Wednesday, February 14, 2007

On Sense And Satire

Everyone knows John Petroski by now: He was the hapless editor of a student newspaper at Central State College in New Britain who, attempting to write a satire about an “R” subject – Rape – got an “F” in satire and was roundly pilloried in the press, within the Central Connecticut State College community and, for all we know, at his family’s breakfast table. Everyone hates rape except rapists, and pretty much everyone is agreed that the subject ought to be treated gingerly.

Following the onslaught, Colin McEnroe, no amateur in the art of satire, attempted to make a few general points about satire and mercy on his blog site. The guy's a student, not Rush Limbaugh, and presumably students, as well as the rest of us, should be permitted to learn from their mistakes.

He wrote: “I don’t know this guy Petroski, and I certainly don't condone the stupid article he wrote, but let me say this: Enough. He actually stood there and took questions from the most angry audience imaginable, which is more than most people would have done. He may have written a wildly insensitive and ill-considered article, but it seems to me he stands corrected and has done proper penance.”

Alas, we live in merciless times. McEnroe’s ritualistic denunciations – “don’t condone the stupid article… insensitive and ill-considered article” – don’t mean a hoot when the mob wants to cut off Petroski’s head, fix it to a pike and wave it in the air -- to send a message of course; we live in the age of messaging.

Petroski’s attempt at satire, one commentator wrote, “embodied (*maybe* satirized) the sense of entitlement and self-absorption that are at the root of not only rape, but also many of the unilateralist, power-abusing injustices people impose upon each other.”

Got it.

McEnroe quickly discovered that this was not the time to make general observations about the nature of satire to his frothing audience. He would have been wiser – though far less courageous – to maintain a dignified silence. His denunciations of Petroski were rendered pointless by another of his remarks, certain to be denounced as insensitive, if not worse: “This has been the most over-hyped Connecticut story of the young year.”

Oh dear, I wrote to the stricken McEnroe in commiseration, “You just got your head a little too close to the feminist jabberwock. Nothing for it but to take an aspirin and go to bed. But watch those jaws that snap in your own satire (You’re a master at it, but we all fall short sometimes) and beware the frumious bandersnatch."

A quick visit to the Hartford Courant’s internet site shows an even dozen stories on Petroski, none of them flattering: “Rape Article Author Apologizes At CCSU: Removed As Opinion Editor, Petroski Says He Will Continue To Write For The Paper; “Student Writer Faces Angry Audience
Petroski Apologises For ‘Satire’ On Rape
”; “These Are Sorry Days For `Satire'” .

Only the stories on Ken Krayeske in the paper were more profuse. Of all the writers at the Courant, McEnroe now has the distinction of defending First Amendment right of freedom of speech both for Krayeske, for the moment a bright light to those fearless few who assert the right of dissenters to throw wrenches into the machine, and Petroski, the dark angel who summons up our worst misogynistic fears.

That is courage of a kind. And when one see’s it, one does not want to forget to tip one’s hat to it.
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