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Tibet TV spot isn’t the joke; hypocrisy is

So I’m writing the Great American Novel, and have crafted this scene to illustrate the hypocrisy of people but, well, I’m having a little trouble with it: It just doesn’t ring true.

Here, let me describe the segment to you, and maybe you can help.

In this chapter, the president of China — I call him Hu Jintao — arrives in the United States and is greeted with pomp and respect. President Obama throws Hu the second state dinner of his administration at the White House. The media cheer. What scant protest there is — something about human rights — is kept at a safe distance. Most Americans either smile or shrug, except here in Chicago — we feel great that the leader of Communist China finds our little town worth visiting. It makes us feel special, important, world class.

Then, almost immediately — a couple of weeks later — a new, fast-growing Internet start-up — I call them “Groupon,” a dumb name, I know, but names are tough — airs a TV commercial poking fun at the symbolic do-goodery of the affluent. The ad has some B-list movie star prattling on about some evergreen hobbyhorse social cause — that old Richard Gere standby, the plight of Tibetans — before veering back into his own selfish interest, snarfing up a bowl of their “amazing fish curry” and finally, the plug for Groupon.

In the novel, the people get upset at THAT. Having just finished bowing and scraping before the actual leader of the actual country actually destroying Tibet for the past 60 years, they flutter their fingers in sincere alarm and accuse Groupon of insensitivity.

What do you think? Does that scene seem plausible? Will anyone buy that? Or would it be seen as too broad and crude a satire, something that would never happen?

See, that’s why I don’t write fiction. Because you can’t make this stuff up. What happened this week would be rejected in a novel. I watched the Groupon ad in real time — during the Super Bowl, the couch in my brother’s basement. My central thought was: Hey, Groupon has a TV commercial! An appropriately edgy ad, as befits a company that turned down a $6 billion offer for itself.

Tibet is a perfect choice because it represents the disconnect between what many do-gooders say they’re doing — repairing a wrong with their precious attention and money — and what is actually happening: nothing.

Caring about an issue isn’t the same as doing something about it — this eludes people. Yes, world pressure can help — it helped end apartheid in South Africa. It keeps numerous dictatorships from being as vile as they’d like. But that doesn’t mean that every Hollywood actor who slaps on this week’s lapel ribbon deserves our respect. Just the opposite.

The funny thing about the Groupon ad is that it managed to cheese off both Tibetan activists — and aren’t we all? — and the Chinese, who don’t like the subject being brought up.

Finding themselves on the same page as the Red Chinese ought to give those claiming to take offense pause. Birds of a feather. ...

Me, I wish we treated reverence with the same dubiousness we treat irreverence. Outraged readers, whatever the issue, sometimes, in an attempt to frame an issue in terms a Jew would understand, ask me how I would feel were the Holocaust given similar treatment — in this case, if Groupon ran a commercial saying, “Anne Frank couldn’t buy half-price bagels in Ausch­witz, but you can by logging on Groupon. ...”

Well, that’s a bit over the top but, frankly, decades of mournful reverence on this topic have taken a toll on me, and with the victims long in the grave and beyond caring how we treat them, I’ve started to worry that one reason Judaism is circling the drain, with Jews shrugging, intermarrying and forgetting to raise their children in the faith, is because we’ve forgotten the joyous worship that, oh, the Baptists do so well, and turned our religion into a kind of Death Cult, overwhelmed with memorials, inadvertently encouraging the assimilation finishing off the work the Nazis started. Not the answer they expect.

This is the difference between caring about something to feel better about yourself and caring because you actually care about what happens. My guess is that anybody truly concerned about the future of Tibet — to the degree it has one — is glad that people are talking about the situation this week, much more than they would if Groupon hadn’t run its ad. To me, the ship has sailed on Tibet; if you want to oppose Red Chinese domination, get worked up about Taiwan, which has yet to be overrun. Fiction comforts because we can create our own woes, then give them tidy solutions. In the real world we face real problems, problems that aren’t made lighter by a lapel ribbon or heavier by a funny commercial.

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