Marxism for Dummies Like Me

by E. John Winner

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When I was 17, I fell in love with three older men. Indeed, they were so much older that two of them were dead at the time. They were everything I wasn’t. They were short and thin, and though not athletes, they moved swift and agile. One couldn’t say that they were good looking (except that one was admittedly so beautiful that it was hard not to fall in love with him). But this didn’t stop them from making an impression on others.  They were extroverted and quick-witted. Unlike the tall, fat, awkward, and self-conscious young man that I was, they moved easily among people; knew what others wanted; and interesting ways of providing it, which they practiced without hesitancy or doubt. One of the interesting things about them was that they were able to enter a room full of people and immediately dominate the social environment, not by drawing attention to their wealth or higher social status, but by loping in and out of the margins attracting attention only when doing so would get them something they wanted or simply was fun. And because it was fun, it was not about all the serious things going on in the world, but about the joy of debunking them.

What in the world would need debunking? Of course, I’m talking about the social world; the world that we inhabit solely by virtue of our status as articulate, community-engaged social beings. I’m talking about an interwoven web of customs, beliefs, even ideological commitments shared with others, from humble practices of “good manners” to grand rituals and celebratory rites. We live these beliefs and practices; they permeate everything we think, say, or do. They only function because we believe in them; or if we cannot believe, we observe them with respect, perhaps with fear (there are repercussions for not doing so, some quite grave), perhaps sometimes with compassion.  But for believer and non-believer alike, they are all to some extent restrictive of our capacity for joy and enjoyment. Sermons in church and lectures at school are dull, often repetitious, and waste time that could be spent otherwise. Passing the salt (when asked “please”) to a doughty old aunt at the dinner table is an imposition, and then one has to listen to her gossip about neighbors about whom one could care less. And then there’s the retailer who drones on and on about political issues that he doesn’t understand.  If he’s not shown deference, will he refuse to wrap up the shirt you just bought? The restaurateur wants us to wear shoes? Let the Health Department provide them. I mean, it’s their bloody rule after all.

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,

Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,

The pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay,

The insolence of office, and the spurns

That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,

Who indeed? There’s the rub. It is not the fear of some unknown country that we endure, but the words, practices, and beliefs that bind us into community; however unhappily that might be.

Wouldn’t it be fun to fart loudly during the sermon? To lie down on the teacher’s desk and fall asleep? Throw the salt at the aunt? Pull the shirt over the shopkeeper’s head after poking him in the eye?  The social world only exists because we agree that it does.  This is not a bad thing and certainly not a reason in itself to tear everything down. (Since there is no “starting over,” what would we be left with?) But we sometimes need to remind ourselves of this; to poke the world and puncture its inflated importance, even if only just a little.

It is not that the Marx Brothers respected nothing. They respected children and the working poor. They respected young lovers and the pleasures of life. They certainly respected good food and a good cigar. They also respected music, with no restrictions with regard to genre or popularity. When in Night at the Opera, they seem to savage Il Trovatore, it is obvious that it is not Verdi’s opera itself that has called down their scorn, but the institution of the operatic theater, which had drawn a curtain of wealth and social status around the pleasure of listening to the music itself. [1] When the young lovers are at last allowed to sing their duet, and the forces of social control have been conned and crushed by an aggressive “Marxist” assault, the opera is liberated and opened to the audience, who can then enjoy the music as music, and appreciate the talent of the singers without the imposition of ego or moneyed influence.

What the Marx Brothers did not respect were social institutions that endeavor to determine in advance what could be enjoyed; what should be considered talent; what direction our lives should take in any walk of life. The trouble is that the normal and the normative doesn’t merely socialize, but stultifies. One of the reasons that I’ve never thought of the academic world as truly determinative of knowledge or value is because I took the lesson of Horse Feathers to heart. [2] I don’t understand how one can watch that film and continue to think that stuffy professors with an overweening sense of self-importance have anything to tell us that we couldn’t learn for ourselves. At best they may provide us with facts of which we might have been unaware, or challenge ideas and help us to see the world in a different way than we had previously. At worst, they yammer on and on about themselves and what they and their colleagues have decided is interesting.

Horse Feathers makes clear that what holds the Academy together is largely acquiescence; a willingness to agree with the status quo without serious question. Well that and … college football. Why football? Two reasons: First, American football is one of the silliest sports one can imagine, and we also know, now, that it is one the most dangerous (which makes it even stupider). Twenty-two guys running across a field to knock each other down over a piece of pigskin? The absurdity is self-evident. And yet,  hundreds of millions of dollars pour into college coffers so as to provide the opportunity for college students to do this (and get serious concussions), despite it having nothing to do with what is done in the classroom, which is the raison d’etre for colleges and universities in the first place. Meanwhile, the professors, who should know better, agree that the football show must keep going despite the fact that a lot of their colleagues are doing shoddy research and publishing shoddy books, and their students are all falling asleep in their classes. Who can take any of this seriously? Well, most of us do, especially if we’ve been to college. But it’s good for us, occasionally, to hear Groucho sing “Whatever it is, I’m against it,” in his reply to questions from his faculty concerning his plans for Huxley College.

I first saw Horse Feathers at age 17. I had already fallen in love with the Marx Brothers by attending a screening of Duck Soup, their anarchic blast against government, war, fascism and greedy peanut vendors. [3]  However, the revival of their films was not yet in full swing. When I chanced upon a TV Guide listing showing that Horse Feathers would be broadcast on a local station in a neighboring city (Syracuse), I pulled together what cash I had in hand, hopped a bus to that city and rented a room in a cheap hotel just to watch it. The print was in rough condition (and still is, as the television print is all we have of it), but the film was everything I hoped it would be: part Bugs Bunny; part Midsummer Night’s Dream; and part Godzilla stomping Tokyo. A weird blend of the comically chaotic with expertly executed satire.  A blend the Marxes perfected in vaudeville and on Broadway, and which they managed to maintain through all of the first seven of their feature films. That night in Syracuse remains one of my happiest memories.

Horse Feathers is an interesting film for Marx Brothers fans, because it includes remnants of their first successful vaudeville sketch, Fun in Hi Skule, one of which is the scene where Groucho gives a lecture on the cardio-vascular system, and Harpo and Chico pelt him with spitballs. (“The blood rushes to the feet, gets a look at those feet, and rushes back to the head again.”) Having started out in musical specialty acts, this skit would not only establish them as comedians, but would define their comedy, not in the skit as written, but in its development. It may have been the skit they were performing in Nacogdoches, Texas, when the whole audience ran out to watch a local farmer deal with a mule that had broken its leg on Main Street. When the audience returned, the Marxes abandoned the script to assault the town with a battery of ad-libbed insults. For whatever reason, the audience loved it and Marxist anarchy was born.

The skit also helped to define the characters they would develop over the years.  For one thing, the characters were all ethnic stereotypes. Everyone knows that Chico was not really an Italian, but many people do not know that Harpo had red hair (via a wig) because his character was supposed to be Irish, an identification that never really developed as Harpo was given fewer and fewer lines to speak over the years, transforming into an almost entirely physical comedian. Groucho, meanwhile, in Fun in Hi Skule, was supposed to play a stuffy German immigrant teacher, but during WWI, sensitivities were such that he began playing the part with a Yiddish, rather than a strictly German, accent.

The Marx Brothers were, of course, Jewish. They were not practicing Jews, and neither Groucho nor Chico were believers. Only Harpo occasionally voiced a faith, however vague, in a divine something-out-there. But Judaism is not just a religion, it is also a community, a culture, a tradition.  Although their father was a largely unsuccessful tailor in New York City, their mother, Minnie, born the daughter of a magician back in Germany, and with a brother – Al Shean – already on his way to vaudeville stardom, always had theatrical aspirations which she strove to instill in her sons. I’ve seen no evidence that Minnie ever urged her sons into the Yiddish theater scene, which was thriving at the time, although it’s impossible to believe that living on East 92nd Street, they didn’t wander down to the Yiddish theater district running along 2nd Avenue into the East Village. But Minnie clearly tried to direct her sons into mainstream Vaudeville (at least those sons who could be directed, initially Gummo and Groucho; Chico and Harpo spent their late teens playing piano in bordellos, since these frequently also served alcohol in an adjacent barroom).  This tells us that her aspirations were truly national in character, since the Yiddish theater circuit only reached into major cities and not very many of them. Unsurprisingly, the Marxes, in their various evolving acts in Vaudeville, traveled throughout the Midwest and as far into the South as was safe for Jews to go. (Groucho would later sometimes reject a writer’s offered joke with a disdainful “Will it play in Peoria?”)  The strategy worked, and the Marxes finally broke out of Vaudeville into “legitimate theater” – i.e. Broadway – and then into cinema, just as synchronized sound filmmaking was being perfected and becoming all the rage.

Nonetheless, in their best work the Marxes retained a real sense of their experience as children of Jewish immigrants. Notably, stowaway immigration to America figures as an important plot device in two of their major films, Monkey Business and Night at the Opera. [4]  One important function of Chico’s ersatz characterization of an Italian immigrant was that it allowed jokes about immigrants to be made throughout their careers. The characterization is commonly noted to be so transparently, obviously fake as to make it easy to deliver these jokes with tongue firmly in cheek. On some level, they really weren’t about Chico qua immigrant so much as about Chico as a fake immigrant.  When in Animal Crackers, Chico’s Ravelli reveals that he knows art collector Roscoe Chandler is really former fish peddler Abie from Czechoslovakia, Chandler complains “Say, how did you get to be Italian?” [5]  “Abie the Fishman” was apparently a standard stereotypical Jewish trope in American humor at the time. [6]

This is noteworthy, because when Chico engages in banter with Groucho (who’s supposedly wittier than him, but whom Chico manages to befuddle every time), what we hear, if we listen carefully, is a Jewish comedian playing an Italian immigrant effectively getting the better of a Jewish comedian playing a character that the Italian recognizes as a Jewish immigrant. It’s not so much a competition to see who’s more Jewish, but rather to see who’s more of an immigrant. Groucho, after all, has, by the time the Brothers reach the cinema, dropped any overt Jewish (Yiddish) accent. In his shabby tuxedo and with his constant wooing of Margret Dumont’s stuffy matriarchal dowager, he’s clearly trying to find some way out of his ethnic identity, and Chico won’t let him get away with it.

We can see this especially in the famous routine from The Cocoanuts, known by its most famous line, “Why a Duck;” and even more specifically in that line itself. [7]  The setup is that Groucho is trying to get Chico to act as shill for him at an auction of some questionable property he has on his hands; that is, to raise the bidding by topping a bid until the desired amount is actually bid by someone willing to pay. Not Chico, who’s penniless, but a monied investor pressured by Chico’s increasing bidding to offer a higher price. (Of course this leads to disaster, since Chico doesn’t know when to quit, and outbids all the legitimate investors.) But first, Groucho has to direct Chico to the site of the auction, which happens to be across a river.

Hammer: Now, all along here, this is the river front. And all along the river…all along the river, those are all levees.

Chico: That’s the Jewish neighborhood?

Hammer: (pause) Well, we’ll pass over that…You’re a peach, boy. Now, here is a little peninsula, and, eh, here is a viaduct leading over to the mainland.

Chico: Why a duck?

It is notable that in George Kaufman’s draft of the original play, Groucho’s character was not named Hammer but Schlemmer. It is unclear exactly how the joke about Levies and Passover would have played in Peoria. But “Why a duck?” has enjoyed nearly a hundred years of recitation, even by those unfamiliar with the work of the Marxes or its import.

Because of Chico’s broken imitation Italian accent and because his character often pretends to be slower, mentally, than he actually is, and because the character has scant regard for “proper English” in any event (and possibly because Chico did have a difficulty remembering his lines), Chico often seems to intentionally misunderstand what Groucho has to say to him, not just semantically but syntactically as well.  A famous moment of this, in Night at the Opera, is when Groucho tries to explain the sanity clause in a contract, to which Chico laughs derisively “there ain’t no Santy Claus!”  So I think most people hear “Why a duck?” in much the same way: Chico acting dumb and misreading Groucho to make a rather tortured pun. And that’s what it is, but it’s source is not Chico’s petulant refusal to hear what is clearly spoken, and ask, “well, what’s a viaduct?” Surely even he can hear the ‘v’ instead of the ‘w’ in ‘viaduct’. He can, but it’s not his mistake he’s remarking upon. It doesn’t take genius here to remember that the ‘w’ is often pronounced ‘v’ in middle and eastern European languages.  What Chico is doing is listening to Groucho as a fellow immigrant. Herr Schlemmer appears to be answering a riddle he hasn’t fully expressed: “Oy, it’s a vy a duck leading over to the mainland?” “Why a duck, why no chicken?” Two hapless Rabbis debating an obscure line in the Talmud. The humor of the line really depends on one immigrant refusing another immigrant’s wish to be accepted as not an immigrant, as not speaking in the old language, nor with the old accent. Chico is not letting him get away with it any more than he lets Roscoe Chandler be anyone other than Abie the Fishman in Animal Crackers.

If American music can be said to have been largely determined by Africans who were imported here against their will (and a strong case can be made for that), it might also be said that American humor has been strongly impressed by the humor of Jews who felt pressured to “export” themselves from Europe to America due to the on-going threat of unjust laws, social discrimination and even pogroms in homelands where they were never allowed to fully settle or even feel welcomed. African American music can be said to constitute an effort to define a culture in opposition to an oppressive social order.  Jewish American humor constitutes a legacy of immigrant memory and experience in an effort to salvage a culture forced into a nomadic existence by suspicious Christians and their Modernist heirs who barely understood it. I mention these efforts together, because of the enormous impact they have had in shaping the America in which we find ourselves today; an America that has never truly defined an “American Culture” as such and will never be able to do so until it embraces all the many different cultures that have contributed to the rich, diverse opportunities for expression and creativity of which the American people have revealed themselves capable in their brighter hours.

It’s not “the better angels of our nature” we really need to listen to. It’s the Marx Brothers.

Notes

[1]  MGM, 1935.  Director: Sam Wood.  Written by: George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind, James Kevin McGuiness (story), Al Boasberg.

[2]  Paramount, 1932.  Director: Norman Z. McLeod.  Written by: S.J. Perelman, Will B. Johnstone, Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby.

[3]  Paramount, 1933.  Director: Leo McCarey. Written by: Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, Nat Perrin (additional dialogue), Arthur Sheekman.

[4]  Paramount, 1931.  Director: Norman Z. McLeod. Written by: S.J. Perelman, Will B. Johnstone, Arthur Sheekman.

[5]  Paramount, 1930.  Director: Victor Heerman. Written by: George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind.

[6]  https://www.jewishchronicle.org/2013/04/28/abie-the-fishman-embodies-diasporas-at-conference/

[7]  Paramount, 1929.  Director: Joseph Santley, Robert Florey. Written by: George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind.

41 comments

  1. continue to think that stuffy professors with an overweening sense of self-importance have anything to tell us that we couldn’t learn for ourselves. At best they may provide us with facts of which we might have been unaware, or challenge ideas and help us to see the world in a different way than we had previously. At worst, they yammer on and on about themselves and what they and their colleagues have decided is interesting.

    In my part of the world we have a different ritual(Ulwaluko) to mark the transition into manhood. We send our youths(the Abakhwetha), scantily clad, into the bushveld, where they live in makeshift shelters for at least four weeks, unwashed, but colourfully daubed in mud. There we circumsize them with blunt, dirty knives. Because they are unwashed, infection sets in and quite a few die of septicaemia and even more lose their penises to amputation. The tough survive and the maidens mourn. What better preparation is there for life than an intiation into the survival of the fittest? And you are not burdened with college debt! The next Google, Facebook and Amazon will for sure emerge from our shanty townships.

    See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ulwaluko

    American football is one of the silliest sports one can imagine, and we also know, now, that it is one the most dangerous (which makes it even stupider). Twenty-two guys running across a field to knock each other down over a piece of pigskin? The absurdity is self-evident

    Now, as it happens, I agree that American Football is a bad thing. However, we, the more enlightened parts of the anglophone world, play rugby, and that is a very good thing! Moreover, being more inclusive, we field 30 people and not 22, which shows just how superior it is.

    I am speaking from the country who are the current rugby world champions so you may conclude I am not unbiased! But then who can help being biased in favour of what is better? Which presumably is why you are biased against the university system.

  2. Simply fantastic stuff, EJ. Fascinating insights and thoughts regarding one of the most important comedy outfits in the history of the genre. Loved every minute reading it.

    1. Why is it impossible for me to register a “like”? I keep hitting the icon like a cocaine addicted lab rat to no avail.

      1. I am able to register a like, using “firefox” (where I am logged into wordpress). But it doesn’t work if I use a chromium based browser (also logged into wordpress).

        It looks as if chromium based browsers are being very strict about mixing certain kinds of https with plain http, and wordpress is breaking the rules that they are enforcing.

        (Apologies for an off-topic diversion).

  3. Having grown up watching everything Marx at the local college’s Thursday movie night (this was back in the early ’70s), I enjoyed this enormously. I had the whole “why a duck” dialog memorized at one point. When my wife was cutting my hair during the lockdown, I’d look at her tentative results and suggest “just one more snoop” in an ersatz Italian accent. Thanks for writing this very interesting essay.

  4. I discovered the Marx Bros in my 20s. Loved them. When I first heard the Groucho line, “Last night I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I’ll never know”, I was hooked.

    Definitely one of your best pieces for Electric Agora, John. Bravo.

  5. Always loved the Marx Brothers, especially Horse Feathers and Groucho’s song “Whatever it is, I’m against it.” Great piece of writing!

  6. an America that has never truly defined an “American Culture” as such

    How fortunate it is that you cannot see yourselves as others do.

    But that is not surprising. The inhabitants of a culture are blind to their externals. There is no cultural mirror in your bathroom that will allow you to see yourselves as others see you. Instead you have to go and live in, immerse yourself in, and absorb another culture before you can fully see yourself.

    But before you can truly see yourself, you(the generic you) also have to slough off the thick skin of arrogance so that you can see the world through the new eyes of surprise, delight, wonderment and humility, that are sensitized to new ways of perceiving. And along the way you must discard the cynical habits of secular critical thinking. These are a form of self imposed blindness that serve only to confirm your prejudices.

    1. Peter Smith,

      I wonder whether you have the ability to see yourself as others see you. Very few of us have that ability and I wonder how you obtained it. Did Jesus grant it to you in answer to your prayers? Or did it come to you during a month in the bush with a Swiss army knive?

        1. That’s cool.

          A great essay!! Thanks, E.J. I used to watch Groucho Marx’s TV show, You Bet Your Life, when I was a kid. From then on, I’ve been a fan.

  7. Dan,
    My post is, I think, very much on topic. This is what EJ said, in the penultimate paragraph, which seems to sum up his intent quite well:

    I mention these efforts together, because of the enormous impact they have had in shaping the America in which we find ourselves today; an America that has never truly defined an “American Culture” as such and will never be able to do so until it embraces all the many different cultures that have contributed to the rich, diverse opportunities for expression and creativity of which the American people have revealed themselves capable in their brighter hours.

    My point is that, contrary to EJ’s claims, there is a well defined American culture, though it is often not visible to the inhabitants of the culture. I elaborated on that by saying that one needs to distance oneself before it becomes visible.

    This conclusion was forced on me by the experience of living in and working in South Africa, Zambia, Kenya, Germany and China. Cultural shock by immersion is a scarifying force that renews sensitivity to cultural identity.

    In answer to SW, it was my army issue bayonet, which I put to good use. Prayer came much later.

      1. In his penultimate paragraph he(EJ), as all good essayists should, gathered together the threads in his essay to draw some conclusions. I commented on his conclusions so I stand by my assertion that my comment was on topic.

        1. My penultimate paragraph is clearly an off-hand remark advocating for the creativity of ethnic cultures contributing to the development of an American culture that is still very much a work in progress.

          And your comments have been completely off-topic – the essay is about the Marx Brothers, about whom you have said not a damn thing.

          Your self-serving excoriations along this thread have been just down-right rude. Not just to me, but to other readers of this essay and the other commenters.

          There is a place even for quarreling, but this is not it – certainly not unless you are going to engage the topic at hand, but merely drop in to complain about pet-peeves – that’s just trolling.

          1. My email said Marxism For Dummies Like Me. So, dummy that I am I figured it was a take off on the How To books; a primer on the foundation of communism. I opened the mail to quickly ascertain the length of the article and was immediately dismayed that I would, if I chose, have to wade through a historical materialist manifesto as seen through the eyes of a philosopher. Boy, was I pleasantly surprised. I have the whole box set of their movies in disk but I’ve of course seen them all multiple times throughout my life.

            Poor lad, you had to wait till you were seventeen. Being a Boomer, the first TV generation, my childhood was filled with the black and white classics of the late 20’s, 30’s and 40’s in all their innovative novelty that spanned the life of my parents and the transition and spin off of minstrel and vaudeville. Laurel and Hardy, W.C. Fields, Abbot and Costello, The Ritz Bros., Chick and Olsen, The Three Stooges and the others whose influence may still linger but they themselves will fade as most pop culture memories, that meant so much to the denizens of the era fade with them. They were mirrors to our own souls and sensibilities, that short of the realization of a parallel universe and many worlds, will never happen again. I find a sadness in the loss of these unique moments in time of the humanity that people of the soon to be past, have experienced in it’s period smells and sounds, as they lived, suffered, enjoyed and contemplated their own mortality. Photos, film, video and digital representations for all intense and purposes bring these human souls back to life for our entertainment. And they are all dead as they prance and gesticulate in all the verve of youth on their brief moment on the stage of life. I’ve often wondered if visual lifelike memento mores are a curse or blessing. Time blurs the face and pain of lost ones but pictures allow you to once again look into their eyes and mourn afresh.

            Of course I also grew up watching the network broadcast of You Bet Your Live with the more senior Groucho. An absolute comedic genius par excellence that never failed to get the audience into stitches his witfull wit interviewing the often oddball contestants. If you haven’t already done so I highly recommend you viewing them on YouTube. They haven’t aged a bit.
            A number of years ago they tried to bring it back with Bill Cosby and it was a monumental failure. I kept screaming at the top of my lungs, that Howard Stern was the only one who could reasonably pull it off. He has the same sense and cadence of Groucho when interviewing. It’s hard to explain.

            Anyway thank you EJ for a most wonderful and enjoyable trip down memory lane with three of my favorite childhood and adult heroes of comedy. “Since they commenced it, I’m against it. I am professor Schnurrer the African explorer…” Time to dust off the box set.

            PS I never realized until way into adulthood that the mustache was painted on. Dummy.

  8. The Marx brothers as thesis, antithesis and synthesis with the pun as sublation of meaning.
    E.J. you must be a big boy now. Nice one. American humour seems largely a Jewish invention but then there’s also the dark atrabilious Polish-Irish Catholic humour as in ‘Fight Club’
    “Which historical figure (would you like to fight)?
    – I’d like to fight Gandhi”.

  9. I am going to ask people one more time not to fight with one another and talk about *the Marx Brothers* or else I will have to close comments. Everyone has had their say. Move along.

    1. I’m not going to fight with anyone.

      However, this is EJ’s post, his classroom in metaphorical terms, and doesn’t he have the right to react sharply to comments that he finds unsuitable? Not only EJ but also anyone who posts in the Electric Agora.

      You yourself, Dan K., at times react sharply to comments you find unsuitable and you have the ultimate power, which no one else has, to close comments if you find the trend of them to be unsuitable.

      I would assume that if you find someone to be intellectually and emotionally mature enough to post in independent form in the Electric Agora, that person would be assumed to have, until shown otherwise, sufficient intellectual and emotional maturity to know when to react sharply to comments that he or she finds unsuitable.

      1. I have watched one great website after another be ruined by comments sections turning into endless unpleasant warfare. BloggingHeads is one particularly good example of that. I have had to block 3/4 of the regular posters, for it to be something one might stomach.

        EA itself lost a regular contributor because of this. He simply would not stop fighting with people or starting fights himself.

        Certainly there are different philosophies of moderation from none to heavy handed. Bhtv has none. Leiter is super heavy handed. And I’m somewhere in between. I would defend my moderation philosophy by its results. We have one of the best discussion sections here on the internet. Maybe it has nothing to do with my moderation philosophy but I would be surprised.

        1. We’re talking past each other here.

          I’m not objecting to moderation and you will note that when you asked us to “cool it” yesterday, I did without complaining.

          What I tried to say above is that those who post (the contributors as you put it), the essayists, should have the right to moderate the comments after their essays as EJ did in response to certain comments which he found to be unsuitable. That is, decentralize the moderation process, delegate it a bit.

          1. I appreciate the thought and I am considering allowing authors to determine whether they want comments open or closed. That said, I would still need to moderate myself, so long as the comments are open. I’m going to be talking with EJ on the phone today, so I will ask him what he thinks about it.

          2. For sure, you (Dan K.) need to continue moderating all conversations even if you allow the authors some possibility to moderate their own essays. A partnership is feasible.

          3. SW,
            even if you allow the authors some possibility to moderate their own essays.

            The problem here is that the author has put considerable effort into birthing his essay. For that reason he is not receptive to critical comments, and, given the power of moderation, it is possible, indeed probable, he will stifle criticism. An impartial moderator is always a much more fair way of doing things.

          4. Peter Smith,

            I believe that we can trust that Dan will select writers with sufficient emotional maturity to moderate the discussion of their own essays without stifling criticism just as good philosophy professors moderate discussion of their own lectures without stifling criticism. In any case, Dan will still be the final referee.

          5. I think we all need to relax a little bit and not take things so seriously. Some people will indulge in personal attacks and that is unfortunate. We must just endure it. Stoic philosophy helps. Dan needs to moderate as he sees fit. I sometimes disagree, but what the heck, it is not important.

          6. I should modify that. I know it is important to you, Dan. I admire you for the sterling results produced by this blog and I hope is that you continue the good work.

      2. Speaking about fighting. I don’t recall which movie it was where Groucho wants to hire Chico and Harpo as bodyguards. He obviously ran afoul of some protagonist. Groucho who wants to make sure he is getting his monies worth queries Chico as to exactly how tough he is. Chico tells him with his faux Italian accent, well, it alla depends on howa much you pay. You pay a little, I’m a little tough, you pay a lot I’m a plenty tough…

  10. “except that one was admittedly so beautiful that it was hard not to fall in love with him”

    Which one? I thought Zeppo was considered the good-looking Marx, and he wasn’t one of the main three you seem to be discussing.

  11. Dan,
    please forgive me for going meta, but I think this needs saying.
    Below is what I believe(the Seven Rules of the Commentariat):

    Rule 1.
    When responding to anything written before, in the essay or comments, always, but always, “quote the exact words used“. Now we know what you are replying to and who you are replying to. This helps keep things on track.

    Rule 2.
    Confine your remarks to what was actually said in the quote. This keeps the comment relevant. No Gish Gallups are allowed.

    Rule 3.
    Never, ever say anything about the person, his character, his behaviour or his belief system. Ad hominems of any kind, even imputed, contribute nothing useful to the discussion and outsiders just shake their heads at the silliness.

    Rule 4.
    Show goodwill. This can be done by moderating your tone, asking for clarification and giving respectful acknowledgement. A word of thanks or appreciation goes a long way. And especially, refrain from attacking the other person’s belief system.

    Rule 5.
    Strive to say something substantive. Try to enrich the conversation with fresh insights so that others sit back and say “Aha, I never thought of that, but…”. I actually think this is the most important rule.

    Rule 6.
    Be forgiving and tolerant. There are a lot of opportunities for misunderstanding. Overlook them. Don’t look for a fight.

    Rule 7.
    Take your time, have a cup of coffee(or tea), take a breather and reconsider what you are going to say in light of the above points. Moderate your words and make sure you weed out anything that could give offence or create misunderstanding. OK? Now you can click on the Post(Send) button.

    1. You don’t follow your own “rules,” why should anybody else?

      At any rate, Dan’s webzine = Dan’s rules. Debate over.

  12. Dan,
    another thought. Why not turn this into an essay so that we can all debate the rules and modes of good behaviour in an online forum. I think such a debate might be very useful.

    1. I’ve already decided on a slight change of policy. Authors will have the prerogative to have comments open or closed. So long as they are open, I will moderate according to the current guidelines. I will post a separate announcement on the matter. This thread is for discussion of the Marx Brothers.

    2. The Angel Gabriel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TCyEm-K3BGg

      Of course today, this homage to black talent and culture is viewed as racist. The following sequence of “All God’s Children” (which I cannot paste on this infernal site) is probably one of the greatest musical and dance scenes of the Marx movies.

      As far as music and style ; the 1930’s and 60’s have always been my favorite decades of the 20C.

  13. This essay is about immigrant Jewish humor in the work of the Marx Brothers. I don’t know why anyone would introduce extraneous materials to it; nor am I happy that this has led to the discussion concerning moderation. But as writer of this essay, I would like to address the issue, just this once and no more.

    Let’s get a few matters straight, since (while we all have a sense of them) they can get muddled in the give and take on the Internet.

    First, no webblog or webzine achieves readership on the basis of its comments section. The Electric Agora has a developed a readership based on interest in the quality of its essays and video podcasts. The comment threads are not even the frosting on the cake, they are the sugary or nutty sprinkles on top. Also, comment threads are not a function of social media, they aren’t simply yet another chance to post a tweet or a Facebook ‘like,’ they are not open forums; they are constrained, minimally, by the topic commented on, and the generosity and judgment of any moderator.

    Secondly: The right of free speech and a free press, which in most nations in the West are taken for granted, are in fact grants of a state – political assurances, within a given constitution, that anyone who has acquired access to a public forum or platform will be allowed (within limits determined through judicial interpretation of the constitution) to express his or her political, social, economic, and cultural opinions without suppression. However – and this is really important, since oft forgot – in no state or by any constitution does the right of free speech/ press provide any assurance of access to public forums or platforms. If one gets a letter-to-the-editor of a magazine published, the right of free press assures that the letter’s expression is constitutionally protected. However, publication of the letter is a privilege granted by the editor and publisher of the magazine, there is no right to have that letter published in that magazine or anywhere else. One can certainly publish one’s own newspaper and fill it with one’s own letters and distribute this as best one is able; but if one cannot afford to do so, or potential readers show no interest in it – too bad.

    Take these two comments together, and what we have is a reminder that posting comments here is a privilege Dan Kaufman grants to his readers. He doesn’t have to do that; he is entirely right to excise comments that don’t meet his standards. He doesn’t even need to provide a comment section, the success of EA doesn’t depend on it.

    As a contributor here, I certainly recognize that having my essays posted is a privilege, so whatever my occasional issues with and within the comments thread, I have always left the monitor of the comment section – and the choice of essays and podcasts – entirely to the discretion of Dan Kaufman – he has made the effort to manage and edit this webzine, we are really guests here owing his choices complete deference.

    However I must admit that as a contributor, I welcome having a say, however minimally, in the presentation of the comments section. Comment-thread hijacking is unfair to us all. And “flaming” antagonistically – while frankly I think regular commenters have all lapsed into this sometime or other in the past – is poor manners. Occasionally it can clear the air on certain matters of dispute concerning the actually posted essay or podcast; but only when it is a) on topic, and b) recognized by the commenter as transgressive, and followed up appropriately (which I leave open to interpretation). Thread hijacking and flaming can be entertaining – on Youtube posts. They are not only misplaced here, but are unnecessarily distracting for general readers.

    If it is worried that a contributor will close off criticism – well, so what? Posting of essays here is a privilege; posting of comments here is a privilege. As long as Dan maintains the quality of the essays and podcasts, EA will continue to succeed. The comments can be fun; and sometimes very annoying; but ultimately they’re not necessary. If we readers and regular commenters really want them, we should strive to make them more fun and less annoying.

  14. Give yourself a treat and listen to Gilbert Gottfried’s imitation of the Old Groucho on his podcast, ‘Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast’. You’ll die. He does it a lot, but especially on the episodes with Dick Cavett (episodes 1, 106, 241, and the episode from Feb 17,2020).

    You might also be interested in episodes 155, episode 255, and the episode from Feb 17, 2020, all with Robert Bader, who wrote the book, ‘Four of the Three Musketeers: The Marx Brothers On Stage,’ an extremely detailed account of the Marx Brother’s vaudeville career. On episode 255, Bill Marx — Harpo’s son — is one of the other guests. Also listen to episodes 79 and (mini) episode 103 with Steve Stoliar, author of ‘Raised Eyebrows: My Years Inside Groucho’s House’. To Gilbert Gottfried and Dick Cavett, the Marx Brothers — especially Groucho — were Gods.

  15. At the request of the author, I am closing comments. I hope that in the future, we can keep discussions on the topic of the essay or podcast at hand. I recommend everyone familiarize themselves with EA’s commenting rules.

    As EJ has pointed out, that there are comments at all is an indulgence on my part and not at all necessary or required. The overwhelming majority of readers/listeners — 99+% of EA’s nearly 100K readers last year — never participate in comments. I have considered in the past eliminating them altogether and that always remains an option. Of course, I would very much like to be able to keep them open. But I will not have people fighting and flaming and hijacking comment threads.

    This is my outfit; I pay for all of it out of my own pocket [many thousands of dollars a year]; I and the content creators provide all of it for free. As a result, I — and they — call the shots.

    https://theelectricagora.com/for-readers/

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