Jimmy Kimmel and Me

I was talking to somebody today about the Jimmy Kimmel incident. My friend had not heard about it. That's part of the problem.

It isn't often that genocide is proposed in contemporary culture. That's what has happened.

Jimmy Kimmel, late night television host, recently put on a little comedy sketch in which a kid suggests that we would be better off economically if we "Kill everyone in China."

Kimmel replies, "That's an interesting idea."

The network, ABC, has since apologized.

Another attack on Asians is summarily dismissed.

The issue isn't whether what an actor, whatever his age, was performing a script or was spontaneous. The use of a child makes the matter worse, not better. The point isn't the boy's remarks; it's the adults' response. I wonder if his parents are embarrassed, and if they are because of the commotion that their offspring caused or what he revealed about the home from which he comes.

The professional producers of a hit show should be ashamed to retreat behind the youngster as they have. He has licensed his peers. The cruelty of children toward one another is limitless.

Kimmel reminds me of the responsible grown-ups in the room years ago who always stood by when I faced the regular bullying that defined childhood. Kimmel had only a moment to respond, but he makes his living by his wit. The subject of harassment on a school playground has no more time to react and considerably less support. It was Kimmel who set up the scenario, by prompting his juvenile guests with the declaration that America owes China "a lot of money."

The trouble also isn't that the lad uttered an offensive sentiment. Offensiveness not the best test. Much great art is offensive, not that anybody is mistaking Jimmy Kimmel for Lenny Bruce -- there was a stand-up performer not afraid to confront prejudice rather than reinforce it.

The Kimmel segment was morally wrong if that isn't giving it more importance than it deserves. At a minimum, it calls for discussion. While I'm willing to give the kid a break, we would do well to ponder what he, innocently, reflects about his environment.

The Chinese, and Asians in general, are an easy target. The rise of the East is a perennial theme. Its counterpart among our shared fears is the fall of the West.
The status of China as a creditor and America as a debtor must be addressed. The perceived prospects of the nations will aggravate relations between them.

When I learned about this episode from the news, not being a follower of Jimmy's, I was tempted to shrug it off. It isn't the worst discrimination, I reasoned. If anything, I worry about the triumph of China like anyone else here. I will not benefit as a Chinese American if it turns out my family has bet poorly for three generations.

Look, Jimmy, buddy, we're on the same side. I have my American passport by birthright.

As I processed the events, I was more disturbed by it. The irony is that my assimilation is to no avail. Someone who is angry at a visceral level about China is not likely to make an exception for me as an Anglophile mainline Protestant from the Midwest.

I am not concerned for the Chinese. The Chinese can fend for themselves fine. The average American can do very little to hurt the average Chinese. Half the world, including the Pacific Ocean, lies between them.

But the average American can do quite a bit to harm their Asian American neighbor. They likely won't do that, except a popular comic is egging them on.

The Kimmel kids understood implicitly that the Chinese become Chinese Americans. Another one of the participants suggested building a wall to keep the Chinese from coming over. To which their host added his own smug allusion to the Great Wall.

What is most persuasive about the advocacy on the Kimmel episode is that it has been led by Asian Americans. At the forefront are organizations such as OCA and 80-20. There are Asian Americans who are sixth-generation Californians and those who have been adopted by white parents, as well as those who are "fresh off the boat" in that pejorative phrase. They have come together, at last doing what every other ethnic group has done to achieve true equality.

They reframe the situation. It's common to dismiss anti-Chinese sentiment as being about foreigners, and ones assumed to be wealthy at that. I can't count how often, even if the racial reference is explicit, people assure me that this type of comment isn't even about race at all.

OCA and 80-20 emphasize that universal principles are at stake. It's not about Chinese; it's about people. Failing that, they at least are able to point out that "Chinese" is ambiguous -- it encompasses Americans as well. Anyone who starts off killing everyone in China won't likely stop at the borders of the nation.

OCA was formed as a Chinese American civil rights group. The initials originally stood for "Organization of Chinese Americans." At its founding two generations ago, it decided it would stay away from foreign relations controversies. Like other groups of its type, it sought to ensure it was recognized as a domestic civil rights organization and tried to downplay internal tensions among Chinese Americans over the status of Taiwan. More recently, it has sought to encompass all Asian Americans in a bridge building effort. Its current executive director exemplifies the idea: he is Japanese in heritage.

80-20, started by a Chinese immigrant physicist who was the Lieutenant Governor of Delaware (no, I am not making that up), is dedicated to the great democratic tradition of ethnic bloc voting and inspired by the Jewish example. Its goal is to make Asian Americans relevant in electoral politics by delivering the margin of victory. It uses primarily email to reach a vast audience of Asian Americans who are mobilized in a manner never before seen.

To explain to people who are not themselves Chinese why the Kimmel skit is not acceptable, most arguments rely on facile analogy. Imagine if the comedian had said, "Save America. Kill the Jews." (It isn't any better if it were rendered a more precise parallel. Try it out: "Kill everyone in Israel.") Or Blacks, and so on.

Yet observers nonetheless often excuse these moments. It's only a joke, lighten up, get over it, no need to overreact, don't be so politically correct.

They don't appreciate the threat. Allow me to communicate it.

What if a blogger were to say, "Kill Jimmy Kimmel." And then added, "Just kidding . . ."

Perhaps Jimmy will feel differently walking around then. He will experience the edge of humor. It wouldn't be merely the Chinese he would be afraid of either; it would be the Japanese and Koreans and Vietnamese too. After all, we all look alike.

"Kill Jimmy Kimmel." But that would be inappropriate to say.