Satire makes a point that is missed by some

February 11, 1994|By MIKE ROYKO

When he sat down to draw his editorial cartoon, Dennis Renault wanted to make a point. But he didn't know how remarkably successful he would be.

What Renault wanted to say through his drawing was that Louis Farrakhan was wrong when he said: "You can't be a racist by talking -- only by acting."

That's what Farrakhan said in his most recent verbal attack on Jews.

Renault, who draws for California's Sacramento Bee, disagreed with Farrakhan. Most rational people do.

So he wanted to do a cartoon that would make the point that words can be enough to earn you the label of racist.

And he came up with this idea for his drawing.

It showed two loutish members of the Ku Klux Klan looking at a copy of Farrakhan's statement.

And one of them says: "That nigger makes a lot of sense."

Had I been his editor, I would have said: "Fine cartoon. It makes the point."

Of course it did. If I pointed at a black person and said: "Look at that nigger," I would expect an angry reaction. Maybe a well-deserved punch in the mouth.

On the other hand, if I was talking to a black person about race relations and I said: "I consider the racist and hostile use of the word 'nigger' offensive and un-American," I wouldn't expect a negative reaction.

Intent. Context. That's how the use of words should be judged. The word "bitch" is appropriate when kennel people are describing a female dog. It's probably borderline acceptable when describing a chronic complainer as someone who does nothing but "bitch, bitch, bitch."

But you don't use that word to describe a female person, to her face or behind her back, although many black rap groups and white heavy-metal bands would disagree. But then, we can't expect less from slobs.

Or take the word "bastard." I can use that word to describe my boss. And he can toss it back at me. No harm done, really. In fact, I have often used that word to express my sentiments

about governors, senators -- and more frequently -- tax-erotic presidents. I'm sure they felt the same way about me. And we're probably all reasonably accurate.

But you would not use the word in its original meaning: a child born of parents who are not married. That would be low and cruel.

So let us return to Renault and his cartoon.

It drove people wacky.

His paper was bombarded by protests, outrage and threats from black politicians, clergy, leaders of civil rights organizations, and even some co-workers.

They demanded that the paper apologize and show remorse. (Some even asked that the paper make larger financial contributions to black causes, which is a bit tacky.)

What were they angry about?

The word "nigger."

As I said earlier, it was used in a totally satirical, ironic sense. Intent. Context. It isn't the word, it is how the word is used.

The cartoon used it to show that Farrakhan is wrong -- the use of words can be racist. Which is why Jews, Catholics and others who were flailed by Farrakhan's right-hand man were offended by his vile remarks.

But that seemed to go right over the heads of those who were offended. It didn't matter that the cartoonist was sympathetic to black sensitivities and was on their side.

He had used the terrible word. Why he used it and how he used it didn't matter. So they screamed.

And in doing so, they made his point. If he offended them while doing a cartoon sympathetic to their cause -- the fight against bigotry -- then what does that say about Farrakhan's chronic Jew baiting and white baiting? If one word -- used in sympathy to their social causes -- could enrage them, then how do they think Catholics or Poles felt about the first Polish pope being described by Farrakhan's chum as "the old, no-good pope, you know, that cracker."

All Renault did was use a word. Well, what does Farrakhan use? It's possible that Farrakhan is the most adroit, quick-witted speaker in America.

The difference is that Farrakhan uses words in a vicious, belligerent, bigoted way. He baits Jews, he baits Catholics, he baits whites in general. While I admire him for his style, oratorical talents, good looks and ability to tie a neat bow tie, he is a racist, bigoted, opportunistic louse.

In contrast, Renault used the word "nigger" as part of an attack on bigotry -- white and black.

You might expect that he would be applauded by Sacramento's leading blacks.

Instead, they pounced on that one word and used it to justify a lot of silly indignation.

It reminded me of when blacks demanded the banning of Mark Twain, America's greatest writer, because he had a character named Nigger Jim in "Huck Finn." It didn't matter that Jim was essential to Twain's powerful statement against racism. It was the use of the word "nigger." Poor Twain. He should have had the foresight to describe him as "African-American James."

Confronting all these threats and demands from Sacramento's black leadership, the Bee responded as one would expect of a corporate entity. It folded like a pin-pricked balloon.

Its top exec wrote a profuse page-one apology.

Its editorial page editor wrote a piece that, while taking Farrakhan to task, wound up on a hand-wringing note about the need for understanding in our society.

Yes, there is the need for understanding.

There also is a need for people to look in their dictionaries for an understanding of "satire."

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