Too Stupid for Satire: How The Media Branded Me as a Racist
So, one day, you decide to amuse yourself by cursing into a microphone for two minutes and uploading it to YouTube. A year later, you're on the phone with a reporter talking about how you offended an entire nation, and will possibly be charged for inciting violence.
Let's rewind for a moment.
A surprising number of people don't understand the concept of "satire." Remember when the New Yorker ran a cover in 2008 featuring a ridiculous sketch of Obama dressed in Muslim robes while burning the American flag in the fireplace? It stirred up a storm of controversy even though the article inside the magazine exhaustively outlined all the reasons Obama is the exact opposite of what this image portrays. It was clearly satire. It didn't matter.
So, last year I made a short YouTube video for Australia Day. That's my nation's Fourth of July, in January, and people get a little excessively patriotic. As January 26 rolls around, you begin to see cars on the road with little Australian flags poking out the windows like a diplomatic cavalcade. In what is usually a pretty tolerant and multicultural nation, this is one day of the year when folks start casting suspicious and slightly disapproving glances toward brown people.
Anti-immigrant slogans like "We grew here, you flew here," and the somewhat more direct "Fuck off we're full" begin to make the rounds. Understand, it's the minority of people, and Australia does not hold the patent on racism. But when you combine this with a cocktail of youth, alcohol and barbecue, you inevitably wind up with our notorious annual riots. Parts of the country just explode in a shower of beer, singlets and thongs. And by thongs, I mean flip-flops, not sexy undergarments. That would be a whole different kind of riot.
"She's got a nice ass, but I don't know that I'd riot over it."
Last year, the day before Australia Day, someone who is familiar with my amazing comedy prowess asked me if I could do something funny for the holiday. Too tired to actually do anything intelligent or original, I yelled into my microphone for two minutes with a broadened accent. After half an hour surfing Google Images, my comedy duty was half-assedly complete. This video was the result:
GLOSSARY FOR OUR NON-AUSTRALIAN READERS:
Poof/poofter: A homosexual or effeminate male.
VB: Victoria Bitter, a widely derided Australian beer. Compare with Milwaukee's Best.
Or don't, ideally. Bleach goes down more smoothly.
Holden: A brand of Australian car.
Crazy Clark's: A 99-cent store franchise specializing in plastic trinkets and brands of imported cola you've never heard of.
Koala: A vicious and disease-ridden Australian mammal that will kill you in your sleep.
You and everyone you love. See if they don't.
Glassing: A favored Australian pastime in which a gentleman has an empty beer glass smashed across his face, not necessarily for any reason.
Ocker or Bogan: A lady or gentlemen sporting a broad accent, often a mullet or rat-tail hairstyle, and indulging fiercely in the Australian cultural stereotype. Can be a pejorative or endearing term depending on context.
Winnie Blues: Winfield, a cigarette brand favored by bogans.
Someone, probably some dead guy, once said something like, "The best satire is that which is indistinguishable from reality." I'm going to have to disagree with that. I think that the best satire is that which goes just a little bit overboard, just enough that you get the sense that something is wrong with this picture. Orwell could make that happen. But understand, I wasn't setting out to make the best satire. I just wanted to make my friends laugh with the absolute minimum of effort. So, abandoning the art of subtlety, I just went so far overboard that the board vanished from view below me.
Which may seem odd, what with Australia's worldwide reputation for subtlety.
The "Straya Day" video went viral on Facebook. It was a one-day success for which I got many Internet high-fives, and I assumed that would be that. Of course, it was evident even then that some people just didn't get it.
Flash forward one year, to January 26, 2011. As per my tradition whenever I have the day off work, I got out of bed sometime in the mid-afternoon and went to the Internet, where I found a private message waiting for me. Subject line: Hello from channel 7.
The message, that I fully expected to be a ruse to get me to buy dick-enhancement pills, was from a television journalist who wanted to "follow up an article in the Herald Sun." She left her personal number and asked if I could give her a call back.
My first thought, before the coffee hit my brain and I remembered the date, was that my hard work had all finally paid off. 2011 was already shaping up to be a good year. Some book that I contributed to was sitting on the New York Times bestseller list. Now, I was in the media. Happily, I checked in with the Herald Sun to see what the papers were writing about me, already thinking about what price I should demand for my movie deal.
Then of course I found the article.
And, shortly thereafter, the liquor.
"Anger at bad-taste ocker web clip: A surf shop is under fire for labeling an Australia Day video urging Aussies to beat up and glass homosexuals and foreigners as 'hilarious.' "
"Straya Day" had gone viral again. The video was suddenly up to almost 300,000 views. Someone had complained to the media (but more on that later) and at least one paper was going to pick up this ball and run with it. Of course the worst part is, they weren't simply disagreeing with the way I portrayed the nation. I could deal with it if they thought my satire was simply too biting. Instead, they didn't actually detect any satire.
I was aiming for "so ridiculously racist that nobody could take it literally," but what the Herald Sun saw was "so ridiculously racist, this guy is literally worse than Hitler." Just like that New Yorker cover, there was no way to take the joke to such an extreme that everyone would see it.
At this point I was effectively terrified. According to the article, the Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission weren't laughing either. That's the federal body whose job it is to put potential Worse-Than-Hitlers like me in prison before we can fire up the ovens. The paper claimed not only that I was a racist (and a homophobe, shit, why not), but that I was inciting mass violence. I had a letter in my inbox from one of Australia's top commercial TV networks asking for answers. And in a more ironic twist, after linking to the article on my Facebook page, I inadvertently made the article criticizing me go viral. Did I poop a little? Wouldn't you?
I could feel my Hitler-stache growing by the minute.
After checking with QANTAS and the weather reports to consider the viability of moving to Sweden, I decided to pick up the phone (and a strong scotch) and call the journalist, who to my relief was a laid-back and chatty lady named Emma. Emma was nice. To be honest, I was expecting a stony, grueling series of questions in preparation for a crucifixion by the notoriously satire-disliking Today Tonight, demanding to know why I hated Australia and whether I was in any way responsible for the Queensland floods. Then again, I do have a mild case of Chicken Little syndrome. And by that, I don't mean that I am a poorly-received 2005 Disney feature animation designed to cash in on the Pixar craze.
What I learned after speaking to Emma was that the story probably wasn't hot enough to make the six o'clock news. That didn't stop me from frantically flipping channels that night searching for my name and/or any comparison to Hitler. I agonized over whether to pull the video, or to leave it up so that the quotes in the paper could be seen in their context. At this point, the concern was which decision would earn me the least amount of prison rape.
How many pounds of muscle can you put on in 12 hours, using nothing but peanut butter and sloppy push-ups?
I decided to keep it online, but to add a disclaimer which stated as clearly as humanly possible what "satire" means, and to list the things that I think you should not do, which includes getting drunk and violently attacking foreigners and/or homosexuals with a beer glass to the face.
I also sent a courtesy email to the manager of the small business in Melbourne who sparked the outrage by sharing the video, and learned another interesting fact about my ordeal: The Herald Sun article was written after a single complaint. Though I imagined an army of protesters beating down the door and being dispersed by a police water gun, the reality was that the "outrage" was the outrage of probably that one guy they quoted as not finding the video humorous. It's only after the article ran -- and after the small business site took the link down -- that hate mail started coming in from people who only had the critical article to go on.
The media really loves the fact that people have trouble with satire. In the same way that computer viruses use "exploits" in your computer's operating system to flood your desktop with gay hardcore porn, the media can use the exploits in the way your brain processes information in order to feed you bullshit, in the hope that you'll propagate that bullshit like a virus to the rest of the population, earning some newspaper or network the props for having totally broken this story first.
It's a great cycle that has gone on as long as stupid people have had access to newspapers.
It's called manufactured outrage. By withholding a little information, bending a few truths and then claiming "absolutely everyone is angry about this, and so should you be," the media can actually create news out of some otherwise un-newsworthy event.
Remember the "Ground Zero Mosque"? Last year, the media made us believe that Muslim extremists were building a huge victory monument to jihad that would tower over the ruins of the World Trade Center, because that angried up the blood a lot more effectively than reporting that a community youth center with an Islamic prayer space was being set up a few blocks away inside an abandoned coat factory, not far from where there an existing mosque had stood for decades.
"New Community Center raises Property Values" doesn't have quite the same draw as "Ground Zero Mosque Causes Shit-Fit."
Likewise, a stupid slideshow video based on an admittedly tired gag I made in my underwear because I was bored, seems much more newsworthy when described as "an Australia Day video urging Aussies to beat up and glass homosexuals and foreigners." You just have to lie a little bit (even in the world of the satire, the narrator never "urges" anyone else to do anything), make up some imaginary complainants, and withhold the important bit of information that the video was satirical, and you can turn it into a goddamn outrage.
Nevertheless, I have learned my lesson -- never parody anything too accessible to the mainstream. It's right back to low-rating, high-brow comedy for me. Look out for my next not-covered-by-the-media masterpiece, a satirical look at Edmond Husserl's phenomenological approach to existential philosophy, and how it can suck my dick.
Find more un-newsworthy satire by S Peter Davis at OxygenThieves and Three Minute Philosophy.
Read more from Davis in our NYT bestselling book.
For more media ridiculousness, check out 5 Terrifying Online Trends (Invented By the News Media) and 6 Subtle Ways The News Media Disguises Bullshit As Fact.