The latest outrage to roil the "Asian-American community" is Mr. Wong, a series of animated comic strips on the Icebox website. The strips relate the adventures of a middle-aged Chinese immigrant named Mr. Wong, who works as houseboy for a wealthy, beautiful young American lady, Miss Pam.
The creators of Mr. Wong are both former writers for South Park, and it shows: the strip hits every button of tastelessness and racial offensiveness.
Mr. Wong is servile, devious and cheap: taken to a plaza with a fountain into which people have thrown pennies, Mr. Wong jumps in and starts scooping up the coins.
He is scrawny, has buck teeth, and speaks with a chop suey accent. In the first episode, Miss Pam announces she is going to Memphis for a cotillion, and will take Mr. Wong with her on condition he pronounces the word "cotillion" correctly.
"Cotirrion," ventures Mr. Wong. "No, no. It's 'cotiLLion'," says Miss Pam, laughing.
(The animations have to download to your machine before being played. This process is attended with a message that says: "rroading …")
Mr. Wong will eat anything, and each episode comes with a mock recipe. Sample: "There's an old Chinese saying that nobody likes a jackass, unless it's been butchered and cooked on a slow outdoor grill …"
MSNBC reports that a coalition of Asian-American groups is agitating to have the show pulled from the Internet, saying that Mr. Wong is "an amalgamation of hate-fueled racist stereotypes."
I first heard of it on an e-mail list I subscribe to, most of whose members are Chinese software engineers. They are all up in arms about it, and are discussing whether or not it would be ethical to sabotage the web site (a thing which, it turns out, is technically rather difficult to do). A faction within the group, who presumably are not up to speed on First Amendment rights, are talking about a lawsuit. One wit posted the following neat piece of alliteration: "If Mr. Wong is right, then it's wrong to be white."
Along with, I suspect, a lot of other Boomer conservatives, I find this kind of thing a very tough call. There is a part of me that deplores the degradation of taste of which cultural objects like South Park and Mr. Wong are instances, mainly because I can see the nihilism showing through and I have read enough history to know where nihilism takes us.
I have small kids, too; and my 7-year-old happened to come into the study just as I was playing a Mr. Wong segment. Inevitably, in the second or so between hearing her voice ask "What's that, daddy?" and clicking on the "minimize" button, the thought crossed my mind: Why am I watching a comic strip animation I don't want my kids to see? In the particular case of Mr. Wong there is the further consideration that my wife is Chinese, so that I cannot in fairness bring Mr. Wong into our house without asking her opinion of it. ("Disgraceful! Yes, it is insulting.")
On the other hand, this stuff makes me laugh. I like offensive, sophomoric humor. I got hooked on it via the old National Lampoon back in the 1970s, when NL was a really funny magazine, with writers like P.J. O'Rourke on staff.
That old Lampoon was, of course, utterly tasteless, with a much broader latitude for ethnic humor than you could put into print nowadays. I recall a long comic strip called Swiss Family Rubinstein, about a family of East Coast Jews who were shipwrecked on a desert island. They sat around disconsolately on the beach until a huge crate washed ashore. Breaking it open, they found inside it a Lincoln Town Car, fully equipped. "Oh, good," said Papa Rubinstein, "Now we can explore the island!" … and things went pretty much downhill from there.
Perhaps there is what psychologists call an "imprinting" process in play here: perhaps if you encounter this kind of silly tastelessness at a certain age, you can never quite shake off an affection for it.
Not only do I like this stuff in itself; I also like the thought that by laughing at it, I am poking a finger in the eye of the po-faced puritans who want to disinfect our language of all salt and savor, who want me to be constantly watching my tongue lest I give offense to blacks, yellows, the old, the young, the fat, the short, the blind, the lame, the gay, the female …. "Hate-fueled racist stereotypes" — phooey.
I don't hate anybody. I think, and have argued previously on this site, that our threshold of offense is way, way too low. I'd be astounded to find that the creators of Mr. Wong are "fueled" by "hate." They are most likely fueled, like the rest of us, by the desire to make a bit of money.
Our notions of offense are also, of course, rather selective. A few years ago there was a movie called In the Name of the Father, whose premise was that the IRA men who create mayhem in Northern Ireland are selfless patriots, while the British soldiers and policemen who face them are inhuman brutes.
As a patriotic British subject, who has on one occasion found himself much too close to one of the grosser IRA atrocities, I found this deeply offensive. Not very much to my surprise, I found little sympathy for my hurt feelings. And look: I have survived my offense, and the fool movie has been forgotten. If I could meet the producer of the thing, I might break his jaw; but I would not ban his film, nor censor it.
In the case of South Park and Mr. Wong, I think the red-light district principle applies: since they satisfy the low appetites of some incorrigible, but otherwise harmless, reprobates like myself, let them be available — but in a well-marked area that can be easily avoided by those who do not want to encounter offensive sights.
TV and the Internet have not so far lent themselves to this principle very well, it is true; but the latest generation of web browsers offers at least partial solutions for parents, and no adult who wishes to avoid Mr. Wong is likely to stumble on him accidentally. I see no case for banning Mr. Wong.
In his fine speech at the Philadelphia Convention, George W. Bush made a revealing comment. "My generation," he said, "tested limits — and our country, in some ways, is better for it. Women are now treated more equally. Racial progress has been steady, … At times, we lost our way. But we are coming home. So many of us held our first child, and saw a better self reflected in her eyes."
There is an ambivalence here, which I think many of us who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s feel. We did indeed test limits, including limits of taste; and we often had a great deal of fun doing so, and accomplished much good. The fun you had in your salad days is not easily forgotten, nor easily let go of; and the good is a legitimate source of pride.
And yet, when unworldly young people set about testing limits, they inevitably go too far. When such excesses have personal consequences that are embarrassing, expensive or disastrous, they are easy enough to regret; when the negative results are not personal and indisputable, but social and controversial, we are left wondering whether we really did do any lasting harm after all, while feeling fairly sure we don't want our children to acquire some of the attitudes we ourselves let loose.
There are things I did, and tastes I acquired, back in the seventies that I am stuck with, and do not feel like apologizing for. Nor am I particularly keen to "come home" to the selective, schoolmarmish puritanism of the "offense" industry. "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom," I tell myself. And yet … who wants to see his children set out on the road of excess?