MAXWELL:  Nicey-niced ourselves to groutesqueness

5/20/2001 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


I am so angry that I am red in the face.

Here is the source of my rage: As a hard-working editorial writer and columnist for a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper, I am sick and tired of my profession being ridiculed in that silly Shoe comic strip.

Every day, Shoe portrays editorial writers and columnists as being lazy, stupid, sleezy, alcoholic, self-absorbed, egotistical, lecherous, maniacally opinionated, unprincipled.

In short, we are worthless impersonators of humanity.

Who did the cartoonist, who died recently, think he was anyway to insult us like this? I mean, how much abuse are we _ the nation’s stalwart commentators, the watchdogs of ethics and morality _ expected to endure before we strike back?

Well, I am striking back. I am going to ask my U.S. senators and representatives from Florida to introduce a congressional resolution denouncing Shoe’s stereotyping of editorial writers and columnists. It is unfair, and I am sick and tired of it, I tell you.

I also will organize a national commentators’ petition demanding that all newspapers drop Shoe from their daily lineup. Shoe’s creator did not have the decency to draw us as people. Hell, he turned us into birds _ ugly birds at that.

Smart readers figured out in a few lines that the foregoing was so much horsing around.

I love Shoe.

It, along with the cartoon by my colleague Don Addis, is the first thing I check out in the newspaper each morning. I love seeing the fools my colleagues and I are made out to be. Shoe makes me laugh at myself and keeps me from taking myself too seriously. No matter how offensive the comic is, every panel that ridicules my profession has a modicum of truth. Often more than a modicum.

Yes, stereotypes, no matter how offensive, contain varying degrees of truth. That truth can be withering and insulting. It can bring on the nightmare of critical introspection.

All that said, our nation has become so sensitive to offending anything _ ethnic groups, sexual orientation, physical disabilities _ that we have nicey-niced ourselves into grotesqueness. No one is fat, for example. No one is blind. No one is deaf. No one is crazy. Blonds are not airheads. African-Americans do not have rhythm.

To further make my point that we have become too politically correct, let me shift gears for a moment.

My favorite television comedy of all time is Amos ‘n’ Andy, the 1950s portrayal of black life in Harlem. Decades after the NAACP and other Keepers of Negritude forced the program off the air, I am still angry.

My second favorite situation comedy is the 1970s All in the Family, which was and remains the quintessential attack on prejudice. That show was a blunt instrument.

Bugs Bunny, the “wascally wabbit,” is my favorite TV cartoon. Why? Because I relish satire and all other forms of spoofing and sharp depictions of reality. As a lover of satire, I worry that political correctness is driving America out of his its collective mind.

Two current, high-level cases of censorship illustrate my point. In one instance, U.S. Rep. Marge Roukema, a New Jersey Republican, plans to introduce a resolution in a few days attacking HBO’s The Sopranos, the Emmy Award-winning drama that built an instant cult following strictly because it hits below the belt and punches the viewer in the nose. Roukema argues that the show contains “negative and unfair stereotyping of Italian-Americans.” The good Congresswoman wants all networks to stop all such stereotypes.

I hope she fails.

In the second case, the Cartoon Network has committed a terrible sin. The network originally had planned to air a retrospective of Bugs Bunny cartoons next month. But then few PC prigs complained that 12 classic cartoons _ such as those in which Bugs is in blackface or in which he calls an overweight, bucktooth Eskimo a “big baboon” _ were ethnically offensive. So the network axed them, even though the cartoons had not been shown in 40 years.

So what is my complaint?

Indeed, Tony Soprano and his ilk as portrayed on HBO may be ethnically offensive. The show satirizes people from Joisey, mobsters, Italian-Americans and a list of others. Sure, Bugs Bunny often is a smart-mouth bigot, a cad who respects nothing.

But that is the point: The fur-bearing varmint’s artistic beauty is his irreverence. His character truly is painted in the tradition of the cartoon: He makes fun of our culture, its people, its animals, all of its individual parts. Nothing is sacred. Any creatures that are full of themselves, that show hints of hypocrisy and traits of being too good for this world, including religious icons, are attacked. They should be attacked.

Good satire, good art, does that. To file down or shave off its edge _ its offensiveness _ is to kill it. TV drama, sit-coms and cartoons are the stuff of exaggeration. They slop over with hyperbole. To demand subtlety of them is to make them like everything else _ unreal, anemic portrayals of life that never was or never will be.

As genres, TV drama, sit-coms and cartoons are unique and they serve society positively. Following the initial objections to All in the Family, for example, the nation soon realized that Archie Bunker may have delivered us from our bigoted selves. And it was done through the put-down, insult and religious and ethnic slurs.

My advice to HBO is to leave Tony Soprano alone. And to Cartoon Network, I say, do not festicate with that wascally wabbit, even if he is in blackface.