Forgetting to Laugh

By Williams, Patricia J. | The Nation, June 9, 2003 | Go to article overview

Forgetting to Laugh


Williams, Patricia J., The Nation


Of all the columns I've written, never have I gotten more mail than for the following sentence: "It will not matter that the Dixie Chicks play to full, cheering houses, while their current album soars to number one on the country and bluegrass charts--The Daily Show's Mo Rocca on CNN, sounding a bit like the Iraqi information minister, will continue to call them the 'Dixie whores' whose 'hate speech' should consign them to 'refuge' in Canada."

Readers were exercised that I did not adequately acknowledge Rocca as a satirist. I do know he is a comedian. Indeed, a trusty Nation fact-checker, Elinore Longobardi, underscored this before it went to press, worried that my wording might leave a misimpression; I thought not. I was mistaken. So here's more context: Rocca made his comments not on The Daily Show, but in a CNN news interview. When asked if viewers ever complained about his satire, he said: "They scold us if we're not funny. And then we deserve it...a real good ass-whooping, the kind that Natalie deserves from the President, because...literally and figuratively...the Dixie Chicks cell is one of those obstacles that need be overcome. I think they're Dixie whores."

Funny or not, I am intrigued by the vehemence of the response. People wrote that my failure to appreciate Rocca's humor was "tragic" and "stupid" and "sobering." It was a "betrayal," an "ignorance," an actual "breach of faith" that made the entire editorial staff look like "fools." "Shame" on behalf of all lighthearted liberals was invoked, as in having to hang one's head while the right wing laughs at such lockjawed Stalinist stoniness. Whew! Is all this just Mo Ronic irony--or did someone mix me up with Jayson Blair? Here's how I see it: In times when you hear students routinely denouncing their professors as "whores to political correctness," there's an awfully thin membrane between Mo Rocca as political spoof and the Iraqi information minister talking doll as realpolitik. But I am rattled by the degree to which many of the letters echoed the intense vocabulary of condemnation flying around the Blair case. My humorless inflection was taken as lack of "intelligence" and as evidence of a systemic failure of oversight that impugned the "integrity" of the magazine. No one accused me of outright fraud, but I did have to take a few deep breaths and wonder about the possibility of spillover in the collective unconscious.

My woes aside, I find it dispiriting that for his part, Blair has become not a symbol of Ali G-like deception or Stephen Glass-like fraud, but of affirmative action as fraud. According to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, 47 percent of top editors of dailies see factual errors in in their papers more than once a week, but Blair has become less an icon of that systemic sloppiness than of "race-based favoritism." Liberal as well as conservative pundits have had a grand old time making Blair the figurehead of the broad program that opened doors for almost every one of us in the fledgling black middle class to study, live and work in integrated environments.

This smoke of racial resentment must be disaggregated both from the real contributions of real affirmative programs and from the real toxin of the real Jayson Blair. …

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