Following public revelations of the geyser of racist vitriol that he spewed at his audience at The Laugh Factory in LA last Friday, Michael Richards (AKA "Kramer" on The Seinfeld Show) tendered a public apology.
Appearing on the Letterman show on Monday, Richards appeared troubled and remorseful about the visceral hatred that had gushed uncontrollably from his lips after his comedy routine was interrupted by a couple of hecklers in the audience.
In many ways the "apology," coming from the mouth of a clearly broken, empty shell of a man, revealed as much about the unconscious nature of racism as did the blistering geyser of hatred he vomited up at the club.
The two Michael Richards (one self-loathing and penitent, the other completely bazonka) were in fact one: an everyman in deep pain and worried for his future, and an everyman whose potential for violence can be provoked by a momentary but well-targeted stimulus. Though this double-aspect of humans is most often hidden behind a veil of propriety, nationalism, righteousness, and cultural acceptance, THERE IT WAS IN LOS ANGELES, BARE NAKED, FOR EVERYONE TO SEE.
"I am not a racist, that's the insane thing about this" Richards declared on Letterman. Then, reflecting... "And yet, it's said! It comes through! It fires out of me!" He was clearly in a state of shock following his very public, and most-probably successful, act of thorough self-destruction.
"I'll get to the force field of this hostility," he promised, fumbling his words as he tried to explain his involuntary outburst—not knowing how to. How could he? In spite of this there was one moment of clarity. Amid his apology he suggested that the very same "force field of hostility" that pushed him over the edge is what drives nations into war against other nations. Given recent history, this may have been a remarkably astute insight in what was otherwise an incoherent Act II of his dramatic career suicide. He and we occupy a world in which visceral hatreds against other people have become more and more respectable.
The famed American writer Walter Lippmann once said that people harbor a "repertory of fixed impressions" in their heads. Together, he argued, these impressions, which he named "stereotypes," constitute the "foundation of our universe." Anything that challenges that rendition of reality is seen as a threat to that ultimately fragile "universe."
Theorizing is one thing, but the Michael Richards explosion, caught on the camera phone of a woman who paid to see the former Kramer perform live, and then spread on the internet and elsewhere, offers one of the most vivid pictures of a universe crumbling than nearly anything I've ever seen.
There he was, a former household face, standing alone on a stage in a room filled with real people. No longer the weekly icon, he was an ordinary man singing for his supper. Faced with this reality, he was being hassled by a couple of ordinary people who were probably being rude and also happened to be black.
He snapped and, in a frantic defense of a universe already weakened by the empty feeling of fading celebrity, he went ballistic. No doubt in a cold sweat, monsters that lurked beneath the veneer of his goofy, once-lovable persona escaped from him, right before the world's eyes.
In the 1960s I was a Civil Rights organizer in Mississippi, working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Nothing I ever heard coming out of the mouth of "The Mississippi White Man" (as white Mississippians were lumped together by many of us in the movement) reached the tenor of Richards' primordial burst of anger. (Apropos of Mississippi, Los Angeles, and many other locales, Richards' tirade evoked the argot of a hateful cop clubbing someone with a nightstick. Richards' rant also included a notalgic reference to a time, "fifty years ago," when an outspoken black person would be lynched for the effrontery of insulting a white man or woman.)
It is inner demons such as those that Kramer let loose, that often serve as the light brigade of violence, particularly when someone's position in society feels jeopardized by those who are seen as "different" on the basis of race, gender, or other emotional anchors of personal or group identity.
Somehow, apology seems beyond the point. The inner life of society, rambling through the synapses of one man's head, suddenly took center stage. Kramer will undoubtedly pay for this, but what we witnessed is far, far bigger than Kramer.