Someone once said — and I wish I could figure out who it was — that all satire is a shared joke between the writer and the reader at the expense of a hypothetical third person — the dupe — who takes the text at face value.
Of course, sometimes the dupe is not hypothetical.
Earlier today I wrote about the D.C. Circuit's decision affirming that Esquire Magazine did not defame Joseph Farah of World Net Daily and birther-author Jerome Corsi when Esquire wrote a satirical post suggesting that Farah had decided to withdraw and pulp Corsi's Obama's-birth-certificate-is-fake book because it was bullshit. The court made two key points: (1) it's not unusual for some people to take satire at face value, and that doesn't stop it from being satire protected by the First Amendment, and (2) the test for whether something is satire protected by the First Amendment, rather than a false assertion of fact that may be defamatory, is whether a reasonable person would take it as an assertion of fact given the entire context.
There's another good example from the last few days — the case of Professor Noel Ignatiev.
Professor Ignatiev is a silly academician prone to saying trollish things that nobody outside the academy will ever take seriously. Take this, for instance:
RACE TRAITOR aims to serve as an intellectual center for those seeking to abolish the white race. It will encourage dissent from the conformity that maintains it and popularize examples of defection from its ranks, analyze the forces that hold it together and those which promise to tear it apart. Part of its task will be to promote debate among abolitionists. When possible, it will support practical measures, guided by the principle, Treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity. Dissolve the club
.. and so on, like that, ad nauseam.
So. Along comes a site called Diversity Chronicle. Diversity Chronicle satirizes the sort of language about race, gender, and sexuality that comes from the academic Left. It has, at the top of every page, a link labeled "Disclaimer" to a page that says "The original content on this blog is largely satirical." And so it is. A quick review of the blog's posts reveals clearly satirical posts, like this one about the racism and sexism of Nintendo:
RC: Are there other examples of Nintendo’s sexism Dr. Frederickson and you could elaborate on?
NF: Indeed there are. This is not an isolated pattern by any means. The Zelda series of games another popular Nintendo franchise is equally sexist. In this case, Link the young hero rescues princess Zelda who in various incarnations of the game is always kidnapped by the dark skinned Ganon or Ganondorf. It’s also interesting to note that Mario’s chief nemesis King Koopa or Bowser has brown skin. Is this a coincidence? I don’t think so. Nintendo is teaching children to associate dark skin with violence, terror, or kidnappings.
Zelda and Link are depicted as Nordic Aryans, albeit with dwarf like ears, reminiscent of something out of old Nordic Viking mythology. If Richard Wagner, that old Anti-Semitic Nordic supremacist had been alive today he would probably be creating video games like Zelda. In fact the latest Zelda game features music recorded from an actual orchestra. How many people of colour do you think there are in a typical orchestra? The conductors are invariably old white men, it never fails! Haven’t we had enough of this tired old white man music? Why can’t Nintendo adopt vibrant African or Rastafarian music? Maybe some Bob Marley?
Diversity Chronicles takes academic arguments about race, gender, and sexuality and makes them somewhat more silly to much more silly, depending on the particular article. Generally, there are tells:
Apparently just one girlfriend isn’t enough for the insatiable and sexist Mario. All of these women are white and attractive, affluent and at last two are aristocratic. Would it kill Mario to date or help a woman of colour or just a normal poor or middle class woman? Not only is Mario racist and sexist but he is also classist.
This week lots of people fell for a Diversity Chronicles post about Professor Noel Ignatiev. That post took the truth of Ignatiev's silliness and self-seriousness and punched it up, resulting in a post about him telling white male students to kill themselves:
“If you are a white male, you don’t deserve to live. You are a cancer, you’re a disease, white males have never contributed anything positive to the world! They only murder, exploit and oppress non-whites! At least a white woman can have sex with a black man and make a brown baby but what can a white male do? He’s good for nothing. Slavery, genocides against aboriginal peoples and massive land confiscation, the inquisition, the holocaust, white males are all to blame! You maintain your white male privilege only by oppressing, discriminating against and enslaving others!” Professor Noel Ignatiev, a tenured professor at Massachusetts College loudly proclaimed to his class last Monday, his final teaching day before retirement.
The post is on Diversity Chronicles, which has a clear disclaimer link on every page leading to its satire disclaimer, and is filled with clearly satirical posts. Moreover the post itself was filled with tells:
The good Professor’s sound and reasonable words resonate with every enlightened and progressive mind. They are indisputable and no one can debate them. They should not be controversial in the slightest, yet remarkably a few far-right extremists object to Prof. Ignatiev’s advice.
Ivan Fernando: I understand that a few people objected to your advice to your white male students on your last day of teaching. Why do you think that is?
Prof. Ignatiev: I chalk it all up to white supremacist attitudes. The goal of destroying the white race is simply so desirable, it boggles the mind trying to understand how anyone could possibly object to it.
Prof. Ignatiev: The idea of celebrating the birth of a middle eastern Semite, yet portraying him as a Nordic white person in visual art is not only racist, but obscene and Anti-Semitic! Of course there is Santa Claus as well. Who is he? A bearded old white man! He lives at the North Pole, it doesn’t get whiter than that! Who works for Santa? Of course elves, diminutive, perhaps slightly brown people, with pointed ears who have been enslaved by a privileged white male. Christmas and white culture disgust me. I hate this time of year so much. I hate going outside and seeing Christmas trees or Christmas lights. They should be banned! A Christmas tree is just one notch above a burning cross in my opinion!
Nevertheless, a series of conservative web sites — including The Examiner and Gateway Pundit and NewsBusters — reported it as truth. Even now, commenters on their sites are reacting with anger and disbelief to the suggestion that the original article was satire. People angry about politics are like that. The result? Hate mail, anti-Semitism, and threats to the professor.
As the D.C. Circuit explained in the Farah and Corsi case, that dupes were dupes doesn't stop the Diversity Chronicles article from being satire protected by the First Amendment. A reasonable person knowledgeable about the context of the post — that is, a person who bothered to click the "disclaimer" link at the top of the page, or a person who read the article carefully or read some other articles on the site, or a person who wasn't generally sloppy, stupid, or addled by ideology — would not take the post as a statement of fact. Therefore it's not defamatory. It's satire, protected by the First Amendment. The posts by the dupes — who recklessly posted the satire as "news" while stripping it of the features that alerted readers that it was satire — present a somewhat more complicated First Amendment question. I suspect they'd win a defamation case, but not nearly as easily as the satirical site. What likely saves these writers is that they linked their source, the Diversity Chronicle post, where their more reasonable readers could figure it out for themselves.
I have, on occasion, fallen for a satirical tweet and retweeted it or attacked it. That's the danger of Twitter — it's quick and encourages hasty action. So maybe I shouldn't throw the first stone. But I don't think I've ever been as reckless as this: writing an entire post as news denouncing a professor for telling his students to commit suicide without examining the source at all carefully and without engaging in anything approaching critical thinking. That's just embarrassing.
In today's decision the D.C. Circuit pointed out that satire often works because it has a kernel of truth. The story about Professor Ignatiev had such a kernel, in the form of his silly and disgusting rhetoric. That's not much of an excuse for such gullibility.
Hat Tip To Jack Marshall
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