Of Asterisks and Small Pols

When the city government tries to play satire police with the press, everyone with a sense of humor -- and a belief in the...

satire trenchant wit, irony, or sarcasm used to expose and discredit vice or folly

irony the use of words to express something other than and esp. the opposite of the literal meaning

Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary

Once upon a time in politically charged America, a talented national cartoonist chose to play off of racial stereotypes not to reinforce but to deflate them. The cartoonist, Aaron McGruder, created a series of strips lampooning the dreadful reality TV show The Apprentice, in which aspiring executives vie for unfathomable reasons to be hired by Donald Trump.

The name of the satirical reality TV show that McGruder created in his strip, The Boondocks, was Can a N***a Get a Job? The strip depicted African-Americans as argumentative and unwilling to work for a living and used a variant of an abominable racial slur, all to obvious satiric effect. In other words, the strip used racial stereotypes not to say black people actually are universally shiftless, but to dice the people who hold such retrograde views with the sharp blade of satire.

The Boondocks strips caused a small ruckus, mostly because a few misguided newspaper editors withheld the comics from publication, fearing black people would be offended. Those editors were roundly criticized by journalistic colleagues for censoring political commentary without the overwhelming reason a decent respect for free expression requires. But to their credit, very few daily newspapers pulled the strip. Even the most staid of the nation's staid editors seemed to “get” the satire, and to know it was simply wrong to squelch it out of concern that some people who did not get the joke might have their feelings hurt.

Not long afterward, in a politically hypersensitive and often humorless city called San Francisco, a talented local cartoonist chose to play off of racial and other stereotypes, again not to support them but to mock and deflate them. In his regular weekly cartoon, Puni, Dan Siegler drew a strip that satirized San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's announcement of a program to clean up the Mission District. In the strip, Siegler asked readers to check off which categories of Mission denizens should be thrown out of the neighborhood during the cleansing process.

To make its satiric point, the comic played on a variety of stereotypes that might be held by a less-than-broad-minded neighborhood cleanser (or, perhaps, by the kind of publicity-hungry rich white guy who gets elected mayor of San Francisco every so often). That is to say, all the categories of people Siegler listed as candidates for ejection from the Mission are dismissive or derogatory in nature.

Just as in The Boondocks “N***a” strips, Siegler's Mission comic did not use the language of stereotypes to support them but to lampoon and criticize those who do hold them. The satire seems unmistakable to me, and, truth be told, the stereotypes Siegler chose were tame when compared with Can a N***a Get a Job?

In San Francisco, Dan Siegler's Puni strip caused a small ruckus that some political wiseguys want to try to capitalize on and extend. A few Mission groups claimed to have been mortally offended, asserting that several phrases in the strip demeaned Latinos and portrayed the Mission as a horrible place in which to live.

Now, it is always difficult to tell when people misread obvious satire genuinely and when they misconstrue it on purpose. But I'll accept, as a given, that some Mission Latinos were legitimately wounded by terms such as (and I think this is generally acknowledged as the least sensitive of the Hispanic-themed categories) “Pregnant tweenage Mexicans,” which was included within a list of 35 purposely insensitive terms. I hope after reading this column, those who were offended will understand that none of the categories was meant literally, and that all were intended to hold up to ridicule people who think about the Mission District in stereotypical fashion.

Of course, some people will not understand the strip as I do, and they will continue to be offended, which, given that we live in America, is absolutely their right.

But there are other people involved in the hubbub following publication of the cartoon in question who, in my opinion, are not genuinely offended by the cartoon. These others, I believe, understand the satire involved, but they are small politicians of the local kind, and they have axes to grind.

First among the tiny pols came Tom Ammiano, a supervisor who represents the Mission, who is running for re-election this November, and who is scared silly because he has two strong opponents, both Hispanic, in his strongly Hispanic district.

Apparently believing that the First Amendment's prohibition against government regulation of newspaper content does not apply to people of pure left principles who hold office in San Francisco and want to ingratiate themselves with Hispanic voters, Ammiano asked the Board of Supervisors to pass a resolution demanding that SF Weekly apologize for Dan Siegler's comic. Board President Matt Gonzalez sent the resolution to committee, where I expected the matter to languish. After all, Gonzalez had done Ammiano a favor, deflecting an act of public idiocy into the dustbin of history.

But then last week I received an “urgent” letter from Malcolm A. Heinicke, chairman of the city's Human Rights Commission. In the letter, Heinicke — who, despite a Stanford law degree, like Ammiano appears to believe that the Supreme Court has suspended the First Amendment's applicability to San Francisco government — asked for a meeting so the HRC could tell SF Weekly how it should apologize for Dan Siegler's satire.

I don't know what happened during childhood that made these two tiny pols turn into laughless ax-grinders. Perhaps Tom and Malcolm were class clowns who got ruler-smacked by one too many a nun. Maybe they just didn't watch enough cartoons on Saturday morning.

But I do know what to say when a couple of small pols go way, way out of their way and tippy-toe on top of constitutional lines trying to play satire police with the content of SF Weekly. It's the same thing Bugs Bunny himself would probably say: [page]

“Nyah [chomp, chomp], what a couple o' maroons!”

Cartoons are a form of political commentary that uses words and drawings, together, to make a point. In the case of political cartoons, I want the point to be sharp. I expect some howls of displeasure; a political cartoonist who doesn't draw blood sometimes isn't worth the salt we pay him. And because cartoons are a combination form, in which the whole should be greater than a sum of parts, I do not edit the words in cartoons, particularly political cartoons. Editing Aaron McGruder's words would be similar to editing Bob Dylan's lyrics. Smart people just don't do it, and when I took Dan Siegler's strip on, I promised him I would either run or not run his cartoons, but I wouldn't edit them.

There are lines I won't let a cartoon cross. If it's libelous, of course, I won't print it. There is also a very subjective taste boundary that, if violated, would impel me to hold a cartoon out of the paper. If a cartoon crossed that line and got into the paper by mistake, I would apologize in writing. After all, we don't claim to be perfect, and we apologize all the time for our mistakes.

In my view, Dan Siegler's cartoon didn't cross the taste boundary; at the same time, the strip made a strong political point about racial and class attitudes. To make such a point, I think Aaron McGruder ought to be able to create a fictional TV show called Can a N***a Get a Job? To make his point, I think Dan Siegler had every right to use much less charged phrases scattered across the racial and class spectrum.

Of course, people who are upset by the contents of SF Weekly have every right to complain, to demonstrate in the street, and to write letters to the editor. We've published a guest column on the Letters page complaining of Siegler's comic.

But there is a serious problem when the government starts using its power to alter the content of newspapers or other forms of the news. When it's OK for the local legislature to hold hearings and pass resolutions for the purpose of forcing a newspaper to apologize for crossing some politically correct taste boundary set by the government, what might be next? Speech codes, in which the government would create lists of offensive words newspapers may not use? Or perhaps the tiny politicians of City Hall want SF Weekly to e-mail our cartoons and columns over for preapproval?

The Human Rights Commission's entry into this affair is especially problematic. In a letter signed by commission Chairman Malcolm Heinicke, a mayoral appointee, the commission apparently would like to — I don't know any other way to put it, really — strong-arm SF Weekly into retracting editorial content, lest it suffer some sort of official hearings or action designed to create political pressure and publicity that might hurt the paper, in business and other terms.

Carmen Herrera, an HRC staffer assigned to be the contact person for Heinicke's letter, said it was written in response to complaints to the commission by Mission District groups. She said the commission doesn't view the kind of letters sent to SF Weekly as infringing on freedom of the press. “We have written letters like this in the past” to businesses, including news media organizations, she said.

When I told Ms. Herrera that I thought the letter an improper attempt to constrain constitutionally protected speech, she said, “It's not an issue of that.”

When I told her I thought it was precisely that kind of issue, and I would be writing a column about the letter, she said, “You don't have my permission to put my name in your paper.”

After a short pause, I realized that, yes, I actually did have to explain to this representative of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission that, in America, I don't need permission to publish a government official's name in the newspaper.

Let's not get carried away here. Even if the teeny-tiny pols of City Hall want to pretend it doesn't, the First Amendment does prohibit Congress — and miniature S.F. politicos — from abridging freedom of the press.

No, I just wanted to point out that some liberal politicians who think they're all in favor of human rights are actually quite willing to stomp on a major part of the most important declaration of the rights of man ever written — the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights — when it suits their temporary political purposes.

Just about now, I was going to suggest that the small pols apologize for their thoughtless mistreatment of the Constitution, but I don't want to play the kind of game the Human Rights Commission seems so practiced at.

What Ammiano, Heinicke, and their governmental kinfolk really need to do is rent a bunch of old Warner Bros. cartoons, pour 10 or 12 shots of tequila apiece, and see if they can't relocate their satire glands.

Particularly after this column is published, I imagine SF Weekly will have angered enough S.F. politicians, small and larger, ultraleft and otherwise, that they and their hangers-on might try to keep this Puni teapot-tempest alive for another month or two or three.

This seems like a waste of time for everyone involved. I'm not going to quit believing in political satire or the First Amendment. They're probably not going to stop despising SF Weekly's irreverence and political independence.

So I've decided to propose a compromise. Isn't politics, after all, the art of same?

It's very simple. The small pols get everything they want, without doing anything they haven't already done. Here's the deal: [page]

I will apologize not just for the elements of Siegler's cartoon that reference Latinos, but for each and every derogatory element in the strip. (To avoid repeating the elements that have been deemed racially offensive, I will use strategically placed asterisks.)

As I said, the tiny pols don't have to do a thing. They can just continue pretending to be unable to recognize satire and irony when they read it.

Got it? Great. Here goes.

SF Weekly is now officially ever so sorry and offers abject and ever so sincere apologies to all of the following Mission District denizens:

Cell phone yuppies; mapless tourists; strung out junkies; wigged out crackheads; old school L*****s; young hip L*****s; STD laden ho bags; smooth talking pimps; washed up johns; religious pamphleteers; 99 cent shopkeepers; parole violators; N*****o gangbangers; S****o gangbangers; freelance gangbangers; young v**o l***s; beat l**o c****s; no hablo espanolos; drunken hooligans (I***h); drunken hooligans (Regular); Neanderthal frat boys; tacky thong wearing skanks; sleazy ass drug dealers; lunatic pigeon feeders; Che Guevara revolutionaries; schizophrenic wackjobs; plastic bagged A***n ladies; soccer playing school skippers; Hunter S. Thompson wannabes; SF Weekly cartoonists; bitchy Marina invaders; white dot-com leftovers; geriatric t****e sellers; wandering m*******s; pregnant t******e M******s; and all others.

Again, and to repeat: We're ever so sorry we ever made fun of Mayor Newsom, Tom Ammiano, the Human Rights Commission, and anyone who ever inhabited the Mission District, and we promise to never, ever do anything like that again.

There. One political teapot-tempest peacefully resolved.

Or, as Porky Pig might say, “Th-th-th-th-that's all, folks!”

What Is That Smell?

Unless I feel there is no choice, I lay off writing about the San Francisco Bay Guardian, because when you tell the truth about fraudulent bullshit artists marching in ideological lock step, they become angry and stir up even larger clouds of bovine stink than usual. When that happens, you may have to respond again. Inevitably, some small hint of Guardian-smell attaches to you.

Responding to every puff from the Guardian's fear-driven stink shop would be a Sisyphean task. With Carville, Begala, and Stephanopolous at my side, I wouldn't have time to run a war room against Guardian ravings and still have SF Weekly put out the quality journalism it is known for.

So I've developed a strategy: occasional retaliation, or “OR.” When an oozing, stinking berm of Guardianista BS reaches a certain level, I take the OR power-washer of truth to it. If undertaken only occasionally, at the proper time, at no great length, and with a spoonful-of-sugar attitude, such cleansing of the public forum can almost be entertaining.

Now is a proper time.

Of late, you may have noticed (or been unable to avoid) some elements of a smelly BS-offensive emanating from Brugmann-land (or would that be Brugmania?). As usual, in this offensive, the Guardianistas have depicted SF Weekly and its parent company, New Times, as conscienceless violators of all norms of civil society. Think of Col. Gen. Grubozaboyschikov of SMERSH in the old James Bond novels, crossed with John D. Rockefeller, Osama bin Laden, and the grand vizier of the Ku Klux Klan, and you've got an understated notion of the Guardian's take on New Times.

Among other efforts, the Guardian's stink-attack has included numerous, voluminous, widely distributed, and poorly written Brugmann e-mails claiming SF Weekly is pro-Iraq War, even though our lead news columnist, Matt Smith, and I have both opined repeatedly over many, many months against the war and George Bush. Then there was the long-shot labor lawsuit, filed against New Times in Ohio, that Guardian editor Tim Redmond apparently felt had extraordinary meaning to San Franciscans. Also, the Guardian recently implied, SF Weekly had put itself in league with the Satans of downtown business by misbooking what was believed to be a public service ad.

As is usually the case, this SFBG smell-offensive contained huge doses of distortion, some outright falsehood, and very little truth.

But you knew that. You're smart enough to live in San Francisco and to read SF Weekly.

Last week, though, the Guardian put a capper of sorts to this phase of its silly offensive, filing a lawsuit against New Times, alleging that SF Weekly and our sister publication, the East Bay Express (to quote the Guardian itself), “had illegally sold advertising below cost in an effort to put the family-owned Bay Guardian out of business.”

The lawsuit essentially restates claims the Guardianistas made in a letter their lawyer sent to us in the winter of 2002. Back then, I wrote a column (www.sfweekly.com/issues/2002-03-06/news/mecklin.html, if you want to look it up) that was headlined “It's the Journalism, Bruce.” The column noted that, indeed, the Weekly had caught up to and sprinted right past the Guardian, in part because the Weekly was just so much the better publication, in every journalistic way. But the column also suggested that many of the Guardian's wounds were self-inflicted.

I am not intimately involved in the business operations of SF Weekly. After years of enduring it, however, I think I know enough about the smell of Guardian bullshit to be pretty sure the same analysis of that newspaper's problems is applicable now.

So, Bruce, listen up. I don't want to have to say this again:

If you bore readers to tears for decades with the dullest, least believable, and most intellectually insulting old-left claptrap this side of North Korea, intelligent people might stop taking your publication seriously, and your staff might then find it hard to sell ads. And if you pursue idiotic business practices that include extending insane discounts to advertisers and giving away tens of thousands of dollars in political advertising, eventually you might have some problems balancing your checkbook.

For nine years, Bruce Brugmann has tried — through the flagrant misuse of his newspaper's editorial content, via a wide-ranging guerrilla-marketing campaign, and in many other ways — to convince San Francisco of the dangerous evil that a New Times-owned SF Weekly represents. Over that time, SF Weekly has sailed ahead, and the Bay Guardian has foundered. [page]

The Bay Guardian stink machine runs 24/7/365, and its output is prodigious. Even so, I think its smelly distortions of reality will be even less enchanting to a court of law than they have been persuasive in the court of San Francisco public opinion.

Excuse me. I have to go buy some cologne.

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