Gilbert Arenas’s Unfunny Business

Gilbert Arenas's Unfunny Business for urban faithAmong other things, the NBA star’s troubles offer this sobering reminder: An occasional joke is okay, but don’t quit your day job.

Washington Wizards basketball star Gilbert Arenas was recently suspended by the NBA because of a practical joke involving several unloaded handguns, a joke that he played on a teammate who was angry over an unpaid gambling debt. Consequently, Arenas was hit with a gun charge, to which he pleaded guilty, and now his contract with the Wizards appears on the verge of termination.

Clearly, the joke didn’t go over that well.

Nevertheless, Gilbert Arenas is a genuinely funny guy, and I hope that somehow, despite the fallout over his recent transgressions, he doesn’t lose his sense of humor.

See, humor is a funny thing.

In one sense, it’s a basic human need, a notch or two below the need for food, clothing, and shelter. This is why sitcoms and comedians are so popular. As people, we don’t just love to laugh, we need to laugh. Humor is a critical way that we humans express shared meaning and make sense of the world, and it exists at the convergence of our intellect and emotions.

Unfortunately, this makes the concept of funny mysterious and hard to pin down. It often depends on context, which is why sometimes it’s so hard to relay a funny joke from one situation into another. So many factors can change the equation so many times, that a joke that sparks a bout of side-splitting laughter here might only elicit a chorus of yawns there — or worse, an avalanche of boos.

This problem has plagued many comedians over the years, especially White entertainers who complain of an unfair double standard regarding ethnic slurs. Many White folks in general have cited, from the annals of Black pop culture, example after example of things said by Blacks that if said by a White person would be denounced as racist.

So it’s with more than a little schadenfreude that pundits and commentators of almost every persuasion have emerged from the woodwork to pontificate on the subject of fallen-NBA-star Arenas and his recent incident involving handguns in the locker room. Like Caesar, they come not to praise Arenas, but to bury him under a cloud of suspicion.

This wholesale denunciation is problematic.

Much has been said in defense of Arenas’s quirky, practical-joking “Agent Zero” persona. And I agree with those who have detected a racialized difference in the overall response and coverage of this and incidents like it, proof of the NBA’s overall image problem in mainstream America. Both the NFL and MLB have been dogged by far more police blotter activity, particularly as it relates to violent crime and drug abuse, yet neither is tagged as routinely as the NBA is as a “league full of thugs.”

Furthermore, too little has been said about the reason why Arenas had the guns in the locker room in the first place, which, according to reports, was because he didn’t feel comfortable with them coexisting with his children at home. This seems, on the face of things, to be a responsible decision.

But all of that is beside the point.

The real travesty is that Gilbert Arenas earned all the penalties levied against him because he failed to grasp a rather obvious truth: In life, not everything is a joke.

Inveterate pranksters often use humor as a defense mechanism to mask their insecurity. Arenas’s story — abandoned by his mother and raised by his father, whom he didn’t meet until he was 3 years old — is filled with the kind of personal pathos that can inspire insecurity and fear of rejection. Not only has Arenas fit this pattern throughout his career, but after the gun incident went public he actually admitted in his Twitter feed — boasted, really — that he never takes anything seriously.

This quality often makes him an engaging interview subject, but in this case, it clearly impaired his judgment.

How do we know this?

Because with even a modicum of awareness, he would have noticed the following:

• Guns are often involved in violent crimes, which are often perpetrated by, and thus associated with, young Black men

• The NBA is a league dominated by young Black men

• The NBA has, for the last few years, been trying to recover from a series of scandals that have generated a lot of negative publicity

• The D.C. team used to be known as the Washington Bullets, but the general public decided the name was in bad taste, considering the District’s notoriously high murder rate

• Not coincidentally, The District of Columbia has some of the strictest gun laws in the country

All of this, and still …

Not only did Arenas not have the sense to ask a team official about how to properly deal with his guns, not only did he not have the sense to realize that guns and practical jokes don’t belong in the same sentence, but even after he did these things and they became public knowledge, he didn’t have the sense to apologize or show any genuine form of contrition outside of a statement drafted by his attorney.

I think Gilbert Arenas defaulted to his normal response to everything, which is to turn it into a joke and hope it goes away.

This time, it just didn’t work.

Now, I’m not saying that he should lose his job over this. Some punishments, though understandable and legally permissible, are still excessive — like the guy who was fired from his job for being a fantasy football commissioner.

Plus, this will remain as a stain on Arenas’s reputation. As such, Gil will probably continue to feel misunderstood as he tries to put his career back together. Like many talented Black men with chips on their shoulders, he might be tempted to adopt a me-against-the-world mentality.

“Only God can judge me,” goes the typical ‘hood refrain. This could become his mantra.

But I hope not.

Likewise, I hope he doesn’t lose his sense of humor altogether. Maybe one day he’ll crack open a Bible, find Proverbs 26:18-19, and learn to use discernment when cracking jokes. And maybe he’ll discover Romans 13:1, and learn to receive correction from authority more gracefully.

Maybe, as part of his NBA penance, he’ll end up in a public service announcement about the dangers of practical jokes.

Now that would be funny.

Photo of Gilbert Arenas by Keith Allison from Wikipedia.

Pat Robertson Was Right

Pat Robertson Was Right for urban faithHaiti does have a long history of “dealings with the Devil.” But not in the way the televangelist suggested.

Last week’s earthquake in Haiti has turned the world’s attention to this poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Haiti was rocked to its very foundation by a 7.2 earthquake that decimated its capital city, Port-au-Prince, leaving countless thousands dead and millions more homeless, hungry, and in need of medical care. As much of the island is reeling from the recent devastation, without electricity and water, this is but the most recent disaster in a string of tragedies to hit Haiti’s shores.

Over the past several decades Haiti has suffered famine, civil war, hurricanes, and floods just to name a few of its many unfortunate trials. And now the most devastating earthquake ever recorded on the island has the world watching and praying. Many of us are also taking crash courses in Haitian history in our need to know more about this Caribbean island that has suffered hardship after hardship. We’ve watched the reports from Haiti on CNN and Fox News, listened to scholars and commentators on NPR, and tried to understand the complicated story of this star-crossed nation.

Sadly, not everyone watching the events in Haiti have come away with the normal humane sentiments of shock and grief. As we’ve all heard by now, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh is more bothered by the fact that President Obama will be viewed as “humanitarian” and “compassionate” as a result of the tragedy rather than the fact that millions of human beings are in crisis.

But Limbaugh is a political rabble-rouser who thrives on drawing fire with his ridiculous (and often racially tinged) remarks. More disheartening were the comments from TV preacher and erstwhile presidential candidate Pat Robertson, who used his 700 Club platform to offer an impromptu history lesson on why Haiti may be the recipient of such catastrophic misfortune, even as he asked for donations for relief efforts. With his helpless co-host looking on (the poor woman’s face seemed to plead, “Please don’t say something crazy, Mr. Robertson!”), Robertson said this:

Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, “We will serve you if you will get us free from the French.” True story. And so, the Devil said, “OK, it’s a deal.” And they kicked the French out. You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other. Desperately poor.

Robertson concluded:

That island of Hispaniola is one island. It’s cut down the middle. On the one side is Haiti; on the other side is the Dominican Republic. Dominican Republic is prosperous, healthy, full of resorts, et cetera. Haiti is in desperate poverty. Same island. They need to have — and we need to pray for them — a great turning to God. And out of this tragedy, I’m optimistic something good may come. But right now, we’re helping the suffering people, and the suffering is unimaginable.

By now, most reasonable people have rebuked Robertson for the insensitive tone and poor timing of his remarks. But what about his take on Haitian history? Looking at the events through Christian eyes, did Haiti’s historic grab for freedom truly constitute “a pact with the Devil”?

A Voodoo Legacy?

In his controversial remarks, Robertson seemed to be referencing the legendary Bois Caïman voodoo ceremony that some believe took place in 1791, though scholars now disagree as to the historicity of the event. The ceremony, led by voodoo priest and activist Dutty Boukman, supposedly inspired the Haitian revolution.

That’s one reading of the history, but unbeknown to most Westerners, Haiti’s dealings with the Devil started long before its rebellious slaves overthrew their French oppressors — and it continues to this day. The bargaining for the soul of the island began when Christopher Columbus happened upon this Caribbean paradise and its natives in 1492, supposing it was part of India. He renamed it “Hispaniola.”

In less than a century the Spanish had exterminated the indigenous population, the Taínos, and imported slaves from the continent of Africa to cultivate what would soon be called the “Jewel of the Antilles.” The French, seeking possession of this valuable piece of real estate, went to war with Spain a century later and was only able to conquer half the island. As a result, the island once known as Hispaniola is today divided, with the eastern side now called The Dominican Republic and the western side, Haiti.

A Myth That Keeps Giving

Before the fateful Haitian revolt, the island of Haiti produced half of the sugar, coffee, and indigo consumed in all of Europe. By this time, North and South America, as well as the Caribbean, were engaged in colonization and the slave trade by various European nations — Spain, France, Portugal, England, etc. It is here where we begin to witness the Devil’s doing … or undoing. After many failed attempts by the black people in Jamaica, the Virgin Islands, and the United States to free themselves from the satanic practice of the West called slavery, the Haitian slaves began a revolt in 1791 that eventually surged under the leadership of Toussaint Louverture. The Haitians finally won their independence in 1804.

Pat Robertson Was Right for urban faith

Battle at Santo Domingo is a painting by January Suchodolski depicting a struggle between Polish troops in French service and the Haitian rebels during their revolution.

The Haitian revolution became the first successful slave revolt in history, and Haiti was the second European colony, after the United States, to win its independence. However, many white Christians continue to believe the not only false but ridiculous rumor over the centuries that the Haitians secured their freedom by making a “pact with the Devil” in exchange for their freedom from French rule.

Not long after Haiti declared its independence, Napoleon Bonaparte, the then-leader of France, often hailed an “anti-Christ” by many of Robertson’s peers, failed in his attempts to regain control from the rebels and France lost the war — and, I might add, most every war after that. Why anyone would need to strike a bargain with the Devil in order to beat France in a war is beyond me. Perhaps the thought of “ignorant savages” having the ability to overthrow their white masters to secure their own freedom was too much for some European minds to grasp. Therefore, these “mere slaves” must have required the assistance of some “supernatural power.” And this “supernatural power” invoked by the Haitians naturally must have been of satanic origin because the Christian God served by France and the other European nations obviously smiled upon the slave trade and the many blessings colonial imperialism was inflicting on His other children throughout the world. He certainly couldn’t have come to the aid of slaves who cried out for centuries for God to deliver them; surely there is no biblical precedent for this.

Perhaps, by now, you’ve picked up on my sarcasm.

The Devil’s Triple Play

You don’t have to be a military strategist or have ever read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War to know that you never just give up territory to the enemy. “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” said Jesus. And He was not referring to the house of France, but the House of Satan itself. If the Bible be true, and I believe it is, why would Napoleon, a supposed “anti-Christ,” release one of his greatest trophies in Haiti? Especially since he had a “two-for-one special”: 1) One of the most prosperous islands in the Caribbean at the time, supplying massive amounts of cash crops to the rest of Europe in the name of “Mammon,” while 2) extracting it at the expense of untold human suffering and carnage in the form of “slavery.”

It is apparent to anyone who knows the history of Haiti that the real dealings with the Devil have been three-fold: First, its initial contact with European colonization and the satanic institution of slavery; second, the nearly century’s long embargo that the West imposed on the island as retribution for liberating itself; and third, the economic exploitation perpetrated against Haiti by those very same Western players in modern times, as well as the poverty prostitution the nation has been forced to perform for the Devil’s spawn — the Bretton Woods system and its minions.

The fact that the Haitians themselves have had a hand in their own suffering is well publicized, sampled, looped, and mixed. But it takes two to tango. I’ll address the second and third aspects of Haiti’s “Dealings with the Devil” more fully in a future article. Until then, Pat Robertson, like the rest of us who profess to be believers in Jesus, should engage in “religion that is pleasing to God.” That means guarding our tongues against saying cruel things; it means coming to the aid of the widowed and orphaned in their distress; and it means keeping oneself unspotted from the world (James 1:26-27).”

Haiti needs our help and prayers at this time, and in doing so we should heed what God has shown us to be good: “to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly” with Him (Micah 6:8).