, good dude. An Indian couple who were my doctors in Austin, TX—very lovely, smart and a full accent. The guys who ran the 7-11 in my hometown—accented, not funny and sour. A guy I met in Australia—wicked rich and bought me a sandwich, no accent, very funny, interesting stories about being in the high class of India. They were all different, and to none I thought to say, “Oh my god, you sound just like Apu.”

It’s hard to be too sympathetic with the idea that Apu led to bullying. Getting, “Thank you, come again” shouted at you doesn’t seem to be on par with the verbal weight behind an N-bomb or belittling Asian slurs. Apu being the only Indian on TV in 1990 makes sense since there were around 450,000 Indian immigrants in the entire U.S. at that time. The choice of a white actor to do his voice makes sense because Hank Azaria also does Moe, Frink, Wiggum, Comic Book Guy, Snake, Lenny & Carl, Dr. Nick, Wiseguy and the Sea Captain. Is it possible that of the half million Indians living in all of America in the late 80’s when the show was cast, that one of them was a voice work actor capable of the range and humor of Hank Azaria? Is it possible that Apu was made with a vocal stereotype of Indians? Is it possible that some young South Asian children were subjected to Kwik-E-Mart insults when they were young? Is it possible that The Simpsons are funny despite some short-sighted typecasting of the wide array of American people? If it is a discussion you want, we can ask those questions. But “The Problem with Apu” places too much blame on The Simpsons and not enough on the entertainment industry in general. Why pick on the one show that actually showed an (admittedly) fundamentally flawed yet intelligent, funny character of South Asian descent?

Hari bemoans the lack of Indians on TV, as does Aziz Ansari in Masters of None. I get it. You looked to TV to see yourself and it wasn’t there. But you were first generation! The TV was literally waiting for YOU! There actually wasn’t anyone there except you. Your parents were too busy being hard working role models for you.

Apu is funny because he doesn’t really understand Springfield, but totally fits into the craziness. He’s part of Homer’s bowling team, barbershop quartet, and the neighborhood watch. He’s not an outsider pushed to the perimeter of episodes only to jump in with a Squishee and make a joke about Ganesh. He took a bullet for James Woods. He was known as the “Fifth Beatle.” He can dance the robot. He once worked 96 straight hours and thought he was a hummingbird.

I get that there were no South Asians on the white dominated TV landscape of the early 90’s, mid-90’s, late 90’s, early 00’s, basically until Aasif Mandvi on The Daily Show. But now, that’s changed; it’s shown to have changed in the documentary.

Apu is a cartoonish cartoon on a globally offensive show. The Australians hated their episode rife with Aussie accents, koalas and allegedly big beers. The Brazilians banned their episode that showed kidnapping and that Brazil nuts are simply called “nuts” there. The Japanese episode included over the top game shows, Godzilla attacks and origami in prison. Everything is a stereotype; does that mean we can’t laugh? Luckily, Judge Kondabolu says, “You’re allowed to like The Simpsons.” Just saying that means that I have to see each character and wonder, does this offend someone? I don’t want to hurt someone for my amusement. I didn’t know The Simpsons did that. For Kondabolu as a Simpsons fan, to bring this up, could be a good thing if we see Apu move in a direction that shows a positive arc. But it shouldn’t have to. He’s allowed to stay working at the Kwik-E-Mart overcharging “for meat, and milk, from 1984.” It’s not a real person. There are other South Asians on TV, so no young Indian kids will be bullied by “Thank you, come again” being chanted at them on the playground by some stereotypically dumb slack jawed yokel like Cletus types.

The main question: Is Apu racist? I think no, but it’s not my ethnicity or culture being parodied. Therefore, Kondabolu is entitled to feel that way. But imagine if all the satirized cultures, personalities, races or countries felt that way. There would be no Simpsons, and what a poorer world it would be.

Is Barney’s alcoholism triggering?

Is Fat Tony or the chef an accurate representation of Italians?

Is Groundskeeper Willie a true Scotsman?

Is Bumblebee Man’s clumsiness insulting to Mexicans?

Is the Sea Captain’s growl characteristic of all sailors?

Is Krusty’s miserly nature offensive to Jewish people?

Is Smithers’ homosexuality being expressed toward the man he serves homophobic?

Is Marge fulfilling outdated gender roles as a stay at home mom?

Is Nelson’s bullying a result of a distant single mother and a deadbeat dad?

Are these kinds of questions necessary when talking about the inarguably greatest show of our generation, Hari?

Do the writers need to discuss the sensitivities of all the microcosms of contemporary American society before deciding if something is funny? The old Aesop Fable of the Miller and his donkey taught that by trying to please everyone, you please none.

Thank you Hari Kondabolu for making me aware that this is a sensitive accent, that a fantasy show can have negative consequences in the real world. I’m glad to learn about you, your stand up and the opinions of the other South Asian actors’ in the movie. I’m happy to talk Simpsons with any of you anytime. I don’t consider this matter closed. It is a discussion. I just wanted to contribute my ideas. After all, “I’m a white male age 18-49, everyone listens to me.”

 

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Four Ways the World is Changing

To paraphrase the Greek philosopher Heraclitus and the vocal artist Otis Redding: “Change is the only constant (and yet) everything still remains the same.”

I feel a change lately. The changes feel negative, far-reaching and unavoidable. How can one balance an individual existence during global complications, how to protect positivity when assaulted by negativity? The reality bruising author, Cormac McCarthy, said, “Sure I’m pessimistic, but that’s no reason to be gloomy.”

Our brains have developed enormous powers in the past century. We’ve created the method with which to evaporate humanity, the power of flight and space travel, electricity, new and exciting art. We’ve explored the land and sea, investigated the human body and mind and developed powerful hand-held computers. We’ve answered ancient mysteries of physical forces and we’re only beginning to understand the possibilities of quantum mechanics and CRISPR technology, but we haven’t solved the tribal instincts which lead to racism, sexism, bigotry, nationalism and illogical hatred. We don’t know what will happen when the oceans rise or when some giant asteroid approaches. We don’t know how to solve fundamental questions of exorbitant wealth and piteous poverty. We confuse ourselves with questions of sexual identity and sexual preference in an over-sexualized world. Amid all the progress and scientific advancements of humans lies the confusion of apes shouting at a fire. We’re a few hundred centuries beyond our homo sapien origins and a few hundred decades into the Anthropocene. It’s a juncture moment. It’s a moment of bizarre dread flush with menacing omens and no new-age positivity, or Steven Pinker tome about this current peacefulness can push the horror away from the reality that things change. And some big changes are coming.

Let’s examine a few worrying trends of the 21st century and if there is room left to hope:

Politics:

We begin with our 45th president, Donald J. Trump. He’s a douchebag. A douchebag is a fitting word for him; the nickname he should have been labeled by the poor, misguided Hillary Clinton campaign. “Hillary, which do you like better, Donny Douchebag or Douchey Donny?” (Dirtbag is a good second place if you’re worried about copyright infringement from South Park.) If you’ve never used the word, you might want to start, because it’s a good non-specific insult. So, Trump, our first, and certainly not last, reality show president, was undeniably more charismatic, blunt and candid than any of the republican sloths put forward, breezed through the primary, slogged through the general election and is now schlepping his way through the White House briefings and international conferences while remaining thoroughly, a douchebag.

Donald

From: knowyourmeme.com

He’s arguably (scandal prone, uninspiring and bullyish) a crap president (and subjectively a crappy person). But, that’s the worry, crap in, crap out. How could there be 40 million people willing to vote for a douchebag with poor elocution, lacking in general knowledge with a penchant for pussy grabbing and an overall slick dick demeanor of a guy who just bought a yacht but hates the water? Crap in, crap out. American people have been fed crap literally (from fast food) and metaphorically (from politicians) that we don’t recognize crap when it’s served to us, as long as the portions are good.

I believe that there were three kinds of Trump voters: 1) Republican die-hards who’d vote for a Mexican if he wore a red tie and promised tax cuts 2) fervent anti-Clinton people who hate her “shrillness” (code: possession of ovaries) and 3) the deplorables. Deplorable was a bad choice, the phrase more apropos is “bucket of degenerates.” (Check the definitions, she meant degenerates. Degenerate means a decline of or lacking in; deplorable means deserving condemnation. We don’t need to condemn those with whom we disagree, rather just accept that the white working class is in decline and distress. Trump recognized it and jumped on it.) Their middle-class union jobs were in decline and their opinions on the world were lacking in, to be polite—elegance. “Lock Her Up” and “Build that Wall” are a bit more combative and a bit less harmonious than Obama’s “Yes, We Can” while also more specific than Hillary’s empty action feminist call to arms of “I’m With Her.” It’s the people who have gotten screwed throughout the rise of free trade, globalization and immigration. The people whose American Dream of middle class status with a middling education/skill base was eradicated by the forces of automation, clean energy or outsourcing are who became degenerated. The All-American families of Detroit carmakers, Pittsburgh iron workers, Kentucky coal miners, Midwest farmers, New England haberdashers, Carolina furniture makers, coastal longshoremen et al. have been affected by robotic techniques or cost-cutting moves abroad.

The time of immigrants pulling themselves up by the bootstraps went away when work boots were replaced by wing tips and the assembly lines left for Asia. The new blue-collar jobs are mostly service industry with hourly wages, rarely as high paying as those salaried jobs of the 1950’s when today’s poor degenerates were just racists with good jobs. As the world changed, the degenerates watched the factories that employed their parents close. J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy speaks of this loss. George Packer found this in The Unwinding. Trump gave these degenerates a voice, a condemning voice, not against them, but against Mexicans, Muslims and the “dishonest” media. Truly, it wasn’t the working poor who were entirely at fault for the colossal changes of the past half century.

CEO pay has increased 997% since 1978 while worker pay went up an insulting 10%. CEO’s are an integral part of a company; however, since the 1970’s, have they become 1,000% better at increasing sales or just 5,000% better at padding their pockets? America’s biggest employer, Wal-Mart, is notorious for meager benefits and low pay. A minimum wage job in 1968 used to be enough to cover a family of three; now, minimum wage is barely enough for a bachelor in a studio apartment. Opioids were dispensed by friendly, in-the-cut doctors, addictions formed, until the development of a crush proof pill pushed street prices higher, and we get a resurgence of cheap, dirty street heroin followed by the devastating power of Fentanyl. One quarter of Americans live alone, and loneliness reports have doubled in the last decade. Government subsidies to corn, wheat and meat farmers fuel production of cheap, processed foods. A man who earns less than his father did, who can’t afford a house, riddled with back pain from a factory job that closed down, living alone because his wife left from the stress, coping by eating expensive OxyContin and cheap Big Macs is NOT the picture of health. But it may be a picture of some of the degenerate class of Americans beset by radical changes and seeking to place blame. Such bleakness may explain the rise in suicide of over 40 white men. Such feelings of being ignored by the politicians elected to help may explain the popularity of Trump.

Our president is fueling that fire of depression by blaming Chinese for stealing jobs we want (true), Mexicans for stealing jobs we don’t (also true) and Muslims for changing society (could become true). Throwing blame without solutions stokes the helplessness instead of inspiring and motivating that change could provide new opportunities. America has always been a country in flux. Immigrants did the dirty jobs, and as they moved up the ladder, they cut the rung below for the next group. However, the dirty jobs are slowly evaporating or becoming extremely unsustainable for long term development. Crop picking and animal slaughter areas employ the majority of undocumented workers. Without supportive unions or stable status, illegal immigrants will be hesitant to report poor farming or unhealthy slaughter techniques. What will low wage earners do when robots learn to pick blueberries and slice tenderloin? The problems now go up the ladder affecting all on the way, from producers to consumers—an unhealthy chain of consumption.

Climate Change:

The longest ladder of problems which will affect the whole world soon enough is the great mystery of climate change. The mystery isn’t so much will it happen, but what will happen. An iceberg the size of Delaware just calved from the Larson ice shelf in Antarctica. Icebergs break off all the time, but the increasing rate is the worry from climatologists. The calving icebergs open more Greenland and Antarctic glaciers to the open sea, followed by sea rise and pH changes. We can see the pictures, hear the stats and understand the repercussions, but we don’t really know what to do. (Removing one of the most populous countries and one of largest polluters (U.S.A.) from the Paris Climate Accords is definitely NOT going to help.)) Even if we knew exactly what to do, it would merely slow what is already occurring.

The delicate balance of modern life along the coasts, the essential farming communities in the plains and the magical medicines of the rainforest are all in danger from climate change. Extinction from climate change is part of the historical record, and humans are no less susceptible to such souring weathers just because we wrote those historical records. Arctic sea ice has reduced by 65% in the last 40 years where temperatures are soaring and by having less white sea ice, there is less reflective surface and more heat absorbing dark black water. With the extra sun in the north, the 1.8 million tons of carbon locked within tundra permafrost is at risk of melting, releasing its highly concentrated methane gas which is 34 times as powerful as regular CO2. The fifteen hottest summers of the last millennia were every summer since 2002. The warming Earth, sustained carbon release and growing population creates an existential problem for those living there.

A new film on Netflix, Chasing Corals, following the name brand of 2012’s Chasing Ice, where the latter used time-lapse to watch evaporating glaciers and ice sheets, this movie uses photography to witness the changes in our life-giving oceans. The oceans that consume a substantial amount of our CO2 emissions, provide a myriad of protein variations, and control the winds, waves and weather of our world are struggling to maintain homeostasis. 29% of the Great Barrier Reef was lost to bleaching in 2016 alone. The statistics are shocking, but it’s hard to understand what it means for one person thousands of miles away. The largest coral reef in the world provides tens of thousands of jobs, billions in tourist revenue and a home for many ocean creatures. The ocean is a gigantic cycle from plankton to blue whale, from mackerel to dolphin; thus, if you cut a rubber band, it loses its functionality and you chuck it. We can’t afford to cut the bands of the ocean cycles.

American Exceptionalism:

In America, far from the bleaching corals of Australia and the melting icecaps of Antarctica, we find a nation lost between reviving its historical greatness and retreating into partisan squabbling. A partial list of our nation’s problems reads as a catalog of the stale prince, Jared Kushner’s, job description: solving Middle-East peace, fixing the opioid epidemic, creating stronger relationships with China and Mexico, reforming the massive, bloated criminal justice system, as well as the infuriatingly slow and anarchic VA, oh and if you have time on Friday can you make the U.S. government function less like an elephant picking flowers and more like a business?

Those are not small issues for an amateur; they’re some of the biggest concerns for our century. Things that require life experience, negotiating experience and diplomatic tact might not be in the wheelhouse of that little stooge. He’d be better off locked out of the Oval Office thinking of solutions to problems more suited to his skills–like creating the first flak jacket blazer.

It’s hard for me, as someone who’s been away from America for around seven years to truly understand the vibe there. Reading and watching news paired with first-hand accounts from friends and family seem to paint the same picture. Things be cool, but things be cray. It may stay like that for a while, but nothing lasts forever. Eventually, a terrorist will slip past those talkative TSA agents, or a natural disaster will hit, or another stock crash will come, or some hostile foreign country will make a blunder, or most likely of all—Trump will misjudge, misfire, mistweet, misstep, misspeak or mistake his egocentric thoughts as solid policy and we’ll all pay for it. In this hyperbolic world of crises, stable leadership is needed, but no president is going to save the planet, no group of informed citizens under a clumsy acronym is going to change the world, and no amount of planning can predict the unknowns. Essentially, we all have to remember we’re carbon blobs, floating on a blue ball of iron, gas and water in one of millions of galaxies and nothing really matters.

A.I.:

Artificial intelligence is the greatest example we have of a self-inflicted punishment or pleasure. If we are successful, we find The Jetsons—robots cooking, driving, cleaning, and teaching us; and if we fail, we find The Matrix—robots using our body heat for batteries. Self-driving cars are coming, and they will erase the need for millions of jobs around the world of loquacious men wearing vests. There may be a way to make robots do our dirty jobs too. Those horrible animal slaughter jobs, or backbreaking farm jobs may get automated eliminating the need for low wage immigrant labor. Fast food burger artists and French fry pouring employees with be extinguished in place of a stable A.I. who never calls in sick. Nursing may become an industry of waving a multi-purpose wand over the patient and interpreting the results. Teaching might transform into a professional internet guide, leading students to self-guided informational sites and waking them up from their virtual reality lessons because the robot bus is here to drive them home to a meal cooked by a microwave bot before watching social media events on their corneal implants until their internal clock releases a wave of melatonin proscribing the necessary amount of sleep for their individual metabolic function.

The benefits of an automated world are tangible. But, with the loss of so many service industry jobs, manufacturing, nursing and teaching, we’d be forced to find a solution for such extreme unemployment. That answer is a universal basic income, an idea kicked around for centuries and recently espoused by governor of the internet, Mark Zuckerburg, during his Harvard commencement address. It would allow all humans a guaranteed income on which to live despite not “working.” Handcrafted everything would become normal as more people could create their craft. Carpenters, artists, welders, photographers and anyone with a talent could pay rent and eat even if they didn’t get a contract that month. Let the robots cook, until you want a special handmade ravioli from the restaurant down the street. Let the robots teach grammar and the creative writers lead weekend retreats of fireside poetry readings and fictional character studies.

If we figure out ways to curb climate change by using our ingenuity such as science fiction answers like carbon filtering clouds or even the pragmatic switch to renewable resources, will we find a livable equilibrium? If we make desalinization cheap and comprehensive, will we worry less about droughts and access to clean water? If we manufacture robots effectively to be helpful instead of the Skynet Terminators, will we have a cheap workforce with millions of new jobs in computer tech and robot repair? If we replace the worries of 99% of workers living paycheck to paycheck with a standard of living given to all…that’s something I can’t really imagine what will happen. Will we reach utopia? Will racism stop when we all find ourselves on a level playing field? Will hatred for immigrants stop when countries unite into a singular currency?

I just don’t think it’s currently possible for seven billion people in almost 200 countries with two million years of evolutionary tribal hatred bred into us to magically swing it around and live together in John Lennon’s imaginary world. There’s too much competitive testosterone. There’s too much jealousy. There’s too many limited resources. There’s too much religion. There’s not enough desire to give without taking. There’s not enough tolerance.

It’s human nature. But, as we incorporate more robotics into our bodies and lives, melding into relative cyborgs, perhaps our negative human responses might be replaced with Spockian logic. Maybe things will change—they always do.

“Heaven is high and the emperor is far away.” –Chinese proverb

Americans and America

1) “Where are you from?”

2) “America.”

1) “Really, me too!”

2) “What state?”

1) “Argentina.”

Now, I’m in an argument. This idea of “America” being more than the USA was something that I didn’t think was a dispute until I started traveling. And that is precisely the point of many of the people with whom I argued. They said that USAmericans usurp the name that could technically belong to almost 1 billion people. When I thought about it, we both are correct. One use is nominal; one use is conventional.

The United States of America resides in North America. Brazil resides in South America. Or so I was taught. Others are taught that North and South America are one continent–America. They see maps like this or this. It would be the largest continent if that were true. But even the Olympics do it (5 rings=5 continents)! Adding north and south together, ignoring the codifiers of hemisphere, basically creates this argument of American identity. When we have North and South America, we have useful delineations of place.

Besides the educational discrepancies, we can use plate tectonics, whereby we find a Caribbean plate, a North and South American plate and a Eurasian plate among others to really complicate the continent issue. We can say that United Mexican States are shortened to Mexico. We can mention that nobody refers to himself or herself by continent first. People want to know in which country, not continent you live. But, we should acknowledge one thing. Everyone, from Canada’s frozen north to Patagonia’s frozen south, are all from The Americas, making them “Americans” but in a larger, more ambiguous sense.

To answer this tricky semantic question, I find answers in letters. (If you don’t think one letter matters—look at ship and shit.) People from USA are American from North America, which is part of The Americas. People from Colombia are Colombian from South America, which is part of The Americas. It’s a question of who gets to use the “n” in American. I contest that people who live in the United States of America should be called American, in much the same way that denizens of Venezuela should be called Venezuelan.

Some have called me, and others who feel this way, arrogant or nationalistic. I don’t think it’s arrogant to identify your nationality by its name (which just coincidentally has the same name as the continent). I am proud to be American, but never boastful of my birth land. It’s a wonderful, if flawed land with questionable foreign policy and expanding poverty, but it also has great beauty and great people. The country is called the United States OF America. The acknowledgment of the continent on which it’s perched is in the name. The only other continent/country name sharing is Australia (or is it Oceania?). Although, if China was called the People’s Republic of Asia, and called themselves Asians, I bet we could have similar problem. But history didn’t write that chapter.

The name of America comes from the explorer Amerigo Vespucci, who wrote about his travels to the New World. A German mapmaker in the 16th century labeled the new world thusly, and then before the American Revolution (as we call it) or The American War of Independence (as the British call it) the Declaration of Independence was signed before any other countries from the New World were established and so USA took the name of the region for itself.

I don’t doubt it’s hard to be from anywhere south of the Rio Grande River and feel as though you aren’t considered American. Of course you’re “American”, but that just isn’t the way the word is used anymore. When someone asks you where you are from, do you respond: “Asia, Europe or Africa?” No, people use their country. Also, most Canadians I know would not refer to themselves as Americans despite the fact that their country is the biggest one in North America.

United States of America is the name of the country and history/convention has abbreviated it to refer to the people within as Americans. We can be more accurate and refer to North, Central and South America as ALL part of the larger mass known as The Americas. We can refer to the Spanish/Portuguese speaking countries as part of Latin America. And finally, we can refer to the 317 million diverse people, living in USA, without discrediting our various “American” neighbors and without discomfiture, as Americans.

Languages_of_the_American_Continent