18 August 2008

Obama and The Onion : Reflections on the Uses of Satire

'Cooter Obama' chases pig on Capitol lawn. Photo from controversial satirical article in The Onion. Photo © Copyright 2008, Onion, Inc.
I recently chuckled at a satirical piece I found at The Onion's website and reposted it here on The Rag Blog with barely a second thought. The story, “Obama's Hillbilly Half-Brother Threatening To Derail Campaign,” stirred up a tempest. My co-editor Richard Jehn found it especially tasteless and pulled the story until we could discuss it. Though I’m a great fan of hard-hitting satire and consider no one above a bit of good-natured fun, I tended on reflection to agree with Richard and we left The Onion’s article off the blog. But I did pass it around for reaction.

Well, as often happens in our little corner of the internet, the whole affair inspired a discussion that has been fun and insightful. And best of all, Jim Retherford wrote the following rather eloquent reflection that is well worth a read!

Below Jim’s thoughtful take, I’ve included a bunch of posts from Rag Blog readers and friends – and I definitely urge you to read them. And by the way, here’s a link to The Onion’s satirical piece – which I just noticed is still number one on their “hit” list.

Thorne Dreyer / The Rag Blog / August 19, 2008
By James Retherford [convicted pie thrower] / The Rag Blog / August 19, 2008

Comedian Rich Scheidner used to perform frequently at Austin's Comedy Workshop, and my spouse Cindy and I developed a warm friendship with him and his Austin-born wife. Early on I noticed that Rich's comic schtick was unique; he did not make jokes about individuals or classes of people, except himself and the class he represented — i.e., clueless white guys. Yeah, he told wife and mother-in-law jokes, but he himself was the punchline of these routines. No off-color sexual jokes. No potty-mouth humor. No ethnic jokes. No vulgar class jokes. In short, none of the stuff I had grown accustomed to seeing on the Comedy Workshop stage. One night backstage as we tossed down a couple tequila shots after his show, I asked Rich about it. His reply was something like this:

"It doesn't take talent to exploit other people in order to get a cheap laugh. I think it is lazy, and I also think it is wrong."

Unlike Mike Klonsky's and Carl Davidson's thoughtful remarks, I simply dismissed the Onion piece as lazy and "not funny" and did not parse it further. As far as I'm concerned, "not funny" itself is the rimshot-punctuated death knell of satirical writing. It means whatever humor was intended, it missed the mark.


Why does the Onion piece miss the mark? As one with working-class redneck/hillbilly ancestral roots spread from Texas through the Smoky Mountains into rural Indiana, I find Appalachian culture and people a force to be celebrated, not mocked — especially not to be mocked by opportunistically "using" another historically marginalized and oppressed racial/cultural group such as African-Americans. Not funny. I have never watched a single episode of Beverly Hillbillies; it ain't funny. There's nothing funny about the brave men and women who stood up to the capitalists at Paint Creek, Cabin Creek, Matewan, Blair Mountain, "Bloody" Harlan and Bell County, Ludlow. They are heroes in my book. Nothing funny about what Peter Rowan calls that "high lonesome sound" of Jean Ritchey, the Stanley Brothers, the Monroe Brothers, Hazel Dickens, Jim Garland, Sarah Gunning, and Aunt Molly Jackson, the Carter Family, Flatt and Scruggs, Jim and Jesse, Charlie Poole, Doc Watson, Merle Travis, and many many many more. Nothing funny about the art of Grandma Moses either … or the near-anonymous master whittlers and quilters of the southland's hills and hollers. There was plenty of funny about Minnie Pearl.

Cousin Minnie's hillbilly humor brings us to a very important observation, to wit: Hillbillies — and African-Americans and Mexicans and Poles and Irish and women and men and gays and very tall people and very short people — have unlimited license to laugh at themselves. Black comics tell nigger jokes, gay comics tell faggot jokes, Rich Scheidner told “clueless white guy” jokes, and the members of their constituent groups ROTFL. Long-oppressed groups have risen up to reclaim the words that once were used to inflict pain and self-loathing, to turn the language of their oppressors upside down and inside out.

But in a world where oppression is a systemic disease, the language license is not transferable to any other class or group. Why not? Within these groups, rap, banter, trash talk, and humor is egalitarian. No one is "better" than anyone else. To riff on your friend’s po’ mamma is to riff on your own po’ mamma. But when humor is directed from one class at another, it is no longer egalitarian. It becomes hierarchical — and oppressive — as a performer representing the attitudes of a particular group or class invites the audience to join in the act of making fun of a “lesser” group or class. Moral, cultural, sexual, intellectual, racial, and/or class superiority emerges as the fundament of the routine, and targets of moral, cultural, sexual, intellectual, racial, and/or class inferiority are lined up by the enterprising jokester for the comic “kill.” Those words (like the n-word) reassume their denigrating meanings. I would further argue that derisive and demeaning "humor" directed at any marginalized or oppressed individual, group, or class can be — and is often — construed as a subtle form of violence, an attack on the very soul of culture, on the right of the individual, group, or class to be. As progressives, we should understand this by now.

Some may argue that "not funny" does not necessarily translate into "offensive," but this is a false dichotomy and begs the basic question of class and power. I didn't find characterizations of Jimmy Carter's and Bill Clinton's kinfolk funny either; I thought the revelations about Billy and Roger made the candidates more real. Rather I am reminded of the infamous recent New Yorker cover and of the white middle-class liberal intellectuals who, officiously incredulous by the uproar, declared, "If you don't find this funny, something is wrong with you."

So what IS wrong with me?

• First of all, I was born into poor white farming family and didn't have running water (except the creek that ran through the woods behind the back pasture) or indoor "facilities" until I was in the eighth grade. My father was a tenant farmer who would disappear for days at a time on drinking and womanizing sprees and was abusive when he was at home. My father's family — with a few exceptions — boasted of their lineage to ex-Confederates and horse thieves, and my father proved worthy of his bloodlines when one drunken night he came home with a loaded shotgun intent on killing my mom, my younger brother, and myself. He ended up in jail and then in a mental institution where he was given shock treatments.

My mother was an orphan who worked her way to a teaching degree at Indiana University. She taught in a small country school during the winter months and kept chickens, tended a very big garden, and worked in an aluminum factory in the summer to keep food on the table and clothes on our backs. As an orphan, however, she was not aware until late in her lifetime that her great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather were two of America’s finest abolitionist and women’s rights statesmen of the first half of the 19th century — one was a two-time vice-presidential candidate. (My grandson bears their names, Julian Giddings Retherford.)

• Second, for several months in 1974 I lived "underground" in the back of a holler in Calhoun County, WV, with my infant son Jesse James. While there I spent a lot of time down the crick visiting a retired coal miner and listening to hair-raising stories about the WV coal wars and the rise of the UMW. Every weekend a nearby community hosted a "sing," a potluck-and-music event at which family musical groups from all over the nearby counties fiddled and sang from a makeshift stage. The spirit of communal sharing among the hill folk and the transplanted hippies was contagious and memorable, and I still get misty-eyed as I recall one lovely young local lass (aged 14 or 15) singing lilting tear-stained a cappella ballads plucked straight from the 15th-16th century Scottish highlands. Ah, that high lonesome sound.

• So what else is wrong with me? In August 1967 I had the remarkable opportunity to hear SNCC spokesperson James Forman tell a room full of white middle-class liberal intellectuals sporting "I Am Not Racist" buttons just how racist they (we) really were. The place was Chicago’s Palmer House ballroom at the infamous Conference on New Politics at a juncture when the emerging Black Power movement increasingly was at loggerheads with white paternalism in the civil rights struggle (and, I also should add, COINTELPRO was in full swing). Forman told the smug and testy white members of the audience [my paraphrase follows]:

"You say you aren't racists. You say you have overcome your racism.

"You're wrong. You ALL are racists! Each and every one of you is racist to the bone. ...

"I’m not saying this to you in anger. I’m just stating fact. And the fact is that white people in America are racists. I also recognize that white people can't help it. Your parents and your grandparents were born and raised in a racist society. You were born and raised in a racist society. You are schooled in racist schools. You get all of your news and information from racist media. You are bombarded by racist advertising images. So the question isn't whether or not you are racist. The question is: When are you going to acknowledge your own racism? And then what are you going to do in order to understand and eliminate it?"

Forman further noted how white liberals, having declared themselves "beyond racism," always seem to reserve for themselves the moral authority to arbitrate matters of racial acceptability. (To me, the Geraldine Ferraro flap was a classic example of what Forman was talking about). Challenging white liberals to cease such paternalistic practices, Forman asserted that only victims of race [or class or gender] oppression are qualified to judge whether an image or action directed against them is offensive and/or oppressive. His parting words challenged white middle-class liberal intellectuals to learn how to accept leadership from the victims of race and class oppression, the very people on whose behalf white liberals joined the movement, the very people suffering under the yoke of bigotry and intolerance.

(Forty-one years later, Forman's admonishment continues to strike me as extraordinarily measured and reasonable. And forty-one years later, white middle-class liberals continue to claim the moral authority to stand in judgment over matters of race and class, to arbitrate over what is funny and what is not.)

So what IS wrong with me? My own life and work certainly has not been without yucks. How many people show up to testify at a federal grand jury probe of the Capitol bombing dressed like King Kong (hey, I heard they were looking for urban gorillas)? Or silence a world-class right-wing windbag who was trying to filibuster an SDS meeting by wrapping him up in an American flag and hauling him off the stage? Or get busted for pie-throwing?

Like Rich Scheidner, I too eschew the "easy" laugh, the lampoon of the socially marginalized and oppressed individual or class. On the other hand, I do NOT subscribe to the idea that humor cannot set its sights on any group or class. Instead I align with the free-for-all tradition of dada, the surrealists, the Keystone Kops ("pie-throwing as a fine, wish-fulfilling, universal idea," Mack Sennett once said, "especially in the face of authority"), the Situationists, the Provos, the Motherfuckers, the Yippies, and the Daily Show. I see humor as a weapon to be wielded as scalpel or bludgeon — or lemon meringue pie — against oppressors, i.e., the ruling class and its oiligarchy. As Jay Jurie suggests, "Let's lampoon the hell out of the rich and powerful."

Meanwhile this discussion provides an excellent opportunity for each of us to take account of where we stand in regard to our lifelong struggles to understand and eliminate the vestiges of our own racism and classism (and, among us of the male gender, our sexism). Any open-minded, non-defensive survey of the U.S. cultural map in the first decade on the 21st century will, I think, show us that we still have a long long long way to go to meet Forman's call of four decades ago and the many subsequent challenges that have followed.

The following are comments from other readers and friends of The Rag Blog.
I for one, am a big Onion fan, run their stuff on my blog all the time, and I love political satire aimed right or left (even at Obama). I also don't flinch from comics like Chris Rock, who do race jokes. But this racist parody aimed at Obama and family, is too close to the racist norm, that is, to what's appearing daily in the mainstream columns and media to be considered funny or good satire. The degradation of hillbillies only compounds the fracture. Every racist joke or cliche is not satire. The Rag can (should) do better.

Mike Klonsky
Really is in poor taste. Like some of the very worst of Mad magazine, but it really doesn't belong on TRB. It is racist.

Richard Jehn
I thought is was awful - deleted it right away. I just had a sick feeling when I saw it…

well, you didn't put it on the front of the new yorker!!!! the rag folks are not shy about speaking up and it is the onion that should feel bad

Shelia Cheaney
Thorne. It seems every politician has a skeleton or brother in a closet somewhere. LBJ had his and Carter his. The news in Arkansas is that there is a clan of Obama relatives in the Ozarks of Arkansas. The Arkansans that I associate with were rather proud of that fact.

Terry DuBose
I thought it was very funny--and I'm a hillbilly of sorts.

But you notice that I didn't repost it to P40 [Progressives for Obama].

My daughter Amy is a senior editor at the New Yorker, and visited here with my grandson last week--'Dad, it was a horrible week, they actually PICKETED us! And I told them before it went into print that I didn't think it was that funny, but I never expected this!'

Anyway, I'm with MikeK on this one. I think a good rule of thumb is not what we might think of it, but how it might go over among those who put the 'N' word in front of Obama's name.

You have to be very careful with humor. Back at Penn State, in the early 1960s, I asked my Hegel-Marx professor once what he was working on. 'A paper on how all humor has a touch of evil and violence,' was the answer. I thought it bizarre at the time, but watch a few Roadrunner cartoons, and notice when you laugh!

Carl Davidson
I think your interpretation is probably correct, but unfortunately, racism is in the eyes of the beholder/perception is reality, so with such a figure and at such a particularly sensitive (politically/future-of-the-nation-wise) time, it was not wrong to pull it.

Earnest T. Bass
I thought it was funny, and didn't even have time to think about the implications. My mind went straight to Billy Carter and Roger Clinton. I mean, it was about a HILLBILLY fer cryin' out loud-we all know there ain't no such a thang as a black hillbilly.

Fontaine Maverick
...I believe we would be the poorer without humor and jokes such as Cooter brings as comic relief. I will not even address the propriety or lack thereof of the stereotypes upon which the humor is based. The yardstick I would use to measure that is whether it is actually hurtful or merely crude. I hope we have all progressed beyond the point where Aggie and Polish jokes actually reflect any heartfelt prejudice against these oft abused communities.

Mike Hanks
...I tend to agree that the hillbilly thing was a stretch because it didn't have much of any basis in reality -- few thought- provoking lessons to teach unlike Tom Tomorrow. Racial humor is like the third rail of politics.

Somebody probably told you to lighten up a bit so it doesn't come across like Next Left Notes which is pretty heavy and probably takes itself too seriously and so isn't very fun to read unless you think like Lenin. I think you want to make your blog a bit like the New Yorker.

But you are a hell of a good editor in general and its fine to focus on the lighter side of what a mess humans are making of trying to run the world.

As you notice I do a lot of that myself. You have to either laugh or cry about what happens when a bunch of tribal apes whose controlling instincts were honed by a million years of evolution living in small bands try to run vast civilizations. That mass society can ever function successfully at all is a miracle which takes the crutches of bullshit religions and legal bureaucracies to keep it functioning and from degenerating into constant war as the rule.

I hope this makes some sense.

Roger Baker
...with all due respect to ya'lls sensitivity in general and Mr. Davidson's sensitivity in particular, let me disagree with the idea that this story is racist or dangerous or anything else that might be offensive (with the possible exception of being mishillbillyistic:)

Some thoughts:

The story does not portray Obama and Michele as terrorists ... or even the wet dreams of Sean Hannity's misconstruction of Obamas as terrorists.

The story does not denigrate black people.

The story is not dependent on 'elitist' appreciation of irony or satire or cartoon parody

The story is like Billy Carter or Roger Clinton ... but even more benign since it does not aim at an actual person

As my black wife said, "of course it isn't racist ... they couldn't very well portray Obama's fictitious brother as a white man." Although one could, actually, and then have a whole set of additional concerns. (Now, that's when some white people would sure enough scream, "Racist!"

My wife is not only black, but a hillbilly/hillsally (swampsally?) from the swamplands and sugar cane fields of southern Loosiana. She and her co-workers of color were hooting and laughing at the story.

The Rag is not the New Yorker.

Having said and so forth, it is hard to overemphasize the need for sensitivity and conversations on these matters, but we should remember that when no actual race or individual is meanly denigrated, and when something is funny, we should enjoy a hearty laugh whenever we can.

(When I asked my wife to read the story again in light of our concerns, she replied with simple dignity, "Shheeeeet, Cooter be funny!)

Jim Baldauf
I'll just note I was about to the second paragraph, thinking of Billy and Roger, and thinking that this was true (I mean I just got through being subjected to John Edwards stupidity and, then the announcement that Hillary was planning a little grandstanding at the convention to assuage her indignant supporters) in the world of ever-increasing weird politics, and how maybe it would undercut some of the harassment Obama's getting when I noted the increasing classism and was then wondering what it was doing in the Rag. It is Onion stuff, but I don't take them seriously enough to think much of their work, and this would be a prime example, not worth repeating. Furry Freak Brothers had their time, but we didn't pay a lot of attention to them either, beyond a quick snort. I think you shouldn't have bothered, mainly because it really has nothing to do with Obama or anything else for that matter.

In any case, satire is a hard row to hoe, so contemplate the medium, and take the risk again -- it's how we learn, and thank the goddess, it's never too late. Meanwhile I hear there's a new Jig/Jag on the candidates and i hope I can now hear it when it plays.

Pat Cuney
Thorne, Not only are you not "taking a beating on this," it seems like most respondents disagreed with me and several liked or loved the Obama's Hillbilly Half-brother Post and found it amusing to hilarious. I certainly wasn't calling on you to take it down. I was just expressing my own distaste for it and my amazement that you published it in the first place. Once up, it sparked some good debate and discussion. I appreciate you considering readers opinions.

Mike Klonsky
I suppose it is debatable as to whether or not the article is funny (I thought it was), but I certainly don't see it as racist or as an attack on Obama. I think it's important to take to heart what Molly [Ivins] repeatedly said, that if we can't have fun doing what we think is important, we're doing it wrong. Cheers!

David N. Smith
This can't be for real. Is this stuff really happening? If it is then it is choreographed by some one who is familiar with the "hillbilly" stereotype from "The Beverly Hillbillies", "Dog Patch" and "Deliverence". The concept of being a hillbilly is a stereotype about white, Southern hill people and never includes black people to my knowledge. I'd look to see who is laughing in the Republican National Committee.

Robert Pardun
...this one is way too open for misinterpretation, and also to be taken and used by the people we wouldn't want using it. For the next 80 days, I would recommend erring on the side of caution, just because "we ain't seen nuthin' yet, folks!" is about to hit the fan in 14 days.

Thomas Cleaver
I'd say leave it off. It's not quite funny enough to overcome its negative aspects. If it made particularly relevant points, it would be OK, but it just plays on stereotypes for cheap laughs.

Nick Hopkins
Hi, I want to "weigh in" on this. I love satire. I resent humorlessness (so prevalent in many "political" circles) and I crave any opportunity to laugh. I think when it comes to certain things, including race, we have to be very careful. I simply don't like ethnic jokes. Chris Rock's humor on racism (mentioned below) is coming from a black man, and that makes a big difference in how it is seen by blacks and whites. What the Rag/Onion did with the "hillbilly" thing is similar to the New Yorker cartoon cover depicting Obama as a Muslin and Michele Obama as a Pantheresque radical -- clearly satirical stuff done by white people. Great satire for sure, but things are just too sensitive now and I think a good question to ask is, "Would black people have possibly created this particular satirical view?" And if the answer is no, then it's not appropriate. Too much danger of misinterpretation, hurt feelings, perpetuating stereotypes, etc.

Analogy to consider -- which influences my thinking, personally: Have you ever seen those "roasts" by comedians who frequently make reference to these straight male comedians having affairs with one another, including lots of ass-fucking jokes. So, men-loving-men and especially anal sex are big fucking jokes. No, not in my book, not when it is done in that way by straight (usually white) guys -- guys who are probably so uptight they wouldn't let a woman's hand go near their behind.. Not when our culture is so burdened by homophobia (much of it sex-based).

Allen Young
I found the Onion's satire on Obama humorless and boring. When I read it, I pictured a red neck type hillbilly, and imagined the half brother to look something like Bill Clinton's problematic brother....then I saw the picture, and thought that was especially in bad taste. I wouldn't waste the space on your blog with this one.

Kay Gaul
Right wing attacks on "political correctness" are a not-so-subtle attack on the left as authoritarian and devoid of any sense of humor. They have the added value of legitimizing race hatred, gay-bashing, and other aspects of the right wing agenda, all under the guise of "free speech." Like the classic "have you stopped beating your wife yet?" question, this is an excellent trap into which various liberals have fallen.

Those of us further to the left not only ought to be able to use humor as a weapon, or as a way to keep ourselves from going insane in the face of all the horror we encounter on a daily basis, but to laugh at the existential absurdity of the world and ourselves.

There are often fine lines between incisive humor and stereotypes intended to keep certain groups in their place.

Though I'm no fan of postmodernism, the idea of "deconstruction" does have some merit when applied to the social significance of current events.

In the instance of the Obama hillbilly cartoon, I'd say as a politician, and one who if elected would do his duty to represent the dominant corporate system, Obama is a legitimate target of humor. On the other hand, to link Obama to hillybilly stereotypes is not only a throwback to right wing smears against Jimmy Carter, it plays into fears exploited since the days of the "founding fathers," of unpredictable "mob rule." It was against this same sort of "mob" that Progressive Era "reformers" and nativists like Theodore Roosevelt responded, to suppress the urban machines and their immigrant and working class support base. It's an old joke on fundamental social change, very time-worn.

As a rule of thumb, I'd say we should steer clear of humor based on race, ethnicity, age, gender, or sexual orientation.

When warranted we should point out the cruelty inherent in humor targeting the weak, powerless, infirm, disadvantaged, etc. For example, what I've read (I haven't seen it) about the movie "Tropic Thunder" is that it disparages "retards." I'm sure none of us wants to make fun at the expense of persons born with incapacitating conditions. It's just not what the left is about.

Again, we should not take ourselves too seriously in so doing. There are plenty of other good targets for humor, let's lampoon the hell out of the rich and powerful. When the right attacks affirmative action as political correctness, we should reply with how and why racism is wrong, and the best responses might involve skewering the right with humor.

J. Jurie
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