Mike Straight
1127 s. 51st, street West Philadelphia, Pa. 19143

Thoughts & Stories of Mike Straight #78

A joke: How is E.T. different from a Polish Punk?
ET had his own Bike and Backpack
ET traveled alone
ET’s finger glowed, not his nose
ET spoke English
ET went home

     Funny joke isn’t it? Pretty much any punk who has spent some time in Europe gets a laugh from it. It was told to me by Hubert, a Pole from Wroclaw, and he was told it by a German. It plays on the stereotype of Polish Punx traveling in packs throughout Western Europe, drinking heavily and causing chaos. Basically this is an ethnic joke, one told at the Poles’ expense. It reminds me of other Polish jokes I heard as a kid, growing up in a lower middle class suburb on the east coast. Where I grew up ethnic and racial jokes were common, Polish jokes aimed at their supposed stupidity. Polish jokes have declined in popularity these days as other groups have taken over their place on the low end of Americas totem pole. Now, while there is some truth to the image groups of polish punx raising hell throughout Europe, I am not sure how I feel about hearing jokes stigmatizing a whole ethic group.
    In many ways the joke above is pretty fucked up, as it pokes fun at one of the poorest nationalities in Europe, who have been fucked over throughout history. Each aspect of the joke is classist in nature (not having a bike, not knowing English). It is making fun of the downtrodden, which to me is in principle not only unfunny, but pretty fucked up. But then, you might say, “it’s just a joke—no big deal.” Or “Jokes and stereotypes are funny—things about nationalities are funny—like Irish are drunks, or Jews cheap.” But they are not “just jokes”; instead they are little comments reinforcing stereotypes every time they are said. If we are trying to move into a more egalitarian world, degrading jokes about the downtrodden are probably not on the right path. Jokes sometimes enter murky waters, the one above especially. It is not over-the-top-offensive, it is more a punk in joke — but it is aimed at a special oppressed people.  That is what I, personally, find offensive. But I don’t blame or hate the person who told it to me, who was Polish, or even the German who thought it up, instead I question it’s influence and meaning — and I wonder why I find it offensive, and also, why I find it funny.
    I remember when I was about 14 getting a record by a band called Fuel, where one of their songs dealt with offensive jokes. It was about that time in my life where I was having a serious awaking of consciousness and was reexamining the value system given to me from my white lower/middle class upbringing. What I thought was funny — as did my father, neighbor, and school friends — definitely needed examination.  All thrived on jokes that poked fun at the “different,” primarily revolving around different ethic/minority groups and women, and people on a slightly lower economic ladder than us. This is the behavior I had learned, but it didn’t quite sit well for me (one reason I gravitated towards Punk).
    The point is, behaviors and ideals don’t change overnight, and they change through education and interaction with others. Certain opinions I had then definitely differ then now. For example, when I was 14, growing up outside of Washington, DC, I remember being at a Positive Force show and hearing someone discuss how the name of the local Football team, The Redskins, was inherently racist. My 14 year old self thought he was ridiculous — I thought, “It’s just a football team, what’s the big deal?” My 30 year old self has a different viewpoint — now I look at an Corporate American Football team, culturally appropriating native imagery and using a derogatory term as a name, with their fans made up in “war paint” reinforcing negative stereotypes of a people who experienced genocide in the region, and I see a pretty big fucked up deal—something I would join campaigns to change. But back then I felt differently. If I had “big deal,” and he responded that I was “racist” and “fucked up,” I don’t think I would have reexamined my opinion—instead I would have blown him off. Called him a PC fascist, and rebelled against his opinion — instead of having an introspective self-examination, one which have led to the position where I agree with him.
    My story and background is not uncommon among the ranks of Anarcho-punx, of lost kids from fucked up backgrounds searching for something that makes sense. I did not become the progressive person I am now instantly, from listening to Fugazi or Chumbawamba, but from long term reevaluation my beliefs. Everyday I still review my thoughts, try to figure out why I hold the values that I do.  I still have to be aware of the gender constructed ideas that were taught to me, as I see them clearly every time I visit my blood family. This is the part of life when you make a conscious decision to leave the belief system that you were raised with, or the dominant values of a society. It is a personal struggle, one that needs support form others in a community.
    The designating or labeling of certain actions as cultural appropriation or of being racist or sexist has become a common trend in the place where I live now. Sometimes I feel that it has become a leftist feeding frenzy, where everyone is searching for something offensive so they can do their duty by “calling them out”. I believe this idea more when looking at the methods that people use when approaching someone they feel has made an offensive remark. The shouting of “this person is fucked up!” in small micro-communities can be empowering, as it gives someone the feeling that they can actually “do something.” It is the concept of making their own small pond completely clean because they have little hope for changing the larger pond of the dominant society.
    The problem with this action is that it leads to the vary opposite goals of what it should try to achieve. It often alienates and pushes people away, instead of helping them change their behavior — and I am not interested in alienating or excommunicating people, as the progressive movements are already so limited in the USA, and I feel we need as my people as we can get.
    When handling jokes or comments that are classist or racist in nature, one should handle the situation carefully. You should express to the one who made the comment why you don’t think it is OK and why you believe that they too should think the comment is out of line. A comment of “that’s fucked up” or “you are racist/sexist” are not going to encourage the person to reevaluate their actions, and instead puts them on the defensive, and it is quite difficult to get your point across to someone is in that mode of thought.  I have heard some say that “it’s not my duty to educate someone who is fucked up,” but I disagree. It is the duty of a progressive person to point out what they feel is Sexist/racist/’ what a person learns until he/she finds something different. The word is educate rather than alienate, and if someone has a differing opinion don’t tell them that they are “wrong” instead show them yours—get them to think, not to go on the defensive.
    Comedy is a strange beast, and if anything is molded by cultural backgrounds, what we think is funny definitely is. I have seen humor be key in defining which ideals are controversial, as people shrug off potentially offensive statements as humor. In trying to establish a new society (or even make this one a bit better) we should examine what we think is funny, and more importantly, why. It’s hard to be anti-sexist when telling jokes that degrade women. Changing personal behavior is something that one must do themselves, but helpful hints from comrades can aid in reevaluating actions and thoughts.

Mike Straight - straight@defenestrator.org - 4332 Parrish St. West Philly, Pa. 19104

Endnotes:
1) Attention Punx from the American south!! If anyone meets a kid named Matt ToBoston please tell him to write home. Matt “the son I haven’t had yet” ToBoston, left Philly with a strut in his stride and a feather in his cap, to fight the man in Miami and to start a band in Chattanooga, while avoid Philly’s bad drivers and winter winds. Besides a cryptic postcard and a phone call from a mysterious Miami bail bondsman, we haven’t heard word of the boy. His step-mom gets worried. He could have fallen under a train, been kidnapped by skinheads, or have joined the cast of a reality TV show - a lot of dangerous things could have happened to our boy. So if you meet a fast-talking, quick-witted, charming young fellow who looks like a cross between George Cloney’s character in “Oh Brother, Where art thou” and a leprechaun - buy him a coffee, and tell him to write home—we wait patiently on the porch of Chateau de Random, grilling dumpstered foods in the dead of winter, waiting for news from the front.
2) In the spring I will be going back to Europe, mostly Germany, Poland, and Czech. Yes it has been two years, and I keep thinking of the streets of Berlin, Wroclaw, and Praha - how I want to read Amerika, by Kafka, on the banks of the Vltava and how I want to see a good show at the Kopi. So if you live in that part of the world and you want to either let me stay with you or show me around, please contact. I am interested in history, city planning, dark goth/krust bands, and good Pivo. Also I am told that while I am mildly funny in America, Ich bin Fuckin’ hilarious in Deutschland—so we can have a Super Kool time, JaTchoose.