Sunday, January 14, 2018

How many Poles does it take to screw in a light bulb?

Cell, by Judith Glickman Lauder, Metropolitan Museum of Art
    "How many Poles does it take to screw in a lightbulb?" 
     I only remember the set-up, not the punchline. I was a child in the western suburbs of Cleveland, and the first version of the old joke I heard was directed toward the residents of Parma, whom we in tonier Berea considered ourselves better than because their dads wore white socks and blue work shirts with their names—invariably ending in "-ski"—embroidered over the chest and worked at the Ford plant or as janitors, while ours wore white shirts and black ties and worked in offices. 
     Except of course for my best friend Ricky, whose dad was a fireman, and Danny, whose father was a janitor at the hospital, yet wasn't in the same category as those Parma janitors.
      The joke wasn't phrased exactly like that. I believe we said, "How many Polacks  does it take to screw in a lightbulb" at a time when such bigotry went unchallenged. We had no trouble saying it because we believed, based on no personal experience, that Poles were dumb, would trouble with that lightbulb, along with other woes. Every joke with a dumb guy in it was about a Pole. 
     And here's the kicker: we were Polish.
     Partially Polish, anyway. My grandfather was born on a farm in Bialystok in 1907, my grandmothers in that great muddied zone of Austro-Hungary. My father's father claimed to be born in the Bronx, but who could tell? In essence the same place. 
     Of course many if not most Poles wouldn't consider us Polish at all, our being Jews. But that's a separate column. The point is, we were sneering at people very close to ourselves, for qualities of unsophistication that we ourselves possessed. My grandfather wore white socks. He slicked what hair he had and worked in a factory, Accurate Parts Manufacturing, in Cleveland. I'd never dare call him a Polack.
     Why were we this way? Immaturity? We were children, remember. It isn't something my parents would join in. Insecurity? The joy of being mean to people. To look down the ladder of society and feel the comforting hope that there was someone lower than ourselves.
     So it isn't that Donald Trump invented baseless bigotry, invented tribalism. We all suffer from it. But we also grow out of it. Most of us do. The only time I would use the world "Polack" now is with pride, describing myself, and even then I feel like I'm putting on airs. 
     We don't expect this kind of bigotry in our leaders. No publicly anyway. Not unashamed. Thus the shriek of outrage that greeted Thursday's "shithole countries" comment was more one of the horror of The Thing Out of Place. The orange in your hand opening a single cyclopian eye and staring at you. The walls bleeding. The president of the United States, too ignorant and arrogant to be ashamed, letting his schoolyard bigotry out to dry in the Oval Office, the yellowed undies of his hateful psyche flapping in the wind for all to see.  
     His die hard supporters let out a cheer—goll-damn, maybe they can let their cramped little hatreds out of the box to stretch their legs too! They hate living in an American ruined by black people, Hispanic people, Muslim people, fill in the blank.  
      It isn't that this hatred is so foreign. Just the opposite: it's so familiar, like a trail of toilet paper stuck to the shoe of some glamorous actress on the red carpet. We know what that is. We just don't expect to see it there.
     Familiar, yet still a shock, the way knowing Donny is a bully is one thing, and seeing him pound the shit out of some smaller kid on the playground quite something else. Because real people are being hurt. Donald Trump and his supporters are setting immigration policy for years to come. His judges will decide important cases. People are going to die in war zones around the world who might have found refuge in the United States. People like my grandfather and maybe yours, certainly millions more. 
     The thing with Trump is, we can get worked up as we like. We can vent on Facebook, shake our fists at heaven, demand impeachment now. Next morning, the man's still president. The smoke clears and the Terminator is unharmed. All we can do then is work on ourselves, and admit, the prejudice that so disgusts us is not as alien as we like to pretend. It certainly isn't unique to the president who, always remember, is not a cause but a symptom.


  1. As you state, Trump is not a cause, he is a symptom. So far I know of only three Republicans who have outright condemned Trump for his comments, one a representative from Utah whose parents (I believe) came from Haiti, Flake who is retiring and a representative from Florida. The oh so honorable and Catholic Paul Ryan calls Trump's remarks "unfortunate" and "unhelpful". Peter Roskam, the less than honorable representative from Illinois calls them "disappointing".
    Notice they do not call them disgusting, racist or wrong.
    I have reached the point where all Republicans must be defeated at every level. It may be the only way for them to get the message that this country rejects where they currently are.

  2. 5. one to hold the bulb and 4 to turn the ladder

  3. You can resolve to vote in the 2018 mid-terms for candidates who will reject Trump and all his baggage.

  4. Alas, it's clear that Donald Trump brings out the worst in us.


  5. Notice how quickly we move on? How we shove last week's outrage to the back burner and the outrage before that gets bumped of the stove and slopped all over the floor, but we don't even notice because we're already waist-deep in twelve months of shit?

  6. FWIW, "Parma jokes" were popular in much of Northern Ohio, at a minimum, not just your tony burg, NS. And the dreaded "white socks" ridicule!

    I knew I had indeed gotten old when I no longer shuddered a bit to wear white socks in situations other than athletic activities. Now one feels like a nerd to wear regular white crew socks even with tennis shoes and shorts. The trend is that one must seem to have no socks on at all; thus, quarter-length and "no-show" socks. Uh, very glad that I was already old enough not to care by the time this trend got up to full steam, as they can pry my crew socks from my cold, dead ankles...

    "Polack," though certainly a slur, was evidently not in the same category as the "n" word, as Polack jokes were pretty much the main form of humor in my school for a few years, while my friends, at least, would have never said the "n" word. It's almost like Polack jokes seemed like a fun and innocent way to be an obnoxious asshole like much of America seemed to be. And they were acceptable enough to be aired on network TV, via Archie Bunker, as I recall. To wit:

    You're right about both the "cause and symptom" and the remarkable way in which the coarsening of the nation's discourse continues apace with this clueless, indefensible president. The fact that people don't just fail to condemn his words and actions, but *celebrate* them, is just not something I'd have ever anticipated.

    1. I'm of Polish, Russian, and Lithuanian origins, and hell, yes...those same "Polack jokes" were all the rage in my old school, too, a dozen or so years before our Proprietor heard them in Berea. He now lives just up the road from my hometown, while I now live just up the road from his. Small world, ain't it?

      When you're fifteen or sixteen, you're definitely old enough (and usually smart enough) to know that Polack jokes and "Jew jokes" and even n-word jokes are terribly wrong, but you're still young enough not to care and you happily repeat them anyway. It's always been cool and hip to be edgy and snarky at that age. And "sick" and ethnic humor was (and still is) guaranteed to piss off the adults. Which is part of the point.

      But within another decade, when self-styled and homegrown Nazis marched and put that same hometown in the world's spotlight, and elderly men with numbers on their arms were waiting for them with baseball bats, ethnic humor was no longer so amusing, and after a while, neither was Archie Bunker.

    2. Griz, you would love Lemont. We've always had a large Polish and Lithuanian population, and since the USSR dissolved, a lot of new immigrants from both countries. We don't seem to have the coveted Norwegian immigrants, although I'm three eights Norwegian and one fourth Swedish. Maybe Der Donald will allow me to stay.

    3. The spires and rooftops of Lemont look very pretty when I pass them on I-355, on the road to (and from) Minnesota. My sister has lived up there for the last 45 years, so I know all about Norwegians.

      Wonderful folks...finest kind. Was even married to one for a while. They're actually quite fond of "dumb Swede" humor. Nobody's perfect.

  7. He's been provoking the one man in the world with a nuclear arsenal and a Trump level pathology, and it turns out the Trump administration doesn't have even the most basic game plan to deal with a missile attack from North Korea. Of course, he was golfing when the alert was broadcast, and not even the most basic set of protocols was in place to respond.

    This isn't just a buffoon spreading xenophobia, racism, misogyny, and bullying taunts. This is a man capable of bringing biblical destruction upon the world. Thanks to all the boneheaded fools who elected him and continue to support him. One year in office, 120 days on a golf course, 365 days of malignant incompetency.

  8. Once at a trade show, I was eating lunch and introduced myself to the guy sitting next to me. He replied with a foreign accent, and I asked where he was from.

    "I'm from Poland." He felt compelled to add: "It's a country in Europe, east of Germany..."

    I stopped him and assured him that I was quite aware of where and what Poland is.

    This was years before Trump. It was a disheartening example of how dumb and insular the Europeans think we are--a situation that by now has undoubtedly gotten worse.

  9. Years ago, when I first visited my wife's homeland, I learned that the Scottish equivalent of 'dumb Polack' was 'dumb Irishman.' Poles had a good reputation because many expatriate Polish soldiers had been stationed there during the war and they were evidently better behaved than Canadians and Americans.


  10. Is your ethnic origin as a group productive or a drag on the economy? Take a look the results are surprising, at least to me. Those who self identify as American are ranked at a lowly 79. So even if your ancestors immigrated from a poopyhole country, once in a land of freedom they probably did alright. I have a grandmother from Białystok also. Growing up on the southwest side it was easiest to say I have relatives from Poland. The only drawback was having to be a Nazi when the neighborhood kids played war, because I knew a few German words.
    Of course many if not most Poles wouldn't consider us Polish at all, our being Jews. But that's a separate column.
    That's a column worth waiting for, I have lots of thoughts on that topic.

    1. The Poles, Latvians, and Lithuanians eagerly collaborated with the Germans when it came to hunting down and liquidating the Jews in their countries. Ukrainians looked upon the Germans as their saviors, and assisted with the pogroms in that part of the world.

      After more than a quarter-century in this country, my grandmother and her siblings suddenly stopped receiving letters from the old country. Had their families all gone on an extended European vacation? Nope. Straight up the chimney, soon to become ashes and lampshades.

  11. I am 52 years old and grew up in northern New Jersey in a largely Catholic town hearing a lot of Polack jokes. (I always had thought it was "Polock" because I never had seen it written down.) Then came Pope John Paul II and the Polack joke disappeared almost immediately. People credit the man rightly or wrongly with ending the Cold War but I don't recall any discussion of him ending the Polack joke. (Maybe that discussion is out there and I just haven't seen it or don't recall it.) And yet he did.

  12. I learned early from a friends' parent that Polish jokes were rude. Living in Niles it was impossible not to have Polish friends. Being called a Mick never bothered me, even my boss at the Carvel on Milwaukee would try to bait me, calling me a "bicycle seat Irishman". Maybe I did make his ass tired, wish I had annoyed him more when we learned that he had tried to molest several of the teen age girls he employed. How many Germans does it take to turn out the lights? Just one. If he's crazy enough.

  13. Being called a dumb polack or a dumb dp were fighting words when I was growing up on Division and Ashland back in the 50's. The positive effect of all that was I still have a little chip on my shoulder which keeps me smiling when some asshole thinks he's better than everyone else. Our president is an interesting case in point.

  14. It was different in the suburbs. People didn't use ethnic slurs much, and even when they did, fights were rare. But they did use those same slurs to make fun of someone's looks and style. What later became "shit-kickers" were called "DP shoes"...and today's "wife-beater" undershirt was yesterday's "Dago tee"...and wise-ass punsters would mock the "greasers" with snarks like: "Hey, love those Italian shoes...wherever you go, dago..." and then get ready to run like hell. Ah, yes...the Chicago Fun Times.

    1. I heard all the dago jokes even though I don't look the least bit Italian. We were children, we were buddies and it was all in good fun. But, as Neil points out, we outgrow it. Those of us who don't should stay off Twitter.


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