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Jeff Simon: Whoopi Goldberg's race comment was ignorant. Her suspension from 'The View' was, too

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Whoopi Goldberg Holocaust (copy)

Whoopi Goldberg in 2018.

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I look at it this way: Buffalo City Hall did something this year that neither writer/director Guillermo del Toro or actor Bradley Cooper or actress Cate Blanchett could do.

And that is land an Academy Award nomination for this year.

Oh all right, the official listed Oscar nominees for best production design for del Toro's "Nightmare Alley" were Tamara Deverell and Shane Vieau but in Buffalo a lot of us were startled to discover how much the stark art deco interior of City Hall contributed to the look of del Toro's "Nightmare Alley" during the brief period the movie did some filming here. And at least the film itself was one of the 10 nominees this year for best picture.

It might be enough to give some Buffalonians an unusual rooting interest in this year's Academy Awards.

There WERE good films this year (I'm rooting for Jane Campion's "The Power of the Dog" myself) but the old problem of underrepresented "popcorn movies" is still there.

If you want to talk about woes, though, consider former Oscar winner Whoopi Goldberg (for "Ghost" supporting actress). Woe indeed is Whoopi at the moment.

She was put on suspension from "The View" for two weeks by the news division of ABC News. She had said something terribly foolish on the show and she was punished for it, even though she apologized for it eventually and pronounced herself educated and chastened.

What she had done on "The View" was to wander off into an area where we all get lost every now and then: the area where our ignorance is large enough to make us look stupid, even when we're not.

There's a big difference between ignorance and stupidity, of course. We are all ignorant sometimes; we are all ALWAYS ignorant of some subjects. Don't ask me anything about advanced astrophysics or Egyptian cuisine, for instance, because my ignorance of both subjects is total and likely to remain that way.

Stupidity is when you cling to ignorance in the face of all contrary evidence. What Whoopi said that was so foolish is that the Holocaust was not about "race"; it was about "man's inhumanity to man." She certainly wasn't wrong about the latter. It was the former that was problematic.

It was clear that she was speaking from the perspective of an African American humanist. She was defining the word "race" as Americans most often do, to mean "skin color."

Unfortunately, the facts of history are that the Nazis didn't do that. Their definition of race – a word contemporary scientists have never liked – insisted that Jews, for instance were a race of "parasitic vermin" (in the explanatory words of the Holocaust Museum) and that Germans were a "master race" who needed to eradicate all the many inferior ones.

The figures quoted by the Holocaust Museum are these: "About two out of every three Jews in Europe before the war were killed in the Holocaust."

In other words, Nazi notions of "race" were intrinsic to one of human history's greatest atrocities.

I'm sorry Whoopi's momentary flare-up of ignorance was so conspicuous but suspending her for two weeks because of it was equally foolish. It too involves considerable ignorance.

She didn't deserve to be publicly pilloried in that way.

Unfortunately, we live in an era where people seem to refuse to deal with history when important matters are to be decided.

The crucial history of Whoopi Goldberg as a performer is this: When she emerged, rather suddenly, as the star of her astonishing one-woman Broadway show in the mid-'80s, one of her most moving and memorable skits was about her fictional male junkie named Fontaine and his incongruous visit to the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam.

There, the character spotted an Oscar. It was the one Shelley Winters won for best supporting actress in George Stevens' movie "The Diary of Anne Frank." In a gesture that tells you one of the more profound things you need to know about Shelley Winters, she had donated her Oscar to the Anne Frank house, as a permanent remembrance of the child who so tragically died in the Holocaust and left her diary to the world.

And one of the more revealing things you need to know about Whoopi Goldberg is that it was a featured observation in her first extraordinary one-woman show on Broadway.

Whoopi's director (some would even say "discoverer") on that show was Mike Nichols, a man who was, in fact, born in Berlin and came from a family that fled from the Holocaust before coming to America.

Whoopi's ignorance of toxic Nazi ideology notwithstanding, she's as far as can be from being a Holocaust denier or anti-Semite. She just got caught seeing a large subject from a perspective that obscured some of it.

Remember that ABC News took over "The View" in 2014. When it did, then-ABC News president James Goldston said "'The View' has always operated at the intersection of opinion and news."

And now ask yourself this: Would it have been necessary to suspend Whoopi Goldberg if the show weren't expected to be pure "news"? What if the show had remained the wide-open thing Barbara Walters created, whose function was to prove that TV's female audience in the morning was avid for a coffee klatch full of witty, intelligent, well-spoken, well-informed women of all sorts who cared about every subject under the sun and not just the usual domestic subjects of daytime TV.

Coming down hard on Whoopi Goldberg was a way for ABC News to say to the world "How DARE she" not be thoroughly informed about Nazi ideology? It is a sad bit of modern ignorance, but given who she is and where her career has taken her since her Broadway one-woman show, it seems eminently forgivable.

I was once one of a handful of people to be in an interview situation with Goldberg where I found her delightfully disarming and real and large-spirited. She was insistent on truths whether they were about political matters or her digestive issues at that particular moment.

As her career progressed, it contained much less of the sophistication of Mike Nichols and more of her raucous club comedy.

I'm sorry she took over Meredith Vieira's original moderator role on "The View" because all too often it has seemed to require her to scold and settle others' scores for them.

When the show first went on the air 25 years ago, I praised it so unreservedly and openly that I got a thank you note from Walters.

Now that it has been a product of ABC's News division for eight years, I tried to watch it to see what it's like when Whoopi has been benched. Comedian Joy Behar – one of the show's originals – took Whoopi's role.

I watched for about 10 minutes before I found it unwatchable. To paraphrase Goldston in 2014, what I saw existed on the intersection of hopeless cliché and yesterday's news without any of the historic background that would have given it profundity or, in fact, any fresh insight at all.

A little more intelligence – not to mention kindness – on the part of ABC News would have been the proper way to go.

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Semi-Retired Columnist and Critic

Jeff Simon began working at The News as a copyboy 57 years ago. Since that time, he has been closely involved in all aspects of The News' cultural coverage – as critic, columnist and Arts and Books editor for 25 years.

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