BEN STEIN’S GRATITUDE
Ben Stein has a touching 4th of July tribute piece in USA Today. This anecdote is representative:
About seven years ago, I sat in the makeup room for the TV show Seinfeld. The makeup artists were telling Jerry Seinfeld how talented he is and how lucky the world is to have his talent on their TV screens. I added that Seinfeld himself was unbelievably lucky to have been born in America when he was. One of the makeup artists told me rather tartly that Seinfeld was so talented that he would have been a huge success no matter where he was born or when.
“No,” I said. “If he had been born a little Jewish boy in Poland in 1930, and had stayed there, he would have been gassed or shot. If he had been just as talented as he is, anywhere in Eastern or Central Europe anywhere near the start of World War II, in all likelihood, he would have never survived to show the world his talent. It is only in America, with its limitless opportunities for everyone, that Jerry’s talent could reach the world the way it has.”
My recollection is that Jerry looked levelly at me for a few moments and then said, “Amen.”
Something worth remembering, to be sure.
I think Ben Stein might be the most level headed person in America. I remember an op-ed he did in USA Today after the Nixon tapes surfaced with the “Jews” reference on it. Stein rose to Nixon’s defense and said that Nixon was the friendliest president towards the Jews that America had ever seen (Stein worked for him I think).
Anyway, who else can be valedictorian of Yale Law as well as the most typecast actor of all time?
I liked this piece, though I have problems saying “Seinfeld” and “talent” in the same sentence. I agree that the Seinfeld series was funny, but it was his supporting cast that made that show what it was; I never laughed at anything Jerry said. Now, granted, he had a big part in writing the show, but I think most of it was the delivery of three very talented comedians. (And, yes, I realized that all their spin-offs/post-Seinfeld series really blew chunks, so, yeah, writing matters alot — but that show was much more of a “team” phenomenon than the genius of a single individual).
John: I think that’s largely true, but that’s like saying the supporting characters made the Andy Griffith show. Jerry was the “straight man” in his own show because the other characters were funnier. He basically just reacted to them.
And Seinfeld was pretty successful before the show, really.
You know, it’s not that I really disagree with Stein’s general sentiment, but why do these arguments always end up at “only in America”?
Granted, Poland in 1930 would have been awfully bad luck, but surely there are plenty of other places aside from America where Seinfeld could have been successful too? It seems like a little perspective is in order here.
You make a good point. Tthe rest of the Anglosphere and most of north-west Europe offer extraordinary opportunity and freedom, too.
I do think it’s fair to say that the U.S. has been the place with the greatest economic and social mobility for the longest period of time–especially for those outside the cultural majority. Jews, in particular, have had an easier time assimilating here than in most other parts of the West.
It’s also true, I think, that the U.S. is the place to be if your avenue to success is the entertainment industry. There’s a reason Arnold Schwartzenegger didn’t stay in Austria and Mel Gibson didn’t stay in Australia.
Comments such as Kevin Drum’s urging “a little perspective” smack too much of those “yes, but” statements we’ve all become far too familiar with recently: “Yes, America is great, but ….” There’s a reason why even though many from the third world want to immigrate to Europe, millions more want to come to America. There’s a reason why among those who want to come here are hundreds of thousands of white Europeans. As a non-white, non-native speaker of English whose ancestral country is currently ruled by a bloody dictatorship, let me indulge in some “yes, but” statements of my own. Yes, America is not the only country where enterprising individuals can succeed. Yes, this country has many flaws. but there is far more to praise and celebrate in America’s freedom from the suffocating limitations found in the class- and tradition-bound societies of Europe and Asia, and it would be an enormous mistake to be so self-critical and so stubbornly determined to be “balanced” that we lose sight of America’s essential goodness, promise, and strength. That is what Ben Stein and Jerry Seinfeld in their own way understood.