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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 Constitution -- should be concerned

Wednesday, Oct 27 2004
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:

About The Author

John Mecklin


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