Whistling Past The Symmetry

Can a neighbour put up whatever kind of house he wants, once he doesn’t block next door's light?

A pleasingly symmetrical terrace of two-storey houses in our estate, a puzzlingly asymmetrical row of five houses nearby — and a David Baddiel article I’ve just read called ‘Why Don’t Jews Play Jews?’  …

Let me explain …

Baddiel, I’ve always liked, and I follow him on Twitter. He’s funny, smart, reasonable, and a brilliant polemicist. If he disagrees with you, he will take you down with reason and a disarming playfulness that could be smug, but I find anything but.

He can disagree with you without shouting the odds, or insulting you for effect.  Oh, he’ll tease you and he’ll hit you with a cracking one-liner, but, hey, he’s a comedian, right?

 This humour and reasonableness I also see in Irish Senator Lynn Ruane, who argues and campaigns for social justice here, but does so with a smile, and she has a way of listening and reacting that does not seek to insult or alienate those she disagrees with.

Lynn Ruane

The kind of thing that is all too prevalent on social media and so-called political debate on TV or radio.

David Baddiel and opus

You know the drill: instead of getting people who hold opposing views and encouraging them to engage and reach some kind of consensus based on reason and respect, they are chosen, seemingly, for their belligerence and soundbite value, and abuse each other across the studio until the host calls a halt.

No-one changes their mind, and no-one learns anything.

And it’s not even entertaining, I would contend.

I confess I haven’t read Baddiel’s well-received book Jews Don’t Count, and what I say is based on his tweeted thoughts on the matter, and the responses it has drawn. And the article just cited.

But the houses?

Behold the picture I took just this morning of the terrace just across from us. It was early morning and I just liked the harmony and symmetry of all the lights on in the windows all along the terrace.

All symmetry and light …

It just pleased my eye and I took a picture.

And the Mismash Five …

I walk the dogs out the back of our house every morning, and across a field is the group of five houses you see in the second picture.

They are bunched together in a row, but apart from the fact they are all two-storeys, nothing else matches or corresponds. For reasons I can’t really explain, they vex my eyes and pose various questions.

Asymmetry rules …

Is too much symmetry an imposition, and a curtailment of individual freedom? 

Is too much asymmetry individual expression gone mad? 

Is political correctness like symmetry in that we all live in the same terrace, and every window has the same light shining in the same windows?

Or is the right to dissent, once no-one is hurt or properly offended, asymmetry in action … live and let live, let my neighbour put up whatever kind of house he wants, once he doesn’t block my light?  

I don’t know, is the short answer. The Unfab Five just bug me is all.

Maybe I’m just intolerant behind my right-on posing?

In Jew Don’t Count, from what I have gathered, amidst all the people fighting the good fight against homophobia, sexism, disabilism, transphobia and, particularly, racism, David Baddiel contends that one type of racism has been left out of the fight: anti-Semitism. 

Baddiel, a Jew, argues that those who think of themselves as being on the right side of history, and on the ball when it comes to identity politics and respect for minorities, especially oppressed ones, have often ignored the history of anti-Semitism. And how its continued practice is not being critically examined in the way other gender or racial tropes have been.

He outlines why and how, in a time of intensely heightened awareness of minorities, Jews don’t count as a real minority: and why they should.

This thesis carries into his article, which focuses on the recent controversy over Jewish actress Maureen Lipman’s criticism of non-Jewish Helen Mirren playing former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir in a biopic.

Casting for an acting role, Baddiel argues, is about respect. There is something disrespectful, the argument runs, about casting an able-bodied actor in a disabled part, or a cis actor in a trans part, and so on. 

Helen Mirren as Golda Meir in “Golda”

“The deep truth of any marginalised identity is only available to those who live that identity,” Baddiel writes. “Casting a non-minority actor to mimic that identity feels, to the progressive eye, like impersonation, and impersonation may carry with it an element of mockery — or at least seem reductive, reducing the complexity of that experience by channelling it through an actor who hasn’t lived it.”

Disagree or not — maybe you believe actors should be just allowed to, well, act — the progressives seem to be winning and roles are being cast much more in keeping with ethnicities, races, sexual preferences etc.

Except, Baddiel argues again, when it comes to obviously Jewish characters being played by non-Jewish actors. Like Rachel Brosnahan in The Marvellous Mrs Maisel, and the aforementioned Ms Mirren.

Maureen Lipman

The issue is not about who gets the work, but rather it’s “about the idea that minority experience should be expressed by those who truly know it, rather than caricatured by those who don’t.”

A tricky area, which brings to mind football pundit, and ex-player Eamon Dunphy once arguing that those of us who never kicked ball at a high level were not as entitled to pass comment on top level football matches on TV as those who did.

Baddiel notes that many Jews feel uncomfortable themselves with the demand that Jews should play Jews, for reasons to do with acting but also, more deeply, “because many Jews are uncomfortable in general with asking for parity with other minorities within all the microaggressions and callings-out of identity-politics-land.”

But as Baddiel always says, it’s good to talk about these things.

In answer to the Aha! meme predictably posted of Lipman playing an Anglican vicar, he argues that minority casting is not a two-way street: that, yes, Dev Patel can play all sorts of Asian parts, and can play David Copperfield, “Michael Fassbender, however, is not going to be up any time soon for Gandhi.”

“The new casting is an industry-wide attempt to right a previous structural wrong, which means that minorities are now both given a fenced-off right to play themselves, and also allowed to play parts from the mainstream culture,” Baddiel writes.

“If Jews are part of this, the same ring-fencing should apply to them as regards Jewish parts, but also shouldn’t stop them from being cast as non-Jewish characters from the majority Christian culture too. Which means Lipman can say this about Meir and Mirren — and play all the vicars and priests she wants.”

It’s complex: the more you dig the less obvious it all is. 

Which is why I like the way David Baddiel makes his case strongly, wisely and humorously, and then steps back, like all good polemicists should, to conclude:

“At the end of the day, I don’t know the answer. But I think that I — and Maureen Lipman and any other Jew — should not be abused for asking the question.”

So, I guess I won’t be on to my local council anytime soon demanding they tear down the Frightful Five.

But if they come to me  …

Thanks for reading — try another one … sure, why not follow my blog!

1 comment on “Whistling Past The Symmetry

  1. When there are large numbers of reasonable people in a nation, agreements/policies/solutions are better. I guess that statement ties in with your essay. Partly, anyway.


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