Open Letter to the Capitol Steps

Capitol Steps
210 North Washington Street
Alexandria, VA 22314

June 6, 2006

Dear Capitol Steps,

I have for years loved your clever musical routines. I first enjoyed you on NPR. My fiancé, shortly after we first began dating gave me a bunch of your CDs and actually took me to a New Year’s Eve performance in Rochester, NY, where I first saw you live.

In more recent years, I have begun to wince whenever you refer to people of Middle Eastern origins, but since these slurs usually only appeared once in half hour radio shows, I let them slide.

On June 2, I saw you live in your home base, the Ronald Reagan theater and expected it would be a pinnacle experience. Instead, I left the theater that evening feeling deep grieved and angry.

Now, it’s not your fault I had a friend die in Iraq this year, so I’m giving you a pass on treating the mass casualties of Iraqi civilians as hilarious. But you also had four or five skits in which you depicted people of the Middle East as ignorant, unwashed, brutal vulgarians. If you had done the same number of skits about avaricious Jews controlling the media, citing the large number of Jewish editors and publishers, if you had done skits about thuggish black men, citing rap albums as a source, people would correctly accuse you of being antisemitic and racist. Why do you think it’s okay to treat Arabs, Kurds and Iranians that way?

I frankly dislike Mahmoud Abbas and am really concerned about the Hamas victory in Palestine. But I dislike Abbas because he’s an ineffective bureaucrat who has continued the tradition of cronyism set in place by Yasser Arafat. I worry about Hamas justifying attacks on Israeli civilians as a resistance to a brutal Israeli occupation and trying to impose its brand of religious fundamentalism on Palestinians who don’t share those views. It is frankly disgusting—on the level of Protocols of the Elders of Zion—to depict Abbas as if he can hardly restrain himself from physically assaulting Ehud Olmert while his back is turned. Olmert and Sharon, whom you have used interchangeably in that particular skit are/were both deeply racist men who regard Palestinians as inferior beings who are not entitled to the same human rights that Israelis have. Why wasn’t that in the sketch? Hamas, to the best of my knowledge, has no desire, as you glibly noted, to start World War III. Its beef is with Israel, and an end to the Occupation would deflate most of its power. And it’s worth noting that it has observed a cease-fire for 17 months while the Israeli military continues to kill both Palestinian militants and civilians.

I encourage you to imagine, next time you perform these skits, that your audience is full of Americans of Middle Eastern descent who are teachers, plumbers, corporate lawyers, interior decorators, electricians, police officers, letter carriers, artists etc. Would you perform the skits in the same way?

Aside from all the moral considerations you might want to consider eliminating these racist caricatures for practical reasons. The June 2, 2006 audience I was a part of laughed a lot more when you were poking fun of Americans of whatever political persuasion than they did when you were mocking Middle Easterners.

As for me, I’m trying to decide whether I should relate to you the way I would relate to a racist uncle who’s a charming guy but says things about black people that make me cringe, or whether I need to do something more serious. A big part of me thinks that continuing to follow your work with pleasure will put me in the same camp as those Americans who enjoyed minstrel shows. Their collusion with racism caused incredible damage to this country, and I really don’t want to follow in their tradition.

With regret,
Kathleen Kern

Kathleen Kern is a member of the Christian Peacemaker Team.

Related Links

  • The Capitol Steps