Brainwashing the Mummers: Will it really help?

The Finnegan New Year’s Brigade’s performance centered on Bruce Jenner’s transition to Caitlyn, and featured Wheaties and Froot Loops boxes.

EVEN BEFORE the upcoming 117th Mummers Parade began shaping up, a large (but unknown) number of Mummers were marched through city-sponsored Sensitivity Training/Re-education Camps designed to drain any possible offense from their routines, costumes and makeup.

If the goal is an offense-free parade, it will fail.

One reason: The bar for "offense" these days is lowered more often than a cemetery flag, as we can see in "trigger warnings" to "protect" college students from unpleasant ideas. There is no way to eliminate everything that "may" cause offense.

Another reason: There are knuckleheads in every group - the immature, the insensitive, even the evil. Out of about 10,000 marchers in the parade, there are bound to be a few loathsome worms. Anything they do will be magnified and multiplied by the few Twitter heads who watch the parade specifically to find offense.

There were a few, small examples of bad behavior or offensive images on Jan. 1, 2016, just as there were the year before. As someone who's covered the parade for a quarter century, I know there have been some tasteless or questionable material in the past. As a member of the King Kazoo club that marched with the Landi Comics, we might have drawn a penalty flag or two over the years for our use of satire and mockery, which is a bedrock of the Comics.

We weren't trying to be offensive, but we might have crossed a line in pursuit of a laugh. If people were unhappy, they just shrugged and turned their attention to the next club. They didn't pitch a Twitter fit. They understood Broad Street wasn't a "safe space."

Questionable skits are just a sprinkle of the overall parade, which is very family friendly.

The very same people who say we mustn't judge all Muslims by the actions of a few terrorists - and we mustn't - easily judge all Mummers by the ignorant or even hateful actions of a few.

From reports I've gotten, the sensitivity training sessions fell short of waterboarding, but you don't have to take my word for it. The city on Monday will announce the activation of PhillyMummers.com, a website with positive material on our fine, feathered friends - including video of some training sessions.

In one, Nellie Fitzpatrick, the city's director of LGBT affairs, explains sexual orientation, sex assigned at birth and gender identity. It has the feel of a seventh-grade sex-education class taught by Rachel Maddow.

She explains transgender people are such a small minority, they feel threatened - and are threatened - adding that making fun of Caitlyn Jenner was an example of "punching down."

Elsewhere it was explained that targets of satire should be the powerful, not the weak. I agree with that, but there are no hard boundaries. Being a minority does not automatically mean your ideas are right and should be protected from satire.

I part with Fitzpatrick on Jenner because she is a rich, world-known celebrity and has been putting his and then her business - such as the Kardashian freak show - on public display for years. As a public figure who demands the spotlight, she is a fair target for satire and ridicule. Not for the gender change she made, but for the shameless way she exploits it.

The sensitivity training offered the Mummers a new way of looking at the world, which is welcome. The problem is the guys who need the sensitivity training are not the guys who went to the sessions. But many club leaders did, and it's on their shoulders to pass it along.

Enforcement is ticklish because while the city accommodates the parade, it does not "sponsor" it, and censoring it would result in First Amendment problems. Enforcement falls on the Mummers themselves, who can eject clubs that do not obey the new world order.

Driven by social-media posts from a few latent Mummerphobes, a scattered few incidents in recent years were exploded to make the parade seem like a carnival of hate. There was more emotional outrage poured into these incidents than into Philly being No. 1 in poverty among large cities, or the 64 percent high school graduation rate in Philadelphia high schools. Doesn't that hurt our reputation more than a single "Wench Lives Matter" sign?

The parade is a unique Philadelphia institution; it is a grass-roots (power to the people?) celebration that had been going on here for a couple hundred years before the city decided to amalgamate the scores of local neighborhood fests into a coherent whole.

It is entertainment, not a museum display, and is entitled to some artistic license.

One visual that drew complaints last year were some marchers dressed as dancing tacos, and there was some brown face paint. Unlike "blackface," it was not prohibited (but is now, by suggestion, not law).

The dancing tacos reminded me of the dancing pizza used a few years ago by the Vaudevillains.

That club has been around fewer than 10 years and is composed mostly of millennials who seem chagrined to have joined a club without understanding what it's all about.

Looking ahead to the 2017 parade, in a letter to Mummer leadership, Vaudevillains said, "We were saddened and disappointed to see such themes as 'Native American Indians,' 'Chinese' and 'Pacific Polynesian.'

"These themes appear to engage in cultural appropriation, and we're very concerned about the potential to offend and alienate."

Aaaah. "Cultural appropriation." The Mummers' intent of celebrating other cultures is boomeranged into ethnic insult.

That's one reason clubs were "advised" to seek input/approval by members of groups to be represented.

A ranking member of the Mummer leadership told me, on condition of anonymity, that the South Philadelphia String Band, using the Chinese theme, had invited in various Chinese-Americans to check it out, and they were thrilled.

The reality is the string bands pay homage through their themes and research them thoroughly. Having some extra eyes on it was to their benefit.

Last year, in an effort to seem more "open" and diverse, the Philadelphia Division was invented to lead the parade. It was a gimmick. Almost any group that wanted in, could get in. Democracy! Openness!

Those groups included an African-American drill team, Mexican bands, cross dressers - all "non-traditional" groups being given a stake in the parade. It was a gimmick because "outside" groups were always welcome to march by affiliating with a Comic club.

The city is returning to that policy and has discarded the Philadelphia Division.

Outside groups are added value, creating more interest in a parade that is moribund for many reasons, but I don't believe "cultural appropriation" is one of them. If groups like the Vaudevillains are offended, they can stay home on January 1, watch college football, and be offended by some of the mascots.

The Mummers Parade, first and foremost, is a show by Philadelphians and for Philadelphians.

For that reason, there will always be some offense. It is inevitable.

stubyko@phillynews.com

215-854-5977 @StuBykofsky

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