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I still remember the first time I saw an anti-Semitic slur scrawled on one of Madrid’s gracefully ageing walls.
The slur was shocking, but I wouldn’t say it hurt. It was more of an unpleasant reminder that anti-Semitism is still alive on the continent where it was invented. I’d just never seen it so big before, like the most menacing homecoming banner. It was weird. But it didn’t hurt, exactly. What hurt was that no one had bothered to cover it up. More than fear, I felt loneliness: a chilling awareness of other people’s indifference to my survival. I looked around me, at the totally unfazed faces of regular people passing by, and understood I was alone.
I thought of that moment last year, when some Americans were still pretending that Confederate statues were anything but monuments to chattel slavery. I thought of it when a colleague compared me to a vigilante because I said I hoped the Nazis who violently marched on Charlottesville would be identified and lose their jobs.
I also thought of that moment several times at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year, but not for the same reasons. I just happened to be seeing some really good comedy shows.
Yes, comedy. Because we have to laugh. And logical fallacies can be pretty funny.
Alex Edelman’s excellent hour of comedy, Just for Us, is a well-crafted narrative with a cheeky payoff that will give you immense joy. It’s got such a good ending, the temptation to spoil it is hard to resist — but I will, because it deserves that much at least.
You may have already heard that it was the best-reviewed show at the Fringe this year. There’s good reason for that. The show is timely without being dogmatically woke — in fact, tribalism is one of the things it rails against. At its core, it’s just a story about a guy finding himself in some very strange places, usually by acting like he belongs.
After trolling his own neo-Nazi trolls, Edelman notices they’re having a shindig nearby and decides to crash it. We learn what happened at that meeting of conspiracy-obsessed minds over the course of the hour. Edelman leavens the subject matter with lighter fare about Prince William, Stephen Fry, and the worst kind of Brooklyn coffee shop. There’s one sublime moment when he finds himself explaining white privilege to a group of enraged Nazis who had unwittingly given him a free muffin.
Of course, gentle explanation doesn’t work with these types. The group hurls verbal abuse (and worse) at him. “It’s almost like they’re not nice people,” Edelman quips. It’s here that the show makes the point your dumb white contrarian friends most need to hear: you can’t debate away the far-right. They’re not listening. They just want us gone. There is no such thing as “civil discourse” with people who have already decided you should not exist.
Jamali Maddix makes a similar point in his Fringe show, Vape Lord. The show ricochets between all kinds of topics, from vaping (obviously) to sexual politics to confused Alabamian racists, offending pretty much every kind of person with joyful abandon. Maddix’s amiably confrontational manner makes things funny that shouldn’t be. But towards the very end of his set, his tone changes. He stops trying to break the tension. Instead, he talks plainly about something that shouldn’t have happened.
Maddix is the former host of Viceland’s Hate Thy Neighbor. On the show, Maddix, who is biracial, travels across the world interviewing members of hate groups who sometimes physically confront him. He recalls one time when a producer told him to get in the mosh pit at a white power music festival in Ukraine.
Looking over his shoulder at his all-white production team, he realized was he being taken advantage of.
He’s even more aware of it when he looks at the stage and locks eyes with the Jewish bassist of an anarchist band that got booked by mistake. When the skinhead crowd starts to make a certain gesture at the stage, the bassist stops playing. He looks out at all the sea of hateful faces. He doesn’t look afraid. He doesn’t even look angry. He looks “heartbroken”. In Maddix’s story, I recognized the same dismay and disappointment I’d felt on the streets of Madrid.
From band managers to production teams, the trivialization of the current dangers facing racial and religious minorities is only possible among people who get to feel comfortable. That’s an important message to convey, especially when elite publications are willing to pay white nationalists to speak at their events under the pretence of free speech. Edelman and Maddix, each in their own ways, correct that notion.
It doesn’t really matter if these shows change anybody’s mind. Maybe they won’t. But they’ll certainly make a lot of people feel less alone. That might be a worthier achievement.
Jamali Maddix’ is currently taking Vape Lord on a European tour. He will be in the UK from 12 September to 7 October and you can book your tickets here.
Photo courtesy of Individualam.