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It was also clear, however, that many of the e-mailers had heard of Orange County. They generously peppered their statements with mentions of Republicans, SUVs, all-white enclaves and Bob Dornan, and they assumed our paper was part of all that.
When informed about the nature of the piece and our paper, most e-mailers were generous and civil in their responses, though many of them still believed the piece to be ill-timed and poorly done. To them—and indeed to everyone—we apologized, noting that we had apparently broken that rule of humor that says comedy is tragedy plus time.
"I don't generally read the OC Weekly," read a typical response from one, who presumably doesn't "generally read" the Weekly because he lives in Boston. "I received the excerpt from a listserv. I appreciate your explanation. Read in isolation, the article is frightening and infuriating. But, unfortunately, it's not very surprising in the present climate. I apologize for my lack of investigation. However, I still believe the notion that casual readers will understand the article to be satire is questionable."
We took some solace in the fact that local Arab leaders defended us—okay, they questioned our sense of comic timing, but they volunteered to handle some of the angry callers. The Anaheim-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) was especially helpful in vouching for us.
It got strange around the office. Swaim and I had, at first, been rather giddy that something we wrote had struck a nerve nationally, but soon we became uneasy at the apparent pain and fear we'd visited upon the very people we'd meant to defend. Was it possible the piece didn't make it clear it was satire? No, we both agreed—Gee-hide-y.
Was it possible that people could see what they wanted when something had been written so close to a tragedy? Swaim thought yes; me, not so much. But, being good friends as well as Catholics, we ended up arguing the other's point—Swaim emphasizing that he stood behind me and the piece, me allowing that in a conceit to cleverness, I hadn't considered the timing of the thing.
In the end, we agreed that I would write something not apologizing but explaining what had happened. I allowed that the piece may have been badly timed but took to task "casual readers" who hadn't paid attention to what they were reading.
"In these times," I ended the piece, French horns swelling at my back, "we can't afford casual readers."
Reading it now, it rings a little hollow, like a comedian blaming his audience for not laughing. The letters receded over the next few weeks, back to a trickle and then nothing. These days, I'm much more likely to get taunting e-mails about another vintage piece—my prediction that the Lakers would never win a championship with Shaquille O'Neal.
Still, the "Arab" lives. It's not unusual for my colleagues to invoke it whenever we're considering another satirical piece; the mere mention of "Arab" reminds us to consider all factors: timing, climate and if we'll be able to make our point clearly. Basically, "Arab" is an invitation/admonition to think about what we're doing. I know this may be hard to believe for a publication that, just two weeks ago, dressed a guy in a fat suit, forced him to waddle about Disneyland and then wrote about it, but there you are.