Illustration by Matt AdamsWe've received a lot of e-mails regarding a piece of satire we did in our recent Scariest People issue. Titled "The Arab Who Lives Down the Street," it ran as the No. 11 entry and, we thought, blasted the bigots who target Arab-Americans by showing the bigots' paranoia and ignorance. For example: "I heard all that bowing was some kinda Morse code that only other Gee-hide-y types understand." And so on.
Perhaps, like a lot of the people who e-mailed us, you thought the piece was tasteless, ill-timed, mean-spirited or simply not funny. Perhaps, unlike most of the e-mailers, you actually saw the piece in the paper or on our website, sharing space with our No. 5 scariest person, Christian talk-radio host Rich Agozino, who blames the Sept. 11 attacks on gays and has called Islam evil. And with No. 27, Howard Garber, the Anaheim man who wants officials to remove from a Santa Ana courthouse the statue of Alex Odeh, the Palestinian activist assassinated by still at-large terrorists. That same issue featured a piece about the dangers "national security" poses to civil liberties—especially those of Arab-Americans—and a glowing profile of Shabbir Mansuri, director of the Fountain Valley-based Council on Islamic Education.
Most of the e-mailers hadn't seen any of that. They'd received the story in a mass e-mailing by the Washington, D.C.-based Washington Report on Middle East Affairs (WRMEA.) In its dead-serious introduction, the WRMEA said the Weekly had libeled Arabs—and then set about proving it with a few choice selections. For example: "[OC Weekly] described [Muslim] religious prayer as 'Morse code' for insidious scheming." And so on.
WRMEA's e-mail went on to say that many members of the large Arab community in Orange County—"the most populous county in Southern California"—had been assaulted and harassed by people "incensed by hateful speech like the one [sic] in the article." It also pointed out that an American of Egyptian descent who lived in Arcadia—"which is very close to Orange County"—had been killed by "hatemongers, like the editors at OC Weekly." Then, without informing recipients, it presented an edited form of the Weekly piece with the last two lines removed—the lines in which the satirical redneck author makes it clear he also hates Catholics and Jews.
Then the angry e-mails began arriving, many with the WRMEA article attached. They blasted us for our hateful stereotyping based on ignorance. None of the people had bothered to investigate WRMEA's claims or actually seek out the unexpurgated article. It was clear that few of them had ever been to Orange County, since they didn't seem bothered by the statement that Arcadia was "very close" (just a hop down the 405 to the 55 to the 5 to the 605 to the 210) or that Orange County was the largest in Southern California (it trails San Diego by a razor-thin 59,896 and Los Angeles by a mere 6,569,041. Note to WRMEA fact checkers: LA is the largest county in the United States). None of that seemed to send up any red flags, nor did the fact that the Arcadia murder took place before our piece was published.
It was clear that many of the e-mailers had heardof Orange County. They generously peppered their statements with mentions of Republicans, SUVs, all-white enclaves and Bob Dornan, and they assumed our paper—regularly accused of being just to the left of Emma Goldman—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."
"Casual readers." How many times did we hear that as a defense of misreading—and then acting on—something that had arrived, often anonymously, by e-mail?
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There was good news in the response. It was terrific that so many people were willing to defend others who are rightly concerned for their safety. (Regular readers of the Weekly will recall Frank Seddigh's piece several weeks ago about the plight of one Arab-American who, because she was beaten up during the Gulf War, has refused to leave her house since Sept. 11.) But it hardly excuses taking at face value everything shuttled in front of your nose. Especially these days.
Though everyone seems to accept the folly of the New Economy, we still live with the myth that is the Information Age. And, indeed, there is more information out there—information, we're told, that frees us from the hegemony of big newspapers and broadcast operations. Of course, most Americans have simply substituted one news packager for another. On the Internet, that might mean Matt Drudge, the Sierra Club or WRMEA. (Many of the e-mailers were unaware that the information they received originated from WRMEA since they were receiving it from the listservs twice and three times removed from the original mailing.)
It's foolish to think these entities don't have their own agendas, and so the convenience of the Information Age is offset by how much more discerning the receiver of the information must be. If not, then the Information Age turns out to be an elaborately hyped and supported game of Telephone, that kids' game in which you tell your friend a bit of silly news—"My dog threw up on my mom's favorite dress"—and they whisper what theyheard to another and they to another until the last recipient announces, "The OC Weekly murders Arabs."
Your mother was right. When receiving any information, it's always important to consider the source. Or, better yet, to go to the source itself. In these times, we can't afford casual readers.